Long before Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber were Oscar-nominated screenwriters, they received a package from James Franco and Seth Rogen that left them confused. The actors, whom they’d never met, sent them a memoir by Greg Sestero: “The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside ‘The Room,’ the Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made.”
Neustadter and Weber are known for writing dramas about romantic relationships, beginning with their Film Independent Spirit Award-winning script for “(500) Days of Summer,” inspired by Neustadter’s love life. Their biggest commercial success, “The Fault in Our Stars” ($307 million worldwide), starred Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort as cancer-stricken teens. More recently, they wrote the Netflix drama “Our Souls at Night” starring Jane Fonda and Robert Redford. “The Spectacular Now” and “Paper Towns” came in between.
While they also wrote “The Pink Panther 2” with Steve Martin, comedy is not their comfort zone. During the January 31 WGA panel “Beyond Words,” which featured fellow Oscar nominees Greta Gerwig, Jordan Peele, and Aaron Sorkin, Neustadter emphasized: “We are not funny people.” A few days later, at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival’s “It Starts with the Script” panel, Weber insisted: “It takes us all day to write one joke.”
Even so, Franco and Rogen wanted them to write about making “The Room,” the cult hit that’s considered a premiere example of terrible filmmaking and an uproarious, if accidental, comedy. Self-financed by its writer, star, and director Tommy Wiseau for a reported $6 million, it made just $1,800 during its initial two-week release.
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Nearly 15 years since its debut, “The Room” has become the 21st century’s “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” Midnight showings regularly sell out with fans running sprints in the aisles, hurling spoons at the screen, and barking continuity goofs. The film opens with three back-to-back sex scenes. When a character’s mother advises her to stay with her rich boyfriend because “His position is very secure,” a favorite response is, “His position is very secure — missionary!”
When Neustadter and Weber finally met Rogen and Franco, it wasn’t a long courtship. They had an in-person meeting and a phone call or two, enough to confirm they shared the same cinematic touchstones for “The Disaster Artist” like “Ed Wood,” “Sunset Boulevard,” and “Boogie Nights.” That was enough for Neustadter and Weber to begin writing.
“It’s a real story, but it comes with its own set of hilarious things [so] that we didn’t have to bend over backward to make funny,” said Neustadter in an interview at the Hollywood offices of the film’s distributor, A24.
Added Weber, “The emotional stakes are, ‘Can the friendship survive this experience they go through together of making this movie?’”
That’s a question Neustadter and Weber, both 40, have faced for nearly half their lives. The first time they spoke was when then-Syracuse University student Weber cold-called Robert DeNiro’s Tribeca Prods., seeking an internship; Neustadter answered. Neustadter was a recent University of Pennsylvania grad, and Weber joined him in the development department before becoming De Niro’s assistant and, for a while, the person who archived every costume and prop the two-time Oscar winner has ever worn onscreen.
“You think the bar for what passes for an acceptable script in this industry is at a certain height, and then you realize, ‘Oh, the stuff that agencies are sending around, that producers are circulating … the bar’s a lot lower,'” Weber said. “That, I think, gave us the confidence to think, ‘You know what? Let’s try writing something together.'”
Starting around 2001, Neustadter and Weber wrote three scripts in 18 months, including “(500) Days of Summer.” They never work in the same room: Back then, Neustadter filed his pages from the Upper West Side while Weber wrote from the Lower East Side. Today, Weber remains in New York City, while Neustadter has relocated to Southern California, where he is a married father of two. (Acknowledged Weber at that Santa Barbara panel: “We still get nothing accomplished when we’re together.”)
Their process involves lots of phone and email conversations before drafting an outline. Then they write separately for a day or two, exchange copy, make edits, and share the results. If both shrug off the chance to write a scene, Weber said they get on the phone: “If neither one of us is excited to write this, who’s going to read it, let alone watch it?”
While Neustadter was a born movie geek, Weber wasn’t. “We just couldn’t afford it, like I was the tagalong friend going with my friend and their family,” he said. That changed at Syracuse, where he hid from the snow by watching three or four movies a day. “Movies sort of taught me adulthood,” he said. “I always knew I wanted to write, I just didn’t know what, and it was those years freezing my ass off, watching all those movies, that I was like, ‘Oh, I want to write these.'”
While Wiseau and “The Room” are now part of the Los Angeles culture (“That billboard, it’s the scariest goddamned thing in the world,” Weber said in Santa Barbara), they needed to ensure their script would land for the uninitiated. Neustadter and Weber decided not to see “The Room” until they had written their first “Disaster Artist” draft. (Neustadter eventually caved, watching it on his laptop.)
What they did do, however, was keep Wiseau at bay. While negotiating the rights to his life story — without an attorney — Wiseau mandated that he could provide script notes. So, a “Disaster Artist” producer became the designated listener, spending 10-plus hours on the phone with Wiseau (His changes did not have to be implemented, only heard). Wiseau also secured his own scene with Franco, with hair and makeup approval, and the right to name his own character. However, Wiseau forgot to demand the scene’s inclusion. (It follows the credits.) Neustadter and Weber guess that, in his mind, Wiseau believes he made “The Disaster Artist.”
Courtesy of A24
The writers — and even Dave Franco, who plays Sestero — had their doubts about James Franco’s decision to cast himself and his brother as wildly dissimilar characters who go from strangers to sidekicks. A table read changed everything: “That was the first time we really heard the [Wiseau] voice, and we were like, ‘Okay … it’s going to work because of just how [James Franco]’s inhabiting the character,’ and you laughed, but you also felt something for him,” said Weber.
Weber added that once they had the script, Franco safeguarded it. “To Franco’s credit — it’s not always like this — he was so protective of the script,” he said. “There are directors who use the script as just a way to get to set, and then do whatever they want.” Instead, Franco “always made sure that we shot what was scripted, because he knew that you can mess around and come up with new funny, but you can’t mess around and come up with new emotional stakes … that was what the movie lived or died [on], whether or not you felt something for these guys and you felt something when the friendship starts to fracture.”
Awards season began as a victory lap for Franco, who received near-universal praise for tackling the enigmatic Wiseau. Then, immediately following his Golden Globes acceptance speech — where he was accompanied onstage by Wiseau — women on social media, including former collaborator Ally Sheedy, implied that they had been sexual harassed by Franco, who wore a Time’s Up pin to the ceremony.
Four days later, on January 11, The Los Angeles Times published accounts from five women who claimed they were mistreated by Franco, including actresses on film sets. On the talk show circuit that week, Franco responded that the accusations were “not accurate,” but he would not “actively refute” them. Neustadter and Weber picked up the film’s lone Oscar nomination, after winning Best Adapted Screenplay from the National Board of Review (they also garnered USC Libraries Scripter Award and Writers Guild Award nominations).
“We find out things or read things or hear about things at the same time as everyone else,” said Weber. “There was never a hint of an issue or a problem or anything on our set. And frankly, if there had been, we would have said something. Years ago, years even before this movement, we were on a set that will remain nameless, that a producer made an inappropriate comment to an actor about something, that just made someone feel uncomfortable … The director and I pulled the producer aside and we’re like, ‘That can never happen again. Here’s how you made someone feel, and there’s just no tolerance.’ So we understand the changes that are going on right now, we support them, it’s long overdue.”
Neustadter chimed in: “At the same time, this is a very positive movie, it was about dreams and friendship and uplifting things, and all that stuff. So any association with anything negative is a bit of a shame for us … But there’s nothing that can be done about it. We support everything that’s happening, and we hope that it makes some change and if this is collateral damage, then that’s small potatoes.”
A few years after becoming members of The Academy, they can barely believe that they will attend their first ceremony — for writing a comedy, no less. Still, Neustadter said he half expects the industry to “catch on that we don’t know what we’re doing.”
Ultimately, that may be the biggest reason they decided to adapt “The Disaster Artist”: They saw themselves in Wiseau and Sestero. “It wasn’t that long ago we were outsiders, dying to break into the business,” said Weber. “We believed in each other when no one else believed in us, when most of the people around us thought our dream was ridiculous. That’s Tommy and Greg’s story.”
Additional reporting by Anne Thompson.