Seth Rogen still can’t believe he got to make The Disaster Artist. “It’s crazy that it exists at all,” he tells The Daily Beast by phone, before letting out his signature belly laugh.
The Disaster Artist, directed by and starring Rogen’s friend and frequent collaborator James Franco, first screened to rapturous reviews and early Oscar buzz at the SXSW festival this past March and finally arrives in theaters this Friday. But the film’s origin story began more than a decade ago when Rogen first saw Tommy Wiseau’s The Room—on Paul Rudd’s suggestion—while filming The 40-Year-Old Virgin.
It wasn’t until several years later, on the Vancouver set of their ill-fated movie The Interview, that Rogen and Franco first started talking about making a film that told the behind-the-scenes story of The Room, often referred to as “the Citizen Kane of bad films.”
While director James Franco and his brother Dave Franco—playing The Room co-star and co-author of The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside The Room, the Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made Greg Sestero—do most of the heavy lifting as actors in the film, Rogen’s role as producer was crucial in helping to nail the delicate tone of a film that could easily have slipped into outright parody. “I didn’t want to make a movie that was just making fun of a guy,” he says.
He also had to manage Franco, who stayed in character as Wiseau for the duration of the shoot, in a way that resembled how his character in the film, script supervisor and assistant director Sandy Schklair, had to keep The Room on track. That shoot went weeks beyond what was scheduled and ended up costing an estimated $6 million of Wiseau’s mysteriously obtained fortune.
Thanks in part to Rogen, The Disaster Artist shoot went far more smoothly. And while this film may never reach the cult status of The Room, it could well be the rare comedy to break through this awards season.
When did you first see The Room and what was your initial reaction to it?
I saw it not that long after it had come out. It was probably about 2005 and I think Paul Rudd was the first person I actually knew who had seen it. But I had seen the billboards and shit like that and there were actually TV commercials that aired really, really late at night that I had seen as well. And it was just so fucking weird. Like, why is there a billboard for a movie that isn’t a real movie? I just didn’t get that. Rudd was just like, “You’ve gotta go see it, it’s totally crazy.” For comedy people, it was very inspirational for some reason. It really caught their attention and became a thing. If you saw it, you would either meet people who had seen it and would want to talk to them about it, or meet people who hadn’t seen it and just try to convince them to go see it.
What was it about the movie that you found so inspirational?
There was just something about how funny it was. And how strange it was. And how even though it fails in every way for maybe what he was intending, there’s something about it that was incredibly entertaining, and that is very good and worthy and fun and worth recommending to other people. It’s just so endlessly bizarre that there is a similar excitement to watching a really good movie, where you honestly just can’t wait to see what happens next, you know?
Yeah. And then how did the idea of James Franco playing Tommy Wiseau first come up?
We were filming The Interview in Vancouver and Franco, without having seen the movie, was reading the book The Disaster Artist, which I constantly make fun of him for. And he just loved it. And I had seen it so we would talk about it, and he would just talk about what an amazing story it was. He really likes Hollywood stories and he really related to it, it seems like. Then he saw The Room at a screening in Vancouver and became like a zealot. I remember, he was like, “I want to make this movie and I want to play Tommy and I want Dave [Franco] to play Greg.” And I was like, sounds good, man, let’s do it.
You said James related to the character and I know he’s said that making The Disaster Artist felt “autobiographical” for him. Do you see similarities between him and Tommy?
Yes, 100 percent. Hanging out with James and hanging out with Tommy are two very different experiences. [Laughs] But I think journey-wise and motivation-wise, they are people who really put themselves out there, and really try to make things that are very honest and pure representations of who they are, and really feeling like they have something inside them that they want to express that isn’t always received in the way you hoped it would be. I think a lot of that is stuff James heavily relates to, and that I understand very much as well.
I’m not sure if you’ve seen the new Jim Carrey documentary, Jim and Andy: The Great Beyond, about him playing Andy Kaufman—
I did watch that.
It struck me that there may have been some parallels between the challenges on that set of someone so in their character and maybe what you experienced on the set of The Disaster Artist. Watching that documentary, did you feel like there were similarities there?
Thank god not too many. [Laughs] I think James was mostly trying to keep the voice up just to make it easier for his performance, basically, so he wasn’t having to constantly shift in and out of something. I would not describe what James did as disruptive in any way, whereas it seems that maybe on Man on the Moon, the behavior slipped into disruptive. And there were not people walking around on our set like, why is he doing this? It totally made sense. And it made it more fun, if anything. I think everyone enjoyed it and liked it. And in the best way it made everyone feel like they knew what it was like to work on a movie that was being directed by Tommy Wiseau. For the crew even, they would kind of be swept up in how bizarre it was. But I was watching that Jim Carrey doc thinking, man, I would quit this movie.
But that is similar to what your character in the movie experiences in terms of dealing with Tommy. Did that help you, the fact that he was staying in character, to stay in that exasperated state that your character Sandy is experiencing?
No, it didn’t help me at all. If anything, it was harder for me because I found it so hilarious that it almost did the opposite for me. It almost took me out of it.
Because your character doesn’t find Tommy as funny as you find James.
Exactly. And he just kept endearing himself to me.
The scene where the audience is watching The Room for the first time is really fascinating because it rides the line between them laughing at it and laughing with it. As you’ve watched The Disaster Artist with audiences, do you worry that they are laughing at the characters too much and not with them enough?
I think it’s a fine line, for sure. And I think that there are moments where every character gets laughed at. There are moments where we are giving you permission to laugh at Tommy, not in a way that is being particularly mean-spirited and in a way that Tommy himself has expressed that he appreciates. But I think while we were making the movie and leading up to the making of the movie, when we were working on the script, that was when my biggest fear was that that would happen. I didn’t want to make a movie that was just making fun of a guy. I didn’t wanted to make a movie that was just exploring how bad this movie was. I wanted to be part of a team that was making a movie about what was weirdly compelling about this movie that this guy made. And what drew us to it. And what was good about and pure about it, in that it is an actual expression of what he was trying to get across. To me, that was much more interesting.
And when you’re working on a movie, you don’t know if it’s going to be good or not until it’s done. So you do try really hard even if you suspect it might be bad. And you do get sucked up in it and you don’t quit, because you don’t want to quit, in case it’s good. To me, that kind of camaraderie is really interesting. Once we made it, I wasn’t worried. I felt like Franco was sympathetic enough that you wouldn’t want to just laugh at him—that you would root for him eventually, and that we, as the filmmakers, would have failed if you felt like we were just making fun of him.
I feel like the movie definitely humanizes Tommy a lot, but it doesn’t tell us that much more about his mysterious background. Is that something that you tried to explore in the early stages of the movie, to reveal something about him that we didn’t know?
Not really. I mean, to me, the most interesting thing is that he doesn’t want you to know. I’m actually sure whatever the story is is not that fucking fascinating. If it was that controversial a story, he probably wouldn’t feel incredibly comfortable being a very famous person, which he is. And so my instinct is the fact that he doesn’t want people to know his story is far more interesting than whatever his story probably is.
Having spent a decent amount of time with Tommy at this point, are there things that surprised you about what he’s like as a person?
As one of the producers of the movie, I was not that psyched that he was going to be around and that he had to film a scene in it. I was a little nervous about what impact on the production his presence would have, even though it was only going to be for a day. And then he showed up and was so harmless! And like the character in the movie, very sympathetic and sweet. Within five seconds of meeting him, I was like, I can’t believe I was worried about this. I don’t deny that he acted tyrannically and that he was incredibly unpleasant to a lot of people [while making The Room], but outside of that environment he was actually very sweet. And I was not expecting that. I don’t know what I was expecting. It’s like meeting a fictional character. Like meeting Homer Simpson. Like meeting someone who has stepped out of a false reality. And I’m not alone. Bob Odenkirk, who has a small part in the movie, was at the AFI screening we had at the Chinese Theater a couple of weeks ago and I was like, “Have you meet Tommy?” And he was like, “I don’t want to. I just can’t meet him.” And I get that. I didn’t want to meet him either, for some weird reason.
Bob Odenkirk is just one of so many incredible people who took on small roles in this film. Was that more a case of calling on friends to do it or more people being excited to be associated with it because they love The Room?
I think it was definitely a combination of people who were friends and were cool to work on a movie that shot in Los Angeles for a couple days. A lot of it was people who were fans of The Room or had read the book and were excited to participate in it for that reason. What happened a little bit was there was a snowball effect where people heard what we were doing and heard that Franco was directing this movie while staying in character as Tommy Wiseau and some people came because they just wanted to see it first-hand. Because it was so weird.
You mentioned that James hadn’t seen the movie when he read the book. Do you think people need to have seen The Room to enjoy The Disaster Artist?
I personally don’t think so and we definitely put more thought into making it for people who had not seen The Room, because we assumed that was most people. It’s probably a more gratifying experience in a lot of ways if you haven’t seen it, because you don’t know exactly what the result is. I think Paul Scheer actually put it best. He said, if you’ve seen The Room, it’s a sequel and if you haven’t, it’s a prequel. I think it really does function on both of those levels, which is something I’m very happy about. Because something we talked about a lot was how do we not make this just some fucking hipster Hollywood bullshit where, unless you’ve heard of this shit that the cool kids have heard about, go fuck yourself. We didn’t want that.
You said you and James started thinking about this film while working on The Interview. Given how much time you’ve spent thinking about North Korea, what has it been like for you to watch the escalating tensions between Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump?
It’s interesting. [Laughs] Yeah, it’s like having a front row ticket to the greatest fucking disaster perhaps in the history of humanity. So I guess there’s something fascinating about it to that degree, but it’s also absolutely horrifying.
I know you’ve made some attempts to reach Donald Trump Jr. via Twitter DM. Are you jealous at all that he responded to WikiLeaks but not to you?
I am a little jealous! I guess I wasn’t offering the right thing.
You didn’t have any secrets to share with him?
I had no dirt. [Laughs]
It’s like beyond fucking reason at this point. There is no level of satire or exaggeration that could even come close to what is happening in real life as far as blatant hypocrisy and stupidity goes.
Sometimes it feels like you and Judd Apatow are two of the only men in Hollywood forcefully standing up for women on Twitter. Why is it important for you to speak out on that and why do you think more men are not doing the same?
I can’t speak for other people. Honestly, I’m not sure. I don’t know if it is important for me to speak out about it. I don’t want to pretend that what I’m doing is that important. It felt [pauses] appropriate, I guess would be the word, more than anything. It seemed as though there was some desire to have men who were peers of these people speak out against them. And, especially Harvey Weinstein, I was more than happy to speak out against him because I fucking hate him. So the notion that it in any way might be helpful for me to comment on him, it was very easy, honestly. I dealt with him 10 years ago on a movie and he was just a giant motherfucker to me. And I had not heard, honestly, anything about him sexually assaulting dozens of people. But to me I just personally found him to be a gigantic motherfucker.
What was the context of those interactions that you had with him?
I had made this movie Zack and Miri Make a Porno that he produced and he just lied to me on many, many, many various occasions. Again, what he did to me was nothing compared to what he did to other people. A drop in the bucket—not even a drop, a drop of a drop. I don’t want to act like I’m some victim of Harvey Weinstein. I just didn’t like the fucking guy.
It does seem like it’s been easier for people to speak out against someone like Weinstein who was widely considered to be a bad person outside of the sexual misconduct, as opposed to someone who was held up as a hero. Have you had that experience, whether it’s Al Franken or Louis C.K. where you felt like it was harder to condemn them because you respect their work?
I personally haven’t found that, honestly. But I had a personal connection to Harvey Weinstein, which is why I felt specifically compelled to speak out about him. I’ve met Louis C.K. in passing once or twice. I obviously feel like what he did was absolutely appalling and terrible and it should not in any way be tolerated. But again, it’s a weird question, does it go without saying? Do I comment on every one of these motherfuckers that comes out? It’s getting like it would be a full-time job, unfortunately. So I don’t know. And I also don’t want to try to take attention away from the people who are actually the victims of these problems. I don’t want to make it all about me. I’m trying to not insert myself too much into these stories because I would love for the focus to be on the victims and the perpetrators and I want to try to maintain an environment where people feel comfortable coming forward with their stories. I’m not 100 percent sure how to do it, but I want to try my best.
Going back to The Disaster Artist, James is definitely in the running for Best Actor at the Oscars, which would be a rare nomination for a comedic performance. Do you think the Academy is prejudiced against comedy?
Yes. I think everyone is prejudiced against comedy, except audiences. I don’t think it’s just the Academy. I was watching Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee and Jay Leno was on and he was like, you know why no one respects comedy? Because everyone thinks they’re funny. And I think that’s kind of true. Everyone has a funny friend. And people think because it’s funny, less thought went into it or it’s in some way less layered. And sometimes it is, but sometimes it isn’t. I’ve worked on both comedic and dramatic stuff and for me, comedic stuff is much more challenging. But it’s viewed as less serious, because people are laughing, and because of that people are less likely to shower awards and that kind of insider acclaim on it because I think they want to think what they’re doing is somehow elevated above that. It’s funny, because with TV, the Emmys realized they had to actually make comedy categories or comedies would never get awards. The Golden Globes kind of did it, but they mixed it with musicals, which doesn’t make a ton of sense. And then they constantly seem to be pretty liberal with the movies they allow to qualify as comedies. I think we were up against The Tourist one year. And the Oscars just doesn’t even try, generally speaking. Maybe once every few years a comedic thing will break through, but they rarely, if ever, win. But I don’t know, maybe we are just fucking dumber.
The last thing I want to ask you about is The Lion King remake, which everyone is losing their minds over already. Have you started working on that yet and is there anything you can share about that process?
I have been working on it for months and months, it’s been quite a while. I don’t know what I can say about it. I don’t want Disney to get mad at me, I’ve never worked for them before. They control everything, so I have to be in their good graces. I was at D23 and I saw the teaser they played there and it was amazing and it made me cry a little bit. So I just feel very fortunate to be in it. I’ve known [director] Jon Favreau since I was 18 and I really like him. And Lion King is one of my favorite movies of all time, so to get to work on it, I just feel very lucky that I was invited to do it.
And have you met Beyoncé yet or does that come later?
I have not met Beyoncé yet. You think I’d be talking to you if I met Beyoncé? I’d be on to bigger and better shit, man.