Ever the die-hard fan of classic novels, James Franco has ambitiously directed and starred in movies based on tomes by William Faulkner and Cormac McCarthy. But then four years ago, the 127 Hours Oscar nominee found Greg Sestero and Tom Bissell’s New York Times bestseller, The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside The Room, the Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made, and became bewitched by The Room filmmaker Tommy Wiseau, an idiosyncratic character who seemed ripped out of the pages of American literature.
No, Wiseau wasn’t a tragic hero like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Gatsby, rather more “the idiot savant” per Franco, “with a little of [Ignatius J. Reilly from] Confederacy of Dunces.” He also describes Wiseau as, “like Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard—someone who thinks that the movies will save them, who is very out of touch with who he is, and whose onscreen and off-screen life meld into each other.”
A down-on-his-luck actor who took his directing and acting career into his own hands by making the $6M feature The Room at the start of the millennium, Wiseau wasn’t renowned for his creative talent. What was intended to be a romantic drama about a rich banker, Johnny (Wiseau), whose fiancé Lisa seduces his best friend Mark (Sestero), was riotously received as a comedy for its over-the-top acting and outrageous melodrama.
Smitten with the material, and having taken in a screening of The Room in Toronto, Franco approached his The Interview colleagues Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg to produce under their Point Grey Pictures. Franco tapped (500) Days of Summer scribes Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber with funding from Good Universe, then took the project over to New Line, a studio whose executives were rabid fans of The Room.
In between, Franco had to get Sestero and Wiseau’s life rights, with the contingency that the latter appear in the movie. Wiseau insisted that Johnny Depp star, though Franco yearned to play the part himself. But the ink wasn’t dry on the contract yet, and he didn’t want to say this and have the deal go sideways. Independently, Sestero made the wise casting suggestion of Franco to Wiseau.
“I think he was okay with me because I played James Dean early in my career,” says Franco. “Tommy thinks he’s James Dean. And Tommy, if you’ve seen him, looks nothing like James Dean. I mean, he looks like a vampire that dyes his hair with a magic marker.”
Then in an artistic stroke that only Marlon Brando would relish, Franco tipped the scales of his own absurdist theater: Franco would literally direct his actors in character as Wiseau throughout the production of The Disaster Artist. But there was a method to his madness, especially after sitting in the chair daily for two hours of facial prosthetics.
“I’m directing a movie and acting in it, and playing a character who is directing a movie and acting in it. At no other time in my career am I going to do this again. Being Tommy off-camera made everything flow easier in hindsight. It helped create an atmosphere on set. That being said, I didn’t go so far overboard as Tommy: I didn’t give bad direction, I gave what I hoped was good direction.”