Screenwriters Michael Weber and Scott Neustadter describe their creative process and the decisions that went into writing their Oscar-nominated comedy, The Disaster Artist.
How do you write an Oscar-worthy movie? What’s the secret, the key, the magic formula? Screenwriters Michael Weber and Scott Neustadter don’t claim to know but they must be doing something right—the script for their latest movie, The Disaster Artist, has been nominated for an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay. It’s already received many other nominations and won other awards, but an Oscar? That’s the brass ring, as big as it gets. So how did they do it?
Michael and Scott have worked long and hard to reach this point. Their produced credits include 500 Days of Summer, The Spectacular Now, Pink Panther II, The Fault in Our Stars, Paper Towns, and Our Souls at Night. They’re now in the enviable position of having producers and executives seek them out for projects—just as actor-producers James Franco and Seth Rogen did when searching for the perfect talent to write The Disaster Artist.
If you haven’t seen the movie, it’s a funny film about the making of a very bad film, The Room, a real-life cult classic that many deem “the best worst movie ever.” The Room premiered in 2003, playing on just two screens for two weeks—and that’s only because its passionate producer rented out the theaters. That producer is Tommy Wiseau, a would-be actor with tremendous drive and perhaps less talent (being kind here), who decided to invest $6 million in his quest for stardom. Tommy wrote, financed, produced, directed, and starred in The Room, a drama about a hardworking man whose girlfriend and best male friend betray him, leading to a tragic end. The film was widely panned and it quickly died, only to resurface later as a so-bad-it’s-funny classic cherished by a small but loyal fan base.
Ten years after the film premiered, Greg Sestero, Tommy’s close friend and co-star of The Room, published a memoir about their relationship and the struggles involved in making the movie. Titled Disaster Artist: My Life Inside “The Room,” the Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made, the book quickly earned its own following and praise for being laugh-out-loud funny. And it was the book, not the original film, that caught James Franco’s eye and led to his making the Disaster Artist film now playing in theaters.
The steps taken to develop, finance, and produce this long-shot project form an interesting story and are a lesson for all screenwriters, but we won’t cover those business matters here. You’re reading the second installment of a two-part column. For details on how Michael and Scott were recruited to write The Disaster Artist and how they helped to get the film made, see Part One of “The Oscar-Nominated Writers behind The Disaster Artist,” published separately.
In this article, we’ll focus solely on Michael and Scott’s creative approach to writing the script: their process, choices, discoveries…commercial considerations, audience expectations…creating a balance between characters…things to be hinted at but left unsaid… decisions made as they first sat down to work on the script.
So, you saw the film and read Sestero’s book about the film, and agreed to take the job. When it was time to start writing, how did you begin?
Michael: One of the things that came out of our first conversations was deciding that the emotional stakes of this story were going to be, “can the friendship survive the making of this piece of art of questionable quality?” It wasn’t, “do they make a good movie or a bad movie?” Because that second question is not a question that one can emotionally feel connected to. When starting a script, we don’t necessarily know what the last scene is going to be, but we do have an idea of what the stakes are, and the bigger idea of what it’s about and where the emotions are going to come from.
Scott: Yes. And one of the major changes we made from the manuscript was… The book was written about ten years after the film. So, there’s definitely a lot of the book’s author, in hindsight, coming across as quite savvy [about Hollywood and filmmaking], as if he knew all along what was what. And our feeling on that was…he probably didn’t know. [Both laugh.] Because you don’t know what’s going to happen next when you’re going through something, and who can predict the future? So, in our film version, Greg Sestero is more along for the ride than he is in his book. Both men were just newbies in the business, babes in the woods, and that is what makes the movie and their relationship…nice. So we decided early on to make that change.
Also, a lot of stuff was discovered in the filming. A lot of material we wrote into the script ended up not making it into the movie because it didn’t really fit into what the purity of the narrative became, a story about these two guys and their crazy dream. For example, the book has Greg moving to L.A. before Tommy does, and Greg starts to get a little traction, landing an agent and a role in a Puppet Master movie. Then Tommy moves to L.A., and there is an interesting undercurrent of darkness as Tommy greets Greg with, “okay, you’re going to help me now, now that you’ve made it.” But none of that worked in the context of these two guys sharing a crazy dream, so it ended up on the cutting room floor. For us, the undercurrent of trouble needed to start during the filming of The Room, as Greg starts pulling away from Tommy. And Tommy wasn’t expecting that, he thought making the movie would bring them closer together. So, we didn’t really want the stutter-start caused by their relationship being in jeopardy to surface before they began shooting their movie.
Michael: Yeah, the hardest thing to calibrate was why Greg hangs in with this friend for so long. If we had used the tenor of the book, which shows Greg being so savvy about things, it would be even harder to understand why he would stay. Making the change that Scott described helped us to justify why he does.
At the beginning of your film, before the story starts, we see a funny sequence in which recognizable stars face the camera and share their opinions of The Room with the audience. Why did you include that? And was it written into the script from the beginning or added after seeing cuts of the produced film?
Scott: That was an idea we had when working on the script because when people asked what we were writing, some had never heard of The Room or they thought we meant Brie Larson’s film, Room—which wasn’t a bad film so how could we call it the worst movie ever made? [Both laugh.] In fact, some initial audience testing of our movie indicated that many viewers who didn’t know about the original film liked our new film, but thought that Tommy was a new Borat, some fictional character we had created. So, rather than introduce our film with just “based on a true story,” we thought having famous people share their experiences with The Room would give it a bit of cultural context. This was a way to explain, “No no, this was a real film, and these are real people giving their real reactions to it.”
Why did you pick those stars to appear in the opening sequence?
Michael: We wrote a bunch of them in based on reading stories saying they were fans of The Room, reports about actors having private screening parties of this weird film that nobody had seen. People like Paul Rudd, Amy Poehler, and Adam Scott. Thanks to the fact that James Franco and Seth Rogen know everyone, we were able to get a lot of the people we had written in. And then they asked J.J. Abrams and others, all real fans, to also be part of that.
When the film’s story does begin, you open with the sequence in which Greg meets Tommy for the first time, in an acting class. Had you considered other ways to launch the story?
Michael: There were a couple of different versions we played with, and one we shot. It involved spending more time with Greg and his dream of becoming a movie star, and his mom sort of dumping on that dream. It wasn’t until we shot that and were in the editing room that it became obvious that everyone would understand all of that already, so we should just get right to the acting class.
Scott: Also, James Franco’s electricity is so intense, if you spend too much of this movie without bringing him in, you’re making a huge mistake. The audience is going to say, “Go, give me what I want to see!”
What are the steps in your writing process, once you move from discussing major story issues to typing away at your keyboards?
Michael: It’s a lot of emailing and a decent amount of phone calls. Emailing early on about macro things like what the story’s about and the emotional through-line, and talking about favorite moments, like wouldn’t this be a great scene or an interesting turn. And because we’re two writers, and so two anxious people who foresee a lot of doom-and-gloom, before we even create the outline, we’ll discuss “how are we going to solve this?” and “that part might be a little thorny” and “we might have to truncate this.” Concerns and questions. We just email each other back and forth; every project starts as a dialogue. And then we craft an outline out of those discussions.
How long and detailed are your outlines?
Michael: Four to six pages?
Scott: I never print them out. They’re always sort of, like, weird emails on my desktop.
Michael: I print them out. We cram the outline full of detail. If we have ideas for a joke or dialogue, or a transition—the more stuff we have in there, the better. Our outline is loose and contains hieroglyphics and shorthand. There’s almost a language between the two of us, terms and phrases that we’ve been using for 15 years, that only we understand. Our approach with an outline is to try to figure things out and solve as many problems as we can before we start so that the writing goes so much faster.
And when you write the script, do you divide the scenes up as you go?
Michael: Yes, small batches of scenes, usually just a day or two of work.
How did you approach creating a structure for this story?
Scott: The book we were adapting has every other chapter deal with Greg and Tommy’s friendship, and the odd chapters dealt with the making of The Room. We put the odd chapters aside to focus on the friendship, and then cherry-picked from the best stuff in the odd chapters when writing about the production of their movie. It’s a fairly straightforward three-act story about two friends who do something incredibly nuts, that tests the boundaries of their friendship. But then they come out the other side even closer than when they started. Inextricably linked for the rest of their lives.
When you began writing dialogue, knowing that Tommy’s fans are very familiar with his wonderfully odd speech pattern, what steps did you take to get that right?
Scott: We relied on transcripts and audio recordings he had made. Our first stop was always turning to source material, like where can we get something that he said here or said there. And then there were stabs in the dark where we’d try to write in Tommy-voice, that we were told later on we really nailed, which was very nice to hear.
Did you find yourselves talking in Tommy-voice when working on the script?
Scott: I find myself doing it now! It’s really strange. When you hear other people say things not in Tommy-voice, that Tommy says, you immediately hear it in Tommy voice.
Michael: I didn’t start to do the Tommy-voice out loud until we heard Franco at the table-read. After that, I started doing it and it became like a virus that infected the set, because everybody was doing it. You’d walk by a crew member who’d go, “My god lunch today.” [Both laugh.] Everyone started talking like that.
When shooting the film, did a lot of scripted lines change on set because someone, most likely James Franco, came up with a better version of the line?
Scott: Oh man, James was brilliant at that, very funny. Some of his asides are way better than the dialogue we came up with. And the Rogen guys like to do “alts,” they like to throw out alternative lines from behind the camera. But Franco was almost always the one to come up with the funniest option.
How much ad-libbing was there on set?
Michael: A little bit, but to James’s credit he really did protect the script and made sure that we got takes as written. At the same time, he did allow the actors to explore a bit.
Scott: We would talk with James and say, “Today’s a great day for improv.” Like when Tommy’s character is going to hold auditions with actors—go crazy, right? But other days, as when Greg and Tommy are going to have it out or when Greg is moving out, though the instinct might be to make jokes and be funny, James knew that those days were not the time to mess around.
Also, we used to say we both prefer sad Tommy in this movie. Whenever James was playing a depressed Tommy, you were just leaned in so much more. James knew that there was enough funny here so that you didn’t have to go crazy on the funny in every scene.
Recognizing that a screenplay needs to be lean and tight to hold a reader’s attention, do you have a specific approach to writing scene descriptions?
Scott: We started out [in the business] reading tons of scripts. I would read maybe 25 a week, always internalizing what I liked and what I didn’t like. One thing I didn’t like was having to do too much work with my eyes. So, I was definitely cognizant of the need to only use words that you need to use. Our primary mantra is, don’t bore people. Get to the dialogue quickly.
Any other advice for writers?
Scott: Read, read, read everything you can get your hands on…know the rules before you break them…and don’t get discouraged.
Michael: Right. And I would only add, try to write every day. And surround yourself with people who care about this work—being creative, putting stuff out into the world—as much as you do.
Good advice. And perhaps that’s the formula that will win Michael and Scott an Oscar.
To learn how The Disaster Artist got made, and about the role Michael and Scott played in developing and producing the film, see Part One of “The Oscar-Nominated Writers behind The Disaster Artist.”
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