James and Dave Franco sit across from me, shoved into the back corner of an echo-y Four Seasons meeting room. It's 5 p.m., and before we begin talking about their new film, The Disaster Artist — co-starring the two brothers and directed by the elder — James orders a decaf coffee from a publicist. Dave, the publicist and I all audibly gasp. Decaf? James shrugs, slightly annoyed but still charming, and repeats the decaf order. “Yes, decaf.” After reading so many James Franco interviews that I started thinking my own thoughts in his voice — you have no idea how many James Franco articles exist — I knew he was a coffee vampire who needs not your earthly food but only the sweet nectar of caffeine to thrive.
But there was also a glimmer of something strange in the interviews that took place after January 2017, and the sudden switch to decaf seemed to confirm it: James was mellowing out.
James settles into his chair and tells me he hadn't even seen cult film The Room, directed by Tommy Wiseau, when he decided he needed to adapt its behind-the-scenes story, captured beautifully by one of the film's stars, Greg Sestero, in his 2013 biographical book, also titled The Disaster Artist (co-written by Tom Bissell). James also knew he needed his brother Dave to co-star (playing Sestero), marking their first collaboration together on a feature film. Not that James hadn't asked Dave to work with him previously. (“Let's just say I needed to wait for the right project,” Dave says, possibly referencing the miles-long list of credits on his brother's IMDb page.)
I want to tell you how perfectly the brothers' loving-but-antagonistic relationship fits the real-life characters they portray, to the point where you must wonder about fate and mirroring lives and alternate dimensions, but it's about this time where I have to ask you readers: How much do you know about Tommy Wiseau and his accidental masterpiece The Room, because … hell, where do we even start? And why exactly is one of Hollywood's biggest stars making a movie about one of the worst movies of all time?
For the uninitiated who haven't been dragged to a midnight screening of the film by friends who insist, “It's so bad it's good,” The Room is about a banker played by Wiseau, who is experiencing marital difficulties, when his wife begins an affair with … actually, it doesn't really matter what the plot is. The film is terrible. But it's also incredible. It's a hot mess of melodrama born from a love of classic cinema and a horrendous miscalculation of talent that reached cult status through a relentless, years-long marketing campaign and the blood, sweat and tears of its makers. However misguided during its production, the movie became an underground cult classic, which has now been screened in living rooms and art-house theaters all over the world. While the film has reached movie-geek audiences, perhaps far more people are familiar with the film's infamous billboard just a few blocks from Hollywood and Vine, which featured Wiseau's face and phone number. “I thought it was some kind of like vampire Angelyne thing,” James tells me later.
While other cities have monuments to grand battles or important historical figures, in L.A. our landmarks are kitschy roadside signs like Silver Lake's perpetually manic Happy Foot / Sad Foot sign, the towering Randy's doughnut or Chicken Boy of Highland Park. For car-bound Angelenos, Wiseau's ever-present face was a kind of gatekeeper for entering the city of Hollywood. But ironically, like the thousands of aspiring actors and filmmakers populating L.A., Wiseau was never able to break through into Hollywood's film industry. For all those years, the billboard was a monument to flawed ambition, a calling card waiting for the right person to pick up the phone. And it actually fucking worked; it's the reason I'm sitting here today across from James and Dave Franco, who will finally bring Wiseau's story to theaters everywhere.
As both director and star of The Disaster Artist, James dissolves himself into Wiseau, an intractable man of unknown origins (New Orleans? Belgium? Transylvania?), whose emotions are pinned firmly to the sleeve of his wrinkled button-up, as he attempts to conquer Hollywood by blazing his own path in by way of a self-financed movie. (“Don't wait for agent to make it happen,” Wiseau had told me 15 minutes earlier in curiously broken English, as he sat exactly where James is now.)
I have to admit, I was skeptical when I'd heard the boyishly handsome trickster James would be playing Wiseau. After all, he's not the type the conventionally attractive role James often plays. And Wiseau possesses an earnestness not quite befitting of the public perception of James. But it's also about this time where I have to ask you readers: How much do you know about James Franco? Hell, where do we even start with that?
In the mid-1990s, a teenage James moved down to Los Angeles from his family's suburban Palo Alto home. He'd already proven himself to be a math whiz and enrolled in UCLA, but realized quite quickly that he was more interested in acting. “I dropped out to go to acting school, because UCLA wouldn't let me audition for the acting program for two years,” he tells me. “My parents said, 'We're not going to support you financially if you don't go to a university.'?” His most formative job up to that point was an internship at Lockheed Martin that he'd earned with his math skills, which wasn't too attractive to any of the local Los Angeles restaurants he'd applied to, so he went to work for McDonald's.
“My parents were like, 'OK, you're making this big choice, this is you, you better show that you want this,' so I worked really hard — all my free time was put toward acting, and it paid off. I got a job, got out of McDonald's, and two years later was on Freaks and Geeks. So part of me learned … you want to do something, then you better throw yourself into it.”
He shifts uncomfortably in his chair, while Dave listens intently, nodding with encouragement as though he's here as his brother's sponsor at Workaholics Anonymous. Everything James is expressing right now is a winding and seemingly unrelated response to my bringing up his April 2016 interview with art critic Jerry Saltz, wherein James pours his heart out to explain how unfair and demoralizing it is to be judged for his huge output of artwork as “Franco the agitator actor,” not “Franco the legitimate artist.” That interview is painfully sincere. You get the sense that as James hashes out his grievances with the art world, he is coming to some hard realizations, that focusing on one thing intensely may be better than following every passing fancy. And that it's easier when you've got a partner. “You're out there on your own,” Saltz says, and James replies, “Exactly. Exactly.”
Dave's influence as the shrewd, cautious brother has helped transform James' life over the past year. “I'm prone to say no to everything, and he used to be prone to say yes to everything,” Dave says. But in working on the postproduction of The Disaster Artist and joining forces to create a new production company, the two brothers have rubbed off on one another. “It's my instinct to always tell him, 'Let's only work on projects that we absolutely love and feel the need to do and feel we can do the best job on, as opposed to taking on projects we feel could be pretty good.' It's about being patient,” Dave says.
That patience (and Dave's self-admitted obsession with the details) has paid off, because The Disaster Artist is at once hilarious and full of pathos, a complete and wildly successful meld of both James' dramatic and comedic ambitions that walks a tightrope of exacting tone. And as I sit facing the Francos in this barren meeting room, I can't help but see the parallels between them and Wiseau and Sestero. All four of them came to Hollywood from the Bay Area with big ambitions. Dave and Sestero are the calm, guiding forces, who lived with their respective counterparts when they came to L.A. and who had to go off on their own paths for a bit. But Franco and Wiseau are erratic men of spectacle, seemingly living inside their own elaborate art projects of identity. Franco and Wiseau both idolized the stars of old, especially method actors like James Dean and Marlon Brando, so much so that Franco would play Dean in a Golden Globe–winning performance, and Wiseau would ultimately agree to let Franco play him in The Disaster Artist because Franco aced that role.
And both Franco and Wiseau were better with a team — James with Dave, and Wiseau with Sestero — than they were alone.
But perhaps the most salient similarity between James and Wiseau is that both have thrown themselves into worlds they knew little about in a trial-by-fire gauntlet. Their shared desire? Validation.
Wiseau is wearing dark sunglasses in this poorly lit room at the Four Seasons. His shades cover that now-iconic face of his that graced that billboard on Highland Avenue for five years, promoting his film — and listing his personal phone number.
While the wonky production design and inept green-screen of The Room drew curious audiences in, the enigma of Tommy Wiseau was the film's siren song. Who was this guy who speaks so strangely, who poured his Tennessee Williams–tortured soul into this lovingly made monstrosity?
“Ending of The Room is supposed to be different. Johnny survives but he became vampire,” Wiseau tells me, explaining that (spoiler alert) the character he played was supposed to drive off his roof in a flying car, instead of dying by self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.
The director had changed the ending of The Room to reflect the tone of realism he was trying to create with the film, but his fascination with vampires hasn't let up. “I'm still talking about vampires,” he says. “I have three vampire scripts.” In Sestero and Bissell's book, Sestero explores Wiseau's psyche, remarking multiple times on the director's obsession with youth, of a kind of eternal life. (Few people know how old he is.) And as Wiseau talks with me about vampires, Sestero looks down at his hands and smiles, as if he's heard this story from his friend a million times before, because he probably has.
It's rare for a filmmaker to spend as much time and energy promoting a single film as has Wiseau promoting The Room — 14 years and counting, to be exact. “I watched him going to screenings trying to keep it alive,” Sestero says. “A lot of decisions that would have been ridiculous, like leaving the billboard up for five years, it worked. It was the power of committing.”
Filmmaker Michael Rousselet remembers driving around with friends Scott Gairdner and David Nelson in 2003 and seeing the marquee for The Room. “We go up to the ticket booth, and they say, 'You know that's the worst movie ever made. Everybody walks out of it.' And she points to a sign on the wall that says, 'No tickets for The Room will be refunded after 15 minutes.' She pointed to another sign that was a printed-out IMDb review: 'This film is like getting stabbed in the forehead.' It was daring you.”
Rousselet and his friends got more and more of their buddies to see The Room, creating games — like throwing plastic spoons at the screen whenever they saw a framed photo of a spoon — and essentially making The Room into the phenomenon it is. Now Rousselet even teaches a workshop on the film at SoCal universities.
But Wiseau remains a mystery.
“My favorite line from Tommy that we put in [the book of The Disaster Artist] is, 'You have to go to the edge of your moment,'?” Bissell tells me. “It trembles on the edge of profundity and nonsense. That's Tommy.”
No one knows where Wiseau came from or how he made his money, but to many — including the Francos — it would seem a letdown to actually find out so many years into his elaborate masquerade. “We could have asked,” Dave says. “We could have dug in, but it would have killed the mystique.”
Even Sestero doesn't know anything about Wiseau's background, after decades of friendship, and doesn't seem to care. What the two bond over is loving movies and chatting with rabid The Room fans, who will ask them the same questions over and over for as long as the film screens, which is starting to look like … eternity.
Wiseau's IMDb page is somewhat short for a man of his unknown age, with just four other feature-film roles under his belt, one a co-starring role in Sestero's Best F(r)iends, and another his wonderfully bizarre cameo after the end credits of The Disaster Artist. But what Wiseau has proven is that it's not how much you do but where you choose to put your energy. As Sestero says, it's about “committing” to one thing.
You can't help but compare Wiseau's output to Franco's and side-eye the numerous projects the latter has done that are either stuck in postproduction or that disappeared as quickly as they premiered.
But that's the old Franco.
In 2012, controversial art figure Jeffrey Deitch was the head of L.A.'s Museum of Contemporary Art and had approached Bianca Chen and her father, JF, a well-regarded furniture collector, with a novel idea. They could clear out their entire antiques showroom for a monthlong art show from the one and only James Franco. Neither of the Chens knew much about James' art; this was to be his first significant show, which was called “Rebel.” But the Chens trusted Deitch, and overnight, James had transformed their showroom — which is also a few blocks from where Wiseau's billboard for The Room once stood — into a radical shrine to Old Hollywood, including a scale replica of the Chateau Marmont and a wrecked car standing up on its grill meant to evoke both the crash in Rebel Without a Cause and the accident that actually took its star James Dean's life. There were hordes of blow-up dolls and dildos, as well as a looping video by performance artist Paul McCarthy, featuring raw sex noises. How James had constructed this entire world overnight, Bianca says she didn't know, but she was both shocked and excited. “I walked into our showroom after James had spent the night setting up his exhibition, and I literally bumped into a dangling dildo,” Bianca says. “But we did feel bad for the volunteers who had to listen to Paul McCarthy's movie over and over,” she laughs.
This foray into the art world for James would find mixed reviews. Is it homage? Tribute? A flaming hot mess? Later in 2014, James would re-create Cindy Sherman's “Untitled Film Stills” at the Pace Gallery, replacing Sherman's face with his own. Again, controversy. A spokesperson for Pace declined to comment on the show. Earlier, in 2010, James had swerved into literature, publishing his short-story collection, Palo Alto, which received a few kind, considered reviews but mostly scathing remarks from writers who couldn't help but gripe that James' short stories would automatically find an audience no matter their assessment. And by the time James got to open all these wounds in that Saltz interview, he had also directed and produced numerous art and performance art films that had been largely dismissed. He says he thought going to prestigious MFAs and reading all the things he was supposed to read would convince people he was serious, but instead classmates posted snapshots of an exhausted James passed out in class.
Validation was elusive. “That's certainly part of my story and not even being aware of needing validation, but then looking back in hindsight and thinking, 'Oh my God, I subconsciously thought if I achieve x, y and z, or people say this or that, that I'll be happy,'” James says. “Even when I did have successes, those didn't fill a hole. It was like, 'Oh wait. Movies aren't necessarily going to save my life.'?”
There was never any doubt that James had the talent. His performances in 127 Hours and Milk both racked up award nominations. Even his greatest detractors concede they've enjoyed some of his acting or artworks. But the general consensus, even for James himself, was that he lacked focus. And he needed to sleep. In 2011, Esquire had sent Dave to interview James for a cute video that turned quite revealing. Dave says that James would never go to bed, because it was “admitting defeat.” Then he asks, “When is the last time you weren't working on something … just relaxing?” James furrows his brows and with genuine confusion says, “What does that even mean?”
In addition to his brother, James also credits David Simon for convincing him to settle and put all of his energy into one project, when the two embarked on their HBO series The Deuce, where James stars as twin characters and also directs multiple episodes. “At a certain point I woke up, beginning this year, end of last year, and I just plain stopped doing so many things.” He says this almost sheepishly, like an apology. He tells me with a note of pride in his voice that he's only acted for two weeks for all of 2017, on a new Coen brothers project, a six-part miniseries called The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.
But of all the projects James has slaved over in the past decade, The Disaster Artist is the most accomplished and certainly the most “finished.”
James says the look and style of Disaster came from studying Darren Aronofsky's The Wrestler, which also meant studying the work of Belgian filmmakers the Dardenne brothers. James painstakingly re-created multiple set pieces from The Room to the point where they seem identical. Jesse Feldman, who was second assistant camera on The Room when he was 19 and 2nd AC on The Disaster Artist today, describes how cinematographer Brandon Trost examined scenes from The Room, frame by frame, to match even the shadows on the wall. (“It was very bizarre to re-create the shots and mimic the exact same terrible lighting from the DP who just wanted a paycheck,” Trost says.) But that's how much care went into The Disaster Artist, including the pile of prosthetics and makeup James donned. To get into character, James drove around Los Angeles for days, listening to a kind of audio diary Wiseau had recorded during the making of The Room, also driving around Los Angeles, perhaps on the same streets that James did.
Is it possible that by becoming Wiseau, James has learned something from him?
“I do empathize with Tommy,” James says. “You couldn't say Spielberg had more passion than Tommy, but they applied it in different ways — and maybe there's talent levels, obviously — but Tommy wanted everything as badly as anybody else — he put The Room out in theaters for two weeks to qualify for the Academy Awards.” It's fitting that there's now awards talk for The Disaster Artist. If James is nominated, Wiseau will be his date. (Yes, he will have a good use for that tuxedo.) “The fact that we're even talking about this, that we were at the Chinese Theatre for the premiere — with Tommy — to me is, like, 'Yes.' This is a Hollywood story.”
For years, James has lived hard to die young, like his idol James Dean, but what happens when you wake up, nearing 40, and you're still alive? Meanwhile, Wiseau has dreamed of eternally buzzing around this Earth in his flying car, like a James Dean who swerved out of the crash and continued on unscathed. Both of them seem haunted by Dean, James staving off life and Wiseau staving off death. But with the awards-bound The Disaster Artist, the two have become an oddly perfect pair, a confluence of obsessions. Yes, the billboard for The Room has disappeared, but new billboards for The Disaster Artist will appear around Los Angeles. Neither James or Wiseau will live forever but their respective films will exist together, side by side, for eternity. And on-screen, they will outlive us all.