Capturing camp in ‘The Disaster Artist’: An interview with James and Dave Franco

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“The Room” (2003), directed by and starring the enigmatic filmmaker Tommy Wiseau, has cemented its status in cinematic history as one of the worst films ever made. The film’s defining characteristics — from its laughable performances to its thoroughly inconsistent script — have helped it achieve lasting cult status as a midnight-movie fan-favorite.

“The Disaster Artist,” the hilarious new film based on the acclaimed 2013 tell-all co-written by Wiseau’s friend and costar Greg Sestero, examines the production and ultimate legacy of the “The Room” in a supremely empathetic and entertaining way.

Directed by and starring James Franco as Wiseau, and with Dave Franco as Sestero, “The Disaster Artist” tells the story of Wiseau and Sestero’s initial meeting, developing friendship and ultimate decision to move to Los Angeles to pursue their acting dreams. After a series of failed auditions, Wiseau takes it upon himself to write, produce, direct and star in his own film — “The Room” — and casts Sestero in a lead role. Confident that his genre-defying, abnormally expensive film would be beloved in the industry, Wiseau decides to pursue his passion project with total control, heedless to the advice given by cast and crew members.

In an interview with The Daily Californian, James Franco explained that he was drawn to the idea of creating the film early on after reading a pre-release of Sestero’s book, though he hadn’t seen “The Room” at the time. He immediately took to Sestero’s warm and amusing account of his “accidental” friendship with Wiseau and the madness that took place on the film set.

James Franco optioned the book, and he decided — in tribute to Wiseau — to direct, produce and star in the adaptation. He then approached Wiseau to receive the rights and permission to portray him in the film. “Turns out I was his second choice — behind Johnny Depp,” noted James Franco.

In the creation of the film, one of James Franco’s driving motivations was to ensure that Wiseau’s story was told with heart — after all, it is a story of an amateur film production that went on to bring ironic happiness to audiences around the world for years. Breaking down the enigmatic character at the center of the story, then, was a necessary part of the process.

“We wanted to make Tommy very sympathetic,” said James Franco. “We knew coming out, he has kind of an impenetrable facade.”

James Franco’s characterization of Wiseau — from his distinct accent and appearance to his underlying complexities as more than a caricature — is one of the film’s strongest points. It helps that, despite Wiseau’s eccentricities, James Franco was able to identify with his character in some capacity. “He and I had similar heroes, James Dean and Marlon Brando — it’s just that Tommy’s self-awareness was almost nil.”

James Franco was inspired by Wiseau’s steadfast dedication to his own work regardless of being told otherwise. “It’s a universal story. It’s the story of anyone with a dream, outsiders with a dream trying to break in,” James Franco explained.

It’s evident that James Franco was committed to portraying all of Wiseau’s eccentricities, but Dave Franco’s performance as Sestero is essential to the film’s central balancing act — the friendship between the two leads. “Greg is not as much of a character as Tommy Wiseau — he doesn’t have distinct mannerisms and a certain cadence in the way he talks. I was really just trying to capture his essence,” explained Dave Franco.

When Sestero was on set, Dave Franco asked him specifically what drew him to his friendship with Wiseau in the first place and how their rapport has lasted in the years since “The Room’s” release. “When he was a young actor, everyone in his life told him that he couldn’t make it,” said Dave Franco. “Tommy encouraged him and believed in him. … As a young actor, that’s invaluable.”

The filmmakers were able to employ more creative liberty when portraying the dynamic between Sestero and Wiseau, but audience expectations were expectedly an important factor in James Franco’s decision of which iconic scenes from “The Room” were to be recreated.

James Franco explained that within “The Disaster Artist,” it was essential to construct a linear arc of scenes from “The Room” for the film’s climactic premiere scene in order to capture the progression of audience reactions — “from confusion to being uncomfortable to eventually laughing.”

“We had some key ones, like ‘You’re tearing me apart, Lisa,’ or ‘I did not hit her, I did not,’ ” noted James Franco, taking on Wiseau’s accent to recite the lines. “We found it so fun, once we got into recreating scenes from ‘The Room,’ that we just wanted to do more. It was kind of our treat at the end of the day if we got the rest of our work done.”

The joy and camaraderie behind the scenes of “The Disaster Artist” undoubtedly translates onto the screen, capturing a sheer love of filmmaking, even if the end result isn’t quite up to par. It supports James Franco’s idea that this is a universal story — and that perhaps, there’s a little bit of Wiseau in all artists.

Anagha Komaragiri covers film. Contact her at [email protected].