James Franco has had a peripatetic career, with roles in movies large and small and on television, too (most recently in HBO’s The Deuce, in which he plays twins). He’s written columns, pursued four graduate degrees at the same time, and directed movies, including esoteric and critically derided literary adaptations of William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury and Cormac McCarthy’s Child of God. He’s always been a bit of a gadfly.
But his latest project, The Disaster Artist, is hardly esoteric, though it’s about a film most people haven’t seen. It’s a hilarious comedy that’s getting critical acclaim and has begun raking in awards as well. Based on a book about the making of The Room — a cult hit widely considered the worst film ever made — The Disaster Artist was directed by Franco, who also stars as its strange subject: Tommy Wiseau, who wrote, directed, produced, and starred in The Room. A bevy of Franco’s famous friends co-star, including his brother Dave Franco, who plays Wiseau’s best friend (and the book’s co-writer) Greg Sestero.
The Disaster Artist is a rollicking, satisfying comedy about one of the weirder stories in Hollywood, and Franco talked with me by phone about it, as well as his love of Sunset Boulevard and the ways he and Wiseau are kind of like Spider-Man and Venom.
The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
When was the first time you saw The Room? What did you think of it at the time?
I actually wasn't a part of the whole Room phenomenon in its early days. I came to this whole thing through Greg Sestero’s book The Disaster Artist. I had seen the billboard of The Room in LA that was on Highland Avenue from, like, 2003 to 2008. It was so bizarre. It had a phone number and Tommy’s face glaring down at you, but I didn't know what it was. It could have been a movie, but what movie billboard has a phone number, you know? It just sort of sat on the edge of my consciousness.
Then I read the book four years ago when it came out. I started reading and I was like, oh, my gosh, it's that billboard!
I was in Vancouver shooting The Interview at the time, and we ordered the DVD of The Room, which I guess still comes directly from Tommy Wiseau. I think he's still the main distributor. I don't think you can stream it. So I watched The Room with friends in Vancouver, but I already had most of the backstory of The Room. So I was already sold. I was so into it just because the story behind it was so amazing.
Then I went to my first theatrical screening of The Room in Vancouver not long after. It was incredible. I've been to many theatrical screenings of The Room since then, and I still remember Vancouver being the best of them all. They had more plastic spoons than anyone, they had the best response lines, they had people in tuxedos, they had footballs. ...
Greg Sestero was at that screening, because his book had just come out, so he was promoting the book. He knew I was going to be there. After that, I was completely sold. I told him, I'm in, that was the best moviegoing experience I've had in my life, and the story behind it is so moving. This is the story that I guess I was born to tell.
What grabbed you about the story?
I have to give credit to Tommy, because it's his bizarre story and his behavior and his uniqueness that fueled this whole thing. But also give credit to Tom Bissell and Greg Sestero for going at this subject in a way that showed what was so universal about Tommy and Greg's story, about striving to follow your dreams in the face of rejection, not getting any support from the outside world, having to depend on each other to will something into being. Underneath this completely bizarro, wacky, ridiculous story of making this movie was something very moving, because of that friendship.
What I hoped I could do is tell a story about creativity, tell a story about having a vision that nobody else believed in and pushing that vision out into the world, but through the upside-down skewed lens of this very strange and unique film, The Room.
I found myself thinking about Sunset Boulevard while I was watching it — I’ve heard you say you were thinking about that film too. How do the two connect?
I think Sunset Boulevard is one of the most beautiful films, but the way it interacts with Hollywood is so interesting. It's both a critique and a celebration. There are real people from Hollywood playing themselves or versions of themselves — Cecil B. DeMille, Buster Keaton — but there's also this whole level of fantasy and delusion coming from the main character, Norma Desmond.
There's just endless meta levels in that movie. For instance, Gloria Swanson was in a movie, Queen Kelly, which was directed by Erich von Stroheim, who plays the butler in Sunset Boulevard. It was financed by Joseph Kennedy but had never been put out. In Sunset Boulevard, Swanson and Stroheim’s characters actually watch Queen Kelly. It's like, is it Norma Desmond's history or is it Gloria Swanson's history? It’s amazing.
So with our movie, it's similar: The lines between Tommy's life and his movie The Room start to blur. I believe that when Tommy made The Room, it was a very personal expression of how he felt betrayed by the world. In The Room, his character's girlfriend and his best friend betray him, but I think that was even applied to a bigger kind of betrayal in Tommy's actual life.
Those lines are blurred even further now that The Room is this weird cult comedic hit. Tommy will often just quote his own movie apropos of nothing. Tommy's whole identity is wrapped up in The Room now and taking credit for it being a comedy, when I don't think he intended it to be that in the beginning.
So there are endless, self-referential meta-layers within The Disaster Artist’s story. Sunset Boulevard is one of the great, great, great movies that did the same thing, and it's one of the greatest movies ever made.
Your brother is in The Disaster Artist, your friends are all in it — did you feel like it was blurring into your own story?
It is, it is. I have no shame in saying it. It is a very personal story for me. I've quoted a few times what Tommy said at the premiere of The Room; he said, "This my story, this my life. Be cool." The Disaster Artist is my story and my life. I came to Hollywood, and I struggled to be an actor. I have made projects where I took big swings and other people didn't like them. They didn't turn into cult hits, but, you know.
There are even direct crossovers between me and Tommy and Greg — we kind of did come to Hollywood at the same time. Long before Greg knew I wanted to make the movie, he put in his book that I had auditioned for a role in this movie Retro Puppet Master that he ultimately got. So Greg Sestero actually beat me out for a role! I don't remember auditioning for Retro Puppet Master, but, you know, there was a lot of crossover between us.
When we were scouting locations in pre-production, I realized, wow, we're going to all these spots that I used to frequent when I was coming up as an actor. Ernie's Taco House, Baja Fresh, and all these little acting studios in the San Fernando Valley. And so in that sense, it is sort of my story.
Then having Seth [Rogen] in the movie, and Judd Apatow in the movie, and my brother — very important. Those are all people that have been very important in my career, and, in a weird way, having them around me in the film made this even more personal for me and gave me personal touchstones within the movie.
I have to say, though, that we use The Room as the nucleus or center point upon which we tell our story, but we frame ours with a different kind of storytelling than The Room. The Disaster Artist isn't designed or told with the aesthetics of The Room. In that sense, I feel this weird — I've never said this out loud before; I just thought of it. It's almost like in Spider-Man 3, when Spider-Man gets infected by the dark Symbiote and suddenly is this black Spider-Man, which turns into Venom, a dark side of Spider-Man. That's me and Tommy, in a weird way. We're connected and we're similar, but a positive and a negative. I don't mean in a good/bad way; I just mean opposites, in a weird way.
But we also have this weird space where we meet and are similar. I wrote a review of The Disaster Artist before I got the rights to it. I wrote that I just respect Tommy so much because he got his movie made in the face of endless rejection. He did it! He got it done. I have so much respect for that.
On the other hand, once he then was in production on his movie, he was working in a collaborative medium, and he didn't collaborate. He didn't know how to collaborate. I feel like on The Disaster Artist I was sort of the opposite; what I learned on this movie was how to collaborate, as opposed to what I've been doing with my very artsy, literary projects, like my Cormac McCarthy and William Faulkner projects. On this one, I actually asked for help from Seth Rogen and his production company and people that are really experienced and successful in making unique movies but for bigger audiences. We went to these great writers, Scott Neustadter and Michael Weber, who weren't comedic writers but were great at relationships.
And so every step of the way on this movie, I feel like I was going in the opposite direction from Tommy. He wouldn't listen to anybody. Like, dude, you don't need to shoot on 35mm film and HD at the same time. There's no point. He wouldn't listen. “Well, nobody's ever done it before, so I'm going to do it.” Like, Tommy, there's no reason. Why are we shooting green screens for a rooftop in a parking lot when you own the building in San Francisco? We can just go up on the roof of your building. It will be cheaper, and it will look better. "No, this is real Hollywood movie, I have to shoot green screen." He wouldn't listen to anybody.
So I feel like in that sense, I was the opposite of Tommy. This was, like, such a huge learning experience for me, because I did want to listen. I did want to be responsible and a team player.
Did you ever wake up in a cold sweat, worried that your movie — which is, after all, about the worst movie ever made — would meet the same fate?
We were never worried that we were going to make something as bad as The Room. The source material was incredible — it truly is just a great book. It's just a book about Hollywood. It's just so good. One of the smartest things Greg Sestero ever did was to get Tom Bissell to write it with him. What could have been a series of ridiculous anecdotes about making this movie turned into something very moving.
But we had great source material, we had Mike Weber and Scott Neustadter, and from the very first draft on, it was just incredible. Then it turns out, like, there are a lot of fans of The Room. A lot of comedians and great dramatic actors are fans of The Room, so we ended up getting this incredible cast. We had a lot of elements going for us.
In hindsight, maybe Seth was more nervous than I was. I guess I was just so used to making strange things. Like, oh, yeah, there wasn't a huge audience for Sound and the Fury, yeah, that's fine, I'm used to that. Maybe I just wasn't concerned.
The Disaster Artist opens in theaters on December 1.