Greg Sestero, writer and actor, The Disaster Artist

There is a power in being original and unique and not trying to follow the crowd, and that’s what Tommy did so well. It’s paid off because you can’t get that experience anywhere else ...

To have a film stand the test of time is any filmmaker’s dream, but to have one’s film hailed as one of the ‘worst movies of all time’ is a peculiar form of infamy. The Room is a flick that many point to as one of the worst films ever made, but despite a resolute panning by critics upon release in 2003, the film endured to become one of the most beloved cult hits of the early 21st century. The film – written, produced and directed by out-of-this-world persona Tommy Wiseau (who also starred in the film) – has amassed a following that seemed unfathomable upon the film’s release, and Greg Sestero was there for the whole thing. An aspiring actor at the time of The Room’s genesis, Greg met and befriended Tommy at an acting class, and subsequently became an integral part of the film’s creation as a key behind-the-scenes figure and as the actor that portrayed Mark, the butt of several of The Room’s most iconic lines. Greg funnelled his experiences into a book, titled The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside The Room, the Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made, which has been turned into a film of its own starring James Franco, Dave Franco and Seth Rogen. In the lead-up to the film’s Australian release, we caught up with Greg to get his perspective on seeing The Room and its story go from poorly conceived flop to beloved smash to fodder for Hollywood success.

As one of the people most involved in the making of The Room, did you have any inkling that the film would stand out for better or worse, or if you secretly hoped no one would see it?
I didn’t really have any expectations for The Room. I just thought that, you know, it didn’t really have any chance to succeed for multiple reasons. I was happy for Tommy that he completed the project and he had a film now and that was going to be it. And so I didn’t expect anything from it. I don’t think anybody could have foreseen that it would become what it is now, even let alone be released. It really has been one surprise after the next.

When The Room started to gain traction as a cult hit, how long did it take for you to reconcile your thoughts surrounding its infamy as a terrible movie and come about embracing the status it ended up achieving?
One of the interesting things with The Room and its legacy was that I was never embarrassed or ashamed of it, really. I was more fascinated when audiences were seeing it, as I always wanted to know what they thought of Tommy. Was it the same thing that I felt when I met him in that acting class? What were their thoughts on him? When I was seeing that audiences were getting the humour and appreciating his charisma, I became fascinated by it. Again, it was never something I expected anything from, and at the same time I knew it wasn’t going to get me acting work because it’s such an alien film. When it grew to being a much bigger cult film and started hitting the mainstream and screening around the world in 2010, that’s when I realised that there was a really interesting situation here, because I would get asked how I became involved in this movie and what it was about. When I saw that if people were intrigued by the film or enjoyed the film then I knew the story behind it – the making of it – would be seen as even more insane and more hilarious. Ultimately, I thought it was an inspiring and touching story, so it became my goal to tell it and ideally not only have its own film but have it be a great film. So, that became my mission for the past eight or so years – to make something redeeming out of this experience.

When you committed to the idea of putting your story down on paper for The Disaster Artist, did you bring that idea to Tommy and did you seek out his approval?
Tommy was actually the first person I told. I went to a screening of The Room with him in 2010 and the response to it was incredible, so he was the first person I mentioned it to. I interviewed him for the book – a little bit more personally – about him coming to San Francisco and living in New Orleans and really getting a feel for what the book could be. He was supportive of the book, but I know he didn’t like some of my comments about the making of it and even referring to The Room as a ‘bad film’. I don’t think that’s something he agrees with.

I’m also curious about his thoughts about the title, The Disaster Artist
He wanted me to call it The Confused Artist (laughs). The goal was always to share what a great character Tommy was and I think there are moments in the film and in the book that are a bit insane – but you can’t do Tommy justice if you aren’t showing the beautiful elements of his personality and the parts that ultimately ended up making The Room what it was. If you cut out or embellish Tommy to the point where he’s not real then you lose the understanding of how The Room could be made, and you wouldn’t learn anything from it. I think with the title, and the way I see Tommy, it’s about how he made all these really crazy decisions – like using green screens, not shooting on the rooftop, dubbing his voice – all these things that were catastrophic became pillars of the film. That’s what people talk about. That’s what brings them back over and over again. He created a piece of art, but all of his decisions were being reviewed by people as making the worst possible artistic decision for that scene, but it worked and the movie has continued to screen around the world for 15 years. In the end he won! I think it’s a celebration of just being different and not taking no for an answer.

When getting the book made into a film became more of a reality, what were your thoughts on how an adaptation would work best in order to do justice to this true story?
I did have high hopes for it to become a great film in its own right. Some of my favourite films are Hollywood stories – like Sunset Boulevard and Ed Wood – and I was very fortunate that James Franco was interested. He had never seen The Room. He read the book first and thought it was a great Hollywood story he hadn’t read yet – he thought it was crazy and wanted to turn it into a film. He compared the story to Boogie Nights meets The Master, which is exactly what I was hoping for. He really got it and made a great film.

Once the process started, did you have any input on how the movie took shape or even any say on who would portray you?
No, James was very clear that he wanted to direct it and play Tommy and Dave was going to play me. Seth was on board to produce it, as well. When you have that kind of talent attached, it is more exciting to let them make the film they want to make and you know it’s in good hands. They also got some terrific screenwriters to adapt the book – Scott Neustadter and Michael Weber who did (500) Days of Summer and The Fault in Our Stars – so you’re really flying first class with this team. You can just be there if they wanted support or any more information, but then you can pass it back and enjoy the result.

What were your thoughts after you saw the completed film for the first time?
I thought it was amazing! I thought James’ performance was up there with some of the best I’d seen in years. They really hit a home run in adapting this story.

The Disaster Artist seems to touch on more than just conveying the surreal and comedic happenings that took place. It also examines ideas like following your dreams, being accepting of others and taking a chance on things. In terms of the life lessons you’ve taken away from this 15-year process, what was the biggest thing that you learned?
I’ve learned that the impossible can happen and that you never know what is out there for you. There was almost no chance for The Room to ever succeed or find the light – but it did in two ways. The Room had no chance to succeed conventionally, but it ended up finding an audience. Then I had this big dream of having this book and getting it its own film, which was a long shot in itself. Both of these things happened in the best of ways, and it’s proved that if you have a goal or a dream you have to give it a shot because you never know what it might bring.

Obviously the die-hard fans of The Room see something in it that the critics didn’t catch on to 15 years ago – what do you think has allowed this movie to stand the test of time?
It’s just a film unlike any other. It was made by somebody who had full creative control, never took no for an answer and who sees the world in a totally different way. It’s completely unique. There is a power in being original and unique and not trying to follow the crowd, and that’s what Tommy did so well. It’s paid off because you can’t get that experience anywhere else and people still crave it 15 years later.

On the flip side, what do you hope audiences take away from The Disaster Artist, especially those that only have a passing familiarity with The Room?
Really, I think The Disaster Artist is for everybody. You don’t have to have seen The Room to appreciate the story. I’ve talked to a lot of people here that have never seen The Room that thought The Disaster Artist was the funniest movie they’d seen all year and they want to see it again and again. It’s really a universal story about friendship and following your dreams and I hope that the journey teaches you that you should do the same.

I think it’s interesting that you and Tommy still talk and collaborate, especially in recent years. I know you’ve been working on some new stuff together. What’s your working relationship with Tommy like these days and is working with him as ‘eventful’ as working on The Room all those years ago?
You know, I never planned on working with Tommy again after The Room, but here we are – 15 years later – and we just worked on another film together. It was a different experience this time – I wrote and produced the film and Tommy starred in it and it was a really great experience to work with him. I think I was more prepared to deal with his persona and he worked really hard and it’s something that I think we can both stand by all these years later. It’s kind of part of a trilogy – it’s us giving it one more shot. As I said, I didn’t expect to work with him again but under these circumstances I’m really glad I did it because I enjoyed it a lot more.

It seems like the release of The Disaster Artist and everything surrounding it is bookending this huge chapter of your life. What are you looking forward to in your future after this?
Yeah, you’re right, it is a bookend. It started with that acting class and meeting Tommy and finishes with the release and the success and the quality of The Disaster Artist. It’s come full circle – we’ve conquered that experience and that world. Now I feel a great freedom, because I feel like can go out and try to do the things I want to do. This new film with Tommy is a great start, because it’s not something affiliated with The Room ­– it does have Tommy in it but it is its own beast and an entirely new film. I’m exploring a bunch of different concepts, so I think it will be a great next chapter.

The Disaster Artist will hit Australian screens on Thursday December 7. Be sure to catch it at a cinema near you.

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