The Disaster Artist: Life on 'Planet Tommy' (Wiseau)

By Jim Slotek

I am here on Planet Tommy with Tommy Wiseau, the director of the greatest worst movie ever made, The Room.

Said planet is anywhere Tommy is, which on this day is a Toronto International Film Festival hotel-room round table interview, with Wiseau, his longtime friend and collaborator Greg Sestero and Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber.

 Dave Franco and James Franco... showing truth really is stranger than fiction.

Dave Franco and James Franco... showing truth really is stranger than fiction.

The latter are producers of the ironically acclaimed The Disaster Artist, the James Franco-directed movie about the making of The Room.

For years, Franco has been a leading cheerleader for this mysterious cinematic car crash (directed by and starring an enigmatic, thickly-accented auteur who coughed up $5 mil of his own money, the provenance of which was also mysterious). The Room has toured worldwide to packed rep theatres, with people reciting by memory the non sequitur dialogue (“I did not hit her! It's not true! It's bullshit, I did not hit her! I did naaaaaht. Oh, hi Mark!”).

So along with all the other mysteries (is Tommy a Polish emigre, as has been claimed?), one that tops the list is whether Wiseau is really in on the joke.

In The Disaster Artist, Tommy (Franco) is crushed on opening night when the audience laughs at his life’s work. Sestero gives him a pep-talk about making people feel good, he has an epiphany, goes onstage and tells the audience, “I’m glad you liked my comedy.”

“You see, it’s true story,” Wiseau says when I ask about the scene. Dressed in black, wearing shades, his trademark jet-black long hair sprayed into indestructibility, he looks like Gene Simmons-turned-vampire.

“We got that reaction, in the beginning from the premiere for The Room, I was not ready. So, this guy (Sestero) say, ‘Hey, they like your movie after all.’ So, I change my mind instantly.”

But surely, in his mind he wasn’t making a comedy?

“Actually, that’s incorrect statement, misleading statement, not from you, but from many media. For many years, before I shot Room, I had workshop, acting workshop. And I always say, when you have a drama, I will find something that will be comedy within that drama.

“When I create The Room, I had a lot of obstacles to go through to decide what to do. You know what I’m saying? So, drama comedy, we come out with this idea, let’s call it black comedy.

“I said this before, but again, I really, on the end of the day, I don’t care what you call it, as long as people enjoy it.

“But thank you for question. It’s very nice, I like analyze stuff.”

Soooo, question not really answered. And that’s the way the producers like it.

“We weren’t trying to decode The Room or demystify anything,” Neustadter says. “We couldn’t even if we wanted to. But everyone can relate to this story. We had in mind Ed Wood (the ‘50s impresario of dementedly terrible films like Plan 9 From Outer Space) or Sunset Boulevard. Those are Hollywood stories that aren’t about Hollywood, but about misunderstood people.”

Neustadter’s obversation triggers Tommy. “I’m not Ed Wood, okay? I HATE when they say that! He was nice guy, though.”

Despite his show of annoyance, Wiseau is obviously thrilled with the renewed attention directed at his magnum opus. “(Franco) did good job. It’s pretty much, you know what, 99% approved by Tommy, 1% not. That one percent is throwing the football. What you guys blogging about, you should correct that.”

“That” would be a famous male-bonding scene in The Room, in which Tommy’s character Johnny, for no apparent reason, starts tossing a pigskin around. As portrayed by Franco (accurately to my recollection), the football seems as unfamiliar an object to Wiseau as an airplane’s black box.

“Now I try to correct this in your blogging, whatever you guys doing. Compare how I throw the football with James Franco, side by side. I am much better.”

A bigger sticking point was the producers’ and Franco’s use of Sestero’s 2013 book The Disaster Artist as source material. Wiseau and Sistero’s friendship was strained for a while because of some of the revelations therein (including Tommy’s Eastern European background, and speculation about where his money came from).

“Do I like the book? Do I approve of the book 100%? No. So what else do you want to know?” Wiseau says.

Says Sestero: “Tommy was the first person I told that I was going to write a book. I told about his fascinating stories that he had, just living in New Orleans, coming to San Francisco, building himself up as a businessman. The goal of the book was always to tell something inspiring and heartfelt. My friendship with Tommy was always a roller coaster ride.

“I think Tommy knows I did it for the right reasons, and here we are today with an incredible film that was made out of it.”

Adds Wiseau: “Sometimes people misleading about friendship. They don’t understand that sometimes you have a very deep friendship with another person, and they say, ‘Oh, that’s not true. He wrote this you know.’

“It’s my choice to say that. It doesn’t mean I don’t respect him. We were friends for many years. (Turns to Sestero). When we meet, Greg?”

Sestero: “1998, it’s going to be 20 years.”

Wiseau: “And we had great respect. I know his mother, he knows my (thinks a second) nephew. Long story short it’s a unique. We actually are friends.”

So does Tommy ever feel frustrated, never being able to follow up The Room with something as popular?

“Do you have $20 million for me?” Wiseau says. “Not The Room. We’ll make a different movie.”

 

REVIEW: THE DISASTER ARTIST

Rating: A

Perhaps the biggest surprise about The Disaster Artist, James Franco’s dramatization of the creation of the camp classic The Room, is how utterly sweet it is.

Franco, who directs and stars as the putative world’s worst filmmaker Tommy Wiseau, takes someone who’s been an object of mockery and makes him utterly human and likable. If anything, it out-sweets Tim Burton’s Ed Wood.

Moreover, he takes the often-strained relationship at the center of The Room’s backstory – between Wiseau and Greg Sestero (played by the director’s brother Dave Franco) - and forges a wonky, loving and contentious screen friendship that ranks with any buddy comedy.

Perhaps wisely, Franco leaves intact the gaps in Wiseau’s self-created myth, making him a cipher capable of the most irrational, unpredictable acts (a tone set early, when he scandalizes an acting class by giving an inappropriate primal scream performance. For Sestero, it’s love at first outburst).

And it is a love story, a tale of friendship and betrayal that would be utterly conventional if the people involved weren’t so completely from Mars. Franco so totally inhabits the bizarre persona that it qualifies the film as meta – Franco/Tommy directing himself as Tommy directing himself as Tommy.

Ari Graynor does the best job among a solid cast of actors playing bad actors, with her portrayal of Juliette Danielle (the Lisa of “You’re tearing me apart, Lisa!” Yes, that Lisa).

Perhaps the best part of the film is the closing credits, where scenes from The Disaster Artist and The Room play side by side. Seeing is believing.

Even if you’re not familiar with The Room as a phenomenon (it’s gained Rocky Horror status, with special presentations and celebrity fandom), you can fall in love by proxy by watching The Disaster Artist.

The Disaster Artist. Directed by James Franco. Starring James Franco, Dave Franco, Ari Graynor, Seth Rogen, and Alison Brie. Opens December 1 in Toronto; December 8 across Canada.