(L-R) Seth Rogen, Tommy Wiseau, James Franco, Greg Sestero, and Dave Franco at the SXSW premiere of The Disaster Artist. Photo by Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images

 

The Disaster Artist Celebrates Accidental Celebrity

James Franco brings the stranger-than-fiction story of The Room to the screen

By Eric Kohn

11/4/2017

In Depth

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There was a palpable air of anticipation coming from many directions at once at the Paramount Theatre’s 2017 SXSW Film Festival screening of The Disaster Artist. James Franco had written, directed and starred in the adaptation of Greg Sestero and Tom Bissell’s book of the same name about the bizarre story behind the hilarious accidental midnight sensation The Room. Franco was there alongside producer and co-star Seth Rogen and Franco’s brother Dave, who plays The Room co-star Sestero.

But there was another celebrity unique to the setting — a sunglasses-clad Tommy Wiseau, the mysterious modern-day Ed Wood who wrote and directed what has been called “the worst movie of all time,” and whom The Room has since turned into a cult sensation. After The Disaster Artist — in which James Franco plays Wiseau with a remarkable penchant for the peculiar auteur’s ambiguous European accent — a straight-faced Wiseau joined the cast and crew onstage, and the roar of approval was worthy of a rock concert.

Despite all that enthusiasm, however, the movie’s future was uncertain beyond that night. Franco had been quietly building out his résumé as a filmmaker for years with more experimental efforts, but The Disaster Artist marked his most accessible movie to date, and Warner Bros. division New Line had plans to distribute it. However, as the premiere date loomed, it became clear that the idiosyncratic story required a careful marketing plan that tapped into the existing fandom for The Room, and a big studio seemed ill-equipped to do that. So The Disaster Artist quietly went on the market at SXSW, and buyers swarmed the Paramount alongside fans to see what was billed as a “Work-in-Progress.” Eventually, The Disaster Artist landed with A24, which slotted the movie in a prime December release spot.

A holiday season opening may have been the best fate it could ask for. The Disaster Artist is the ultimate feel-good movie about bad art, one that liberates Wiseau’s campy accomplishment from the insular world of late-night rituals to celebrate his commitment to realizing his vision against impossible odds.

Seth Rogen, James Franco, and Dave Franco pose for a portrait at The Disaster Artist's SXSW screening

Seth Rogen, James Franco, and Dave Franco pose for a portrait at The Disaster Artist's SXSW screening. Photo by Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images

 

For the uninitiated: by any estimation, The Room is genuinely terrible. The 2003 production finds Wiseau playing Johnny, a San Francisco banker whose wife Lisa cheats on him with Johnny’s best friend. The story weaves and bobs along, finding tangents in the strangest of places — a cancer diagnosis here, a dramatic closeup there — until the painfully melodramatic finale. The whole thing unfolds against astonishingly ill-conceived production values, including an inexplicable green screen backdrop on the roof, and Wiseau’s baffling anti-performance as the centerpiece of this epic miscalculation. Diehards know his screeching line reading of his own awful dialogue in their sleep (the oft-cited “You’re tearing me apart, Lisa!” is the closest the movie has come to obtaining genuine pop culture stature).

The Disaster Artist is the ultimate feel-good movie about bad art, one that liberates Wiseau’s campy accomplishment from the insular world of late-night rituals to celebrate his commitment to realizing his vision against impossible odds.”

Wiseau, however, has never seen it that way. While insisting in the wake of the movie’s reception that he intended to make a comedy, he has remained a sullen figure when confronting the crowds that turn out for his every appearance. As The Disaster Artist makes clear, Wiseau appears to be quite rich for unknown reasons, but he’s certainly quite the ambitious entrepreneur: he controls The Room empire, responding to emails about interviews and appearances in addition to selling merchandise from his personal site. Needless to say, nobody takes The Room as seriously as Wiseau, and when The Disaster Artist landed at SXSW, he hadn’t seen it yet. So regardless of the giddiness in the room, in a sense the premiere was designed for an audience of one.

“We were unsure what he was going to think,” Franco told EW later on, but the audience didn’t let him down. “It was like a rock concert,” Franco said.

 

After Wiseau greeted the crowd, many of them stayed put for a midnight showing of — what else? — The Room, while he joined Franco and the rest of The Disaster Artist team backstage. It was there, Franco and others have recalled in the months since, that the man behind it all revealed his thoughts on Franco’s accomplishment: Wiseau told Franco he approved of 99.9 percent of the movie, but took no issues with the story or Franco’s performance. Instead, he said, “the lighting, in the beginning, was a little off.” It was ultimate non sequitur from an idiosyncratic figure from whom nobody could have expected anything else.

Franco, meanwhile, landed his best reviews as both an actor and director in ages. Later, he would describe the The Disaster Artist premiere as one of the two best screenings in his life, the other being the SXSW screening of Spring Breakers. While that movie presented an eager audience with one of his most outrageous onscreen creations, The Disaster Artist did that in tandem with illustrating Franco’s progress as a filmmaker. The movie is funny, but not pure satire; instead, it celebrates the nature of creative desire through the classic backdrop of Hollywood dreams.

Franco first came across the story of The Disaster Artist while on the set of The Interview, as he was enmeshed in dozens of different projects. By then, he had entered his own whimsical artistic journey, not only acting and writing but also developing an untold volume of art projects, books and other multimedia efforts. He saw something of his own outsized ambition in Wiseau’s determination to make his movie at all costs. “I identified with Tommy,” Franco told the SXSW crowd. “I really respected that he came out to Hollywood like so many thousands of people have done and got this movie made. I had so much respect for him … the more I made this movie, [I realized], I am Tommy Wiseau.”

The 2018 SXSW Film Festival will host nine days of screenings from March 9-17, 2018.

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