The Disaster Artist's James Franco on taking us behind the camera on the biggest cult movie ever
James Franco likes to make films, lots and lots of films.
The writer/actor/director had 18 films and TV shows in production or scheduled for release just this year — it’s taken George Clooney 10 years to make that many. However, many of Franco’s projects are indie pics that either get limited releases or sit on shelves waiting for distribution.
But he’s too good an actor and too interesting a director to have his work relegated to Hollywood’s bargain bin. Franco was looking for a breakout hit, and the delicious irony is that he’s directed the best movie of his career about the worst movie ever made.
The 39-year-old not only directs but stars in The Disaster Artist, a sweet-natured comedy about the making of 2003’s The Room, a god-awful drama starring and directed by a strange man named Tommy Wiseau. Wiseau, who sports long, dyed-black hair and speaks with a drawn-out Eastern European accent — he claims he’s from New Orleans — was an aspiring actor who couldn’t land a role in Hollywood due to the fact he was a horrible actor.
He decided that if no one would hire him he’d write, star in and direct his own film. Wiseau cast his best friend Greg Sestero in a supporting role, and spent a reported $5-million of his own money (where he got the funds remains a mystery) to make The Room, a nonsensical drama about a doomed love triangle. It was so bad audiences couldn’t help but laugh at it.
However, as time passed and word of mouth about the film increased, it started to screen at midnight shows across North America where audiences reveled in its campiness, shouting lines and acting out scenes à la The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
“We knew we didn’t want to do a satire,” says Franco during an interview at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival. “We were always intending a heartfelt movie about dreamers. We wanted to treat them with respect, the respect we would treat any other artists, albeit still making it funny.”
Franco portrays Wiseau, his younger brother Dave Franco plays Sestero, while Seth Rogen takes on the role of Sandy Schklair, The Room’s beleaguered script supervisor who tries to keep the unorthodox movie shoot from going completely off the rails. A host of comedic stars, including Jason Mantzoukas, Zoey Deutch, Zac Efron and Alison Brie pop up in supporting roles, and Bryan Cranston, Adam Scott, J.J. Abrams and Judd Apatow make cameo appearances.
Yet the star of the film is undoubtedly James Franco. While he earns laughs simply by speaking in Wiseau’s peculiar accent, he also creates a full-bodied character, showing us Wiseau’s generosity and loyalty toward his friend Sestero, as well as his pettiness and insecurity, especially when he starts filming The Room.
Franco knew he wanted to play Wiseau but getting the eccentric showman to agree was a challenge. “I had a phone call with Tommy and Greg to talk about getting their life rights,” remembers Franco. “I wasn’t worried about looking like Tommy because if I was going to play him it was going to require a lot of prosthetics, and I would not look like myself, but I didn’t know what Tommy thought of that, and I wasn’t putting that forward.
“Tommy asks, ‘So, who plays me?’” Franco continues, slipping back into his Wiseau accent. “And I go, ‘Well, I don’t know Tommy,’ and he says, ‘How about Johnny Depp?’ I laughed and he’s like, ‘Why you laughing?’ I’m like, ‘Well, he’s the biggest movie star in the world, I don’t know if we’ll get him,’” says Franco.
“And we keep talking and he goes, ‘Go back to before, I say Johnny Depp and you laugh, why you laughing?’ And I’m like, ‘All right we’ll ask Johnny Depp.’ Then Greg says, ‘How about you James?’ And Tommy goes, ‘Yeah James, I seen your stuff, you do some good things, some bad things.’ “I learned later the two people he actually wanted were Johnny Depp and me. And I think it was because I had played James Dean in a TV movie and Tommy thinks he’s James Dean. One of the famous lines from The Room is, ‘You’re tearing me apart Lisa,’ which is from Rebel Without a Cause. And so we were in.”
Franco teamed with his pal Seth Rogen’s Point Grey Pictures production company to make The Disaster Artist, believing the company that oversaw hits such as Neighbors, This is the End and Sausage Party could help his film find a wider audience.
“I thought [The Disaster Artist] had commercial potential, and I was shooting The Interview in Vancouver at the time, and the wiser side of my brain said ask Seth and his company to produce this movie because they know how to work with studios and still make the movies they want to make. So they came on board and really guided me and really helped me.”
Franco says in making The Disaster Artist he learned two valuable lessons.
“Having Seth Rogen and his company on board, they showed me how to be a responsible director; how to sit down and focus and not do 10 things at once, just do one thing really well.
And then playing Tommy was the other way that I learned because I sadly identified with a lot of his willful, kind of defensive behaviour, so it really opened my eyes. I thought I was a good collaborator but in fact in trying to will some of my projects into being, I am not listening to what other people are telling me, and so I had a double kind of awakening on this movie.”
Ingrid Randoja is the deputy editor of Cineplex Magazine.
The Disaster Artist hits theatres December 1st.
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