James Franco is an old hand at imitation. When the actor played James Dean in the TV movie of the same name in 2001, he became fanatical: isolating himself from his loved ones, taking up smoking, mimicking mannerisms on-screen and off. “I was obsessed,” Franco admits, a bit sheepishly. Franco brings that same dramatic fervour to bear on his latest performance: in The Disaster Artist, the new movie he produced and directed about the making of the so-badit’s-good cult classic The Room. He stars as Tommy Wiseau, probably the best-known and most beloved hack-auteur in the world, emulating Wiseau’s singular look and bearing — vaguely European accent, Frankensteinian air, slightly demented-looking aspect — with a rigour pundits have suggested merits an Oscar. If nothing else, the performance is a testament to the man’s gift for impersonation.
But just how accurate must a biographical film really be? “I’ve done a lot of movies that are based on real events or real people,” Franco says. “There’s an art of getting someone down, getting the behaviour down. But after that, who knows exactly how it was?” In telling another person’s story there will always be some divergence from the letter of the truth, and the person whose story you’re telling might not necessarily understand. What Franco does replicate, and slavishly indeed, is The Room. He recreates scenes from the original movie with such astonishing diligence that it can be difficult to tell them apart side-by-side. Which of course accounts for why he shows them side-by-side, at length, at the end of the picture. “We hadn’t actually planned on doing that,” Franco says. “But when we did it — when everyone on set worked just as hard perfecting something bad as on making something good — we were like, okay, this is good. This is just kind of magic.” So they needn’t show it off.
But there was a problem. “We had never negotiated to use footage from The Room,” Franco explains. They only had Wiseau’s life rights and the rights to Room co-star Greg Sestero’s behind-the-scenes memoirs. To make matters worse, the producers had already infuriated Wiseau, who owned the film and remained in total control. “Tommy’s biggest stipulation had been that he have a cameo in the movie opposite me. But he didn’t know — he didn’t read the contract closely — that while we had to shoot the cameo, we didn’t have to put it in the movie.” Well, Wiseau must have heard from someone who saw a rough cut that it wasn’t in there. Because when it came time to renegotiate for the footage rights he had one request.
“He told us if we wanted his footage, we had to put his scene in the movie.” There was no way around it this time — the strange scene of Franco’s Tommy meeting the real one, which Franco describes as “like this David Lynchian slash Ed Wood moment,” would make the final cut. But then it occurred to Franco that although the newly renegotiated contract required that Wiseau’s moment be in the movie, it never stipulated where. “I realized, oh, we can put it at the end of the credits, like a Marvel teaser,” he laughs. “All of that was just to get this side-by-side thing.”