How many films have taken us behind the scenes of a movie set, revealing the controlled chaos that gives life to the mercurial creative genius? Thanks to Tim Burton, we watched the stunning lunacy, the ambition and thwarted dreaming of the films made by the titular Ed Wood. And there is Kevin Smith’s Zack and Miri Make a Porno, which juggles the desperate frenzy of attempting to make porn for profit while two of the performers develop a romantic attraction for each other.
But what screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber have done with The Disaster Artist, in conjunction with director and star James Franco and producing partners Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, is bring audiences into the real-life story that is the film’s basis. It’s about the relationship between Greg Sestero (Dave Franco), a struggling actor, and Tommy Wiseau (James Franco), a mysterious and eccentric fellow artiste, as they forge a passionate friendship that leads them to Hollywood to pursue their dreams of making a movie together. That movie, 2003’s The Room, has developed a so-bad-it’s-good cult reputation over the years.
The Disaster Artist — with a title taken from Sestero’s memoir (with co-writer Tom Bissell) The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside The Room, the Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made — takes The Room’s creators seriously. Neustadter and Weber have their own unique creative partnership, having penned a series of screenplays that deftly merge comedy and romantic entanglements, starting with (500) Days of Summer back in 2009. As Neustadter shared during a recent phone interview with him and Weber, the duo gravitates toward relationship stories “where the people themselves are the issue.”
“It isn’t one of those ‘she likes cats, he likes dogs’ kind of things where there are these (artificial) Hollywood boundaries separating the characters,” Neustadter says.
In The Disaster Artist, when we catch our first glimpse of Greg in his acting class, we see nothing more than a frustrated striver experiencing typical discomfort with pretending. Tommy, however, is completely unencumbered by inhibitions or concerns about talent. It is obvious that these two are destined to join forces because, quite honestly, no one else would join with them. Because The Room forces audiences to question whether they are laughing with or at its creators, viewers of The Disaster Artist could easily be forgiven for assuming they’re about to see a spoof of The Room’s pretensions.
“Every other chapter of the book The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside The Room, the Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made is about the history of the making of (the film),” Weber says. “But the alternating chapters detail the history of the friendship. We, both literally and figuratively, took the book apart and removed the production chapters, because the relationship was much more interesting to us. They were two guys who believed in each other when no one else did. That was pretty much our story, and that was where the emotional stakes were.”
The screenwriters’ chosen focus synchs up with the onscreen interplay between the brothers Franco. But to my eye, James’ Tommy comes across as a surreal and eerily moving reflection of the Andy Kaufman brought to life in Man on the Moon by Jim Carrey.
“By week two of the production, we had spent more time with the ‘Tommy’ James than with the ‘James’ James, so we got used to him staying in character,” Weber says. “Now, he wasn’t acting erratically or throwing fits — such as the antics of Wiseau that are documented in the book. But because he had to be in the prosthetics and it took a while for him to get that look on his face, it was just easier for him to keep the voice and the mannerisms.”
The one sentiment that popped up again and again during my conversation with the writers was how much fun the entire filmmaking process is for them. They have no interest or desire to make the leap to directing. There is a sense of shock in them “every time cameras are rolling,” Weber says, due to the seemingly impossible nature of marshaling the resources and talent behind such endeavors. Being able to avert disasters along the way in the service of capturing the nuances of interpersonal relationships is their artistic calling. (Opens Friday) Grade: A-