When people think of The Room or just about anyone involved with The Disaster Artist, they think of comedy and laughs. However, the thing that many can take from these movies is that the willingness to chase your dreams is central to everything that’s going on. When I sat down with Screenwriter Michael Weber and Actor Paul Scheer, this was a constant topic that both of them could relate to. Speaking about that was important to our conversation, but so were plenty of other things that had to do with their film and even the early days of their careers.
CINEMATIC ESSENTIAL: How did you and Scott Neustadter meet and decide to begin writing scripts as a team?
Michael Weber: Scott and I met in 1999. Scott was working at Tribeca Productions and I started interning there. Then I started working there after I graduated Syracuse in 2000. I want to say in probably 2001, we were always talking about scripts and what was coming through the company and what other companies were buying. Just always marveled at how mediocre so many screenplays all over the industry were. And it kind of boosted our confidence. We thought we should give this a shot. We were both writing on our own a little bit, but having trouble finishing things. Then we thought, “Maybe if we do this together and we can push ourselves to finish something.” We seem to have the same sensibility, we have the same storytelling heroes, and we liked the same kinds of movies. We didn’t always agree but our sensibilities were aligned enough. My background from Syracuse was where I learned to extensively outline before writing a word.
So how do the two of you actually handle the writing of a script?
Weber: Oddly, at the time, Scott lived on the Upper East Side, I lived on the Lower East Side, but our process is still the same today. All of our projects begin with a kind of dialogue that’s so macro: What is this story about? Who’s it for? And one of our key questions is why tell the story now? Which is a little bit of a story question and a little bit of a marketing question. The answer to that question not only established the guiding stars that help us when we’re writing, they help us when we’re trying to sell the movie when the movie is coming out, it helps us talk about the movie. But it really starts off as a dialogue and eventually once we have an outline that’s comprehensive, the writing goes really quickly and we divide up small batches of scenes. So he’s sitting at a Starbucks in L.A. writing scenes one, two and three, and I’m at a coffee shop in New York writing numbers four, five, and six. And every day and a half, two days, we’re emailing each other, editing, emailing back and it kind of gets streamlined. And that’s been our process really since 2001 when we first started doing this. We probably didn’t really take it more seriously until like 04, 05 even, but our process has always been the same.
Paul Scheer: I like writing with collaborators too. It helps. Right now, I’m writing something solo, but I’m employing a lot of my friends. It’s hard to write in a vacuum and sometimes the smallest tweak opens up but you can’t see it because you’re so on top of it.
Weber: The other hard thing about it is having a partner allows you to take more risks because you can turn to the person and go “This might be a crazy idea, but what if…” And if you’re not collaborating with someone, you have to determine on your own, “was this a smart risk or am I going off the reservation here.”
Scheer: And I think you guys are really good partners too because you guys came up together and have similar sensibilities, but I sometimes think in partnerships you have to find the right person. In some partnerships, one person pulling the train and the other person is following and there’s a partnership where you’re both doing it. You have to find that balance. I think that’s tricky thing. You don’t know until you’re in the writing or in the development of it. I’ve been in situations where I’ve run writing rooms and done different things. Sometimes the best writers or people with the funniest ideas are great in a group but terrible alone. Or terrible alone but great in a group. It’s a constant figuring out of what you’re writing style is gonna be. I’m always fascinated by it.
When did you guys really start to believe you could have futures in this business?
Weber: For Scott and I, we started getting writing work in late 2007 and we started getting other screenwriting jobs in late 2008. And they were shooting (500) Days of Summer in 2008 and we still had our day jobs. I still worked part-time at Tribeca Productions. Scott was writing coverage for some agencies and studios in L.A. So even as we started getting writing work, we still wanted the safety net of our day jobs because we thought just because we go on this ride once or twice doesn’t mean that we really have a toehold and this is a career yet. It wasn’t until that we started getting enough writing work that it necessitated taking up all of our time and we thought “okay, we’re putting all of our eggs in a basket.” And that was nearly a decade of just writing in general and probably two years of getting writing work before we let go of our day jobs.
Scheer: For me, I came up in New York City and I was in a high school and I saw this improv show and thought “This is amazing.”
Weber: In the city or Long Island?
Scheer: In the city. My dad and I go would go see things and I was like “I want to do that!” And I got involved in that group that did like a short improv thing and I was the youngest member in that group. Then UCB (Upright Citizens Brigade) came to town. We’re doing shows on the back of bars, we’re doing shows on the fifth floor of an old abandoned hardware store. And I had this moment in my career where I was touring colleges, I was doing this short-term improv, I was making money. Not good money, but money. Then I saw UCB and I was so energized by what they were doing. And I made a choice to stop doing this short form improv thing and start chasing what was creatively fulfilling to me. Now, if I would have stayed with Chicago City Limits and done the safer thing, I would have never gone on this journey where I found all my friends and all these experiences. Everything came out of joining that group.
So that risk paid off?
Scheer: What I realize too is that sometimes success doesn’t have to come in a financial way. Just do the work that you think is good that you want people to see. I was busting a*s during the day but at night I was doing shows and going back to work the next day. But even though there was no financial payout to it, I was creatively fulfilled and then those relationships and those partnerships blossomed and keep on going. And to this day, they’re people I associate with and people I collaborate with a lot and I just feel like you don’t have to always chase a paycheck or just because you’re doing something for free doesn’t mean that it’s not worth something. Some of the best things I’ve ever done or even the smallest movies I’ve done have helped me the most. There was a choice at one point whether I do a Fox show or Human Giant. And it was like the Fox show was really attractive with a cool director, it was a big show and it was a lead. Or do I do this other show on MTV but way less money but creatively fulfilling and I picked the MTV show and that helped my career. It’s sort of like follow the thing that you feel is going to make you most creatively fulfilled and that will make you successful.
The Disaster Artist is similar to the collaborative efforts that you’ve described. What was it like working on set?
Weber: As a screenwriter, every production is different. We’ve written movies where we were not on set at all and the script was merely something to help the director get to production, and then it’s like, “Thanks, we don’t need you anymore. See you at the premiere.” James Franco and Seth Rogan are so collaborative, they wanted other creative voices there on set helping out and really just guiding this. We had a shared vision, but they allowed for a lot of voices to come in and bring their best ideas to the table. The best sets are where the best idea wins. But at the same time, Franco as a director was very protective of the script. That’s kind of the environment you want. People feel safe to take risks, but at the same time, there’s a healthy respect for the shared vision of the script.
Scheer: And I’ll say as a performer on this movie, one of the things about James that is amazing is that he is also a performer and he has a vision. And Dave says once he casts a movie, he is a little bit hands off. He’s putting you in a role because he knows you can do something in that role. He has a vision for it but once he kind of gets you in the zone, it’s very much hands off. He wants you to bring something. He’s just kind of providing bumpers for you. As long as you stay in this range, let’s find it. That’s really good as a performer, to have somebody who understands what it’s like to be on camera. It’s a fine line and I think James is really adept at both sides of it. And I think he’s the first ever director who directed in character.
Weber: It’s as if Tim Burton directed Ed Wood, not Johnny Depp as Ed Wood directing Ed Wood.
How odd was that?
Weber: Well, he wasn’t ranting and raving like Tommy, but he kept the voice and mannerisms. So he would say like “Oh Mike, we have to talk about script. Why you put scene this way, crazy guy?” But you just got used to it. Scott and I only had maybe half a dozen meetings and a half a dozen phone calls with Franco before productions started a year and a half leading up to it, so we didn’t know James all that well. By the second or third week of the shooting, I had spent more time with James as Tommy than I had spent time with James Franco. I got so used to it, that the one day during production James was not with the prosthetics and wasn’t Tommy and was just himself, that was the weirdest day on set because I forgot what James Franco looked like and sounded like. It was strange.
Scheer: And it’s a testament to him and I think that it helped. When you’re playing a character this large and you have to ground him, you have to live in that. And it’s not like Daniel Day-Lewis from what I’ve heard: he’s method and always in character. You could talk to James. It’s just that the voice was different. He needed to keep the affectations and the character and everything because it’s so fully formed. It’s such a full body performance that you can’t just drop in and out of it. I think the only reason why the performance was so good was because he was in the soup at all time.
Weber: It also helped that, you and I (Scheer) had never worked with him (Franco) before, but a lot of the people had and believed this would work out fine for him. I wonder if James had been working with an entire group of people he had never worked with before if he would have been able to do that.
The two of you have chased your dreams and that’s what this film is about. What advice would you give to people who want to be in this profession in some fashion?
Scheer: My advice is always find a group of like-minded people and make stuff. There’s no reason not to create. I just watched a friend produce a film about Bruce Banner as The Hulk with no money and he just did an amazing job with probably less than a couple thousand dollars. It was a really cool thing. You can find a way to biggest ideas. Yeah, you may not be able to make a two-hour movie that looks like Thor: Ragnarok, but you can make a cool short and show those ideas. At the end of the day, the special effects and all that stuff aren’t the reason people are hiring you. And you can tell a story. Like Memento is a cheaper movie, but you understand stylistically this person has something to say. There’s no excuse not to finish and just find people who will help you and you will help them.
Weber: I completely agree about that building your tribe and you sort of all make stuff together and come up in the business together. But at the same time, the one thing I’ll add to that is don’t stop being a fan. Don’t stop consuming things. So no matter what, as much as you are putting out, take in.
Scheer: I totally agree with that.
Weber: Take in movies and books and surround yourself with other people who are as passionate about consuming these things because you will find yourself doing the same things over and over again, even if it seems different if you’re not taking in new stuff all the time.
Scheer: I agree. Whenever I finish a project, I do this creative reboot where it’s like I’m now going to ingest as much new stuff. When you’re writing a show, you’re just on that show. But when that is over, it’s like I want to watch things, I want to see things. Whether that’s a stage show or stand up or music or anything. It inspires you. Other people’s creative work is the most inspiring thing. It’s not like I want to be better than that, but it’s like I want to be as good as that. I remember seeing Hamilton before it had any of that buzz, I was like, “Oh, f*ck! This is insane!” It inspires you to be like, “I want to do play.” It’s like when someone having a cool toy. Being a fan, I never understand people who are performers on stage who stop performing on stage when they do movies or t.v. shows. I perform still every week. If you can, why wouldn’t you?
Weber: I’d go even farther. I’ve worked with directors – not getting stuff made, but I just collaborated with them to see if something was there – who don’t watch movies. That might seem crazy but it’s so hard to get anything made. It’s so hard to do this and pull it off and come out well. To not be someone who passionately loves movies and consumes them all of the time, why would you try to make them? So don’t lose that part of yourself that’s always taking things in. Taking in new voices, new ideas, challenging things that you hold onto tightly with different voices. I think that as a creative person that’s the healthiest thing you can do.
Scheer: I’m a father now and it’s hard to go and see movies the way that I would see them before but I really write in time for myself. If I go in the middle of the day to go see a movie, that’s good for me to do. I’m not wasting time by watching something. You have to make time to be inspired.
Weber: I’m always reading stuff for work, but I’m always reading stuff for pleasure. there are nutrients as a creative person that you get out of everything you watch and read.
Scheer: The worst voice to only have in your head is your own voice.
What would you tell people who haven’t watched The Room or have read the book that this is based on?
Weber: You don’t have to.
Scheer: Don’t be intimidated by it. I think you can see this movie. It’s a buddy movie.
Weber: Yeah, it’s about a friendship. You do not need to know anything about The Room. I’m going to quote you (Scheer) because you said it best: If you’ve seen The Room, The Disaster Artist is a sequel. And if you’ve never seen The Room, The Disaster Artist is a prequel. So come into The Disaster Artist anyway you want. You do not need to know anything about The Room.
Scheer: What do you need to know about baseball to see Field of Dreams? Nothing. It’s just to their credit, it’s not a movie that’s inside baseball. It’s a relatable movie about people who have a dream. And that is what I think is the lasting thing of most Hollywood movies. It’s just that their dream came out a little bit differently.