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The Making of the Movie Based on the Book About the Making of the Best Bad Movie Ever Made

Ahead of James Franco’s ‘The Disaster Artist,’ a re-creation of the production of Tommy Wiseau’s ‘The Room,’ we talked to the creators, authors, and fans to explore how the movie became literary fodder and Hollywood gold

A24/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

This is where his dream died. “A bunch of times,” he said. On a clear early-October morning, Greg Sestero drove me around West Hollywood in a rented Hyundai after happily agreeing to my request for a meta-celebrity tour. The 39-year-old actor, who appeared alongside the inexplicable auteur Tommy Wiseau in the breathtakingly incoherent cult favorite The Room, had plenty to show me.

The first stop was a luxe residential complex on Crescent Heights Boulevard. For a stretch in the late 1990s and early 2000s, he subleased from, then shared an apartment there with Wiseau. “It’s obviously nicer now,” Sestero, a tall and lean ex-model with a whoosh of brown hair, said as he leaned back in his seat. Next we passed the former Laemmle Sunset 5, the theater that hosted dozens of midnight Room screenings, and headed down Fairfax to Canter’s Deli. It was at the matzo-ball-slinging Los Angeles institution that Wiseau told his friend that he’d finished the script of his bizarro opus.

Soon we made our way east on Melrose to Highland, where Sestero pulled up to the onetime site of renowned camera supplier Birns & Sawyer. The company permitted Wiseau to film The Room in its lot after selling him hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of equipment. (Most productions — big or small — typically rent.) Spotting a few people milling around, Sestero laughed. “They’re probably like, ‘Don’t ever come back here for what you did!’”

AUSTIN, TX - MARCH 12:  Author Greg Sestero attends the "The Disaster Artist" premiere 2017 SXSW Conference and Festivals on March 12, 2017 in Austin, Texas.  (Photo by Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images for SXSW)
Greg Sestero
Getty Images North America

Moments later, as we went north on Highland, Sestero pointed at the billboard that for five years served as a towering advertisement for The Room. Now it touted the television series Mr. Robot.

As we rode west on Sunset, it became clear that Sestero was comfortable narrating this story, even if it belonged to someone else. “The Room wasn’t mine,” he said. But without Sestero, Wiseau might not have finished his surrealist antimasterpiece, a melodramatic attempt to depict the descent of a character (Johnny) who learns that his fiancée (Lisa) is cheating on him with his best friend (Mark). The movie is stuffed with abandoned subplots, continuity errors, abrupt tonal shifts, profoundly unsexy sex scenes, stilted performances by unknown actors, and dozens of ironically quotable lines. During filming, Sestero was at once costar, fixer, and Wiseau whisperer.

“Anybody working that close to Tommy who has their sanity is pretty OK,” said Ron Bernstein, an agent at ICM Partners, which specializes in getting high-profile authors’ books adapted for the screen.

Sestero didn’t realize it while making the movie, but surviving the maddening experience with his easygoing nature intact meant that he was the perfect person to tell the surreal tale. “Tommy paved the way by making The Room,” he said. “It was up to me to say, ‘What do I do with this opportunity?’”

In 2013 he published a memoir, The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside ‘The Room,’ the Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made. On December 1, a film version of the book hits theaters. James Franco directs and stars as Wiseau. These days, Sestero’s dream is alive. This is how it came back from the dead.

Tommy Wiseau in a scene from The Room
Chloe Productions/TPW Films

To understand why a motion picture based on a book about the origins of what a film professor once dubbed “the Citizen Kane of bad movies” was made, you must acquaint yourself with the obscure source material. “I spent a year explaining to people that it’s not the Brie Larson Room,” said Scott Neustadter, who cowrote the Disaster Artist screenplay with Michael H. Weber. “Most people have never seen The Room.”

The film is Wiseau’s brainchild. In addition to playing the lead, he wrote, directed, produced, and financed the $6 million movie. The true source of his wealth is still a mystery, but he reportedly made his fortune in fashion and real estate.

With long, messy, jet-black hair, a protruding jaw, and a face seemingly shaped from industrial-strength putty, Wiseau resembles an amusement park caricature. And then there’s his unique method of speaking, which likely wasn’t fully formed until after he arrived in the United States by way of his native Poland and France. (In Sestero’s memoir, it’s described as “an Eastern European accent that had been hit by a Parisian bus.”)

“The whole appeal of The Room is, Who is this man?” said Room obsessive Michael Rousselet, a cofounder of the viral video factory 5-Second Films. “Because he’s fascinating.” To Sestero, who reluctantly plays Mark, watching the absurd film is like peering into its creator’s mind.

But after it premiered on June 27, 2003, the passion project appeared destined to remain undiscovered. Wiseau paid L.A. chain Laemmle Theatres to show the film at two locations during the original two-week run, which reportedly grossed only $1,900.

That summer, Rousselet found the movie by accident. He’d remembered seeing a trailer for it before Gigantic (A Tale of Two Johns), a documentary about They Might Be Giants. “It was so dramatic and it bombarded you with all this information that didn’t make any sense,” he said. So when the USC film student noticed The Room on the Laemmle Fallbrook marquee in early July, he had to drag his friends to see it. The movie made less sense than the trailer. Wiseau’s vision felt almost extraterrestrial. “I’ve heard people say it’s as if an alien watched a bunch of soap operas and tried to figure out what the human race was about,” said Rousselet, who was smitten. Before the end credits rolled, he was on the phone letting his buddies in on the secret of The Room.

WEST HOLLYWOOD, CA - FEBRUARY 29: (US TABS AND HOLLYWOOD REPORTER OUT) Director Tommy Wiseau, Kat Kramer and actor Greg Sestero (l-r) attend the Oscar Night Benefit Party for Amnesty International and the ACLU Foundation on February 29, 2004 at Ago in West Hollywood, California. (Photo by Amanda Edwards/Getty Images)
Wiseau, Kat Kramer, and Sestero at an Oscars party in 2004
Getty Images North America

“We saw it four times in three nights and on the last night we had 100 people,” said Rousselet, whose pals turned each viewing into an interactive party. They dressed in costume, brought spoons as a tribute to the framed pictures of the utensil that pops up in The Room, and loudly riffed on the film’s dialogue. It was The Rocky Horror Picture Show for the 21st century.

Gradually, Wiseau added more screenings. The Laemmle Sunset 5 started showing it at midnight on the last Saturday of every month. “It was kind of a stoners’ thing,” said then-theater-manager Isaac Wade. But through word of mouth, the movie gained famous fans. Wade said that celebrities used to call and ask if they could reserve tickets to avoid waiting in line. After a group that included Judd Apatow and Jonah Hill came to see The Room, the crowds grew. Soon, the Sunset 5 went from showing the film on one screen to showing it on all five.

Wiseau attended these raucous gatherings, and before the lights went down, he’d answer questions from the audience. To ensure that each Q&A session was relatively brief, Wade would tell Wiseau that he had four minutes when he really had seven. At the five-minute mark, Wade would instruct Wiseau to wrap things up. Eventually, for some unknown reason, Wiseau began introducing Wade as his personal manager.

Occasionally, Wade would see Sestero with Wiseau at Room screenings. But by the end of the last decade, Sestero was ready to move on. With his movie career stagnating, he booked overseas modeling gigs and commercial work. “The acting dream was still there, but it wasn’t a reality,” Sestero said. Then, in 2008, he got an email that shocked him. It was an interview request from Clark Collis, a senior writer at Entertainment Weekly. He was reporting an article about the budding Room phenomenon.

Sestero remembered sitting on the floor of the Dallas/Fort Worth Airport while speaking to Collis on the phone. When the reporter informed him that The Room was being studied at universities, Sestero couldn’t believe it. In the moment, he had a single thought: “Wait, is this a joke?”

That December, EW published “The Crazy Cult of The Room.” Sestero expected Collis’s piece to be short. What he found when he opened the magazine was a sprawling feature. Until then, Sestero had assumed that he’d been part of something inconsequential. The story helped change his mind.

In 2009, as The Room was slowly beginning to infect theaters across the country, author and journalist Tom Bissell fell down a YouTube rabbit hole. He’d just moved to Portland and his furniture hadn’t yet arrived. Bored and without anything in his new apartment other than a laptop and the air mattress he was sitting on, Bissell discovered clips of Wiseau’s film. “What the fuck is this?” he remembered saying to himself. Perplexed, he looked up the movie on Wikipedia. Then he Googled the title. By chance, The Room was premiering in Portland that night.

Bissell attended the screening. The very next morning he called Roger D. Hodge, then his editor at Harper’s Magazine. “I’m writing about this movie,” Bissell recalled saying. When Hodge replied, “That’s not the kind of piece we usually do,” Bissell refused to let the subject go. Hodge finally relented. “He was so persistent,” Hodge said. “He was so sure that he needed to write about this movie.” Bissell spent two and a half hours interviewing Wiseau for an article headlined “Cinema crudité,” which ran in the August 2010 issue of Harper’s.

When Sestero read the essay, he was impressed. “This guy took The Room and intellectualized it in a way that was really, really funny,” he said. “By treating Tommy as a real person, the humor just spilled out.” By that point, Sestero was toying with the idea of asking a writer to collaborate on a book. Bissell was his dream partner.

That September, Sestero nervously sent Bissell an email asking to meet. Over lunch at Urth Caffé on Melrose in West Hollywood, Bissell listened in a state of astonishment as Sestero told his story. He and Wiseau’s friendship had been forged long before The Room. They met in 1998 at an acting class in San Francisco, across the Bay from Sestero’s hometown of Walnut Creek. The teenaged Sestero found Wiseau’s over-the-top commitment to his scenes, despite his obvious lack of natural talent, endearing. The two Hollywood wannabes hit it off. One after another Sestero and Wiseau moved to L.A., where the latter owned an apartment. In 2002, after their relationship had deteriorated due to Wiseau’s difficultness, the eccentric offered Sestero a part in The Room.

Simon & Schuster

“I had no idea,” Bissell said. “I just thought he was a dude that answered a casting call and ended up in a disaster.” Bissell’s interest grew after every new detail Sestero revealed. “You have to write a book about this,” said Bissell, who initially didn’t think he’d have time to work on the project. But after the writers he recommended to Sestero proved to be the wrong fit, Bissell agreed to be the coauthor. There was, however, a problem.

“We almost couldn’t sell the book,” Bissell said. What he didn’t know was that Simon & Schuster vice president and executive editor Trish Todd was a Room fan. She’d heard about the movie from her nephew. After seeing a few clips of the film, she was hooked. Todd then assigned an editor to contact Wiseau to gauge his interest in writing a making-of book. Someone claiming to be his assistant emailed back, Todd said, “in the same broken English Tommy wrote in.” Whoever responded offered to give Simon & Schuster a look at a proposal for $1 million.

“We abandoned that idea and moved on,” Todd said. And then one day her assistant ran down the hall toward her office and said, “You got a proposal about The Room!” It was Sestero and Bissell’s. To acquire the book at auction, Todd said, Simon & Schuster outbid Amazon.

Sestero and Bissell worked fast, occasionally holing up for days at a time. (Sestero recalled one fruitful period spent at a hotel in Bissell’s hometown of Escanaba, Michigan, when it was minus-14 degrees outside.) Their process was simple: They watched behind-the-scenes footage from The Room. Sestero interviewed members of the cast. Bissell interviewed Sestero. Bissell used their notes and transcripts to draft pre-planned chapters, which they took turns rewriting. “Greg was a cowriter,” Bissell said, “in every sense of the word.”

Although there’s plenty of on-set turmoil caused by the inexperienced, often frenzied Wiseau in The Disaster Artist, it isn’t merely a backstage account. It’s a buddy dramedy. “Originally people only wanted the story of the making of The Room,” Sestero said. “And Tom thought, ‘No, no, no, your story with Tommy is more interesting.’” Without the events leading up to Wiseau conceiving The Room, the story would feel incomplete.

The memoir’s alternating timeline smoothly toggles between Wiseau and Sestero’s relationship and the production of the movie. The former half of the narrative contains one of Bissell’s favorite scenes: When Sestero’s worried mother warns the unearthly Wiseau, who’s about to drive Greg from San Francisco to L.A., not to hurt or have sex with her son. “If my son had gotten in the car with Tommy Wiseau and driven off I don’t know what I would’ve done,” Todd said. “Only young people can do crazy shit like that.”

The Disaster Artist was published in 2013 to mostly positive reviews. In an essay for Vice, James Franco wrote that “the book turns Tommy’s sometimes ridiculous struggle into a paradigm for those wishing to be creative in a world where it is usually too hard to be. In so many ways, Tommy c’est moi.” That last part turned out to be aspirational.

Ron Bernstein had never heard of The Room until he read The Disaster Artist. After finishing it, he attended a midnight screening at a theater near UCLA. “I was the oldest person there,” he said. “The audience was rabid. They knew every line.” The book-to-film agent, whose extensive client list includes Cormac McCarthy and Margaret Atwood, was enthralled. “I’m always fascinated by unusual things and unusual stories,” he said.

Yet Bernstein, who has shepherded the film adaptations of nonfiction books including Jarhead and Black Hawk Down, kept hearing the same refrain. “Everybody said to me, ‘You’ll never be able to sell it.’” They claimed the mercurial Wiseau would never approve. Bernstein’s response? “Try me.” Getting Wiseau to bless the project, Bernstein said, “was not a difficult arm twist.”

Several filmmakers expressed interest in The Disaster Artist. “There were a lot of people that chased it,” Bernstein said. The most passionate of those, the agent added, was James Franco.

James Franco as Tommy Wiseau in The Disaster Artist

Three weeks after his book came out, Sestero remembered, Bernstein called to tell him that Franco and Seth Rogen were interested in turning The Disaster Artist into a movie. “My mind was blown,” Sestero said. After all, even before the memoir was written, he’d told Bissell that he wanted it to become a film in the vein of Ed Wood.

Sestero and Wiseau soon joined Franco on a conference call. Sestero recalled Wiseau asking Franco, “What is your vision?” Wiseau also emphatically suggested that he should be played by Johnny Depp. When an amused Franco softly shot him down by explaining that Depp was one of the biggest actors in the world, Wiseau responded with this: “So what? You will try even harder.”

In February 2014, Franco’s Rabbit Bandini Productions announced that it had optioned the rights to The Disaster Artist and was partnering with Rogen’s Point Grey Pictures on the movie. Franco would coproduce, direct, and star. His brother Dave would play Greg.

Later that year, Franco and Rogen — who has the supporting role of script supervisor Sandy Schklair, the author of a forthcoming book claiming that he actually directed The Room — sent Michael H. Weber and Scott Neustadter the book. By the end of October, the duo had officially joined the project. The writing partners, whose credits include (500) Days of Summer and adaptations of the John Green novels The Fault in Our Stars and Paper Towns, were familiar with The Room. On their first trip to L.A., they’d noticed the billboard on Highland. Weber thought it was an ad for a costume store.

Neustadter had never actually seen the cult classic. But after reading a few chapters of The Disaster Artist, he put the memoir down and cued up a DVD of The Room. “I watched it in the most inappropriate way, which is at home by myself,” he said. “And I was pretty darned fascinated.”

TORONTO, ON - SEPTEMBER 11:  Tommy Wiseau (L) and James Franco attend "The Disaster Artist" premiere during the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival at Ryerson Theatre on September 11, 2017 in Toronto, Canada.  (Photo by Rich Fury/Getty Images)
Wiseau and Franco at The Disaster Artist’s premiere at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival
Photo by Rich Fury/Getty Images

Still, Neustadter and Weber knew that for it to be enjoyable, their script needed to transcend The Room. “We need to approach this movie as not just fan service,” Weber recalled vowing at the time. “It has to work for the people who haven’t seen The Room or even heard of it.” To keep that promise, the writers invested in the relationship between Sestero and Wiseau. Neustadter and Weber tweaked the structure of the book to fit the film, frontloading material from the even-numbered chapters (the main characters’ friendship) before transitioning to the events of the odd-numbered chapters (the production of The Room).

As the narrative progresses, Wiseau becomes more and more exasperating. Yet Sestero never gives up on his friend. “If it weren’t for Greg, there would be no Room,” said Rousselet, who cast Sestero as an affable frat boy in 5-Second Films’ crowdfunded comedic slasher flick Dude Bro Party Massacre III. “That friendship is real. It’s the perfect yin and yang of filmmaking.” To Weber, the willingness to stick with his tormentor makes Sestero even more mysterious than Wiseau. “We understand Tommy’s motivations during a lot of moments in this journey more than we understand Greg’s,” Weber said. “He takes a lot of abuse and hangs in there.” There are times in The Disaster Artist, Neustadter said, when he wanted to grab Sestero and yell, “Dude, stop it!”

Sestero may have had cynical reasons — to name two: cheap rent and a movie role — for standing by Wiseau. But The Disaster Artist is an argument against that. “Both of us were stuck; neither of us knew what to do next,” Sestero wrote early in the book. “If either of us bailed on the other now, I thought, we’d both sink.”

As Sestero put it to me: “It came down to support.” That went both ways.

Shortly after The Disaster Artist was published, Bay Area publication 7x7 talked to Wiseau. In the interview, he said that he’s supporting Sestero’s memoir “only 50 percent” and added, “I think it’s an exaggeration but I’ll leave it alone, because he is my best friend, Greg, and I don’t like to criticize any person.” That sounds like a slight, but it was as close to an endorsement as the fiercely self-protective Wiseau could give. After all, this is a man who pushed for a recently lifted injunction to stop the release of a documentary about the making of The Room.

The movie, which Wiseau started calling a comedy only after audiences started laughing at it, is still his Citizen Kane. The Sunset 5, now an AMC theater, no longer shows The Room. But Wiseau continues to screen the film across America.

Franco in The Disaster Artist

Neustadter and Weber were relieved when Franco and Rogen’s vision of The Disaster Artist matched theirs. “We didn’t see it as a This Is the End sort of high jinks comedy,” Neustadter said. They imagined a combination of Ed Wood and Boogie Nights. Franco has also likened the story to another Paul Thomas Anderson epic, The Master, and to The Talented Mr. Ripley.

Maybe the most apt comparison came from Bernstein. The Disaster Artist reminded him of My Favorite Year. Directed by Richard Benjamin, the 1982 comedy centers on the relationship between up-and-coming TV writer Benjy Stone (Mark-Linn Baker) and aging alcoholic actor Alan Swann (Peter O’Toole). Because no one else can, Stone has to motivate, protect, and clean up after his charismatic guru. Sestero has been there before.

By now, though, enough time has gone by that he doesn’t mind reliving The Room. During filming of The Disaster Artist, Sestero visited the set. “Most of the days he showed up were Room re-creation days,” Weber said. “Or days when there was really high drama between him and Tommy.” The production’s attention to detail wowed Sestero, who even loaned Dave Franco the denim jacket he wore in The Room. More than once, Sestero let the screenwriters know that lines they thought they’d made up for Wiseau were things that he actually said. “Which is a compliment,” Weber said, “but made us think: ‘Holy crap, are we in the head of Tommy?’”

Making such a deeply metatextual movie caused its share of brain glitches. When Bissell first saw Franco in full Wiseau makeup on set, drifting in and out of character while directing, the author burst out laughing. “It was so fucking crazy,” he said. The morning after the single production day when the director wasn’t also in character, Weber recalled a van pulling up and Franco jumping out in costume. “Where was everybody yesterday?” he shouted. It was as if, Weber said, “the real Tommy existed but couldn’t find us.” (If you’re wondering, Wiseau enjoyed The Disaster Artist. “I approve 99.9 percent,” he reportedly said, taking slight exception with how the movie was lit.)

Dave Franco as Greg Sestero with James Franco as Wiseau

Theater manager Isaac Wade auditioned to play himself and didn’t win the role. “I have to live with the reality that I can’t even get cast as myself,” he said with a laugh. And during The Disaster Artist premiere, the real-life Wiseau and Sestero sat together watching the scene depicting The Room premiere, which featured their characters staring up at themselves on the big screen. “It was like M.C. Escher,” Neustadter said.

But beneath all the strangeness is a simple story about friendship. “They were two outsiders who made something,” Weber said. “Technically, you could pick apart all the reasons why The Room is not a good movie. For us, they made something lasting. That’s what we are always trying to do.”

On a Sunday afternoon in October, Sestero met me at a coffee shop near his home in Pasadena. He picked the place, I think, partly because it’s less than a block from Michael Myers’s house from Halloween. It’s no surprise that someone who at age 12 wrote a sequel to Home Alone remains a movie buff.

The night before, he’d attended the world premiere of Best F(r)iends at Beyond Fest. The film chronicles the relationship between a handsome drifter and a ghostly mortician. Sestero and Wiseau play the leads.

The origin of their onscreen reunion can be traced back to last year, when Sestero attended a screening of The Disaster Artist. “The ending was really moving to me in a way that really helped me see this whole thing from a different perspective,” he said of the film, whose distributor, A24, recently put up a Disaster Artist billboard above Highland near where The Room one once loomed. “I never really gave it my all when I worked with Tommy. I tried to phone it in with The Room. It was never something I believed in. I thought: What if I created a project that I believed in, that I put Tommy in, so the roles were reversed?”

The next day Wiseau texted him. “Maybe it’s time,” the message read, “that you take a risk.” Sestero quickly shared an idea for a new movie with his friend, who agreed to participate. Over the last decade, Wiseau’s TV and film appearances have felt exploitative. This is different. Sestero didn’t write a part for the guy from The Room. He wrote one for Wiseau. In the new movie, he sounds human. Almost.

“Here’s what I was impressed with: He’s a professional,” filmmaker Justin MacGregor, a Room fan who directed Best F(r)iends, said with complete seriousness. “He would always say, ‘If you want to do 100 takes, do 100 takes.’”

With Best F(r)iends, Sestero was able to do something that he couldn’t with The Room: bring out the best in Wiseau. It was Sestero’s way of paying his friend back for helping him resurrect a dream that should still be dead. “It’s come back,” Sestero said, “in very strange ways.”

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