“You’re tearing me apart, LISA!”
Those five little words have been etched into the heads of moviegoers across the globe who saw The Disaster Artist, and/or its cultish-counterpart The Room. What’s more, that line of dialogue has become a vortex into the mind of writer-director-actor-producer Tommy Wiseau.
While it may have been panned by critics, there is something arguably refreshing about The Room, released in 2003, with Wiseau playing the lead role. And that baffling something is what roused producers James Franco and Seth Rogen to make The Disaster Artist some 14 years later.
Perhaps it was Wiseau’s maneuver all along. Give audiences the “Citizen Kane of bad movies” according to at least one professor of film studies. Years later, follow it up with a book about the making of said bad movie (written by Wiseau’s co-star Greg Sestero). Then, as adulation to the original, release a mockumentary based on the book based on the movie. And why not ratchet up a bevy of award-season nominations along with it, including an Oscar nom for best screenplay. Realistically, no one, not even Wiseau, could have predicted The Room’s bizarre orbit from its turn-of-the-century beginnings. Among all the hubbub, one thing’s clear: The Disaster Artist, released in December 2017, has brought this love it or hate it movie totally and unabashedly full circle.
Now to the reason you’ve arrived here: turning Franco into Wiseau. Did we mention that this eccentric man has interesting, complex features, with jet black 1980s rocker hair?
Google “Tommy Wiseau” and you’ll see what we mean—
Needless to say, the hair and make-up department for The Disaster Artist had its work cut out for them.
Make-up department head Andrew Clement (Deadpool and Interstellar), who came to the project after his friend Howard Berger recommended him, says, “Tommy has a very unique face, and I wanted to capture the feel of some aspects of his likeness, but not everything. James is the lead of the picture, and a handsome guy, and I thought it was important to keep him as appealing as audiences have come to know him.”
Clement explained that he’d rather work with the dynamic of an actor’s face without getting bogged down or distracted by too many appliances. “I don’t like burying an actor in rubber, unless the role calls for complete coverage. Then my job becomes working with the actor’s face, and finding how much of the actor I can keep and what little things will work to enhance a likeness. I’m also very aware of a production wanting to recognize the actor they have spent so much money to hire. When I did my Photoshop renderings and sculpted it I tried to pick out the features that I could bring to James’ face that would work in an appealing way, rather than trying to make a caricature.
“Then, based on the approval of that, I made silicone test pieces and combined them with a wig I had in stock. I made a couple options on a few of the pieces like the nose, and did a sequential application where we would look at each piece and photograph it to see what the best combination was—and how much of James we wanted to retain. I had made a brow piece that we didn’t wind up using at all, but it was good to have so we could see where the too much point was.
“With every make-up I do, I try to see how little I can add in the way of appliances and still deliver the same look. Everyone was really happy with the level of how much ‘James’ we kept and how much ‘Tommy’ we achieved.”
Clement’s Creative Character Engineering company (which has engineered appliances for Fargo, All the Way and Taylor Swift’s “Look What You Made Me Do” video) made all the pieces for The Disaster Artist, which included a nose, chin, sides of the jaw and eyelid. He ordered contact lenses from Kevin Carter at 9mm sfx. Wiseau has blue eyes and Franco has brown.
A dental plumper was also designed for the actor. Clement’s concern, however, was that the plumper would change Franco’s diction. After a couple of tests, he was right. “James preferred not to use it, but it was valuable to see how it changed his jawline—with and without the cheek pieces. In the end, the cheeks were plenty to make the change.”
When asked what were the more challenging decisions of the make-up design and application during the 30-plus day shoot, Clement says, “I had to approach the make-up in a very delicate manner, because there was no place to hide anything. We had appliances blending in the middle of the face, and James’ skin is very fine, so it was all about trying for a flawless application.”
Technology used in making appliances has come such a long way that the road to perfection has presented unique hurdles for artists in film and TV.
“We have gotten to a point in appliance manufacture, where the edges of the appliance are practically invisible, and you are more likely to see flaws in your gluing process than an edge. So now it’s all about how you apply your glue, and how the actor positions their face, and where the tension lines are when you lay your piece down.”
Application on Franco took a little over an hour, to get the appliances on and blended down. “James is one of the most agreeable people I have ever done a make-up on. He was very quiet, and busy reading, drawing or doing research—always ready to move his head into whatever position I asked to best serve the application process. Turning James into Tommy was a gradual thing, so it didn’t happen all at once, but he seemed to enjoy the process and the end result.”
Coloring was also a big part of the process; Clement needed to employ various techniques to get the right look.
“I really like layers of color, and translucent washes, and sometimes I’m not happy with alcohol-activated make-ups because of their flatness and opacity. It’s almost like painting with gouache instead of oil paint washes. That said, I like the ease of use and durability of the AA colors, especially Greg Cannom’s formulations and the Bluebird colors. I had worked out a sequence of washes and spatters to complement the intrinsic color of the appliances, which we ran in a couple of different shades of pink, and different densities based on where they were on his face. Thom Floutz came in to cover me for two days when I had a schedule conflict, and he suggested a nice mushroom-under stipple which worked really well and gave additional depth.
“Nana [Fischer] had a wig custom made in England, and she cleverly specified that it not be natural black hair, but that it be dyed black hair to give that slightly unnatural look to his character. She styled his [Franco’s] own hairline into it and brushed in hair color to match.”
And how about that ’80s rocker hair anyway?
Nana Fischer (The Deuce and The Jungle Book), Franco’s personal make-up artist and hairstylist for more than eight years, came aboard The Disaster Artist when the actor first mentioned it to her four years ago. “James made me watch the original film,” Fischer says. “And we researched Tommy Wiseau’s looks through books and photos James had.
“I had a wig made in London by Peter Owen (Lord of the Rings and Paddington) who is an amazing wigmaker. It was real hair and we dyed it black as Wiseau also dyes his hair jet black. We did not have much of a big budget; I could only have one wig made, so it had to be perfect. Peter made a long black wig with a slight curl to have some movement.”
Because Franco’s face shape is so different from Wiseau’s, along with skin texture and eye color, they were confronted with a lot of creative problem-solving. “We needed some prosthetic appliances made to change the shape of James’ face, to make him look like Tommy,” Fischer says. “So, we reached out to Andrew Clement to make us some silicon pieces. He had a false nose, two cheek pieces, a false chin, and a slightly droopy eye piece. While Andrew would apply those, I started wrapping James’ own hair and putting the wig on, so we double-teamed.
“Once Andrew applied the pieces and put the contacts in I would take over the make-up and start color matching the silicon pieces to his [Franco’s] skin tone. And then start shading his face and putting on a 5 o’clock shadow.”
Also, since Franco helmed the film, the department had to be realistic about how much time they had to get him ready and keep him looking fresh. “Sometimes I had to maintain his make-up up to 17 hours,” Fischer says. “Once he was done in the trailer in the morning, he would be so busy on set, blocking the scenes and would not have much time to keep still to maintain the prosthetics. He was always on the go, so I was dealing with sweat bubbles under the face pieces. That was the biggest challenge. Upkeep of the face.”
The duo admits The Disaster Artist was a relatively small-scale production—but they did not, of course, eschew their commitment to giving Franco the distinctive features necessary to embody Wiseau fully.
“Everyone was pleased with the results,” Clement finishes. “It was a very positive and rewarding shoot. I’m grateful to Howard Berger who recommended me, James, Hans Ritter the producer who brought me in, and Nana for letting me come into their world and play.”
The Disaster Artist debuted on DVD on March 13.