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How ‘Disaster Artist’ Writers Created Story of Friendship for Director-Star James Franco

A24’s “The Disaster Artist” is all about defying expectations. The 2003 Tommy Wiseau film “The Room” was a fiasco, but became an enduring hit. And in his 2017 movie about the making of the film, director-star James Franco approached this camp material with a straight face, finding heart and warmth where most people would find easy mockery.

Another happy surprise: Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber are Oscar-nominated for the screenplay. The pair have been friends and writing partners since 1999. Their first produced screenplay was “500 Days of Summer” in 2009, and in nine years they have seen seven scripts filmed, including two in 2017: Netflix’s “Our Souls at Night” for Jane Fonda and Robert Redford, and “Disaster Artist.”

As Weber laughingly told Variety, “If you had told us two years ago that we were going to be Oscar-nominated for a movie about Tommy Wiseau, but not for the movie we were writing for Jane Fonda and Robert Redford, we wouldn’t have believed you.”

James Weaver, who produced “Disaster Artist” with Franco, Seth Rogen and Vince Jolivette, originally brought the writers the book “The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside ‘The Room,’ the Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made,” by Greg Sestero (written with Tom Bissell) detailing his unorthodox friendship with first-time filmmaker Wiseau.

Neither screenwriter had seen “The Room,” but after reading four chapters of the book, Neustadter decided “I gotta watch this.” However, Weber avoided seeing it until after they finished the first draft, explaining, “We wanted this to be a film about dreamers and friendship, and didn’t want it to be just a spoof of filmmaking.”

In their first meeting with Rogen and Franco, Neustadter says, “We told them we wanted to write a drama, not a farce. It’s the story of these guys and their friendship, and how that’s tested. We thought it could be a great movie, but we didn’t know what they were thinking.” Luckily, the producers were in synch with that, using the same set of references, including “Ed Wood,” “Sunset Blvd.,” “Boogie Nights” and “The Talented Mr. Ripley.”

Neustadter says they took Sestero’s chapters about friendship as “the narrative drive,” with his chapters about filmmaking incorporated later.

Was there anything too outrageous to include?

Just details, says Weber: “Tommy never would valet park because he was always convinced that valets farted inside his car. There is a lot of stuff like that which is pretty funny, but it would have been an eight-hour movie.”

Neustadter adds, “There was a lot of production stuff that was hilarious, but the stories were too inside-baseball and would require too much explanation.”

Weber lives in Manhattan, Neustadter in Los Angeles. Weber says, “We have lots of conversations that eventually take the shape of an outline, then we alternate writing scenes. We email back and forth. We never write in the same room. If we’re in a room together, we procrastinate instead of write.”

Franco gives a great performance as Wiseau and seemed a shoo-in for an Oscar nomination. However, a handful of women made harassment claims and, in a piece of suspicious timing, the media printed these claims in the same week that Academy voters had their ballots in hand. Franco was not nominated.

Neustadter says both writers support the #MeToo movement and the changes being made. As for Franco himself, “We were on the set every day and we never saw anything inappropriate.”

Weber adds, “James was a pleasure to work with, and always a gentleman to everyone.”

The movie has been well-received (91% positive from critics on Rotten Tomatoes and 89% from audiences), and has earned $28 million at the box-office. But the negative publicity and the internet rumors created a cloud. Weber says, “It’s hard NOT to think about that now. But this is such an upbeat, positive movie, about dreams and friendship, a ‘Rocky’ type story about moviemaking.”

Despite the clouds, the two writers found a silver lining. Though they didn’t meet until adults, Neustadter says, “We each grew up dreaming of becoming a member of the Academy; then three years ago, we were invited to join. And now members of our own branch have nominated us. It’s so amazing.” He pauses. “When I heard I was nominated, the first thing I said to my wife was ‘Does this mean someday I get to be in the In Memoriam segment?’ ”

(Photo: Michael H. Weber (left), Scott Neustadter)

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