The Disaster Artist, the incredible true-ish story behind the making of one of the worst movies of all time, came out in theatres earlier this month. Allow me and Gita to tell you why it's fantastic.
Jason Schreier: Gita, today we are going to talk about The Disaster Artist, which might be my favourite movie of the year. Before we even start, though, I want to do some table-setting. In 2003, a man named Tommy Wiseau released a movie called The Room that ostensibly told a dramatic story of a rich banker who was betrayed by his girlfriend, but was so terrible, people couldn't help but laugh the whole time. In the following years, The Room turned into a viral sensation, attracting Rocky Horror Picture Show-esque crowds that would go and dress up as their favourite characters and shout along with lines on screen. People were fascinated by Wiseau, who wrote, directed, financed, and starred in the film. His long, black hair, strange accent, and wooden acting captivated people in inexplicable ways. Who was this dude?
In 2013, The Room actor Greg Sestero co-wrote a book with journalist Tom Bissell (who, I should disclose, is a good friend of mine) about the film's tortured development. Turns out that Tommy Wiseau might be a sociopath! That book, The Disaster Artist, is full of insane details and anecdotes not just about the horrors and abuses that went into the making of The Room, but about Sestero's complicated friendship with Wiseau. The book captivated James Franco, who made a movie about it (also called The Disaster Artist) that's now in theatres. Franco plays Wiseau, and his brother Dave Franco plays Sestero, and just like the book, the movie tells their entire story, from when they first met at an acting class to the conception and production of The Room.
I arrived late to this whole party (and still haven't even seen The Room, although I've watched enough clips to have a feel for it), and before we talk about The Disaster Artist, I want to hear your origin story - when did you first see The Room?
Gita Jackson: I remember reading some piece of longform journalism about The Room when I was in college. I was a cinema studies major, and at the time really into the improv-based comedy from the Judd Apatow crew of writers and performers. I think even then, Franco was a part of that group of collaborators, and the article was about how these comedians found this absurd movie and grew to love it. I wish I could remember who wrote this! It really left an impression. [Note: It's this one!]
Anyway, The Room had already become a bit of phenomenon among cinema nerds online for the depth of its ineptitude, so I found a copy and more or less forced some friends to watch it with me on a tiny laptop screen in my dorm room. I think this was maybe 2011? After we watched the movie for the first time it set off this chain reaction. Every weekend I would host a new group of friends to watch The Room in my dorm room. We watched it every weekend for a month or two.
Jason: EVERY weekend? How many times did you watch it?
Gita: I have seen this movie a lot of times. Maybe ten or fifteen times? I've been to a few midnight screenings as well. There is just such a depth to its ineptitude. That said I haven't watched it for a few years now.
Jason: Amazing. The Room superfan Gita Jackson over here. OK, so did you read The Disaster Artist as soon as it came out?
Gita: I didn't! My then boyfriend bought it and told me he'd let me borrow it after he was done. Then we broke up, and it got added to the long list of books I wanted to read but didn't have time to. I finally read it this year — actually, listened to the audio book, which I knew was the only way I'd finally get to experience it.
I'm a busy lady Jason.
Jason: Busy watching The Room fifteen times, yes.
Jason: To get a sense of just how magnetically awful this movie is, I'll direct people to this video roundup of the highlights:
Jason: When you were watching it, did you ever wonder just how it got made?
Gita: Oh absolutely. I mean, there's a real love for movies in The Room, but absolutely no skill whatsoever. It's also simultaneously too expensive looking for what it is, and too cheap looking to be believed as a movie. So many of the conversations me and my friends had about this movie were just, "Who the hell is Tommy Wiseau?"
Jason: And now we have the answer — well, some of the answers to that question with The Disaster Artist. James Franco does an incredible, Oscar-worthy job of playing this man, who wants so badly to be an actor but doesn't have the talent to pull it off. As we see in the film, Tommy Wiseau might be the most insecure person on this planet. Part of him thinks he's James Dean, and another part of him thinks that the entire world is out to get him. The Room, which tells an incoherent story about a man who is betrayed by his lover and his friends, seems more than anything to be an autobiography.
Gita: There's a scene in The Disaster Artist where two characters are talking about what each character in The Room is a representation of in Tommy's actual life. They decide that Lisa, the girlfriend who betrays the main character, is a representation of what the whole world is to Tommy. If there's anything that encapsulates the whole story of The Room and Tommy Wiseau in general, it's that.
The more I think about Lisa as a character the sadder The Room gets as a movie. As a representation of "the world," she fickle and cruel. It just makes sense to me that this is how a person like Tommy Wiseau, who believes he has never done anything wrong, would see literally all of humanity.
Jason: Yeah, and it makes you sympathize with him, because clearly he's dealt with some serious tragedy in the past. Like, was he betrayed by a woman like Lisa? Did something even worse happen to him? But then you watch the way he deals with other people — he berates them on set, screaming and criticising (especially the women) and refusing to have the basic decency to even get them water — and it's hard to feel too bad for the man.
Another thing that's interesting about The Disaster Artist (the film) is that it's a character study of Tommy Wiseau that doesn't actually tell us very much about Tommy Wiseau. We don't know where he came from, we don't know how old he is, and we don't know how he got the $US6million+ it cost to make The Room. These questions are all posed at multiple points in the movie, but never answered, much to the characters' frustration and amusement.
Gita: I thought it was so smart to leave that hanging for the audience. By the end of the movie, I felt like they were unimportant questions even if they were the things that the movie had hooked us with. Through his relationship with Greg you see that he's just a sad, lonely person. His weird idiosyncrasies are a symptom of his desire to relate to other people. Wiseau is definitely a nightmare boss — a woman fainted on set because he wouldn't get AC! — but by the end you just want him to get a win. Even if that means not forcing him to confront the ways in which he is frustrating or vague or impenetrable.
The book ends just as the lights go down on the first screening of The Room, whereas the movie goes beyond that, and shows both the audiences's reaction and Tommy having to deal with the weird, amazing, horrible thing he's made. I don't know if you felt this way, but there's a part of me that liked how the book hung on the inevitability of what The Room would become. At the same time, I did like actually seeing Wiseau make some kind of attempt at humility.
Jason: Yeah the movie couldn't just end without asking Wiseau to reconcile his own delusions with how people actually reacted to the film, and it needed to put a bow on his friendship with Sestero. Meanwhile, in real life, Wiseau apparently paid to keep The Room in theatres for two weeks so it would qualify for the Oscars. And now, thanks to The Disaster Artist, we might see James Franco as Tommy Wiseau win an Oscar? I hope he brings the real Wiseau. You said on Twitter that you think Wiseau will murder Franco as a result of this movie, but I actually had the opposite feeling — I think Wiseau loves this. Suddenly, everyone knows who he is!
Gita: I don't know. I want to agree with you, and I hope that he does see it that way. Maybe he did actually learn something from the experience of making The Room and has grown up a bit. But the stories that Greg Sestero tells about Wiseau in The Disaster Artist are terrifying. Most of them were cut from the movie, which makes sense. Sestero's personal history as an up and coming actor isn't strictly necessary for the story the movie is telling. The one story of how Wiseau kicked Sestero out of his apartment really fucked me up though. He takes Greg on a drive, speeds down busy Los Angeles streets, screaming at him, all for the crime of… telling a friend that he was staying at Wiseau's apartment. I want to believe that he's not that bitter and paranoid right now. But as much as I think Tommy Wiseau likes the attention, there must be a little part of him that's angry that Hollywood only accepted him when he was played by James Franco.
That said, I want him to come to the Oscars. I need that. I watch every year and for once I want it to be interesting.
Jason: Oh man, that would be a GOAT Oscar moment. Franco in Wiseau makeup accompanied by the real Wiseau. I need that to happen.
So let's talk about The Disaster Artist a bit more, maybe offer some spoiler-free thoughts for people who might be on the fence about seeing it. I thought it was both hilarious and poignant, the rare comedy that really leaves you thinking about the people you just watched on screen (which I think is a byproduct of it being (basically) non-fiction — how many non-fiction comedies are there??). I would recommend it even to people who haven't watched The Room (since I haven't watched The Room!) because it gives you the gist of that film as you watch. The Disaster Artist is precise, well-crafted, and incredibly fun.
Gita: Wow, you haven't watched The Room? Huh. I guess it is kind of past its cultural moment. I don't even really know if you "need" to see The Room to know its impact on American comedy television and film anymore. Anyway yeah, I agree. I think this is the best movie about Hollywood that Hollywood has produced in the last few decades. It's just a sincere love letter to acting and movies and being a movie star — all the things Wiseau wanted and kind of got in the end. What struck me is that it's not just so, so funny, but also a really genuine movie. There's nothing ironic about Tommy Wiseau, even though the culture of liking The Room is often soaked in irony. Tommy Wiseau just loves movies, but making movies is hard, and is often as unfair as he makes it out to be. Despite being a movie about failure, I found it pretty heartwarming. Tommy Wiseau didn't get the happy ending he wanted, but he did get one. Even if he can be a real piece of shit, it felt nice to see him just get one good thing in life.
Jason: Good points all around, and man, this has all left me so conflicted about Wiseau. He's one of the most interesting people on the planet, and I appreciate that The Disaster Artist (the film) tells his story with a TON of empathy. But also, he's a psychopathic arsehole and he hurt a lot of people. Is this really a person we should be celebrating? Is this really someone we should be feeling bad for? It's sort of like when the New York Times ran that puff piece about the white supremacist a few weeks ago - Tommy Wiseau obviously isn't that hateful or extreme, but he's not a good guy! Should we really be feeling happy that at the end of the day, he's getting the fame and (semi-)success he wanted?
Gita: I wish that the movie had been more frank about how Tommy Wiseau really tortured and berated Juliette Danielle, who played Lisa. He often reduced her to tears on set, and a lot of his criticism was about her body. That is absolutely indicative of the how women are treated in Hollywood in general, but that doesn't absolve Wiseau of being horrible to a woman every day basically because he felt like it. I am really glad The Room exists, and I'm happy to know the story of how it was made. I think The Disaster Artist as a book leaves a little more ambiguity about how you should feel about Tommy, where the movie is definitely on "his side." I understand that, because it's also clear that he's an incredibly damaged person, who has also been hurt and abused. I guess if I have one criticism of the movie it's that they smooth away some of Wiseau's very jagged edges.
Jason: The book, by the way, is equally excellent. The writing is sharp and fun, and it includes a ton of anecdotes that didn't make it into the film, including a very detailed recreation of Wiseau's pre-United States history that may or may not be true.
In general, I think we both agree that everyone should go watch and read The Disaster Artist, because it's a compelling look at one of the most fascinating people on this planet. Yes?
Gita: Yes! Definitely, definitely see it. And honestly if you don't have time to read it, the audiobook is narrated by Greg Sestero and his Tommy Wiseau impression is unreal.
Jason: Better than James Franco's?
Gita: Honestly? yes.
Jason: Daaamn. OK sold.