Oscar-nominated screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber speak with Script about peeling back the layers of the unique story-within-a-story that is The Disaster Artist.
Career journalist Andrew Bloomenthal has covered everything from high finance to the film trade. He is the award-winning filmmaker of the noir thriller Sordid Things. He lives in Los Angeles. More information can be found on Andrew’s site: www.andrewjbloomenthal.com. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @ABloomenthal
The Disaster Artist, written by screenwriting duo Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, is the cherry on top of a series of extraordinarily unlikely events. It all began in 2003, with the filming of indie fiasco, The Room, a notorious cinematic atrocity of unprecedented proportions. The Room’s vampiric writer/director/star Tommy Wiseau claims he was aiming for a serious drama. He missed. With its perplexing plot, one-note characters, and dead-on-arrival dialogue that Marlon Brando himself couldn’t breathe life into, The Room bypasses guilty-pleasure good, and slams head first into train-wreck mesmerizing. And as anyone with even a peripheral awareness of film lore knows, this $6 million vanity project has since become the mother of all cult hits.
Years later, The Room’s handsome line-producer and co-star Greg Sestero penned a memoir entitled The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside The Room, the Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made, where he describes a tormented production, plagued with problems, due mainly to the blind arrogance of its cocky leader. Wiseau, with his long dyed-black hair, indeterminate Eastern European accent, and carefully guarded secrets, chronically arrived late to set, built a special toilet for his use only, and ritually berated his actors for flubbing their lines—even though he botched more takes than the rest of the cast combined.
And then there was the time Wiseau added weeks to the already beleaguered shoot, so he could build a tacky rooftop set in the studio parking lot. Why he didn’t simply use the perfectly-good real rooftop overhead, is anyone’s guess. Naturally, his diva antics didn’t go over well with the revolving-door crew. And by the time filming wrapped, the only man left standing was Sestero—Wiseau’s only friend and reluctant ally.
In adapting Sestero’s memoir for the screen, Neustadter and Weber, who received Best Adapted Screenplay nods in this year’s Oscar race, honored Wiseau and Sestero’s complex yin-and-yang bromance, while reveling in the absurdity of The Room’s behind-the-scenes chaos. As a result, Disaster, skillfully directed by James Franco, who portrays Wiseau alongside his brother Dave Franco as Sestero, is a laugh-out-loud comedy with a heart. Unlike The Room, the comedy in Disaster is quite intentional.
Neustadter and Weber spoke with Script about peeling back the layers of this unique story-within-a-story.
SCRIPT: Tommy Wiseau is shrouded in mystery, including the origin of his accent. How did you nail his perfectly-imperfect broken English, where he ritually drops certain words from sentences?
Michael Weber: (laughs) It’s true, Tommy drops certain pronouns and certain verbs, and sometimes he turns words into verbs, that aren’t verbs. But it’s a credit to the book, that when you read it, you really feel like you’re in Tommy’s head and can understand his voice. We also had access to audio tapes of Tommy speaking, so it was a case of immersing ourselves in the source materials. And we’re a team of two people, so we could calibrate each other to make sure everything sounded exactly right.
Scott Neustadter: And even now, as I’m working on a totally different project, I’ll write something and suddenly realize it’s a “Tommy” line. He gets into your brain!
SCRIPT: There’s something oddly melodic about Tommy’s speech pattern.
SN: When James Franco was reading Tommy’s dialogue at the first table read, whether it was a full sentence or a broken sentence, it was just hilarious, and by page two, we all thought, “This is going to work.”
MW: And the amazing thing was that once we got to the sad Tommy parts, which eventually became all of our favorite parts of the movie, you really felt for him. So it was both funny and sad in those moments, because Franco was bringing a real character to life—not just some mysterious clown.
SCRIPT: Parts of the book revealed Tommy Wiseau as a truly damaged soul, like when he left a veiled suicide message on Sestero’s answering machine. Were you philosophically on the same page regarding how much of his baggage to expose?
SN: It definitely got dark. And no one watching the film would see Tommy’s character and think that he’s someone without any pain, because there’s clearly some stuff in his past that informed who he is as a person and explains why he wrote a movie like The Room. But the last thing we wanted to do was over-explain things or peek too far behind the curtain and give too much away.
MW: And we didn’t want to make a movie that worked only for fans of The Room, and if you turn The Disaster Artist into a vehicle that demystifies Tommy and explains The Room, which I’m not even sure you could fully do, then who would the movie really be for? We knew the movie would have a wider appeal if it focused on the friendship between Tommy and Greg and the bond they share. And we were also fascinated by how cryptic Tommy was about things like his age and where he was from, because most movie directors don’t care if you know how old they are. It was really interesting how Tommy’s secrecy was such an important part of his persona, and it really does suggest a real pain underneath, but it’s more interesting that he chooses to keep secrets, than the secrets themselves.
SCRIPT: The book shares an anecdote where Tommy forces Greg to shave his beard mid-way through production, because Tommy wants Greg’s character to be clean-shaven for a scene, even though Greg vehemently opposes doing this, because he’s attached to his beard, which makes him feel psychologically secure. However, in The Disaster Artist, Greg doesn’t want to shave because the actor Bryan Cranston just offered him a role as bearded lumberjack on the TV show Malcolm in the Middle, which he ultimately forfeits because of Tommy’s demand. Can you explain this divergence from the book?
MW: It’s true that Greg gave up many real opportunities when he decided to be in The Room, including some really great modeling gigs that would have earned him a lot of money and led to substantial things, as he was baby stepping along in his acting career. Tommy wasn’t supportive of Greg doing anything else while they were shooting The Room, which dragged on for months and months and months. We wanted to capture Greg’s frustration, so we originally wrote a cameo for Richard Dean Anderson, who offers Greg a guest spot on Stargate. But at the time, Franco was shooting Why Him? with Bryan Cranston, so everyone was like, “Let’s get Cranston to do it!” And during that time period, Cranston hadn’t done Breaking Bad yet, which the audience knows is just around the corner for this guy. He was in the later years of Malcolm in the Middle, directing episodes, so it was a perfect idea for him to offer Greg a role on that show. And by having Greg shave his beard under protest—forfeiting a role that could have catapulted his career to the next level, we maintained the spirit of what Greg went through in real life.
SN: Greg has to make a choice. And to everyone watching, the right choice is obvious: he should refuse to shave his beard. But he can’t do it, because Tommy was saying, “Look at all the things I’ve done for you! This is our movie and I can’t give you special treatment!” We had to present both sides of that dilemma in order for people to keep caring about these guys. Hopefully it’s balanced enough for you to see why Greg makes the wrong choice, so it’s not just a “Greg is a total moron” moment, where the audience writes him off as an idiot.
SCRIPT: There was definitely a co-dependent dynamic between these two men, and the book hints that Tommy might have a latent romantic attraction to Greg. Did you form your own theory on Tommy’s sexuality?
MW: We’ve spent some time with Tommy, and I found him to be a really a sweet guy, who at times seems uncomfortable in his own skin. And then there are other moments when he really loves being Tommy Wiseau. He’s a complex guy, and you’re asking good questions that we don’t have answers to, because by design, Tommy and Greg were kept away from us while we were writing and putting down the foundation of the script. But there’s definitely love between these guys. Just look how far they’ve come and everything they’ve been through together. They still talk every day and they really care about each other, and the connection and feelings they have for each other are real.
SN: Their relationship is every bit as unusual in real life as it was in the movie.
SCRIPT: Were Tommy and Greg on set during filming?
MW: Tommy was only on set for a third of a day to shoot his little cameo. But Greg was on set once or twice a week, and what I found interesting, is that Greg tended to show up for some of the more painful moments of what he went through in real life—almost as if he was forcing himself to re-live things, as if it made it worth it for him to have experienced those things, if he could see them brought to life again.
SCRIPT: Given the complexity of the source material, is The Disaster Artist your most daunting project to date?
MW: I’ll put it to you this way. When we first began writing, I said: “Worst case scenario, we make the second worst movie of all time.”