The Screenwriters of ‘The Disaster Artist’ on How to Write Dialogue for Tommy Wiseau
Merriam-Webster allows users to submit new words to its dictionary. I would like to propose an addition: “Wiseauian,” an adjective that would serve as an antonym of eloquence. Someone who speaks in garbled, barely intelligible sentences is wiseauian, after the writer, director, and star of The Room, Tommy Wiseau.
Now Tommy and The Room are the subject of their own movie, The Disaster Artist, directed by and starring James Franco as the mysterious filmmaker who spent millions of dollars creating his distinctively bizarre vision of a relationship gone wrong. The Disaster Artist’s screenplay, based on the book by The Room star Greg Sestero and Tom Bissell, is by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, the writers of films like (500) Days of Summer, The Spectacular Now, and The Fault in Our Stars. They are very talented and eloquent men, which sparked my main question for them: How do good writers write dialogue for a man who (respectfully) wrote some of the worst dialogue in the history of cinema?
“It’s a tribute to the book that we got into his mindset,” Weber told me. The pair knew they were on the right track when Sestero, who spent time on The Disaster Artist set, approached them and asked if he had told them a particular Tommy story. “We’d be like ‘No, why?’” Neustadter added. “And he’d be like, ‘Tommy did say that.’ So we did get into the Tommy of it all. Which is freaky.”
Freaky and wiseauian, but also very impressive. During our conversation, Weber and Neustadter also told me how they first discovered The Room, what it was like receiving script notes from Tommy Wiseau, and exactly what they contributed to the upcoming movie based on Marvel Comics’ New Mutants.
First of all, how did you guys discover The Room? Did you see the film in its first theatrical run? Was it the infamous Los Angeles billboard?
Scott Neustadter: It was the billboard. Franco and I had a very similar story where we knew about the billboard. We lived in L.A., it was up forever. If it was a regular movie, it wouldn’t still be up, so none of us had any idea what that was. We read The Disaster Artist; but I sort of stopped reading a couple chapters in because I was like, “I need to see this thing now.” So I watched it in the least appropriate manner possible, which is alone in your house. And it was incredible.
Michael H. Weber: So, I love the book. You know, Room fans are a very small subculture of movie fandom. This movie has to play for the vast majority of people who've never even heard of The Room, so I waited until after we wrote the first draft to even watch the movie. Because, again, we didn’t want to get so bogged down in minutiae of the in jokes about The Room. This has to play about dreamers, which is what it was always about for us. And it lived up to expectations once I finally saw it.
That’s interesting. I was going to ask about this: Do you recommend someone see The Room before they see The Disaster Artist?
SN: The intention was to make it more for people who hadn’t heard of it and didn’t know what it was, with some Easter eggs for super fans, and then enough good references for people who were casual fans who had seen it. Franco obviously does an incredible job with all of the allusions to The Room. But hopefully, the movie can stand on its own when you care about these two characters and the journey that they go on.
For us, there is no suspense in "Is this movie going to turn out good or not?" Because A) Just watching it, we know it’s probably not going to turn out good. If you’ve heard of The Room you know it doesn’t turn out good, and if you’ve never heard of The Room then there’s a reason you’ve never heard of it; it doesn’t turn out good. So that’s not the suspenseful part of the movie that’s going to hook you.
What we’re hoping the hook is: Can this friendship between Tommy and Greg survive? So that by the time we start making the movie you care enough about them. And that’s really the "A" story here, that Tommy and Greg’s friendship is threatened by what happens when their dreams start coming true.
So you’d lean towards don’t see The Room first if you haven’t seen it.
MHW: Look, if you’ve seen The Room, then The Disaster Artist is a sequel. And if you haven’t seen The Room then The Disaster Artist is a prequel, and it makes perfect sense. If people want to seek it out, great. But you definitely do not have to have seen The Room because the emotional stakes are not “Are they making a good movie or a bad movie?” As Scott said. It’s really about “Can this relationship survive this ordeal of making this movie?”
SN: We’ve talked to lots of people who’ve seen it totally cold and laughed and enjoyed it, and we’ve talked to a lot of people who went in being very knowledgeable about it and they seemed to enjoy it too, so I really hope it plays across the board, but that’s not for us to say.
How did you guys get involved in the project? What was the hook that attracted you?
MHW: We read the book and it was clearly a story about outsiders, about two guys who shared a dream, and the world was telling them no but they believed in each other. And how powerful that is when you find someone else who shares that dream with you and believes in you. And that feels like more of a universal story.
We had our own little film festival of touchstones and inspirations after we read the book of Ed Wood and Boogie Nights and Sunset Boulevard and we went and met with Franco and [producer and co-star Seth] Rogen and those guys for the first time. And inside of five minutes, they were talking about Ed Wood and Boogie Nights and we’re like, "Okay great. They see this the same way. They see this as being about the relationship."
Because there are other versions of this movie. There’s a version of Disaster Artist that’s a shot-for-shot remake of The Room. There’s a version of The Disaster Artist that’s more of a Bowfinger; just two hours of production shenanigans. And we, all of us, including those guys, wanted it to really be able to friendship and this sort of shared dream of breaking into the business.
I interviewed Tommy Wiseau years ago at Comic Con. Just randomly, I was walking around with a camera crew and we found him selling underwear on the convention floor.
SN: Sounds about right.
So we do an impromptu interview, and as weird as his speech patterns are in The Room, in person they’re almost mind-breaking.
SN: [Adopting Tommy accent] "Let me correct you" [laughs] You’re exactly right. That’s what he would say, "I must correct you. [pause] I agree." You’re like, what? What just happened?
When you’re writing, do you have to say the lines out loud in that voice to see if they sound right? Or is that just internalized as you’re working?
SN: I think it was internalized. When we had a table read and when Franco was doing the voice for the first time there was nothing that came out of his mouth that was not hilarious. Every line and even the stuff that was not supposed to be funny was so funny when he did it. We were very excited at that point that there’s gonna be a whole movie of this.
His voice is incredible.
MHW: We’d only heard little bits of it until the table read and the table read, we’d never been a part of something so funny. You’re just laughing for two hours.
SN: That is correct. It is true.
Is there any worry, as you’re writing, with all due respect to Tommy, that because his writing is not exactly the greatest, something you’ve written might be too funny or too sharp to have been spoken by Tommy Wiseau?
SN: I think it was harder for the actors. The actors had to unlearn how to act sometimes when they were playing the actors in The Room. Ari Graynor is extremely gifted and she is playing someone who’s not necessarily as gifted as she is [The Room co-star Juliette Danielle]. She has to figure out how to do that. It's a really interesting thing for them.
For us, it was Storytelling 101 of like, “What are they trying to achieve here? What’s at stake?” The hardest thing for us, I think, probably was when to show which scenes from The Room because at the premiere everything is going down. There are a few things you are going to see there for the first time. There are a few things you are going to see finally implemented. You’re going to gauge the reactions from the audience and no finale of a movie is people watching another movie. So there had to be drama going on in the finale and the drama obviously is Tommy discovering that it’s being perceived differently than he intended and Greg coming to the rescue after entering the scene like “I don’t even want to be here.”
MHW: Also, I think even from the beginning we approached this for the most part as if we were writing a drama. We knew that Franco, Rogen, those guys would bring the funny.
SN: There’s enough inherently funny stuff in there. The drama is what we were the most excited about.
I read one article that claimed the post-credits scene featuring the real Tommy was stipulated in his contract?
MHW: Yes and no. It sort of evolved. Tommy did negotiate his own deal and among the aspects of it was we had to shoot a scene of him opposite James Franco. But supposedly he did not negotiate that the scene had to be in the movie. So basically we wrote a little thing at a party that could easily be lifted if it was too distracting to see Tommy. Then of course, afterward at some point months later in post-production, Tommy then started to push that “No, no. It has to be in the movie." They decided to put it in the movie at the very end. It’s sort of our little Marvel pop at the end.
He also stipulated that he had to give script notes. But he didn’t stipulate that we had to use any of them.
What were some of his script notes?
MHW: Honestly he wasn’t giving them in a traditional sense. His script notes were just an opportunity to bare old grievances rather than it was really talking about the script specifically.
The other post-credits stuff, the comparisons between The Room and your recreations of it, are incredible. How much of The Room did you reshoot? Is there enough for a cut of The Room starring the cast of The Disaster Artist?
MHW: We have like 30 to 40 percent of The Room.
SN: There should be a good DVD extra. It’s not going to be the full movie, but there’s plenty more.
MHW: We knew we needed pops for the end of the movie. Franco loved doing those meticulous recreations. But we didn’t necessarily have the time or the resources for them, and it really was a carrot in some ways, that if he made his days then we’d have additional time for him to do all of that stuff. It really speaks to how prepared and focused and present he was every day on set that we had the time to then painstakingly recreate 30 to 40 percent of The Room.
Looking at your filmography it seems like you’ve been doing a lot of adaptations lately, as opposed to original screenplays.
SN: That’s what’s getting made.
MHW: Yeah, really that’s it. I think one of the biggest shifts that hasn’t been reported about or talked about enough really is the shift over the last 20 years in the amount of say that the marketing departments of all these places have in what gets made. I think these adaptations, often times not only have built-in marketing just because of the books [they’re based on], but they already have a built-in fan base. We don’t write originals that spawn franchises, so a book that has already built-in marketing, that already has built-in fans versus an original that no one has heard of that’s not going to spawn sequels ... it’s hard to get anything made, but the road to production is paved so much more smoothly for adaptations because of all that stuff that’s already there with these books.
You mention that you don’t write franchises, but you worked on New Mutants recently.
MHW: It’s so funny - we just briefly did some character work on it. Hopefully one day we’ll get to play in the sandbox of one of those things from the start, which would be fun. It was fun to just have a taste of it.
I was curious why that appealed to you. It does seem pretty different from your previous work.
SN: Well, they’re angsty teens. It was definitely a specific kind of comic book, and the voices of the characters were more aligned with stuff we’ve done.
That’s true. They’re angsty teens and also they can shoot fire from their hands.
SN: It was fun, we had a good time with that. I hope they invite us back to do more of that stuff.
You mentioned the friendship between Tommy and Greg was a big draw for you guys. In The Room, in the book of The Disaster Artist, and in the adaptation there is a little bit of homoerotic tension there as well. Do you think, on some level, that Tommy loves Greg? Have you talked to him about that? Have you talked to Greg about that?
MHW: We haven’t talked to him about it. I don’t know if it’s romantic love, but their bond is strong. They now have known each other 20 years and have been through a lot. The feelings are real between the two of them.
SN: Psych 101 speculation is, I think, Greg was the first person to look up to Tommy in a certain way that he always wanted. And Tommy never wants to lose that. So they are keeping it going and part of the story is, he loses sight of it during the making of the movie because it gets corrupted. He’s so used to people saying no to him and Greg starts to ask questions and give feedback and isn’t aligned with his vision, he starts to wonder “Are you my friend or not my friend?” and he can’t separate the two ideas of real life and the movie. Tommy, there is no separation between the two things, so it really is an interesting dynamic.
Has Tommy pitched you guys on making a movie together?
I have to say, I’m surprised the answer is no.
MHW: Tommy is a writer, so what would he need us for? He doesn’t need us.
SN: The Disaster Artist is the second film in his trilogy.
MHW: He said that, yeah. “The middle film.”
SN: There’s a third movie.
MHW: The day he showed up on set to shoot his little thing, Franco interviewed him as an extra featurette sort of thing that’ll hopefully one day be seen.
Interviewed him in character?
MHW: Yes. And Tommy said, unprompted, “You know, James Franco, people already going around saying ‘I directed Disaster Artist.’ Which no one is saying. [laughs] But Tommy just wanted to get that out there and get that rumor going.
So according to Tommy, The Disaster Artist is the middle part of a trilogy?
SN: They made another movie, yeah.
MHW: They shot another movie. Best F(r)iends, so it’s like fiends? But now there’s a rumor they want to learn how to cut it in half and Kill Bill it into two movies.
Oh man, a quadrilogy.
The Disaster Artist is now playing in select theaters.
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