Screenwriters Michael Weber and Scott Neustadter dig into details about the development and writing behind their Oscar-nominated comedy, The Disaster Artist.
Screenwriting partners Michael H. Weber and Scott Neustadter are one of those classic overnight-success stories. For years, they wrote and pitched, kept writing, faced rejection after rejection, resisted giving in to easier paths, and then one day—overnight—they sold a project and were on their way. 500 Days of Summer, The Spectacular Now, The Fault in Our Stars, Paper Towns, Our Souls at Night, they co-created a TV series, they’re hired to rescue troubled scripts, and perhaps most enviable of all, they’ve reached the point at which producers and studios pursue them for projects. The team’s films have won critical praise, awards, adoring fans, and now Michael and Scott are up for an Oscar! And it’s for what is probably the oddest film they’ve written, The Disaster Artist—a tribute to “the best bad movie ever made.”
Michael is a graduate of Syracuse University, where I teach, and a friend, and I’ve met and like Scott. So, no question, I’m inclined to root for every film they make. But this article isn’t a critical review or some pop-culture analysis. Screenwriters need to know how projects get made and can benefit from learning how successful writers work, so that’s our focus here. And given that some readers might be more interested in one subject than the other, we’ll break this column into two parts: This article will describe how The Disaster Artist was developed and the writers brought on board, and then in “Part Two,” to be published separately, we’ll dig into Michael and Scott’s creative approach to writing the script.
To start, a little background…
THE FILM, THE BOOK, A FILM ABOUT THE FILM
The original film, The Room, was released in 2003. Released, as in its very determined writer-producer-financier-director-star, Tommy Wiseau, paid to have the movie play in two theaters for two weeks, reportedly so it would qualify for Oscar consideration. The film’s story told of a hardworking and successful man, Johnny, played by Tommy, whose girlfriend and best male friend betray him, leading to a tragic end. Reviews were not good, or kind, but the drama gradually morphed into a cult classic as word-of-mouth branded it the “Citizen Kane of bad movies.” A film so bad it was unintentionally hilarious.
Ten years later, 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 film. The book, co-written with accomplished journalist Tom Bissell, was aptly titled The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside “The Room,” the Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made. It quickly developed its own following, drawing critical praise and winning awards for being laugh-out-loud funny. And it was the book, not the original film, that first caught actor-director-producer James Franco’s attention.
So, Franco hadn’t seen the movie first?
Michael: I believe James read a book review while on set in Canada, shooting something, and then decided to see The Room while reading the book. He acquired the rights and then decided to partner with his friend, Seth Rogen, who has a production company called Point Grey. Combined, they reached out to our manager to see if we’d be interested in the project.
Do you know why they wanted you for this project?
Scott: We don’t really know. As we found out later, at the core of this story is a friendship between these two guys, and we had written a bunch of movies about friendships and relationships and romances. They had envisioned this as a bromance, which really it is, so I guess they thought of us for that reason. But we didn’t know this when they sent it to us. When we read the book and fell in love with it, we were concerned that what they really wanted was a shot-for-shot remake of The Room, or some kind of over-the-top comedy like This is the End, which Weber and I do not specialize in at all. [Both laugh.] So it was nice to discover that they were coming at us to get something that we actually could deliver.
So they sent you just the book at first?
Michael: Right, they did not send us the original movie, not right away. We were aware of The Room, but neither of us had seen it.
Scott: I read a couple chapters of the book and thought, “Wow, this is amazing.” And I stopped reading the book so I could watch the film. Now, this is the kind of movie that you should really watch in a theater, as a communal experience, but I watched it alone in my apartment on my computer. But you could still tell even then, there’s something here.
Your film is based on material from both Tommy’s film and Greg’s book. Did the producers have to purchase the rights to both?
Michael: James had secured the rights to the book and separately negotiated “life rights” for Tommy Wiseau and Greg Sestero.
Scott: But when we’re writing projects, we’re not even thinking about that. We’ve been doing this long enough to know that…write the best thing and if they flip for it, they’ll figure out how to pay for the “accoutrements.”
Michael: On a related note, all along we thought this story can’t just work for fans of The Room. Because as passionate as they are, they’re very small in number. So, I held off on watching The Room until after we finished the first draft. Better that one of us approach it from a more knowledgeable point-of-view and the other holds back, to make sure that this is about…friendship and chasing a dream, and things that are relatable even if you never heard of the original film or aren’t interested in the film business.
Scott: Yeah, if they were making this film only for fans of The Room, that was not a large enough subset of the film-going public that we could ever get this movie made. Fortunately, everyone had the same goal of making our film as accessible as possible.
Which companies financed your film and who’s handling distribution?
Michael: A24 is distributing TheDisaster Artist in America and Warner Brothers is handling international. As writers, we’re not just fans of the movies, we pay attention to the movie business. We noticed that there was a string of quite funny recent movies, such as Popstar, that kind of bombed as wide releases. Given the history of The Room and the weirdness of our film’s lead character, we knew that this is a movie that needs to be handled with kid gloves. Apparently, New Line Cinema, a distributor that got behind the film early on, was trying to come up with the best marketing strategy when they realized that it might help to partner with a smaller distributor, one that is very experienced at launching a platform release [i.e., starting with only a few theaters, and expanding to more in stages as the film gains traction] based on building word-of-mouth among target viewers. Which is a bit different from how big studios usually handle wider releases.
Scott: Right, look at a movie like Father Figures. That was one of those down-the-middle studio comedies intended to go out wide with the hope of making all its money back the first weekend, and then the rest is gravy. If Disaster Artist had that kind of roll-out, we probably would have gotten crushed. It’s the kind of movie that needs people to say, “no, you have to see this, it’s really good.”
Michael: So, New Line held a work-in-progress screening at South-by-Southwest in the spring of 2017 and several smaller distributors took an interest in the film. Next thing we know, A24 has come on board to handle distribution in America.
Scott: It’s really to New Line’s credit. This rarely happens. Studios don’t like to unload projects—what if the film’s very successful, like Slumdog Millionaire? But the New Line people really did us a huge solid because they love the movie. The idea was, put it in a couple of theaters and if it does business and word-of-mouth spreads, it avoids becoming this behemoth that tanked. It’s more “this little movie that could.”
Did New Line finance the entire production?
Michael: Good Universe and New Line. I believe that Good Universe was the first company to partially finance the project, and then as we were heading to production, they partnered with New Line to cover the rest. We basically made this with studio money and then had an independent distributor release it. Very unusual, and it was done for the benefit of the film, not for anyone’s wallet or bottom-line.
So, you had four finance/distribution companies, two powerful actor-producers, and assorted production executives all having a say in the development of this film—how did this affect your writing of the script?
Michael: We had one big meeting in person [with the producers] before we started, and a call after that, but once we all realized that we saw eye-to-eye that this story was about a friendship, they gave us an incredible amount of freedom to write the first draft. After that, it became more collaborative in terms of their offering notes about things they wanted to see, and when they should happen, and how much of something should be included. Such as, at what point in the story should the idea for The Room surface, and how much of the movie should cover production of their film. Details like that were discussed after we were allowed to create a solid foundation in the first draft, which was great.
Scott: Yes, they were being good producers.
Michael: They were, that’s great producing, when you give your writers the freedom to build that foundation.
And exactly how did they deliver those later notes to you?
Michael: They’d usually send us a document, often in advance of a meeting, and those tended to be macro, dealing with larger story issues. Or we might talk over the phone. And then we’d get together for notes meetings with James, Seth, and their producing partners. Later, when we were close to production, Nathan Kahane and Erin Westerman from [financing partner] Good Universe became involved in the process.
Scott: And there was a lot more notes-giving, a lot more discussion, during the shoot and during editing. And James shot everything, he was very efficient. So, they had lots of interesting footage to work with.
Michael: To James’s credit, he was protective of the script when we were on set. It was in post that there was a lot more crafting of the material, and cuts.
Scott: Yeah, there was about 15 more minutes shot of scenes before Greg meets Tommy, and about 10 more of San Francisco, before they go to L.A., and a bunch more footage of The Room being shot. An incredible amount of extra footage that will make the DVD commentary really interesting.
Was Tommy Wiseau asked to offer creative input during the writing of your film?
Michael: Tommy negotiated his own contract, and part of that allowed him to give script notes to the producers. But we had no contact with him while we were writing the script. Still, we were anxious to see what he would think about the movie. Because we live in an era when Tommy, the film’s subject, could have a lot of problems with the movie, and that could derail the narrative of the story being told. A story about two dreamers who made something lasting. And it was a little precarious, because Tommy repeatedly said that the book, Disaster Artist, is only about 40% accurate. So, it was a relief when after both the South-by-Southwest festival
screening and the Toronto screening, Tommy declared that the movie is about 99.99% true. The fact that he is supportive of and feels good about our movie obviously feels good to us.
To learn about Michael and Scott’s writing process and the creative approach that earned their script an Oscar nomination, watch for Part Two of “The Oscar-Nom Writers behind The Disaster Artist.”
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