A movie about the worst movie ever made received an extended standing ovation at the South by Southwest Film Festival on Sunday night.
James Franco’s The Disaster Artist, which focuses on the making of 2003’s infamous misfire The Room (once called the “Citizen Kane of bad movies”), drew loud applause and big laughs throughout its screening and won praise for Franco’s turn as The Room writer, director, and star, Tommy Wiseau. (The mysterious Wiseau, whose age and nationality remain unclear, was in attendance in Austin, Texas for the screening; according to Franco, Wiseau had hoped his part in The Disaster Artist would have gone to Johnny Depp.)
Based on The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside The Room, the Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made by The Room star Greg Sestero (played by Franco’s younger brother Dave in the film) and Tom Bissell, The Disaster Artist combines elements of Ed Wood, American Movie, and The Producers to tell the story of how Wiseau and Sestero became friends in San Francisco during the late ’90s, moved to Los Angeles, and eventually teamed up to make The Room (which had a possible, unverified production budget of $6 million). In addition to the Franco brothers, The Disaster Artist features an all-star cast of supporting players, including Seth Rogen, Josh Hutcherson, Ari Graynor, Alison Brie, Sharon Stone, Melanie Griffith, Paul Sheer, Jason Mantzoukas, Hannibal Burress, Jacki Weaver, and Zac Efron. Franco directed the movie from a script by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (The Spectacular Now), recreating scenes from The Room to the letter for his project. (A side-by-side comparison between The Room and The Disaster Artist is shown during the credits.)
“I love Hollywood stories, and here was a Hollywood story about outsiders trying to make it in which is something that’s really interesting to me. But then also incredibly insane in a lot of ways,” Franco said after the screening. As Franco explained, The Room had not been on his cultural radar until he read Sestero’s book. He brought the idea for The Disaster Artist to Rogen during filming on the pair’s own notorious feature, The Interview. (Joked Rogen, who was also in attendance on Sunday: “Yeah, this was the good thing to come out of The Interview.”)
After its brief release in June 2003, The Room slowly became a cult favorite, first for residents in Los Angeles and then around the world. Wiseau’s film has many famous fans too, including Kristen Bell, Adam Scott, Danny McBride, Lizzy Caplan, and director J.J. Abrams, all of whom appear as themselves at the beginning of The Disaster Artist to speak about why they love The Room. After the screening, Rogen — who produced The Disaster Artist and plays a script supervisor in the movie — expressed his admiration for Wiseau’s film.
“It would have been easy to make a movie that was just making fun of The Room or clowning it or just objectifying it in some way. But we love it,” he said. “And we watch it. I’ve seen it more than I’ve seen Network.”
Rogen added, “There are lot of movies you can say are easy to make fun of, but they’re not movies you watch for a decade, and that’s what we talked the most about when we were putting the movie together: ‘why we love this movie.’ Not, ‘why we make fun of this movie’ or ‘why we laugh at this movie.’ But what’s great about this movie, at the end of the day, [is] this earnestness of the guy who put himself out there and who made the thing. … That’s what we wanted to be very conscious of. To make it seem — both for what it is and also what we view it as — which is a great thing and we love it.”
As for Franco, his performance was hailed as a highlight — during the post-screening Q&A, one audience member suggested a Golden Globes best actor campaign should materialize for the star — and the actor said playing Wiseau was not as difficult as it might appear, despite the hours of vocal preparation he did to nail Wiseau’s inscrutable accent.
“When I read the book, I always said I identified with Tommy in a certain way,” Franco said. “Where I really respected that he came out to Hollywood like so many thousands or millions of people have done and got this movie made. I always said I had so much respect for him but maybe I thought, ‘Well, some of the behavior sounded a little insane on the set.’ But the more I sat with this movie and in post[-production] and going through my own stuff, like, I am Tommy Wiseau. I relate to him so much, in ways I don’t even want to admit.”
The version of The Disaster Artist shown at SXSW was called a “work-in-progress” (though after the standing ovation, Rogen joked, “Then I guess we’re done”); Warner Bros. and New Line Cinema have not set a release date for the film.
Read on for more reactions from the film’s first public showing.