The Disaster Artist's Tribute to the Joys of Moviemaking

The Atlantic looks back on the key film scenes of 2017, this time a moment in James Franco’s biographical drama-comedy.

James Franco as Tommy Wiseau in 'The Disaster Artist'

Over the next month, The Atlantic’s “And, Scene” series will delve into some of the most interesting films of the year by examining a single, noteworthy moment and unpacking what it says about 2017. Next up is James Franco’s The Disaster Artist. (Read our previous entries here.)

There’s nothing Hollywood loves more than a tale of suffering in the name of creation. Making great art can be a magical and infuriating endeavor, one that often requires sacrifice. Works that go behind the scenes of the cinematic process—like Francois Truffaut’s Day for Night and Tim Burton’s Ed Wood—tend to home in on the absurdity of such efforts, portraying directors at the center of manic three-ring circuses that couldn’t possibly result in a meaningful film. The set of Tommy Wiseau’s 2003 movie The Room, dramatized this year in James Franco’s The Disaster Artist, was such a circus. But it was one that, against the odds, actually led to the creation of something special.

My favorite moment in The Room, to date Wiseau’s only feature film, is beloved by many: a throwaway line delivered by Claudette (played by Carolyn Minnott), the mother of the story’s female lead Lisa (Juliette Danielle). After she complains about her greedy brother trying to get her to sell her house, Claudette bemoans the general state of her life. “Everything goes wrong at once. Nobody wants to help me, and I’m dying,” she says. “You’re not dying, mom,” Lisa tells her. “I got the results of the test back,” Claudette replies with a shrug. “I definitely have breast cancer.”

To call this line a non sequitur would be too kind. It’s a narrative roadblock, a shocking moment that’s all the more shocking because it’s never addressed again, nor given any weight in the film’s larger story (which is about a love triangle). She definitely has breast cancer? This character we barely hear from otherwise? It’s a perfect example of The Room’s surreality, the kind of dialogue audiences have howled at in the popular midnight screenings that have helped cement The Room’s status as a so-bad-it’s-good cult masterpiece. In The Disaster Artist, a retelling of how the movie was made, there’s no explanation for why that line exists. But midway through the film, the woman who delivered it is revealed to be, in a sense, the secret hero of The Room’s production.

“Does this come back? The breast cancer?” Minnott (played in The Disaster Artist by the two-time Academy Award nominee Jacki Weaver) asks Wiseau on the set. “Breast cancer? No, it’s twist,” Wiseau (played by Franco) says, without further elaboration. He tries to push on with filming, even though it’s 100 degrees on set and he won’t pay for air conditioning; the embattled crew finally calls cut after Minnott faints, demanding a break to regain their composure. At lunch, the other actors try to figure out what’s motivating Minnott, a day player who’s traveled a long way to fill this inexplicable role in an equally inexplicable indie movie.

“Can I ask you something? Why do you do it?” asks Greg Sestero (Dave Franco), Wiseau’s co-star and former roommate, who’s been corralled into the production by his friend. “You have a husband and grandkids, you live 58 miles from here, and you’re waking up at 5 a.m. to drive all this way … for what?” “We’re actors, Greg,” Minnott answers with a smile. “You and me, people like us … even the worst day on a movie set is better than the best day anywhere else.”

There’s perhaps no simpler, or better, explanation for why anyone who worked on The Room took part in the production—maybe not out of faith in Wiseau’s vision, or even the promise of a good role, but for the joy of making movies. It’s a message Franco emphasizes even while depicting Wiseau’s mercurial madness on set and the director’s willingness to discard the basic rules of storytelling. It’s because of Wiseau that The Room resonated so strongly with fans: For better or worse, he made a film unlike anything people had seen before. While it’s true that for every The Room there are hundreds of amateurish indie works that barely get seen, that doesn’t mean no passion went into creating them.

Minnott’s contribution to The Room was small, and her presence could be entirely lifted out of the film without affecting the main plot (such is the strangeness of Wiseau’s script). She couldn’t have imagined that 14 years later, she’d be played by an Oscar-nominated actress in a few memorable scenes in a critically acclaimed movie. Such is the unpredictability of filmmaking: You never know which stories people are going to remember and love.

After Minnott assures Sestero that she’s happy to be on set, the other actors sitting with them start trying to guess what The Room is really about. “It’s autobiographical,” Robyn Paris (June Diane Raphael), another of the actresses, declares. “Does that mean there’s a Lisa, someone who stabbed him in the back and broke his heart?” asks Juliette Danielle (Ari Graynor). “Well, that’s obvious. That’s the universe,” Paris says dramatically. Great art can spring from the unlikeliest of places—but it never hurts to have an air of mystery.

Previously: Lady Bird

Next Up: The Post