This is a story about dreamers. Two decades ago, three aspiring actors moved from the Bay Area to Hollywood. Their names were Tommy Wiseau, Greg Sestero and James Franco, and they all worshiped James Dean.
Franco and Sestero were both handsome, high-cheekboned and 19. Both auditioned for some of the same leading-man parts, like the protagonist in the direct-to-video horror flick "Retro Puppet Master," Sestero recalls (he got the role).
Wiseau, however, made a better movie villain. He was a pale, muscular and ghoulish creature with long black hair and an impenetrable Eastern Bloc accent that he swore came from New Orleans.
Casting agents gaped when Wiseau read for all-American heroes. But he wanted to be James Dean, too. And in 2001, the year Franco won a best actor Golden Globe playing Dean in a TV biopic that Wiseau watched obsessively, he vowed that if Hollywood was blind to his potential, he'd write, direct and star in his own film. "The Room" is an awkward, very naked sex tragedy about a fatal love triangle between his best friend (played by Sestero, his actual best friend), a cruel blonde named Lisa and himself, the all-American hero no one appreciates.
Wiseau deemed "The Room" "a Tennessee Williams-level drama." Critics, and fans, call it the worst movie ever made. Yet "The Room" became a midnight movie hit — as a comedy. Audiences howl during his erotic scenes, cackle at his tears and toss spoons in the air to mock his cheap set decorations, purchased from a thrift-store window. Today, Wiseau claims that's the reaction he intended all along.
It could have been Franco, not Sestero, who landed "Retro Puppet Master" and from there maybe wound up in "The Room." But in reality, Franco is simply a fan. He has a sticker of Wiseau on the back of his phone. "I totally respect Tommy," Franco says on a recent afternoon at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills. "In the face of a mountain of nos, he got this movie made."
So to honor Wiseau, Franco directed and starred in "The Disaster Artist," a new movie based on Sestero's memoir about the making of "The Room." Franco's Wiseau is a deluded egotist who requires dozens of takes to say four lines. The crew quickly quits caring about quality. Wiseau's artistic vision is an affront to cinema. Yet, to "The Disaster Artist," his one-man battle against apathy is endearing, even noble.
"Tommy Wiseau, c'est moi," says Franco. He, too, has been ridiculed for reaching beyond what other people insisted were his artistic limits, such as his attempts at directing classic adaptations of James Steinbeck and William Faulkner. And Franco also intended to fill his résumé with serious work, only to discover a talent for making people laugh.
" 'The Disaster Artist' is those two different channels of my career coming together, because Tommy is both a comedic and dramatic role," he says. "He's somebody striving to be Marlon Brando and James Dean, it's just that the tools he has to work with, and the lack of self-perception, translate that striving into comedy."
Plus, Franco does an ear-perfect impersonation of Wiseau, who speaks like Dracula learning pig Latin. "I imagine it like back-of-throat, kind of, maybe using tongue less," Franco explains. He studied Wiseau's audio diaries like the Talmud, hours of Wiseau venting about his faithless acting teachers — "He treat all other people in class better than me, you know why, because I think he sense my power and he intimidated" — and even now, slides into the voice almost unconsciously.
On set, he directed "The Disaster Artist" in character. It was the first time in Hollywood history, Franco wagers, "where a director was directing himself in a movie, playing a character that was a director directing himself in a movie." Franco stacks his hands higher and higher like he's building a tall sandwich and then flattens them. "It was plain easier to simplify it and just be Tommy." He did allow himself to give more details to actors Seth Rogen, Zac Efron and his brother, Dave Franco, who co-stars as the hapless Sestero. Wiseau's approach was more "Your sister just died — go."
Sestero and Wiseau visited the set of "The Disaster Artist." Seeing those red walls, gauze curtains, and yes, framed portraits of spoons, took Sestero back to a place he never thought he'd revisit. " 'The Room' was something I was trying to get away from," admits Sestero.
"You tried!" blurts Wiseau. In person at the Four Seasons, 15 years after he shot "The Room," the schlock legend has stayed exactly the same: the hair, the open cans of Red Bull, the soft but threatening staccato laughter that sounds like a machine gun muffled by a silencer.
Sestero co-wrote "The Disaster Artist" with Tom Bissell to make sense of how a terrible film became a phenomenon. " 'The Room' has a stigma," he says. But his book, adapted for the screen by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, is a study of friendship, ambition and hubris, of how a first-time director who chewed through four directors of photography, three rounds of cast hires and $6 million of his own cash still managed to succeed.
"The Room" turned both struggling actors into cult stars — and even made back Wiseau's personal investment.
Don't ask where the money came from. It's one of Wiseau's three mysteries, along with his age and his birthplace. "If I get an Oscar, right? Eventually people will find out who you are and what you do," says Wiseau. He dismisses rumors that he's perhaps not from the Louisiana bayou as "all B.S., because actually that's the fact." Yet when asked to pick his favorite Franco film, Wiseau singles out Nicolas Cage's "Sonny" — "It has everything in it. Betrayal, love, sexuality, this and that. Same with 'The Room.' " Then he slips and calls Cage "Nicolai."
Watching the fictionalized making of "The Room" is at once agonizing and inspirational. The pain comes from witnessing Franco's Wiseau attack people who don't agree with his genius. "He didn't know how to collaborate," says Franco, theorizing that "because he had been told no so many times, he just learned that he could only rely on himself and maybe his friend Greg."
Yet, Wiseau willed the universe to say yes. In a lovely, full circle irony, while Wiseau couldn't play Dean, he's himself now being played by the actor who did.
"This is not a fantasy — this is real world," explains Wiseau. "You see 'Disaster Artist' and say, 'Hey, the guy wanted to make movie? Well, I wanna be lawyer, politician.' You wanna accomplish something to show the world, to show your parents. What's the formula? There's only one: Hard work."
Sestero stressed that Franco's version had to be "heartfelt, not mocking." Franco agreed. Franco imagines a younger Tommy watching American movies in someplace that's probably not America and dreaming about escaping into the screen.
"Making 'The Room' was more than just, 'I want to make my movie,' says Franco. "It was going to actually save his life."
Still, Franco was nervous when "The Disaster Artist" premiered at SXSW in front of a wild crowd, dozens of buyers and Wiseau himself, seeing his life on-screen for the first time. He spent the film sneaking peeks at Wiseau's face. He wasn't laughing. When it was over, the audience went nuts, but Franco was terrified to bring him onstage.
"I can just see there's a dark cloud," says Franco. "What if we bring Tommy up and he says, 'I hate this movie — it's not true.' " After all, Wiseau had waved off Sestero's book as, "only 40 percent true," and even today, when it's mentioned, groans, "I just take my Fifth."
But when "The Disaster Artist" audience realized Wiseau was in the theater, they rose and chanted his name. Audiences do that all the time at "The Room." Yet this night was different.
"That moment was really probably the first time in Tommy's entire life that he heard unironic, unadulterated applause and support," says Franco. "They're cheering on his story."
In "The Room," Wiseau is the joke. In "The Disaster Artist," he's finally the hero.