How James Franco made a good movie about the worst film ever

LOS ANGELES — There are bad movies, and then there is "The Room," a spectacularly bizarre independent drama from 2003 starring, written, financed and directed by Tommy Wiseau, a unique-looking and accented man of ambiguous age and origin. "The Room" tells the story of a San Francisco banker, Johnny (Wiseau), whose fiancé, Lisa, and best friend, Mark, have an affair. And it is bafflingly awful — scenes are out of focus, plotlines are left dangling, soft-core sex scenes leave you cringing and the dialogue sounds downright alien.

Film critic Scott Foundas wrote at the time that the, "Pic may be something of a first: A movie that prompts most of its viewers to ask for their money back — before even 30 minutes have passed."

And yet, "The Room," which a film professor called "the 'Citizen Kane' of bad movies," took on a life of its own. It became a cult favorite of the midnight movie set, who treat it as a "Rocky Horror Picture Show"-like event (there is shouting, spoon-throwing and walk-outs), a popular book about the making of the film co-written by Greg Sestero, who played Mark, and now a feature film about the whole ordeal, "The Disaster Artist," directed by and starring James Franco as Wiseau. It hits theaters in limited release Friday and expands wide Dec. 8.

But as easy of a target as "The Room" might be, "The Disaster Artist" is not a spoof or a parody — it is a sincerely told (and incidentally very fun and funny) story about two outsiders, Sestero and Wiseau, who move to Los Angeles with dreams of stardom and no idea how to realize them. It is "Boogie Nights," not "Bowfinger."

"For us, it was a relationship story," said Michael H. Weber, who co-wrote the script with Scott Neustadter ("(500) Days of Summer"). "This one is a little different but it's no less real and no less complicated than the others we've written."

Franco also wanted to make it a classic LA film with all the trimmings — the bad diners in the Valley, the creepy agents, the naiveté, the auditions that go nowhere — the things he remembers from being a struggling actor in LA around the same time Sestero moved here with Wiseau in 1998.

He cast his younger brother, actor Dave Franco, as Sestero. It's the first time they've acted together in a significant way.

"I've tried to get him into a lot of movies. Some of them he just didn't vibe with. And there was a point in his career where he wanted to get out from, I guess, my shadow, or just create his own identity apart from me," said James Franco. "I just thought: This is the one. This is the one we should do together ... we have the perfect dynamic for this."

James Franco is unrecognizable, behind the prosthetics (which took 2 and a half hours to apply and 45 minutes to remove), Gene Simmons hair, eccentric costumes and vaguely Eastern European-sounding accent required to play the enigmatic Wiseau.

While Sestero is less of a "character" than Wiseau, Dave Franco had his own hurdles.

"He's making a lot of bad decisions throughout the film and I had to try to justify each of those so the audience would understand why this guy continued on this journey with this mad man," Dave Franco said. "But he was a young actor who was not getting support from anyone else in his life and then he met this guy who encouraged him and told him he could make it."

Sestero, who was only 19 when he met Wiseau in a San Francisco acting class, said he feels like he has been talking about "The Room" non-stop for almost 8 years. The phenomenon, he said, "Just continues to amaze and defy logic."

"My whole goal was to make something great out of something that was considered terrible," Sestero said.

And so far, it's working. "The Disaster Artist" has been getting positive reviews (it's currently clocking in at 96 percent on Rotten Tomatoes) and awards buzz.

It's also James Franco's most mainstream effort yet as a director.

"I felt like the subject matter had the potential to be bigger than this indie, art house thing," Franco said.

The full-force marketing campaign, led by hip indie distributor A24 (the shop behind last year's best picture winner "Moonlight"), has leaned in to the peculiarities of Wiseau's guerrilla marketing campaign, creating a billboard in the heart of Hollywood almost exactly like the one Wiseau commissioned in 2003, right down to the RSVP phone number. Franco himself apparently answers sometimes.

As for whether or not one needs to see "The Room" first, Weber likes to quote Paul Scheer, the comedian behind the "How Did This Get Made" podcast who also plays the cinematographer in the film.

"He says, 'If you've seen 'The Room,' 'The Disaster Artist' is a sequel. If you haven't seen 'The Room,' 'The Disaster Artist' is a prequel," said Weber.

While the cult of "The Room" is in some ways inexplicable, its enduring appeal undeniable.

"In the history of Hollywood there are thousands upon thousands of bad movies that we will never watch again. 'The Room' is something that people have been watching religiously for 14 years. I don't think that's because Tommy made bizarre decisions at every turn. I really believe it's because when Tommy made it, he put his heart and soul into it. He was trying to make a great movie," Franco said. "Maybe there's something to the idea that we're all a little afraid of failure, of public embarrassment. Maybe it makes us feel a little better about ourselves. But also there must be something that makes us feel for Tommy. People are drawn to that vulnerability."