It’s vir­tu­ally im­pos­si­ble to ex­ag­ger­ate when de­scrib­ing Tommy Wiseau.

Exclaim! - - TIMELINE -

His dyed black hair evokes a cos­tume pi­rate wig and his eyes are al­most al­ways wrapped in enor­mous, out­dated sun­glasses. For an in­ter­view at the Toronto In­ter­na­tional Film Fes­ti­val, Wiseau swoops in with the swag­ger of a Johnny Depp im­per­son­ator, com­plete with flow­ing silk shirt and his sig­na­ture set of two stud­ded belts across over­sized trousers.

Wiseau’s dizzy­ing en­ergy is in­fec­tious. The Room, the cultishly adored 2003 film he wrote, di­rected, self-fi­nanced and starred in, is con­sid­ered the (best) worst movie of all time. The Dis­as­ter Artist, a mem­oir about mak­ing The Room from Wiseau’s co-star and for­mer room­mate Greg Ses­tero, demon­strates just how un­pre­dictable (and man­i­cally creative) Wiseau re­ally is. Now, both projects have cul­mi­nated in a fan­tas­tic James Franco film that stands among his best work. Wiseau might be a weirdo, but he’s also a cat­a­lyst for cre­ativ­ity.

No one re­ally knows Wiseau. “His de­fences are im­pen­e­tra­ble,” Franco says. “He’s been asked ev­ery silly or prob­ing ques­tion, and he just knows how to duck and dodge.” Wiseau’s age and eth­nic­ity are a se­cret (he in­sists his ac­cent, which sounds like an amal­ga­ma­tion of ex­ag­ger­ated East­ern Euro­pean di­alects, comes from his sup­posed up­bring­ing in New Or­leans), as is the method with which he amassed his enor­mous wealth (some spec­u­late that he was a Levi’s boot­leg­ger, an ac­cu­sa­tion he ve­he­mently de­nies).

Whether it’s from un­in­ten­tional com­edy chops or pig­headed con­fi­dence, The Room is spe­cial. Sure, it’s a bad movie, filled with id­i­otic misog­yny, dead-end sub­plots, seem­ingly alien di­a­logue and tran­scen­dently stupid scenes like the one where four men toss a foot­ball in tuxe­dos. Aes­thet­i­cally, it’s also a night­mare — as The Dis­as­ter Artist re­veals, Wiseau filmed it on dig­i­tal and film si­mul­ta­ne­ously, ren­der­ing it nearly im­pos­si­ble to light.

“That’s one of the great con­ver­sa­tions around this whole thing,” Franco says. “Be­cause yes, we can say that his sets are cheap and the light­ing is ter­ri­ble and the act­ing is ridicu­lous and the writ­ing is hor­ri­ble, but on the other hand, it’s end­lessly watch­able. How many Os­car win­ners do you watch over and over again 14 years later? For some rea­son, we watch The Room over and over again. So un­de­ni­ably, there’s some­thing spe­cial about that.

“There’s some­thing un­der­neath,” Franco con­tin­ues. “And — I’m be­ing com­pletely earnest right now — who’s to say that there’s not value to that? In a way, it checks off all the boxes of a piece of art: Tommy put a lot of pas­sion into it; it’s very per­sonal; and view­ers get some­thing out of it. And then, on a suc­cess level, peo­ple watch it. I think it’s, by now, made a profit. So it’s sort of a suc­cess on all lev­els.”

James Franco’s seem­ingly end­less re­sume in­cludes some­thing for ev­ery­one. He’s starred in stoner com­edy Pineap­ple Ex­press and been nom­i­nated for a Best Ac­tor Os­car for 127 Hours. He’s a writer, ac­tor, direc­tor, pro­ducer, mu­si­cian, artist and aca­demic, with an MFA from Columbia and a PhD in the works at Yale. And he’s par­tic­u­larly adept at show­cas­ing the in­her­ent value of bad art.

In 2014, Carl Wil­son’s 33 1/3 book Let’s Talk About Love: A Jour­ney to the End of Taste was reis­sued by Blooms­bury Pub­lish­ing in an ex­panded edition that in­cluded a se­ries of guest es­says. Still framed around an at­tempt to un­der­stand Ce­line Dion’s cul­tural value, the guest es­says ex­plored tan­gen­tial top­ics. Franco, for his turn, wrote an es­say ex­plain­ing how Jour­ney to the End of Taste in­spired him to vol­un­teer for a role on Gen­eral Hos­pi­tal at the height of his act­ing ca­reer, sub­vert­ing ex­pec­ta­tions as he slummed it on a soap opera in the name of art. Whether or not that was a suc­cess, one thing is clear — Franco staked an es­sen­tial spot in the taste de­bate, and it primed him for the best film project of his ca­reer.

Adapt­ing Greg Ses­tero’s mem­oir of the same name, The Dis­as­ter Artist is, on the sur­face, a com­edy about the mak­ing of Wiseau’s no­to­ri­ous movie. But peel back its lay­ers even slightly and the film pro­vokes dis­cus­sion about cre­ativ­ity, am­bi­tion, in­tent vs. in­ter­pre­ta­tion and, ul­ti­mately, friendship. It’s a piece that suc­cess­fully merges the var­i­ous Fran­cos — method ac­tor, art aca­demic, co­me­dian and direc­tor — and in do­ing so, stands on its own as a work of sheer bril­liance.

When asked if A Jour­ney to the End of Taste played into this project, Franco says it’s most likely why pro­ducer Sandy Stern sent him Ses­tero’s book. “I’m sure there was a con­nec­tion there,” he says. “It def­i­nitely falls in line with all of that — the jour­ney to the end of taste, or sort of weird meta flir­ta­tions with low­brow art — but I took this one to a whole new level. And it wasn’t all on my own.”

The Room co-star Greg Ses­tero wrote The Dis­as­ter Artist with jour­nal­ist Tom Bis­sell and the mem­oir re­ceived in­stant crit­i­cal ac­claim, in part for laugh­out-loud sto­ries that were far weirder than any­thing in Wiseau’s film. More im­por­tantly, the book con­tex­tu­al­ized The Room in Hol­ly­wood — land of heart­break and yearn­ing, where dream­ers end­lessly pine for a chance in the spot­light. Ses­tero, dis­arm­ingly hand­some with a calm­ing Owen Wil­son drawl, says he wrote the book with the hopes that it would one day be­come a movie like Ed Wood or Sun­set Boule­vard. (“I’m not Ed Wood, okay! Let’s stress that. I hate when peo­ple say that,” Wiseau mut­ters.)

“My goal with the book was al­ways to tell some­thing in­spir­ing and heart­felt,” Ses­tero ad­mits. “My friendship with Tommy — ob­vi­ously, you would say it’s a roller­coaster ride, but it’s been an amaz­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. I knew there were go­ing to be some things that were un­com­fort­able, but ul­ti­mately I think Tommy knows that I did it for the right rea­sons.”

When the book came out, Wiseau said he only ap­proved of 40 per­cent of its con­tents. (He loves to talk in per­cent­ages, telling us that he ap­proves of Franco’s film 99.9 per­cent. A blog­ger had re­cently chalked up the .01 dis­ap­proval to a light­ing is­sue, but as usual, Wiseau claims he was mis­quoted. In­stead, he ob­jects to the fee­ble foot­ball throw that Franco’s Tommy com­pletes in the film — for the record, it looks iden­ti­cal to the way Wiseau throws a foot­ball in The Room.)

Asked if his over­whelm­ing dis­ap­proval of the book put a strain on his friendship with Ses­tero, Wiseau once again gets worked up. It’s a funny aside, but like all things Tommy, it also car­ries a strangely poignant truth. “Peo­ple are mis­lead­ing about friendship,” Wiseau says, grow­ing in­creas­ingly im­pa­tient. “Like I say, very pub­licly about Greg, ‘Oh, I ap­prove this book 40 per­cent, what­ever.’ But this is my choice to say that. When you have two friends, they can say what­ever they want and maybe hurt the other per­son, but still they can be friends.”

Ses­tero and Wiseau’s en­dur­ing bond is the emo­tional core of The Dis­as­ter Artist, and the hu­man­iz­ing el­e­ment that pre­vents the project from veer­ing into par­ody. “We were very clear from the be­gin­ning — this is not a satire,” Franco says. “We are not go­ing to make a movie where we just poke fun at these guys. What we want to re­veal — and we re­ally took our cues from the book — is a uni­ver­sal story. Through a comedic lens, but a story about out­sider artists, about peo­ple with dreams, about peo­ple that have been told ‘no’ their whole lives and will a piece of art into the world.”

Franco’s fil­mog­ra­phy fea­tures up­wards of three dozen direc­tor cred­its, but on The Dis­as­ter Artist, he’s op­er­at­ing on an­other level. “What­ever wiser part of my brain did a cou­ple things right,” he ad­mits. “I brought in my brother [Dave Franco, who plays Ses­tero], who is much more dis­cern­ing than I am and very me­thod­i­cal. [Pro­ducer] Seth Ro­gen knows how to work with stu­dios and still make the movies he wants to make. This sub­ject mat­ter has ev­ery­thing that I want — it’s an ex­am­i­na­tion of the artis­tic process, al­beit through this very low­brow lens. I think I did a lot of things to bal­ance out my in­ter­ests and pro­cliv­i­ties and take a sub­ject that I’m in­ter­ested in, and then el­e­vate it with these col­lab­o­ra­tions.”

On screen, one sees a con­sum­mate pro­fes­sional. Franco some­how em­bod­ies Wiseau’s ridicu­lous per­son­al­ity traits with en­ergy, sub­tlety and oc­ca­sion­ally em­pa­thy. That he di­rected the film with­out break­ing char­ac­ter fur­ther sug­gests his mastery of the project.

Wiseau agrees that it’s an im­pres­sive turn. Mostly. “James did very good job, I give him credit for that,” he says. “I think it’s very dif­fi­cult, as a direc­tor right now speak­ing, to go into some­one else’s shoes. Be­cause you have to ac­tu­ally study per­son and emo­tion, and all that stuff is there. Ex­cept the ac­cent, I think, is a lit­tle too much.”

Wiseau’s sta­tus as a highly pri­vate yet end­lessly in­ter­est­ing char­ac­ter raises fa­mil­iar ques­tions about out­sider artists — how do we en­gage with the per­son’s work with­out ex­ploit­ing them? Is it pos­si­ble to laugh at The Room with­out bul­ly­ing its cre­ator?

“Here’s the thing — Tommy em­braces the laugh­ter,” Franco says. “When he made the movie, his take was ‘Ten­nessee Wil­liams-level drama.’ Af­ter he re­al­ized that it was go­ing to be a comedic phe­nom­e­non, he added to the poster [that it was] like a dark com­edy or some­thing. But he kept the orig­i­nal on there, so he can play it both ways. And he says ‘ The Room is a safe place, you can laugh, cry, do what­ever you like, just don’t hurt your­self.’ He’s done these weird men­tal gym­nas­tics where he can em­brace both of those things, and un­der­stands peo­ple laugh at it, but can still be­lieve he’s the great­est direc­tor in the world.”

Franco did not spend much one-on-one time with Wiseau prior to shoot­ing, but he had ac­cess to the char­ac­ter through more voyeuris­tic means. “Tommy, at least in the past, recorded ev­ery­thing — ev­ery phone con­ver­sa­tion, just like in The Room. He re­ally did that. He would also record him­self, just talk­ing to him­self,” Franco says. “The weird­ness on Greg’s part is he stole some of those tapes years ago. But it was great for me be­cause Greg gave me those record­ings. So I have those record­ings of Tommy in his most pri­vate mo­ments. He never thought any­body would ever lis­ten to this but him­self. He’s pour­ing his heart out, and it’s weird, it’s mov­ing, it’s sad. And I feel like I got an un­fil­tered glimpse into Tommy’s soul.”

From its be­gin­nings as a drama to its cur­rent sta­tus as a cult com­edy, The Room is a per­fect ex­am­ple of fail­ing up­wards. As Franco puts it, Wiseau con­stantly “rewrites his­tory and rewrites his in­ten­tions” to make it seem like he’s been in con­trol all along and, well, it just might have worked. Af­ter all, it looks like Tommy Wiseau’s ca­reer has ac­ci­den­tally re­deemed it­self.

“One of the beau­ti­ful things about the SXSW screen­ing, which was the first time we showed it to a pub­lic au­di­ence and the first time we showed it to Tommy, was that we got a stand­ing ova­tion,” Franco re­calls. “I re­al­ized later — that was the first time in Tommy’s en­tire life that he got unadul­ter­ated sup­port and ap­plause. It wasn’t ironic, they weren’t laugh­ing at him. They were cheer­ing for him and his story, and that he ac­com­plished this. That was beau­ti­ful. That’s what we were aim­ing for.”

Thus, the story of The Dis­as­ter Artist is at once post-ironic and pro­found — the world’s worst movie in­spired a book that has re-emerged as a film mas­ter­piece.

“HE’S POUR­ING HIS HEART OUT, AND IT’S WEIRD, IT’S MOV­ING, IT’S SAD. AND I FEEL LIKE I GOT AN UN­FIL­TERED GLIMPSE INTO TOMMY’S SOUL.”

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