December 6, 2017
Writing a Movie About the Worst Movie Ever Made: A Conversation with ‘The Disaster Artist’ Screenwriters
Screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber have dealt with heightened emotions through their work in adaptations of Young Adult novels like The Fault in Our Stars and Paper Towns, but in Tommy Wiseau of The Disaster Artist they might have found the ultimate symbol of volatility. As played by James Franco in the film, Wiseau is a force of nature who refuses to bend down to things such as budgetary restrictions, other people’s feelings, and even common sense. His mission is to shoot The Room, a film in which he’s put all his energy and hopes. He doesn’t care that his film seems to make no sense, that his actors don’t know what they should be doing, and that the people he’s hired to work with him have no clue as to what he expects from them.
In the screenplay by Neustadter and Weber, one finds deep compassion and understanding of who Wiseau was during the making of The Room, his moments of asshole-ness often balanced by his acts of love, not only for creation, but also for his best friend Greg Sestero (who co-wrote the book the film is based on), played by Dave Franco. Wiseau’s larger than life personality isn’t used for easy laughs, but rather as an entry point for audiences to enter a world where the end seems to justify all the means. The film succeeds in raising questions about the way in which Hollywood works and how not everyone is afforded the opportunities they deserve based on their talent, but it also is a celebration of filmmaking in all its glory and gore.
We spoke to the creative duo of Weber and Neustadter about entering Wiseau’s mind, their own writing process, and what actors they want to write for next.
Tommy Wiseau is a screenwriter. Was that an easy way to write from his point of view and get into the mind of the character?
Scott Neustadter: When you watch The Room you get some good insight into this man’s brain, so we used the film and also Greg’s book. James Franco gave us some audio recordings that Wiseau had made, and there was also some behind-the-scenes footage, so we had a plethora of material to dive into him.
But was there anything in particular about Wiseau’s unabashed love of movies that made it easier to write about him?
Michael H. Weber: For us the angle was seeing this as the story of two outsiders, two dreamers who stick with each other even as everyone else tells them no. So as an outsider, a dreamer, a fan of movies, Tommy’s voice is unusual, but we identified with all of those characteristics about him. It wasn’t too long ago we were outsiders desperate to break into this business.
I found the film to be very romantic in how it approaches these two men and their love for creating. At the risk of sounding ridiculous and using the word “bromance” I wondered if as co-screenwriters you have a similar dynamic.
Michael H. Weber: [Laughs] Definitely the thing that we were attracted to was the fact that this is a relationship story at heart. That’s the one commonality of all the projects we’ve worked in together, obviously we’ve dealt with romantic relationships in other projects, but in this one it’s more of the creative relationship between the two of them. These men have known each other for 20 years now.
How many times did you have to watch The Room?
Scott Neustadter: I watched the film while reading the book, but Weber didn’t actually watch it until we finished writing the script.
Michael H. Weber: I waited till we finished the first draft, because fans of the film are very passionate, they’re a subset of movie culture and the vast majority of people out there have never even heard of The Room, so the movie we were trying to make needed to work for the superfans, but for the most part it needed to play for people who’ve never heard of the movie. I felt it was better if I held off on watching The Room and just use the book as the source material.
So what surprised you the most after you watched the film?
Michael H. Weber: The book does such a good job of describing many of the scenes and aspects of the movie, but even despite having read the book I was shocked at just how strange the movie was.
Films are an extremely collaborative medium and throughout the film it seems that Tommy doesn’t get this, he wants to be in control of every aspect. So even if this seems trite, what advice would you have given him when he shot The Room?
Scott Neustadter: I don’t think we would’ve changed anything or given him any advice. One of the things that made sure The Room wasn’t a movie that was forgotten was that it wasn’t made by committee, as most studio films are: you get notes and a lot of feedback. In many ways that can water down a vision, and The Room is one man’s pure vision, it’s as pure a movie as you’re likely to see. We learn about the auteur theory in college and The Room is as singular a vision as you’re ever likely to get.
Have you come up with a formula or division of tasks when it comes to writing together?
Michael H. Weber: It’s funny, we’ve had the same process from the beginning since we first met in New York. We never write in the same room. We will outline extensively before we write a word, and that thorough outline is pretty helpful, then we work over it through email or on the phone. We divide scenes and a day or two later we email each other to go through them.
You’re also executive producers in The Disaster Artist. What does this means in terms of new tasks or things you’ve never done before?
Michael H. Weber: It changes in every project, because it’s a role that’s somewhat undefined. In a lot of cases being a producer is simply the difference between asking permission to be involved in other creative decisions and being involved in those creative decisions. Regardless of our role as producers we were on set every day. We felt good about our creative place. We didn’t want to overstep and we were just so happy to be involved in this.
You’ve become specialists in adapting Young Adult novels, I remember my niece asking if I was embarrassed of seeing The Fault in Our Stars since I’m an adult, and my answer was no, because I don’t feel in your screenplays you don’t approach these characters from a point of condescension. How do you pull that off every time?
Scott Neustadter: I don’t know if we’ve matured or not, but we remember how important everything seemed when we were young. We grew up on movies by John Hughes and others who refused to talk down to teenagers and make their problems seem small, because they aren’t small when you’re that age. Those little dramas are big deals we don’t overlook or belittle.
I recently spoke to Daniel Kaluuya who said his most memorable moviegoing experience was watching The Room in London. So I’d love to know what’s your favorite moviegoing experience?
Scott Neustadter: I remember distinctly two movies from when I was younger. I saw Coming to America when I was way too young probably. I went with a friend, my parents were like, “Oh yeah, go see that movie, it’s totally appropriate for two eight year olds to go see that movie,” and I remember the energy and the atmosphere. I also remember Misery because it felt like a collective experience where audiences were talking back to the screen and there was a lot of back and forth, we were all communicating together. The Room similarly becomes a communal experience, it’s so different than watching something alone in your laptop.
It’s become very common to see people in social media call out and condemn other people for their taste. You wrote a screenplay about what many people consider a terrible film and yet we see in the end how much pleasure it gave to audiences. Did writing the film in any way change you approach taste?
Scott Neustadter: It’s just what you just said about Daniel. If something’s the most fun you’ve had at the movies, how can it be bad?
Michael H. Weber: I remember being in college and making fun of bad movies, but as an adult now that I’m doing with movies with Scott you realize how hard it is to get anything made. That made me stop making fun of bad movies, because people can discuss many elements of The Room, and a lot of it is unorthodox if not just plain not good, but the fact is what you can’t argue with is that Tommy and Greg made something lasting. People still line up all over the world to see The Room, and that matters a lot. They made something people really care about.
You also co-wrote the screenplay for Where’d You Go, Bernadette and I’m so excited to hear what Cate Blanchett does with that material. So with that in mind, is there any actor you’re dying to write something for?
Scott Neustadter: A lot! My favorite performance I can think of is Emma Thompson in The Remains of the Day, so I’d be happy to put some dialogue in front of Emma Thompson any day.
Michael H. Weber: I’d love to write something for Jessica Chastain. She can do anything. So I’d love to have the opportunity for us to write something for her.
The Disaster Artist is now in limited release and expands wide this Friday.
See More: Michael H. Weber, Scott Neustadter, The Disaster Artist