For years, people all over the world have been laughing at The Room. Sunday night in Austin, they were laughing with The Disaster Artist.
James Franco directed his own tour-de-force performance as mysterious filmmaker Tommy Wiseau in the new movie, which had its “work-in-progress” premiere late Sunday night at SXSW.
After the Paramount Theater audience gave the film a rousing standing ovation, producer and co-star Seth Rogen joked that maybe it wasn’t a work-in-progress after all. “I guess we’re done,” he said, jovially.
Beyond James Franco, his brother Dave Franco and Rogen, who all participated in a post-screening Q&A, The Disaster Artist is overflowing with the famous faces of comedians familiar to the Rogen-Apatow universe—Hannibal Buress, Jason Mantzoukas, Paul Scheer, Judd Apatow himself—along with some more surprising actors who pop up in memorable cameos: Sharon Stone, Melanie Griffith, and Bryan Cranston (as a pre-Breaking Bad version of himself).
There’s also a prologue featuring real stars like Adam Scott, Kristen Bell and even J.J. Abrams expressing their love for the original film. And before the end credits roll, we get to see some scenes from The Room side-by-side with the recreations made for The Disaster Artist, emphasizing how meticulous the filmmakers were about getting every detail right.
“I identify with Tommy, in a certain way,” James Franco said after the screening. “I really respected that he came out to Hollywood, like thousands, millions of people have done and got this movie made.” The director’s “insane” on-set behavior aside, as Franco continued to work on the film, he came to realize, “I am Tommy Wiseau,” adding, “I relate to him so much, in ways I don’t even want to admit.”
Rogen concurred, telling the crowd the he’s seen The Room more times than possibly any other film. “What we talked about maybe more than anything else while we were putting the movie together was, ‘Why do we love this movie?’ Not, ‘Why do we make fun of this movie?’ Or, ‘Why do we laugh at this movie?’ But, ‘What is great about that movie?’” he said. “And at the end of the day, it was the earnestness of a guy who put himself out there.”
The most remarkable thing about Sunday night’s premiere was the fact that the real Tommy Wiseau was seated in the packed house, watching the film for the first time next to his friend and co-star Greg Sestero, who played Mark in The Room and wrote the behind-the-scenes book on which The Disaster Artist is based.
Franco said that when he first broached the idea of making the film, all Wiseau wanted to know is who would be playing him. His first choice? Johnny Depp. “I see some of your work, James, you do some good things, some bad things,” Franco remembers Wiseau telling him.
Knowing Wiseau was in the room altered the atmosphere at several key moments throughout the film, which tells the story of how he wrote, directed, produced and financed the disasterpiece in the early-aughts, spending a reported $6 million of his own money. To this day, no one knows where his money came from, how old he is or what unknown European country he originally hails from (Franco’s Wiseau repeatedly insists he’s from New Orleans).
The Austin crowd laughed hard throughout the film at Wiseau’s increasingly odd behavior on the set of The Room, captured eerily well by Franco, who stayed in character throughout his own shoot—creating the bizarre scenario of directing himself as Wiseau directing himself in The Room. “We’ve filmed a lot of weird shit in our day, but this was one where it was like, this is fucking weird,” Rogen remarked.
But during some surprisingly emotional scenes when Wiseau’s hurt feelings are laid bare, you could hear the audience back off, all of a sudden feeling guilty for laughter that could be perceived as ridicule.
One particular meta moment came during a scene late in the film when Wiseau presents The Room to an audience for the first time, at a lavishly appointed premiere he arranged for himself. In The Disaster Artist, Franco’s Wiseau becomes distraught as he realizes the audience is laughing at what he intended to be a serious film.
That image was doubled on Sunday as the real Wiseau sat in the audience at this film’s premiere, reliving the experience of watching himself see The Room through other people’s eyes. This time, however, there was no doubt that the film he was watching was intended to be funny.
Since its release 14 years ago, Wiseau has come to embrace the idea that The Room makes people laugh, hosting midnight screenings across the country where its legions of fans shout key lines along with the characters and throw plastic spoons at the screen. But that doesn’t mean it gets any easier for him to sit in a room full of people laughing hysterically at his bizarre behavior.
Through Franco’s performance, however, Wiseau is humanized in a way that he’s never been before. As strange as he is in The Disaster Artist, Franco gives us a glimpse at the human being behind the dark sunglasses and long black hair.
In doing so, he’s created a hell of a movie about what it takes to become a visionary. Even if that vision turns out to be the “best-worst movie ever made.”