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James Franco on becoming cult oddball hero Tommy Wiseau

We talk to James and Dave Franco about the making of ‘The Disaster Artist’, a story of outsiders’ hope, catastrophic failure and refusing to let go of your dreams

James Franco admits he was late to The Room game. Though he was schlepping around Hollywood during its 2003 release – making one film that year, ballet-drama The Company – his first brush with Tommy Wiseau and the best-worst movie ever made was the huge billboard on LA’s Highland Avenue. It stayed there for five years, funded solely by Wiseau, with the tar-haired, droopy-eyed face leering down at a legion of acting hopefuls trucking along below. A phone number was posted below the unnerving visage.

“It just made me feel it was a cult or something,” James says, staring into distance and imitating the lopsided stare. “It sat on the edge of everyone's consciousness. I'm not in the habit of calling numbers on billboards, but I learned later that it would go to his apartment.”

“He would answer and tell you –” James pauses, both myself and his brother Dave have our elbows on the table of the London hotel room, listening. James rolls his shoulders back, tilts his chin and drawls in that pseudo, maybe somewhere-Slavic accent:

Yeah go see my movie.”

He says the lightbulb moment happened with friend Gary Oldman, who suddenly remembered the looming billboard mid-phone conversation. Others like Jonah Hill and Paul Rudd were frequenting the midnight showings of The Room in the early 00s that now happen across the world.

Though it doesn’t really matter how “in” on The Room’s bizarre cultural impact you are, whether you’ve thrown spoons in those cult film screenings or first found Wiseau in partial quotes of “Oh hai, Mark” and “You’re tearing me apart Lisa!” An enigmatic, strangely charismatic Tommy Wiseau – of uncertain age or birthplace – pushed himself as an all-American hero, chasing a dream of hitting it big as the producer, director and successful but tormented protagonist of The Room. The mysteriously self-funded film – said to have hit a $6 million budget – is packed with nonsensical dialogue, an absurd storyline, laughs and emotional fits in all the wrong places and all-out cinematic calamity. There’s really nothing like it.

Its oddball ephemera has been skulking just shy of the mainstream for sixteen years, sailing into view like a big, awkward American football with Franco’s making-of movie The Disaster Artist. Rather than revelling in the belly-laughing audiences the original film has drawn, James and Dave found their story of outsiders and quest for stardom in Greg Sestero’s 2014 memoir The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside The Room, the Greatest Bad Film Ever Made. Sestero charts the farcical production behind-the-scenes, alongside his own unlikely relationship with Wiseau and struggles as a wide-eyed young actor. The cult phenomenon had a stormy heart and a complicated sense of humanity.

“I wasn’t even halfway through Greg’s book, but I was just so taken with it – this bizarre friendship, a moving story,” James says. “I saw a screening in Vancouver that Greg – who was kind of jaded at this stage – was at. I walked up to him and said, man, I want to make this a movie and tell your story.”

The brothers were blessed with what they had at their disposal – the original film, Greg’s book, two real-life, receptive subject points and a huge globe-spanning legacy to play with. Greg “really got it”, and was receptive to James’ ideas, frequently visiting the film set. Over the phone and on set, things with Tommy were positive and “sweet”, but did always spiral into the weird – for one, he hoped Johnny Depp would play him.

“We know them pretty well at this point – well, as well as you can know Tommy,” James adds.

“Tommy, Greg and the book were our main templates, because it explores their friendship – the most important thing to us,” Dave says. “Our focus was always on two guys going after their dreams and not taking no for an answer.”

Dave plays the boyish, ambitious young Greg, with frosted-tips and big dreams of a starry career. “When you're portraying a real person who's still alive that can go so many different ways. Greg was never precious or overly sensitive about the tiny little details.”

James interjects, “– Like Dave being much shorter.”

Good note,” Dave deadpans. “Greg is not as much an overt character as Tommy – he doesn't have those distinguishable mannerisms or specific cadence in the way he talks. I wasn't trying to mimic those things, more capture his essence.”

“Because Dave is a lot shorter.”

“He gives you permission to laugh, and it means it’s not cruel. But also, it means you'll never get to know the pain that's underneath” – James Franco

James on the other hand, layered in prosthetics and trailing shoe polish-black hair, takes on that very outward, familiar persona. Even without the Wiseau mask today, in the high tide of the London press run, he moves fluidly in and out of Tommy form, with guttural inflections and his affected mannerisms. It’s infectious but expected, and very meta-Franco – reports from the movie set say James directed the entire production without breaking character.

It would have been easy for James to descend into parody, play on this eccentric Wiseau-isms and provide relentless, riotous laughs across The Disaster Artist and little else. What emerges is a strangely likeable character, a passionate dreamer behind cluelessness and self-absorption that’s vying for recognition, willing to do anything to propel himself and his best friend into the limelight. Greg moves between feeling affectionate towards him, and uninhibited exasperation. There’s moments where you catch the undercurrent of Tommy’s torment: cringing auditions, his loneliness watching his best friend hit minor successives and, in his mind, ditch him for a girlfriend (Alison Brie, Dave’s IRL wife).

When people tell Tommy that he’d make a perfect movie villain because of his heavy accent and “malevolent presence”, he asserts, desperately: “I hero, you all villain... yeah, you laugh at the hero. That what villain do.”

Having Michael H. Weber and Scott Neustadter (500 Days of Summer) doing the The Disaster Artist script illustrates the direction the Francos wished to take – rather than choosing comedic writers, they’ve got onboard writers who are seasoned in capturing fascinating, nuanced relationships.

Getting into Tommy’s mind set proved a bit difficult. Following that first disaster premiere, where he was laughed at relentlessly, Tommy rapidly switched it up and chased The Room’s notoriety, financing his own humiliation. He welcomed the laughs, despite funding a huge – very serious – Hollywood premiere and a two-week cinema run to keep it within regulations for Oscars nominations. “He’s not really a great source anymore, because he’s taken that ownership,” James agrees.

“Though I did get from Tommy what I would have had, had he been straightforward about his intentions before the film was made. He used to talk to himself and record it, Greg gave me some of those tapes that he stole like 20 years ago. I can hear that voice and had access to these very private moments with himself. It was an incredible insight. He knows I have them now – always full disclosure.

“He's talking about struggling in acting class, talking about big moments with the movie, about being alone. It was sad at times. Now Tommy has this ‘I’m the maestro that made this comedy’ persona, and he’s kind of impenetrable because he knows people are laughing.”

“Hey, it’s okay,” James smirks and drawls like Tommy, shrugging his shoulders in mock-ambivalence. “I intend that way.”

“He gives you permission to laugh, and it means it’s not cruel. But also, it means you'll never get to know the pain that's underneath – I mean, the guy committed suicide in the movie! I think that was a very personal statement about his level of despair at one point.”

The Disaster Artist tells this honest tale, and as much as it tugs at your heartstrings with surprise valour, Franco’s production is incredibly funny. With Corona’s “Rhythm of the Night” ringing in my ears, I leave the London screening with aching sides. One of The Room’s most famous scenes, where Tommy (as his character Johnny, played by James) proclaims the fateful “Oh hai, Mark” plays out hilariously, over 30 takes each with their own strange, stilted delivery. When Judd Apatow, a producer who plays himself and who actually discovered James for Freaks and Geeks, tells Tommy it’s never going to happen in a million years – he asks straight-faced: “but after that?”

We know Tommy Wiseau is a cult weirdo, and both James and Dave agree with my assertion that James himself is Hollywood’s eccentric misfit. He’s oscillated between earnest shorts and trippy performative art pieces, self-satirising comedies like Knocked Up and the nuclear war-baiting The Interview. He has more films on the horizon than can be counted on two hands. This year though has been one of his best, capped off with 70s porno-chronicling The Deuce, in which he plays gangster twins, and now The Disaster Artist – arguably, his Oscar-worthy performance. In Tommy it seems Franco has found a kindred spirit – someone searching for their place in the world, then carving that very space out themselves.

The parallels between the pair also can’t be ignored. Tommy was happy with James in his role because of his previous part as James Dean in the 2001 eponymous biopic. Dean is a hero of Tommy’s – some of those familiar Tommy quotes are lifted from Dean’s Rebel Without a Cause. Both have, on different levels, struggled to make serious movies, and been guilty of taking themselves a bit too seriously. It’s maybe why The Disaster Artist feels so truly sympathetic to a character that could have spiraled into the ghoulish. They’re both pretty close now, and talk on the phone frequently – I notice that James’ phone case is decorated with Tommy Wiseau’s face.

“I think the film has allowed Greg to see the real Tommy in a new light” – Dave Franco

More literally, James, Dave and the cast have physically traced The Room: Disaster Artist has around 25 minutes of footage they shot that totally mirrors the original. The Francos hope it’ll make it into its own, side-by-side screening, or onto a DVD as an extra.

Both Greg and Tommy have seen the film about three times now. “I think the film has allowed Greg to see the real Tommy in a new light,” Dave ponders. “My brother makes the character very nuanced and sympathetic – Greg went off and in a week wrote a new feature film for them to star in.”  

Rumours and a now-deleted trailer have been swirling around the internet about Best F(r)iends: a buddy-adventure film written by Greg and starring both himself and Tommy. Wiseau stated previously that after watching Best F(r)iends, “your mind will find paradise”.

“They wanted us to be in it, but you know, time unfortunately got in the way,” Dave reveals. “We haven’t seen it either, and I’m dying to.”

“We've since found out that Disaster Artist is part two in their trilogy – we made our movie not knowing that, but it’s good company to be in.”

From his first sitting, Tommy has thrown around different percentages for how true Disaster Artist is to his own life and experience, ‘40 per cent’, then ‘99.9 per cent’. At first the quibble was with lighting, and then it was the football scene in the park – “I throw football better,” he protested.

“We saw it again altogether in Toronto,” James remembers. “Just last week on the phone he said, ‘you know, your film move me very much’. I was so pleased, and asked which scene. He said ‘ah, Greg’s scene.’ Well, what scene is that? ‘Last scene, where Greg giving me advice, because he really do that for me. I get emotional watching that scene.

“Then he added: ‘And scene in swimming pool’. Like… what?! That’s the scene where Dave is in the pool with his girlfriend Alison. Like, Tommy isn’t even in it!” James booms. “They’re talking about IMDb –”

“It’s a good scene,” shrugs Dave, grinning.

James continues: “I ask him why, and he said –” laying on the accent thickly – “‘Swimming pool is very nice place. You feel good in pool.’”

“I kind of understand why now though!” Dave says, both brothers look at each other in stalemate, hands up in the air in defence. “I'm saying he's a lot on his plate – he's the actor, the writer, director, producer, and then I’m saying the movie is going to be good. I understand why he likes it – his best friend is defending him!”

I ask what films Tommy would find stardom with if he was on the acting circuit today. Killing of the Sacred Deer is Dave’s choice – “Him eating the pasta, pretty good right?” Whereas James would see him up for X-Men epic Logan.

Though Tommy and Greg didn’t achieve the breadth of their dreams they originally set out for in 2003 – the year of Tarantino’s Kill Bill, Lost in Translation and the ever-enduring Bad Boys II Disaster Artist brings things both full circle and next level. It celebrates excruciating failure, and a character that found humanity beyond his cult fame, and a place in history, even without this Hollywood blockbuster. Let’s hope Wiseau hits that Oscars red carpet with Franco in tow.