‘The Disaster Artist’ Writers on the Adaptation Process and Their Favorite Tommy Wiseau Story [Interview]
Writers Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber burst onto the scene in 2009 with the screenplay for (500) Days of Summer, and since then they’ve made waves with small-scale, intimate love stories like The Spectacular Now and The Fault in Our Stars. Most recently, they penned the screenplay for The Disaster Artist, a film adaptation of actor Greg Sestero’s book that details the making of the so-bad-it-might-actually-be-kind-of-brilliant cult drama The Room, the brainchild of eccentric writer/director/star Tommy Wiseau.
But The Disaster Artist is more than just a glorified making-of tale. It’s a classic Hollywood story about dreamers trying to make their mark in a rough-and-tumble industry, and a portrait of a relationship between two creatives who are driven to succeed at any cost. I sat down with the writers to talk about their approach to adapting the book, the artistic licenses they took, watching James Franco direct the movie in character, and much more.
The Disaster Artist Writers Interview
Thanks for speaking with me today. I’ve been a fan of you guys since (500) Days of Summer.
Weber: Thanks for wanting to speak with the writers!
Neustadter: Thank you very much.
So you have written a lot of film adaptations of books, but none that are quite like this.
Weber: This is our first true story!
Is it? I guess that’s true, yeah.
Neustadter: Well, second. (laughs)
Oh, because of (500) Days? [Note: that film was inspired by two actual relationships Scott had before writing.]
So can you talk about the balance of working on a project that essentially has three different types of source material: The Room, Greg’s book, and real life. What was it like for you guys to put this together?
Weber: As far as real life, meeting those guys was not a factor upon initially writing it. Scott and I had different experiences with The Room. He watched it before we started. Neither of us were early Room fanatics. We had seen the billboard, we knew about the phenomenon. I waited until after we wrote the first draft to watch it, specifically so that we could approach it from different angles. The goal was a movie that the super-fans [of The Room] would love, but could also work if you’ve never even heard of The Room. I’d say the book is probably the largest piece of source material, and if you’ve read the book, it’s great. The hardest challenge for us was paring down, because there’s so much good stuff in there that this could have been a six-hour miniseries if we wanted it to be.
Neustadter: And we had gotten some audio recordings that Tommy had made of himself. We had gotten a few ancillary things to use as research. Like he said, this is our first real true story, and we approached that from a very journalistic, anthropological way, and it was fun. It was a very cool experience where you knew you only go here (draws a line) before you were lying.
Weber: And we wanted to do right by these guys. It wasn’t that long ago that we were two outsiders who shared a dream and were desperate to find a way to break into this business and make movies. We love movies. We saw that in them. That’s sort of the heart of the movie that we were always going for, was them as struggling dreamers and that bond they had. And obviously that bond is tested through the making of this movie.
That totally comes through. That’s the best part of the film.
Neustadter: Thank you!
So how interested were you guys in finding and telling the truth, versus using these characters as a springboard for your own versions of events?
Neustadter: I think we were following the memoir semi-closely in that we knew we were eventually going to have to look these people in the eye and explain our choices. I think we were fascinated by the real. In this particular case – I guess in most cases – the real is way more interesting than anything we’re going to come up with. It’s crazy. It’s funny, because when we were testing this movie initially with an audience of people, the one thing that they said at the end, which we couldn’t believe, was that they didn’t think any of this was true. Even though it says, ‘Based on a True Story,’ they just thought it was another Franco/Rogen [project], making something up and a funny character they were doing. The side by sides – some people still watch this movie and cannot believe, until the side-by-sides, that there is footage out there like what we shot. So that’s something that I think we, in telling the story, were cognizant of. Truth is stranger than fiction. Let’s lean in on more of what actually went down. And there are enough mysteries that go unanswered that we kept in the soufflé also.
I was just speaking with Paul Scheer, and he was telling me that you guys were able to watch a lot of the footage that Tommy requested be shot during the making of The Room, and he said the parts where people assume the writers might be fudging the truth a little bit, it all actually happened in that footage.
Weber: Why make it up? We didn’t need to.
So what kind of artistic licenses did you take?
Weber: There had to be some crafting. This is a shoot that dragged on for months. We had to encapsulate this in a short period of time. We had to keep in mind that the tension of, ‘Can the friendship survive the experience of making this movie?’ is what should remain at the forefront. So deciding what parts of The Room are things we see at the premiere, or just things in the recreations, versus what’s the backdrop of certain scenes? The day with no water and no heat is the breast cancer scene. Crafting all of that. Everything happened, but we had to cherrypick and craft a little, because again, this could have been six hours. But we didn’t want to do that.
Neustadter: Greg was certainly a little more dubious in real life about going along with this than his portrayal in this, but because it’s really about two friends who support each other, and they’re each other’s true believers – really the only ones in their lives who believed in one another – that was something I thought would be better for us to highlight than to introduce issues that would have spoiled that.
To that point, you guys have written a lot of love stories–
Weber: This is a love story, too!
That’s what I was going to say: this is basically a love story between Greg and Tommy. Was that part of the attraction for you guys coming to this project?
Neustadter: I think so, yeah. Friendships are love stories in their own right. This one is so interesting. They’re very different people, and yet their bond is stronger than any – it’s hard to find two different people as close as those guys, which is fascinating.
Weber: We always viewed this as a relationship movie, just a different type of one. The backdrop is the making of a movie that lots of people love and care about now.
Were you guys regularly on set during the production?
Neustadter: Yeah, they shot it here, which was lovely. I live here, so that was nice. He’s in New York.
Weber: I came out for a couple of months and we were there. Franco really created an environment on set that felt safe for everyone to take chances and bring their best. It was an interesting production too because The Room stuff was the first few weeks of shooting – the first, say, third of the shoot. Then the back two thirds of the shoot, it was mostly just James and Dave. More than the second half of it felt like a play almost. It was really just between these guys and their bond and the tension and all of that stuff.
Neustadter: And all of those guys are writers, so they were really respectful, and they invited us and were inclusive and they wanted us around, which is not something that you get all the time.
So what was it like watching James direct in character?
Neustadter: It was weird. He had the accent most of the time, he was dressed like that all of the time, because he was in almost every scene. He would come over and be like, ‘Guys, we need to talk about script.’ He would come over and do the accent, and we thought he was making a joke, but no, he needed to talk to us about page whatever.
Weber: But he wasn’t ranting and raving. He wasn’t causing a scene.
Neustadter: He was still James Franco, but he looked like a crazy person and he talked like a crazy person. But he was directing this movie incredibly well. He was so on top of things.
Weber: I think that’s also credit to Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, who really put forth a structure for Franco to succeed and thrive as a director. That was obviously quite a lot different than the other movies that James has directed before, and James will speak so well about this, but it was sort of the infrastructure that Seth and Evan set up that James was directing within. And then we’re new to both of their worlds. I think a lot of times when you have people who come from a bunch of different worlds and try to make a movie together, it doesn’t work. What’s odd is we sort of had people grouped from a bunch of different worlds and it really melded into a coherent vision, which is amazing.
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