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James Franco decides to slow it down

James Franco on the set of “The Disaster Artist.”
Justina Mintz/A24
James Franco on the set of “The Disaster Artist.”

NEW YORK — James Franco knows that his multi-hyphenate celebrity persona had started to wear thin with critics and fans alike. Between his myriad acting and directing gigs, self-referential art-world deconstructions, book and poetry projects, soap opera stunt-casting, and gauntlet of academic pursuits, his career had become a frenzied juggling act, one that seemed to value quantity over quality. As his detractors became increasingly vocal, Franco, 39, finally started listening to his biggest critic — himself.

“After a while, it’s just like, why are you doing so many things? What are you getting out of that?” says Franco, while promoting his latest film “The Disaster Artist,” which opens in Boston on Friday. “Because, in fact, I achieved all of the dreams I had when I was younger. So I started to realize, oh, you thought that that was the purpose of life. You thought you were going to be happy when you achieved X, Y, and Z. But you’re still doing things the same way — at such a crazy rate! Where are you racing to, dude? And in fact, you’re actually running from something.”

His solution? He began to slow down, be more selective with his projects, and give the proper time and attention to the ones he chose to pursue. As he approaches his 40th birthday, he’s come to realize that it was a fear of failure that was keeping him on a never-ending treadmill.

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His newfound perspective and less frenetic pace has resulted in more carefully considered projects, including two current high-profile ones that are already earning the praise of critics. In addition to his well-regarded turn as rambunctious twins Vincent and Frankie on David Simon’s 1970s-era prostitution-and-porn series “The Deuce,” Franco’s latest directorial foray, “The Disaster Artist” seems poised to garner some of the best reviews of his behind-the-camera work so far. Meanwhile, his front-of-the-camera performance — as the enigmatic Tommy Wiseau, weirdo-mastermind of cult film calamity “The Room” — is already earning Oscar buzz.

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Adapted from Greg Sestero’s best-selling tell-all of the same name, “The Disaster Artist” chronicles the real-life friendship between Sestero and Wiseau and the calamitous roller-coaster ride they went on to create their 2003 stinker-of-epic-proportions, “The Room,” widely considered one of the worst films ever committed to celluloid.

Yet a funny thing happened on the way to cinematic infamy. “The Room,” which Wiseau intended as a dramatic masterpiece in the vein of “A Streetcar Named Desire” or “Rebel Without a Cause,” became a cult sensation in midnight movie screenings all across the country. With its story of a love triangle gone sour, the unintentionally comic result was a masterpiece of inept moviemaking — inane, non-sequitur-filled dialogue, hilariously melodramatic acting, gratuitous sex, and a nonsensical narrative rife with inconsistencies, red herrings, and plot holes. Over the years, Boston area fans flocked to dozens of midnight showings at the Coolidge Corner Theatre. They helped turned “The Room” into an interactive “Rocky Horror Picture Show” for a new generation — tossing footballs and lobbing plastic spoons at the screen, homages to memorable moments in the film.

After reading Sestero’s book (co-written with Tom Bissell), Franco saw compelling cinema in the behind-the-scenes story of two friends who took their passion for film and wound up delivering a narrative catastrophe that, despite its hapless amateurism, found a loyal fan base.

“It had everything that appeals to my taste for the bizarre and unusual. But underneath it was a very universal story, basically a love story or bro-mance, between these two friends,” says Franco, dressed in a plaid button-down shirt and flashing that mischievous grin that encapsulates his oddball prankster persona.

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Before getting down to work, screenwriters Michael Weber and Scott Neustadter (“500 Days of Summer,” “The Fault in Our Stars”) watched films like “Ed Wood,” “Boogie Nights,” “Sunset Boulevard,” and “The Talented Mr. Ripley” — “movies about dreamers and outsiders that test the bonds of the people going through these intense experiences,” Weber says.

“Their relationship in the movie is so intense that it almost goes beyond friendship,” says Franco’s brother Dave, who plays Greg. “So I think the fact that we’re brothers in real life really helped with that dynamic.”

While Tommy may be a strange figure with an Eastern European accent and a long, jet-black mane that makes him look like a cross between Dracula and Fabio, Franco says he identified with his struggles and insecurities. “Playing that character showed me how willful and blind and short-sighted I can be to certain aspects of myself,” says Franco, who maintained the character’s accent, vocal cadences, and mannerisms even off camera.

After directing several dark, brooding adaptations of literary works, including Cormac McCarthy’s “Child of God” and William Faulkner’s “As I Lay Dying,” Franco realized that it was time to move on. “In the past couple of years, I’ve grown up both as a person and a filmmaker.”

Indeed, Weber insists that Franco was completely “focused and prepared and present” on set. “This idea that like he’s shooting one film while acting in a studio film while taking a cooking class while composing a sonnet, that wasn’t our experience at all,” Weber says.

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With an enigmatic figure like Tommy, Franco knew that looking for insights from the real-life source probably wouldn’t be helpful. “Tommy is a great rewriter of history,” he says. Fortunately, Sestero gave him “a little bit of actor gold” — recordings of Tommy driving around in his car and talking to himself in a mini-tape recorder.

‘So I had to figure out a way to just stop running and be OK with myself.’

“So not only could I teach myself his voice, but I could hear him in these very private moments talking about the things that matter to him, or being negatively singled out in acting classes, or feeling discouraged by Los Angeles and the industry, and even early plans to make a movie of his own. I just saw it in motion — him feeling beaten down by the world and then his process of pumping himself up!”

As for facing his own insecurities and fears, Franco says it helped give him a new perspective on work and life. “It was a matter of waking up and realizing, yes, I love my job, and I’m very grateful for it. But I can’t just lean on it as the thing that’s going to satisfy me spiritually. It ultimately wasn’t going to make me happy. So I had to figure out a way to just stop running and be OK with myself. And once I did that, then I could reapply myself to my work but in a much healthier way.”

The Coolidge Corner Theatre will screen “The Room” on Dec. 15, with an appearance by Sestero. On Dec. 16, Sestero will be on hand to read from his 2013 memoir “The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside The Room, the Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made”; the event also includes a behind-the-scenes documentary screening and a live reading of “The Room” screenplay.

Christopher Wallenberg
can be reached at chriswallenberg@gmail.com.