I am The Original Disaster Artist.
And if I believe that, I guarantee you all of the poor, unsuspecting friends and family that I roped into starring in my own little film in the late 90’s – Two Roads Diverged – would absolutely agree. In fact, nary a day goes by that I don’t anticipate their angry return – torches and pitchforks in hand – looking to reclaim all those lost weekends I stole from them as we filmed impromptu action scenes all over New England. These were scenes ripped from the pages of a feverish script that I wrote with reckless abandon all because I thought it would be fun to make our own little movie and some great memories in the process. From the ivy covered halls of Harvard University to the winter solace found in a snowy forest surrounding Walden Pond – Massachusetts absolutely made for a great tax-free backdrop for my semi-hardboiled riff on the type of tough-guy posturing Tarentino was churning out in his sleep. It didn’t matter that the script was rubbish – we were having fun. Or, at least – I was.
We spent 8-months on weekends cobbled here and there making that film. Sean and I nabbed the starring roles as Ryan Coulton and Ed Winters – stealth assassins and longtime besties. Truth told, a little nepotism may have been in play there. Anyway, the two of us were written as geniuses who draw the attention of a clandestine government agency that works in the shadows of a college campus. The program – dubbed Road Scholars (and not Rhodes Scholars to avoid any pesky lawsuits that could derail the entire enterprise) – essentially La Femme Nikita’d our characters – taking our scrappy young smart guys and making them into vicious assassins. So, in essence – I turned Will Hunting into Jason Bourne 5 years before Hollywood decided that was a thing. Don’t get me started on how La La Land cribbed its ending from my play, The Lost World – that’s a story for another day.
For the supporting roles, the casting call went out primarily through our circle of friends – meaning Joe, Dana, Mark, Andrea, Kathie, Ollie, my cousin Jason and his Dad (my Uncle – who sadly never even filmed his part) all got strong-armed into appearing in this thing; and this was in an age before camera phones and social media so we had to assemble the cast the old fashioned way without benefit of blackmail material. Somehow they all decided to join up and actually read the lines I’d written – as terrible as those lines may be. Memorizing them was a whole different story; a tall order when you’re not getting paid – meaning in almost every shot that my character wasn’t in, I would be just out of the line of sight barking the next line. And still, they’d all yell “LINE?”
It’s a shame we never finished it despite working on the film for almost a full year and through several haircuts and weight gains & losses. Had we brought this thing to the finish line, it could have made for a spectacular failure. For now, it lives on in memory and a handful of old Sony High-8 video tapes that are doomed to degrade unless I somehow get them ported to digital. Hmmm – maybe next year’s New Years Resolution?!?!?
I started thinking about that old project earlier this week when I caught James Franco’s The Disaster Artist. That film is a loving tribute to the bizarre path writer-director Tommy Wiseau took to Hollywood infamy when making his stunningly awful drama, The Room. Wiseau is arguably the second-coming of Ed Wood (Plan 9 From Outer Space) and what’s fascinating about his story is that he is absolutely flush with cash and able to self-finance his own film from a seemingly bottomless bank account (that nobody is quite clear where the money comes from) – unlike Wood, who cobbled his fever dream sci-fi epic using nothing but cardboard, shoestring and imaginative incompetence. Wiseau has the financing and the drive BUT he is absolutely the least self-aware actor in an industry where knowing your place and face is half the battle. When nobody else would cast him, he took matters into his own hands and ended up spending so much money to make something so awful that it was inevitable it would eventually find its way.
I like Franco and I know that’s not exactly a popular sentiment these days. Let’s just put this disclaimer out there. If the recent allegations about him are true, he’s deplorable until he owns it and repents. I’ve written about this before but it bears repeating. Not assaulting or harassing women is NOT that hard. It really isn’t. I’ll never understand the guys that do it. NEVER! For this piece (which is actually more about me than him), I’m separating the art & artist from the headlines.
In adapting Greg Sestero’s non-fiction tell-all about how Wiseau spent a fortune making the “Best Worst Movie Ever” – Franco seized on the one thing that unites all great creators (no matter how wonderful or terrible their works come out). With love, passion and the best of intentions – even the most pathetic creation can find its fandom.
… but enough about Anne Hathaway. 🙂
I know because as I’ve said, I’ve been there/done that… or mostly done that. Sure, Two Roads Diverged never wrapped and honestly, if we were to pick up now – exactly 20 years later – the continuity errors alone might make for something even more special. Hell, one leading man would get all bald & beautiful before your very eyes and the other would grow a beard that on its best days looks exactly like a silverback gorilla somehow landed on his face. Yup – we be handsome.
So what made me decide to make a movie in the first place? For the answer to that question, we have to do the time warp again and head back to my waning days of college.
When most people part ways, they take a few photos or fall into a great big bear hug.
Me? I make a movie.
Or – at least – that used to be my M.O. back when I was young, dumb and surrounded by chums; those glorious college days when I thought nothing of cobbling together a screenplay overnight and then coercing my buddies to drop everything they were doing in order to do my bidding – turning my surrounding area into our very own private soundstage – all so I could add a few more memories to my synaptic scrapbook.
This habit was born during my Senior Year at UMASS Amherst. I firmly believe that when the end is nigh and you know you’re not going to see someone for a little while – or forever (who ever really knows?) – you fall into those hugs and try to hold on tight to blissful sweet memory, making damn sure someone snaps a pic or two. Me – I decided to go in the opposite direction. Knowing we were nearing graduation, I thought it would be fun to make a little movie and not just some little talking head documentary where everyone acts crazy in front of the camera and one out of every two dudes flips it off. I thought it would be more interesting to write a little screenplay, casting all of my friends and our dorm acquaintances in little roles and then just let the camera roll.
Of course, this was the front-end of the mid-Nineties when home video cameras were the size of a Boeing Dreamliner and battery time was approximately 2.3 seconds before needing a charge – so we were constantly running through the dorm with a life-line of extension cords, racking up the lawsuits with every student and circuit breaker we tripped; all in service of the asinine story I cobbled together when I should have been taking notes in Western Civ 301.
In my college film (Dumb White Guy – a riff on Single White Female), we opened on the bucolic campus of Turner Cove College (the same fictional institution that got a shout-out in my first play, the much more mature The Monkeybar Mafia. In the play, it was the setting of the screenplay the lead character, Ryan, was unsuccessfully pouring his heart into. That was my little tribute to me and my foolish dreams.) My long-time friend and college roommate Rich was cast as Chaz Perkins – the lothario with a secret yearning for pin-up photos of Winona Ryder and a penchant for dressing in women’s lingerie. My great buddy Justin was Juice Sawyer, the hockey-crazed member of the group who finds himself on the business end of a Sharpie at one point – the closest we would get to practice visual effects. And playing the leader of this motley crew was me WITH HAIR as their ring leader, Ed Winters. You have no idea how much we spent on CGI (or was it Aqua-Net) to get my hair feathered just right.
As this intrepid trio goes about their days having fun and occasionally going to class, the plot twists when Winters’ gets a new roommate – the mysterious Joe Roma; a silent but deadly assassin played by my great friend, Joe. (And yes – I realize I just described him as both a ninja AND a fart).
A series of murders has rocked the campus and suspicion quickly falls upon Roma; who is seen night after night fleeing the dorm room and returning with a strange, bulky military rucksack. In a third act twist, we discover that Roma is actually an FBI Agent who has been tracking a serial murderer across the country – the trail of blood ending at Turner Cove College. It’s there that Roma comes face-to-face with the true guise of pure evil; a dumb guy – or specifically, my character, Ed Winters – who in the coda is revealed to be a multipath; a psychological term I made up out of thin air aimed at describing this psycho’s condition. That’s all the proof you need to realize I never paid much attention in my one and only Psych class.
At one point, Roma explains – “a multipath cobbles together a personality from other personalities – most of the time from characters found in movies” – to which Justin’s character offers “That would explain his Crying Game phase”. Here’s where I should interject, “Don’t blame me – I don’t write this stuff” – but then I remembered, unfortunately – I DO!!! Or did. Look, we all gotta’ start at the bottom.
The film finally ends with my character unmasked and tossed off a cliff (or the most gentle rolling hill we could find and then film to look menacing). It was a stunt that I performed myself and I was so proud to show it off at our World Premiere (and only mass screening to date) which was held in our dorm’s rec room. We packed that hall with a poor, unsuspecting audience of our fellow dorm mates; mostly friends when they walked in but easily switching their future status to “It’s Complicated” on the way out. That night, the crowd was into it but then again, they had no recourse. They couldn’t congratulate us to our face and then wander off to rip it to shreds. There would be no merciless tweeting in 1994. Anonymity didn’t exist in this dojo, pre-Internet.
Now, I know my limitations. I’m no world class writer. I’m passable. I can get by. I can string words together to form a sentence and occassionally pull the right punctuation from the pile BUT I’m not Shakespeare nor Tarentino. I’d like to think I’m a step above whoever wrote Saw and Spooky Buddies. That said – I am shocked that the same guy who later wrote The Monkeybar Mafia, The Lost World and Lost & Found (all three of which I am genuinely proud of), once upon a time scribbled a screenplay titled Dumb White Guy on a cocktail napkin and then suckered a group of guys to give up their free time to film it. The same guy who once upon a time wrote:
“Yeah, I studied abroad. I studied a BROAD last night. Human anatomy. Biology. You know – the bare facts!”
– later wrote –
“Mike happened. I met him – one night as me and a few of my cast mates trekked halfway across Manhattan in search of the World’s Best Mojito. We never found it. But I went one better. I came home with Mike. And then – you know – a girl’s fairy tale. He was my white knight. Swept me off my feet –so high I never saw my dreams come crashing down. Not his fault though. It was my choice. I was in love.”
Poor Rich. If only he’d met me later, he could have had a meatier role as a Mafia Wife rather than the sick deviant I saddled him with all those years ago. Although, he did pull off that pink cardigan with style to spare when we reconvened for another film project a few years after college. You’d think that if I was going to coerce him into wearing a pink silk teddie for his role (which strangely took very little negotiation), I could have written him something a little more substantive like the latter and a little less foolish than the former. Oh well, I can’t take it back now – and he can NEVER run for public office EVER! You people owe me for that.
At least we finished that film which at a lean 20-minutes may be terrible but never outstays its welcome. It currently sits degrading on ancient VHS tape – although I snagged a few shots from it, tethered them to footage filmed later for Two Roads Diverged and pulled it all together to create the little digital trailer you’ll find at the end of this post. That alone grants us all Internet immortality.
When I look at what I accomplished in writing my plays The Monkeybar Mafia, The Lost World and Lost & Found – all written and produced in the last six years and well into my late-30s and early 40s – I realized I never could have written any of these back then. At that stage in my life, I hadn’t lived and loved enough to realize what really matters most. Had I attempted to crack that nut when I was in my mid-20s (when Two Roads Diverged was suddenly the only thing I wanted to bring together) – there is no doubt that what I lost in nuanced character drama would have been gained in were-lizards and robotic ninjas. I’m not saying we would have been able to film any of that but that wouldn’t have stopped me from writing it and somehow convincing Justin to get all cybernetic for our cinematic art.
But as silly as Dumb White Guy, Dumbguy Forever and Two Roads Diverged are – my dalliance with disaster led to better things. It kept me writing and refining and that eventually led to the stage where real people who actually have a clue about what they’re doing, got up in front of a paying audience and brought my words to life. Better words than what I wrote way back then.
I’m not saying I’ve become Spielberg but I’m no Wiseau either.
And I never would have arrived here without flirting with disaster first.