The Award-Winning Disaster Artist
Actor and author Greg Sestero left Danville to chase his dream of making movies, and wound up in the worst film of all time. Now, his story is the toast of Hollywood.
Tommy Wiseau, James Franco, Greg Sestero, and Dave Franco at the premiere of The Disaster Artist.
Photography by Hans Ritter
At the Toronto International Film Festival in September, the hottest ticket in town was for the world premiere of The Disaster Artist. The film, based on Greg Sestero’s book of the same title, presents the equal parts fascinating and hilarious story of the Danville-raised actor’s experience making and starring in The Room, a 2003 indie hailed as “the Citizen Kane of bad movies” by filmmaker Ross Morin.
The Room was a box office flop—it earned less than $2,000 in its initial release—but became a worldwide sensation as audiences flocked to midnight screenings of the bizarre, so-bad-it’s-good film. Sestero, who didn’t think the film would even be released, has spent the past eight years visiting theaters around the world to answer questions about how The Room came to be. His book, published in 2013, added to the intrigue, becoming one of the great behind-the-scenes Hollywood tell-alls in recent memory.
“You could never have planned it,” says Sestero, 39. “No one could have set out to make a film so bad that it would become a success. It’s the audience that has made The Room what it is. It really is an experience to see it with a group of people who are in on the joke.”
While The Room was an accidental success, The Disaster Artist is so far one of the best-reviewed movies of 2017, even receiving a standing ovation after its premiere screening in Toronto. The Disaster Artist’s director and star, James Franco, has earned almost universal praise for his performance as Tommy Wiseau, the writer/director/producer/lead actor of The Room. Wiseau, an immigrant from Eastern Europe with a thick accent who imagined himself as a mash-up of Marlon Brando and Tennessee Williams, wrote and produced The Room to fulfill a Hollywood dream that no one else was going to provide.
While growing up in Danville, Sestero also dreamed of being in the movies. When he was 12, Sestero went to see Home Alone, then came straight home to write the sequel. In Sestero’s screenplay, precocious Kevin (to be played by Macaulay Culkin) accidentally travels to Disney World, where he runs into another kid named Drake (to be played by Sestero). Sestero sent the script to Home Alone’s writer and director, the late John Hughes, who had the courtesy to send back a supportive note along with an official rejection.
While attending Monte Vista High, Sestero started modeling professionally; during his senior year, he traveled across Europe for photo shoots and runway shows. But Sestero still aspired to act and signed up for acting classes in San Francisco, winding up in the same class as Wiseau.
Sestero was immediately drawn to Wiseau and his almost alien presence. One day, he approached him to see if they could work on a scene together in class.
“There was something about Tommy that was so … different,” recalls Sestero. “I just knew that acting with him would be interesting.”
As it happened, Sestero and Wiseau became friends. During a spontaneous day trip to visit the spot where James Dean was killed in a car crash in Central California, Sestero told Wiseau about his dreams of moving to Hollywood to pursue acting. Wiseau then offered to sublet an apartment he had in Los Angeles.
Although he was just out of high school and barely knew Wiseau, Sestero jumped at the opportunity, despite his mother’s vehement objections.
“I was concerned that it was happening so fast,” says Marie-Jose Sestero. “I did not know Tommy well. As a mother, you are worried about what could happen.”
Sestero still remembers his mother’s lectures regarding his ambitions. “She told me that it would take me 20 years, working as hard as I could, to find success in Hollywood,” says Sestero. “That did not stop me from trying, but the funny thing is, next year will be the 20th anniversary of my move to Los Angeles. So, in a way, she was right.”
Living in L.A., Sestero signed with agent Iris Burton (portrayed in The Disaster Artist by Sharon Stone) but managed to land only the occasional bit part. His biggest “break” was the lead role in the 1999 direct-to-video horror film Retro Puppet Master (coincidentally, he beat out Franco for the part), but Sestero spent far more time working in retail stores than he did on movie sets.
Retro Puppet Master was not considered a success by anyone except Wiseau, who saw it as Sestero realizing the dream of becoming a movie star. Inspired, Wiseau moved in with Sestero and later spent months banging out the screenplay for The Room, a lurid melodrama about the relationship between a successful businessman (played by Wiseau), his unfaithful fiancée, and his duplicitous best friend, Mark. Oddly enough, Wiseau insisted that Sestero take the role of Mark. What followed was a surreal litany of outrageous experiences as Wiseau drove his cast and crew crazy during the production of the film.
The Room played for only two weeks in two Los Angeles theaters in 2003, one of which posted a sign at the box office stating that absolutely no refunds would be given to ticket purchasers. The warning was enough to catch the attention of two film school students. Astonished by the film’s absolute incompetence, they told everyone they knew that they needed to see The Room as soon as possible. Soon enough, this impromptu word-of-mouth campaign created a cult classic.
Written 10 years later, Sestero’s memoir (co-authored with Tom Bissell) provided a delightful peek behind the curtains for the film’s many fans—and it also caught the attention of Hollywood. Three weeks after the book was released, Sestero received a call saying that James Franco wanted to acquire the film rights to the book.
“In my mind, I had thought of Javier Bardem playing Tommy and David Fincher (Gone Girl) directing,” says Sestero, who is portrayed in The Disaster Artist by Franco’s younger brother Dave. “But now that I have seen the film, I can’t imagine anyone but James Franco making it. He really got the spirit of the material and really understood the vision that Tommy had when making his movie.”
In another surreal twist to this story, The Disaster Artist is being campaigned as a legitimate awards season contender, with Oscar buzz for the script as well as Franco’s portrayal of Wiseau.
Even Sestero’s ever-skeptical mother (portrayed in the film by Megan Mullally) is amazed by her son’s improbable happy ending. When asked what advice she would give to an East Bay parent whose child wants to take a shot in Hollywood, she says, “I would not want to take their dream away. I would just tell the parent to stay very involved, to keep in close touch with their child. Hopefully, they will realize their dream—and, if they are lucky, find their Tommy.”
The Disaster Artist hits East Bay theaters on December 8.
Enjoy these behind the scenes extras from our interview.