Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
The thing we had quickly learned was that every time you’d get a question answered, you had seven more questions.
It would seem a daunting task to take a story about one of the biggest, baffling cult classics in modern cinematic history and spin it into a respectful, poignant, universal tale about camaraderie, underdogs and dreamers. Yet somehow screenwriting team Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber have done so with THE DISASTER ARTIST – their adaptation of the behind the scenes madness of director-star Tommy Wiseau’s THE ROOM. In fact, they’ve made it look easy.
At the film’s recent Los Angeles press day, I sat down with the affable duo and we spoke about everything from how they paid homage with sincerity, to integrating Easter Eggs for THE ROOM fans, to if they solved any of their own burning questions about Wiseau.
This is such a loving tribute to so many things – THE ROOM itself, but also it’s this great story on its own about underdogs, the actor’s process and bromance.
Michael H. Weber: And dreamers! That for us was always the core thing. Outsiders wanting to just desperately do this thing which we identified with.
When did that storyline manifest?
Scott Neustadter: Right away that was the thing we were most attracted to. We read the book, having not seen THE ROOM. And we were really not ROOM superfans at the time. I got three or four chapters into the book and I wasn’t going to read any further until I watched this movie. For us, it was really these two guys – the why of their friendship, the how of their friendship. The thread of the storyline isn’t ‘Is this movie going to turn out good or not?’ It’s more, ‘Is this going to survive the strains as a result of this rollercoaster.’
Weber: I waited until after we finished the first draft to watch THE ROOM. Simply because the book is so thorough – there’s so much there. Always from the start to us was that friendship. The goal was a movie the superfans of THE ROOM will enjoy, but works on an emotional level for people who’ve never even heard of THE ROOM.
I thought it was so brilliant. The movie still completely works. For people who are already fans, you work in so much nuance there.
Neustadter: There are some Easter Eggs in there that are really, really tiny. Pure superfan stuff. There’s some obvious things for casual fans of THE ROOM would appreciate. Hopefully it’s enough stuff to care about and isn’t ROOM related at all – that it’s just about these crazy characters.
Weber: Paul Scheer said it best, ‘If you’ve seen THE ROOM, THE DISASTER ARTIST is a sequel. And if you haven’t seen THE ROOM, THE DISASTER ARTIST is a prequel.
The book is so dense with a lot details. Was there was a struggle with what you wanted to include and what you’d have to leave behind?
Weber: The book is almost two books in one, in an interesting way, in that the chapters alternate between every other chapter is about the production and the ordeal this production that dragged on for months. The alternating chapters are the history of the friendship. We loved the production shenanigans, but the heart of the movie was always going to be the bond these two guys had. They shared a dream. The world told them no. But they believed in each other. That bond is tested while they’re making of this movie which was a rather tumultuous production.
Neustadter: We put all the even numbered chapters to the side. And we adapted all the odd number chapters and when we got to production, it was an embarrassment of riches to cherry pick the good stuff. There’s so much good stuff and a lot of it, for me, was the funniest stuff we could not get in because it would require too much explaining. If you have to explain a joke in a movie, it’s worthless. But the book is so awesome. We recommend everybody check it out.
What was your research like for this? I listened to the How Did This Get Made Podcast… I love that podcast…
Weber: Oh, it’s the best. And I think we’re the first movie to have all three of them. They’ve done a couple internet things, but there hasn’t been a film where Jason [Mantzoukas], Paul [Scheer] and June [Diane Raphael] are all in.
Oh! I got such a kick outta that… let me just tell you!
Weber: He [Scheer] loves it. And they love it. I was just saying to Scott, ‘Where does the butt start?’
Yeah! I know on the podcast when they did THE ROOM, Greg [Sestero] had mentioned they had used Greg’s behind-the-scenes videos. Did you guys take a look at that stuff?
Neustadter: We saw some footage. We got some audio tapes. We had a little bit of article around. We met Greg. We did not meet Tommy. They kept a distance for a little while.
Weber: Tom Bissell wrote an essay – he co-wrote the book. But the reason Greg sought him out to collaborate with the book was Tom wrote this brilliant essay for Harpers called Cinema Crudité. It was his own exploration of ‘I can’t stop thinking of this movie. Technically, it’s a mess. The performances are not good. What is going on? Is this art? What is this? And if it’s not art, what is it? Clearly he [Wiseau] was trying to make something. He didn’t make what he intended to make – and yet it’s spellbinding.’ The piece ends with when he met Tommy and had even more questions. We had that as source material. The book was more the central piece to construct the movie.
Neustadter: Everybody at the studio, even at the studio executive level, were such passionate ROOM people. Everyone had their favorite things. For us, it was, ‘What are all the things we can’t not in here?’ Some of it, yeah, had to fall by the wayside just because. But we knew this was an important challenge to get right.
I liked how you have the voice over montage of some of the iconic lines and also you show other beloved scenes being shot. Was there a…
Weber: Calibration? For sure.
Neustadter: It took a little time to figure out what works best in which capacity.
I mean, come on. Jacki Weaver saying the mom’s line…
Neustadter: Just the idea of having Jacki Weaver in this movie is just so cool. James said he called in all his friends he knew and that were just extraordinary. ‘This is gonna sound nuts, but could you just come in and do this one part?’ And everybody dove in head first.
On the podcast, Greg had mentioned that they had shot a different Chris R. segment than what was in THE ROOM.
Neustadter: That’s what you see! You see the one in the alley.
And then they went with it on the roof. I was wondering if you were speaking to that location.
Neustadter: Again, in order for this to work for non-ROOM people, we didn’t want to explain a lot production. That’s one of the things. They didn’t use any of that footage that you see when Zac Efron shows up. They actually do a re-shoot much later. Tommy asked them to break that set and then he came back and said, ‘We have to do it again.’ ‘But we already took it apart.’ ‘Well rebuild it.’
Did you get any of your burning ROOM questions answered from Greg?
Weber: Even from the beginning, before we met those guys, we were kind of like, ‘We don’t want to make THE DISASTER ARTIST the Rosetta Stone of THE ROOM.’ The thing we learned was that wasn’t as interesting as the friendship. It didn’t have emotional stakes the way the friendship did. Also, the thing we had quickly learned was that every time you’d get a question answered, you had seven more questions. It’s a bottomless well of questions. The cool thing about having Greg on set – he was on set a pretty decent amount of time. Liberties have to be taken and you have to craft certain things, but there were times… this was an adaptation of a true story, which we had not done before and we were putting the words in mouths of real people. What was really cool, Greg turned to us one set, more than once and we were like, ‘We kinda had to make this up.’ And he said, ‘No, no! Actually Tommy really said that.’ That happened a few times. It was simultaneously a compliment and then freaked us out. How in Tommy’s head were we that we were making things up that turned out he actually said.
Neustadter: We’re all a little more like Tommy than we care to admit.
James Franco had mentioned the end credits side-by-side was a late addition in the process. Did that impact what you guys were doing?
Neustadter: No. We had tested it and the test screening went very well, but the one thing everybody said at the end was, ‘Why did you choose to do that accent? Why did you shoot that story?’ They had no idea THE ROOM was a movie that existed. We were like, ‘We said, Based on a true story. What else can we do?’ People thought it was James Franco and Seth Rogen doing characters. We had written the celebrities giving the cultural context into the script, but we didn’t film it. They didn’t think we needed it. So we put that back in and, at the end, they did the recreations. I think there’s still some people who don’t think it’s real until the recreations, but when they see it, it’s pretty mind-blowing. It’s a cult thing.
The thing I was worried about initially was if this was going to mock Tommy, or be mean-spirited. But it’s so not. You both are very respectful.
Weber: We were very aware that in Hollywood, punching down is a sport. That’s never how we wanted to approach this. These guys went and made, not only a movie, which is so hard to do in the first place, but they made something lasting that people really care about. We knew the funny would come because we’re working with James Franco and Seth Rogen and all these other brilliant comedic minds. For us, it was focusing on this friendship that it wasn’t too long ago that we were two outsiders, desperate to break in and make movies.
Neustadter: There was a scene we wound up shooting and not using where an agent, in the middle of the premiere, Greg runs to the bathroom, because he can’t stand to watch the sex scene. We wrote this whole thing to make sure no one got the wrong idea. The agent is on the phone all snarky, ‘You’ve got to come see this piece of shit! It’s the worst thing ever made!’ And Greg says all the things we wanted to say, which was, ‘You try to do this. What have you ever made?!’
Weber: There’s going to be a lot of cool stuff on the DVD. We recreated probably 30-40% of THE ROOM. I really liked that scene, but it didn’t make sense in terms of the architecture of the ending. You sometimes don’t know until you’re in it, in post, and you gotta get to that curtain.
My husband always says, ‘If people only knew the amount of blood, sweat and tears that go into making a terrible film, they wouldn’t be so snarky.’
Weber: Yeah. I remember being in college and making fun of bad movies in a fun way. Now, I think it’s so hard to get anything made. It takes so many people saying yes. There are so many gatekeepers that now, yeah, there’s movies that don’t turn out the way people intended that aren’t that great, but at least they got something made.
Neustadter: There’s also plenty of bad movies out there that we don’t even lift a finger to make fun of because we don’t think about them. THE ROOM is a thing you watch a lot. You wanna show it to other people. And we keep talking about it 15 years later. That’s an interesting thing.
Do you think somebody, years later, will make a tribute movie to THE DISASTER ARTIST, and will it be Tommy, because he’s so young?
Weber: Our production was fun because Franco set a great tone on set, but we didn’t have the same level of tension and hijinks. Maybe a short film, but not a full 90 minutes.
THE DISASTER ARTIST is now playing in select cities. Opens everywhere on December 8.
Header Photo: James Franco as Tommy Wiseau in THE ROOM. Courtesy of A24.