When it was announced that James Franco would be adapting The Disaster Artist — a behind-the-scenes account of the making of The Room, widely regarded as the best-worst movie of all time — there was little doubt that it would be funny, given what an easy target the subject matter is.
The Disaster Artist (now in theaters) is definitely funny, but the big surprise is its tone. It’s poignant, empathetic, and even admiring of those who made The Room (while, yes, gently poking fun at them). A lot of the credit for that goes not just to the cast and crew, but to composer Dave Porter, who has scored high-profile projects including Breaking Bad and AMC’s Preacher. We spoke with Porter about how the tone of The Disaster Artist came about, and how he focused it into music.
Channeling the Joy of ‘The Room’ Fans
“There were a lot of questions about the tone of the film in general, not just as it related to music,” explains Porter, who was brought on board thanks to his existing relationship with Preacher – and The Disaster Artist – producers Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg. One of the answers came from a specific intent: not wanting to belittle what The Room creator and star Tommy Wiseau and his crew of collaborators accomplished, despite how easy that can be.
The Disaster Artist team didn’t want to deride The Room, but to instead understand and highlight its value — especially to audiences who feverishly embrace the film in Rocky Horror-style communal screenings. In preparing to compose the score, Porter even reached out to some The Room diehards. “In terms of the research, for me, it was mostly about talking to people who were passionate about the original,” he says.
Dave and James Franco in The Disaster Artist
In doing so, he discovered what would become the spirit of The Disaster Artist as both a film and score. “There’s a joy in watching The Room, and the experience of that makes it a valuable thing. There’s nothing better than making people smile and have a good time, even if it may not have been the filmmakers’ intention.” Honoring that became key, even when the new film lovingly laughs with (not at) The Room. “It was about being able to be funny without making fun of. It’s that ability to have a shared humorous experience, rather than have it be directed at anyone or anything,” he says.
Finding Sympathy for the Characters and Their Complexity
Tone doesn’t have to just apply to the story or intent of a film, but can extend to its characters, as well. That was especially the case for those behind The Room, who could easily be dismissed or mocked as bumbling incompetents. Here too, Porter and The Disaster Artist had different intentions. “We wanted to be really clear that these are good people,” the composer says. “Even with Tommy Wiseau, we had to resist that temptation to paint him as someone who’s not likable.”
That’s especially why Porter, who hadn’t seen The Room when he began work on The Disaster Artist, turned to the book of the same name, written by Wiseau’s co-star and friend, Greg Sestero. “The book has all the insider info and the relationships, which are the things that we really tried to play up in the new film,” he says — with the understanding that with that in place, he could move forward. “We narrowed down the relationship we wanted to have, and the positivity that we wanted to have for our two characters, and this vision that they were reaching their goal, even though it may have come in a completely roundabout way.”
Navigating the Difference Between TV and Film Composing
Achieving the feeling of The Disaster Artist proved to be something of a challenge once Porter really got to work. “To get the overall tone was the hardest part, and that took a while,” he says. One reason was his transition from TV to film scoring, which offered different working conditions. “We turn around TV shows as fast as people watch them, which is once a week,” Porter explains. That means creativity has to happen faster. “In television, it’s the right decision or no decision. You have to really move.”
Film offers more time and less pressure, something that was very welcome. “There’s more time to finesse, so I was thankful to have that, because this was really tricky,” he admits. But time could also be a double-edged sword. “The film world has more time, but at the cost of it being more time to obsess.”
That’s not just about the composer’s time, but also the runtime available to work with. In television, composers have many episodes and hours to tell a story with music. “On TV, I can establish a theme and then say, ‘Well, this character’s going to come back in a month and I’ll have the ability to flesh it out more then,’” Porter explains. “The difference in a film is that you’ve got to tell your whole story in 90-100 minutes. Sometimes you have to say the things you need to say musically quicker, simply because there’s less screen time,” he says.
Giving the Audience Permission to Feel
One of the largest challenges for Porter was finding the right balance of tones to which the film was aspiring. “I wanted it to have that warmth and that positivity, but not be sappy or trite,” he says. That wasn’t easy. “Hitting it exactly right was the whole battle, in a way that was unlike anything I’ve ever done.”
He especially wanted to avoid creating two-dimensional music in order to prevent the main “characters” – Tommy Wiseau and Greg Sestero – from seeming two-dimensional. “One of the things we were working so hard to do in The Disaster Artist is to paint them as more complex characters,” he reveals. “The music needed to assist in that.”
What ultimately guided him toward overcoming this challenge was remembering to serve the audience. “You wouldn’t want to hit your audience over the head and tell them so overtly what they already know. So, it’s that balance of being supportive, rather than dictating commentary with the music,” he says.
Porter recalls something Vince Gilligan told him while they worked on Breaking Bad. “He would say, ‘Let’s give our audience permission to feel this way.'” For The Disaster Artist’s score, that became about remembering what the film’s goals were and what emotions it wanted to convey: both amusement and sympathy. The result is a score that serves The Disaster Artist beautifully, allowing us to never feel guilty about laughing a little at those who made The Room, nor to feel guilty for caring about them.
Top image: James Franco in The Disaster Artist. All Disaster Artist images courtesy of A24.