A rollicking take on the American Dream, with two unlikely friends chasing after creative glory in ways that are both unexpected and winning.
With The Disaster Artist, director James Franco (As I Lay Dying, Child of God) transforms the tragicomic true-story of aspiring filmmaker and infamous Hollywood outsider Tommy Wiseau—an artist whose passion was as sincere as his methods were questionable—into a celebration of friendship, artistic expression, and dreams pursued against insurmountable odds.
Based on Greg Sestero’s best-selling tell-all about the making of Tommy’s cult-classic “disasterpiece” The Room (The Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made), The Disaster Artist is a hilarious and welcome reminder that there is more than one way to become a legend—and no limit to what you can achieve when you have absolutely no idea what you’re doing. The screenplay was written by Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber ((500) Days of Summer, The Fault in Our Stars) based on the book The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside the Room, The Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made by Greg Sestero and Tom Bissell.
In 2003, an independent filmmaker launched himself into the business out of nowhere with one of the worst movies ever made
The Room, a torrid romantic melodrama about a love triangle gone awry that was written, directed, and produced by Tommy Wiseau.
This enigmatic figure with dyed-black hair, bearing an impenetrable foreign accent, became infamous in Hollywood after erecting a billboard on Highland Avenue promoting his bizarre $6 million vanity project. On the billboard was a close-up of Wiseau’s tough-guy demeanor, replete with a sunken eyelid and a misspelled tagline promising “Tennessee Williams-level drama.”
Premiering on two screens in Southern California and abruptly disappearing after grossing a paltry $1,800 in two weeks, The Room gained new life in the years to come through midnight screenings and word of mouth. Along the way, Wiseau came to embrace his role as the mysterious nobody who blundered his way into Hollywood infamy by pursuing his big dream no matter what the cost.
Flash forward to 2013, when Greg Sestero, one of The Room’s stars, published The Disaster Artist, the young actor’s account of moving to Los Angeles and making The Room after meeting Wiseau in a San Francisco acting class, bonding over their mutual love for James Dean. Prior to publication by Simon & Schuster, a galley of the book (co-written with Tom Bissell) fell into the hands of writer-director-producer James Franco, who was in Vancouver shooting The Interview with his former Freaks & Geeks co-star Seth Rogen. Franco had not yet seen The Room, but immediately warmed to Sestero’s amusing and frequently charming account of filmmaking by accident—and finding friendship in disaster.
“Tommy made his movie intending it to be a drama and then people laughed at it,” says Franco. “Greg’s book was about Hollywood, but it was also the story of these misfits involved in the production of The Room. I saw The Disaster Artist as an industry-insider story told through outsiders in the vein of Ed Wood, a movie I loved.”
Franco also was enticed by the idea of a bromance set behind the scenes of a haplessly amateur film production that, against all odds, went on to delight audiences around the world. He optioned the book, and in tribute to Wiseau, set out to direct, produce and star in the adaptation. Appearing as Wiseau—opposite his younger brother Dave playing Sestero—Franco provides a rollicking take on the American Dream, with two unlikely friends chasing after creative glory in ways that are both unexpected and winning.
Behind The Room
In its transformation from midnight movie to cultural phenomenon, The Room became an ironic success story unlike anything else in Hollywood history. The movie is a vast phenomenon, appealing to everyone from college kids and stand-up comedians to budding screenwriters. Audiences lined up at midnight screenings across the country with props—including plastic spoons and footballs—that they hurled across the theater while offering running commentary on the film’s bizarre dialogue, acting, and plot turns. Entertainment Weekly responded with an expansive feature in 2008 documenting the film’s crazy cult, which had grown from a mysterious billboard into a global sensation.
Back in 2003, screenwriter Scott Neustadter, a recent Los Angeles arrival hoping to forge a Hollywood career, saw Wiseau’s infamous billboard advertising The Room while driving around town, he was instantly transfixed. “It was just this guy’s face and he’s looking down and there’s a phone number,” says Neustadter. “I thought it could be a restaurant or a nightclub—it was impossible to know what it meant. I had no idea until I talked to some people that it was a movie that somebody was showing periodically. I later heard that it was just unwatchably bad—yet everybody was talking about it. How terrible could it be?”
Wiseau’s murky origins and background became the stuff of rumor and legend as his famous disaster grew in popularity. He claimed to be from New Orleans but more likely hailed from Eastern Europe—one producer compared his unclassifiable accent as a mixture of human and Ewok. He self-financed The Room’s $6 million budget from a personal fortune purportedly rooted in Bay Area retail and real estate ventures. Most peculiarly, Wiseau kept his famous billboard up for five years following The Room’s tepid initial release, paying $5,000 a month to keep the movie in the hearts and minds of Los Angeles motorists. After breaking every rule in the Hollywood playbook, Wiseau became an industry player.
Fifteen years after its botched premiere, The Room is still being discussed, embraced, laughed at, and loved—even among the Hollywood establishment, which rejected Wiseau for years.
“Financing your own movie is something you never do, and Tommy did that with The Room, which is beyond insane,” says The Disaster Artist producer Evan Goldberg of Point Grey Pictures, whose business partner is Seth Rogen. “He bought his own equipment and wrote the script himself, checking off every box for all the things you shouldn’t do in filmmaking if you’re making an original project from scratch. But it still worked!”
Screenwriter Michael H. Weber—who adapted The Disaster Artist with his writing partner Scott Neustadter—sees in Wiseau’s farcical flop and mysterious origin a story of inspiration and hope from the mind of a dedicated striver.
“We don’t know all the details of Tommy’s background, but after some struggle he made a movie that a lot of people still watch and talk about all over the world,” says Weber. “So many people said no to him before that happened, but he persevered and made it anyway, which is so inspiring.”
Rogen, who is one of the film’s stars in addition to being a producer, was an early fan of The Room, and plays script supervisor Sandy Schklair, the lone voice of reason on a lunatic film set. Rogen likens Wiseau’s pet project to the ultimate act of outsider expression: “The Room is weird and crazy, and seems nonsensical and even like gibberish at times, with its lack of logic and motivation for what’s happening in the movie. But the more you find out about Tommy and Greg’s relationship and history, you come to embrace their story. Tommy completely failed in one sense, but he also accomplished something in the way he was able to express himself with The Room.”
Sestero wrote The Disaster Artist in the aftermath of The Room finding its surprising second life as a midnight cult sensation. The memoir traces the earliest days of his friendship with Wiseau, when they were both aspiring actors living in San Francisco. Sestero was 19 when he met Wiseau in acting class, they became scene partners after Wiseau delivered an especially unhinged take on Marlon Brando’s meltdown in A Streetcar Named Desire. “There was something about him that you couldn’t take your eyes off of—everything he did in class was technically wrong,” says Sestero. “The way he performed was a catastrophe, but there was something oddly artistic about it.”
Outside of class he saw a side of Wiseau that was jovial, motivational and fun— always encouraging fellow creative types to be their best, to go for it against all odds. “He wasn’t some drugged-out weirdo, he was actually poignant and inspirational and he made me feel something that I couldn’t get from my parents, who wanted me to give up my acting aspirations and settle down,” says Sestero. “From the moment I saw Tommy give his monologue in acting class, I knew he was someone I could relate to.”
One night, on a whim, they drove three hours to the site in Central California where James Dean died in a car accident. Both dreamed of acting careers, Tommy’s vision of the world—doing whatever you could for your art—inspired the teenage Sestero, who was still trying to find himself. Their friendship deepened when Wiseau offered the younger man a room to rent in his West Hollywood condo, after Sestero finally decided to move to Los Angeles and launch his acting career in the late 1990s. Later, Wiseau offered Sestero the lead role in his long-gestating project The Room.
“Greg might have been the first person in Tommy’s life who really saw beyond the bizarre exterior and treated him as a human being,” says Dave Franco. “He was a real friend to Tommy, who in turn valued his opinions and encouraged and supported him along the way. In the back of his mind, Greg probably knew Tommy was fabricating a lot of things about his past, but he didn’t really care, because Tommy was such a great friend to him.”
As brought to life in The Disaster Artist, the eight-month production of The Room was a disaster of epic proportions. The story of a San Francisco banker named Johnny (Wiseau) who becomes enmeshed in a love triangle between his wife Lisa (Juliette Danielle) and his best friend Mark (Sestero), the movie is awash with terrible dialogue, tone-deaf acting, and narrative cul-de-sacs. Wiseau, who routinely replaced actors on a whim, shocked his cast and crew by shooting simultaneously in both celluloid and digital formats, spending thousands to purchase camera equipment that most upstart directors typically rent. At one point, his production crew consisted of 400 people—an enormous number for a small, independently financed project.
Wiseau cast himself as the protagonist Johnny, employing the abrasive, flustered take on method acting that he cultivated in his San Francisco acting class with Sestero. He even plagiarized James Dean’s immortal “You’re tearing me apart!” line from Rebel Without a Cause for one of The Room’s most infamous, and widely ridiculed, scenes. Under his own direction, Wiseau’s performance is unlike anything else in motion pictures, something that transfixed James Franco when he finally saw the movie years after its release. “He’s struggling to be one thing while he’s grappling with all this other stuff that gets in the way of his success, and we see that in his performance,” says Franco. “He created this almost Dostoyevskian struggle in his role as Johnny. He was genuinely trying to express something in The Room—his feelings, his experience with life, his devastation over being rejected by the world.”
Entering The Room
Franco remembers spotting Wiseau’s billboard during the earliest days of his acting career in Los Angeles, but saw the advertisement as something akin to Hollywood icon Angelyne’s brazen style of self-promotion. It wasn’t until he read The Disaster Artist in 2014 that Franco sought out a screening of the notorious feature. Upon viewing the movie, he instantly became one of the initiated, seeing elements of Sunset Boulevard, Boogie Nights and The Talented Mr. Ripley in Tommy Wiseau’s improbable rise to fame. He also saw it as a surreal, modern take on the American Dream. “This guy comes here and wants to be a movie star, and against all odds he funds his vision, directs it, and people wind up loving it,” says Franco. “Not in the way he intended, of course, but Tommy doesn’t know that. I felt like there was another side of the story—Greg’s perspective—that would make the movie of The Disaster Artist even richer.”
At the time, Franco had reached a turning point in his prolific career, which took off around the turn of the century with Freaks & Geeks and his lead role as James Dean in Mark Rydell’s critically acclaimed television movie about the iconic actor. Moving easily from acting to writing, directing, and producing, Franco had become exhausted in his pursuit of the filmmaking craft, until he found renewed energy in the studio comedies The Pineapple Express and This Is the End, which audiences responded to in a big way. He envisioned The Disaster Artist in the same mold as those hits—a broad, fun comedy designed to connect with a wide audience. “Greg’s book woke me up in a way that Tommy was awakened after The Room found its new life,” says Franco. “You have to accept the perception that people want to have of you but also be yourself. What’s so beautiful about reading The Disaster Artist is that it really captures Tommy’s desires, his dreams of wanting to break into Hollywood. Those are every creative person’s dreams—making something that’s going to reach a lot of people, and finding a community of people we can connect to through our work.”
Franco was in the middle of shooting The Interview in Vancouver when he found himself talking to both Wiseau and Sestero on the phone in the middle of the night, after he had optioned Sestero’s book. “I wasn’t sure how much of a control freak Tommy was going to be, or how much he had changed since The Room,” says Franco. “One of the first questions Tommy asked me was ‘Who will play me?’ When I said I didn’t know, he suggested Johnny Depp—one of the biggest stars in the world, naturally.”
It was Sestero who suggested that Franco consider playing Wiseau in The Disaster Artist. “I’d been following James since he did the James Dean movie,” says Sestero. “He did the best Dean that I had ever seen—and I always thought our story had a lot of Dean’s spirit in it, with the ‘You’re Tearin’ Me Apart!’ dialogue, which was always a big inspiration on our friendship.” Later, Sestero confided in Franco that Wiseau had told him that the only people he wanted to play him on the big screen were Depp or Franco himself.
As production on The Interview continued, Franco shared The Disaster Artist with his co-star Seth Rogen, believing that the project was the right fit for Rogen’s Point Grey Pictures, which had found success with the studio comedies 50/50, This Is the End and Neighbors. “Seth’s company was smart about how they made things, but they were still working within the studio system,” says Franco. “They could make these studio pictures and put their voice into it on every level. They were making exactly the movies they wanted to make.”
Franco was also looking to take a break from directing prestige independent films like As I Lay Dying, his adaptation of the William Faulkner classic, and Child of God, based on Cormac McCarthy’s early novel—critically admired works that weren’t bringing him a significant audience as a director. “I’m a lot closer to Tommy Wiseau in this story than I like to admit,” says Franco. “Child of God wasn’t exactly screaming box-office hit.”
Writing the Script
With Point Grey, Good Universe and Ramona Films on board as producers, Franco sought out Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, who launched their careers with the infectious romantic comedy (500) Days of Summer and went on to find mainstream and critical success with The Fault in Our Stars and The Spectacular Now. Franco saw the writing duo’s own friendship as a reflection of Sestero and Wiseau’s unique creative bond. “I thought they were their own version of Greg and Tommy in terms of their collaborative relationship,” says Franco. “Scott and Michael are great at relationship movies, but they hadn’t really done a bromance.”
The writers, who forged their career after meeting at the same job, saw The Disaster Artist as the story of a friendship between two people who share a similar dream. “It’s not a movie about movies as much as it is about dreamers and people who very much want to do something, but don’t have the access or ability,” says Neustadter. “We very much related to that story.” Adds Weber: “Greg and Tommy give each other what they need in order to move forward and achieve their dream. One has all the confidence in the world, but not necessarily the ability to execute it, and the other is more on the ball, but as removed as possible from the inner workings of creativity. He doesn’t have the confidence and belief in himself to pursue his dream until he meets this other person, who happens to be Tommy Wiseau.”
What the writers succeed in capturing in The Disaster Artist is the delirious rush and spirit of fun that often surfaces when two people find themselves on the same wavelength, whether as friends, lovers, or creative partners. Recreating the same joyful, rambunctious spirit of their breakthrough comedy (500) Days of Summer—in which staid office worker Joseph Gordon-Levitt glowingly comes to life after falling in love with co-worker Zooey Deschanel—Neustadter and Weber once again find movie magic in the power of relationships. “Chasing your dreams can be really lonely, and Greg and Tommy come to believe in each other when no one else does,” says Neustadter. “We’ve both been there. We both believed we could write and do this thing and people said ‘Oh, come on. When are you going to give up on that dream?’ We connected with these characters in a very strong way.”