It’s like a kind of hoodoo. As the end credits roll on The Disaster Artist (opening in Vancouver on December 8), we’re treated to a split-screen demonstration of the film’s deeply religious attention to detail, with scenes from the infamous cult movie The Room unspooling on one side and actor-director James Franco’s spookily perfect re-creations playing on the other.
After the previous 100 minutes or so of Franco’s sweet, heartfelt, but downright uncanny on-screen embodiment of Room “auteur” Tommy Wiseau—complete with the bulldog physique, droopy eye, droopier hair, and Martian accent—these final strokes almost feel like we’re witnessing filmmaking as an act of ultrafetishistic ritual magic.
With an instantly familiar roar of laughter, Seth Rogen asks: “Is there any difference between the two?
“To us, things are most exciting when it really feels as if we’re doing something that all logic would dictate nobody should be doing,” the Vancouver-born star says, calling the Georgia Straight from L.A. “We always consider the audience—we talk about that a lot—but we also talk about how we want to be doing stuff that just seems totally fucking batshit crazy. It’s the exact right combination to pursue.”
Who would argue the point? In the 10 years since Superbad, and alongside writing-producing partner Evan Goldberg, Rogen has pursued that combination to astronomical Hollywood success. He’s so likable (and bankable) that Rogen’s mojo even survived 2014’s The Interview, easily the most batshit of any of the team’s enterprises. (“There was maybe a moment where I was, like, ‘maybe they won’t let me work anymore,’ ” he allows, speaking of the almighty hell that Sony weathered thanks to that picture.)
But if assassinating Kim Jong-un is one thing, grappling with Tommy Wiseau is another. Based on the 2013 book, The Disaster Artist tells the story of coauthor Greg Sestero’s friendship with the unfathomably strange Mr. Wiseau and the movie that would make upside-down celebrities out of both of them. Rogen recalls getting in on the ground floor of the phenomenon that is The Room, a mind-bending collision of insane dialogue, unhinged melodrama, and performances so inept they achieve a sort of other-dimensional wholeness. All of this was self-financed by the mysteriously affluent, if cinematically maladroit writer-director-star Wiseau to the reported tune of $6 million and initially released for two legendarily sad weeks in Los Angeles in 2003.
“I loved it!” Rogen says. “I mean, I loved it in that I thought it was terrible, but I saw the movie actually pretty soon after it first came out. It was a thing, at the time, if you worked in comedy in any way. I remember when we were making Knocked Up and 40-Year-Old Virgin—we were all obsessed with this movie.”
Cut to 2013: the film has become a bona fide cult phenomenon, and Rogen’s old Freaks and Geeks buddy James Franco finally has his conversion moment during one of the The Room’s frequent and usually sold-out visits to Vancouver’s Rio Theatre. Franco promptly optioned Sestero’s book and took the project to Rogen and Goldberg’s Point Grey Pictures. Despite the fact that everybody involved understood that Wiseau could be a tad controlling—he owns the sole rights to The Room—but also possibly quite unpredictable, and definitely very alien, Point Grey said yes.
“I kinda have a standing thing with Franco where I will just generally do whatever he wants to do,” Rogen offers with a low chuckle. “Yes, Tommy’s very unpredictable, but he ultimately wants fame and recognition, and we were going to be providing him with that—in an ideal world. So he wasn’t the biggest challenge, in my head. What I talked the most about was making a movie that didn’t feel like it was just making fun of something. To me, the much more interesting idea was exploring what was good about the movie, and what was valid about the movie, and why, of all the bad movies out there, this is the one that people gravitate to, and this is the one that I’ve seen 10 times, and this is the one that continues to be endlessly fascinating.”
At the magnetic centre of that fascination, naturally, is Wiseau himself. The Internet has cracked his real age and origin—if not the source of his uniquely lovable derangement—but in the spirit of the book, The Disaster Artist prefers to let its version of Wiseau insist in his impenetrable accent that he’s from New Orleans. Megan Mullaly plays Sestero’s mother in one of the film’s countless cameos, justifiably alarmed when a pasty, middle-aged vampire creature whisks her son from San Francisco to Hollywood, all while claiming that he’s the same age as the then 19-year-old Greg.
Playing against his brother Dave as Sestero, Franco’s transformation is phenomenal. But the film strives for more than just a handful of impressive impersonations, and The Disaster Artist becomes, ultimately, as touching as it is hilarious. There’s a poignancy to this oddball friendship, which ultimately survived Sestero’s tell-all (“Forty percent true”, by Wiseau’s characteristically inscrutable metrics), and there’s sincere respect for the reality-distortion act that Wiseau has somehow mastered. In contrast to, say, an Ed Wood Jr.—who died a homeless alcoholic pornographer long before Tim Burton’s biopic scrubbed him clean—the indefatigable Wiseau has taken to his reputation with amazing gusto, somehow synthesizing the attention, with a charming if bizarre mix of arrogance and vulnerability, into something positive.
“I think that it is a conscious choice that he’s made,” suggests Rogen, who takes on the role of The Room’s beleaguered script supervisor, Sandy Schklair. “And while we were making the movie, I talked a lot about trying to dramatize that moment, the moment where you embrace the result of your work rather than the intention of your work. I actually think it’s very noble in some ways to be able to dissociate your original motivation from your ultimate result and accept that people love the thing you did for all the wrong reasons, basically. Again, what’s so fascinating about this movie is that there’s something that’s incredibly egotistical about it, and there’s also something that’s incredibly selfless about it, in a weird way.”
Wiseau’s “near politician-level savviness”, as Rogen admiringly puts it, would ultimately have real-world impact on Franco’s film. Get past those end credits, and The Disaster Artist has one more Easter egg in store, with the two Wiseaus warily circling each other at a rooftop party. In his inimitable style, the real Tommy holds his own in a scene that Rogen is pleased to report was captured in one take. And then he reveals that they were “contractually obliged” to use it.
“We could not clear the music from the movie The Room without it,” he says, guffawing again. “Originally, we didn’t have to include it in the movie, and then because we wanted to use some footage that we hadn’t cleared, he made us put it in. And then we started to think it was incredibly funny that, somehow, he was infiltrating our work and affecting it, and it just kinda became even more meta.”
Tommy wins again. Actually, we all do.