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James Franco Tackles A Hollywood Story 'Unlike Any Other' In 'Disaster Artist'

The Room (2003) has been called the Citizen Kane of bad movies. Eccentric filmmaker Tommy Wiseau wrote, directed and starred in the movie, and it has since developed a cult following. Around the country, fans flock to midnight screenings.


Other segments from the episode on December 6, 2017

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, December 6, 2017: Interview with James Franco; Linguist Geoff Nunberg picks his word of the year.


TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, James Franco, has written and directed a new movie called "The Disaster Artist." That's about the making of the 2003 film "The Room." "The Room" is a movie that's been called the "Citizen Kane" of bad movies. "The Disaster Artist" is based in part on a book of the same name about the making of "The Room." The co-author, Tom Bissell, describes "The Room" as a movie made by an alien who has never seen a movie but has had movies thoroughly explained to him.

"The Room" has developed a cult following through midnight screenings around the country. People laugh at how ineptly made it is and how strange the leading man's performance is. That actor, Tommy Wiseau, also wrote, directed, produced and financed "The Room." James Franco plays Wiseau and befriended him during the making of "The Disaster Artist." But Wiseau remains a mystery man with an unplaceable accent, which he says is from New Orleans but is clearly not.

Earlier this year, James Franco starred in season 1 of the HBO series "The Deuce" playing two roles, identical twins. We'll talk about that later. Let's start with the scene from the 2003 film "The Room." Tommy Wiseau plays Johnny whose girlfriend, Lisa, has been cheating on him with his best friend. In this scene, Johnny is upset and deeply wounded because Lisa has accused him of hitting her. He's walking through the door to the roof of his building where he meets his friend Mark.


TOMMY WISEAU: (As Johnny) I did not hit her. It's not true. It's bull [expletive]. I did not her. I did not. Oh, hi, Mark.

GREG SESTERO: (As Mark) Oh, hey, Johnny, what's up?

WISEAU: (As Johnny) I have a problem with Lisa. She says that I hit her.

SESTERO: (As Mark) What? Well, did you?

WISEAU: (As Johnny) No, it's not true. Don't even ask. What's new with you?

SESTERO: (As Mark) Well, I'm just sitting up here thinking, you know? I got a question for you.

WISEAU: (As Johnny) Yeah?

SESTERO: (As Mark) You think girls like to cheat like guys do?

WISEAU: (As Johnny) What makes you say that?

SESTERO: (As Mark) I don't know. I don't know. I'm just - I'm just thinking.

WISEAU: (As Johnny) I don't have to worry about that because Lisa's loyal to me.

SESTERO: (As Mark) Yeah, man, you never know. People are very strange these days.

GROSS: Now that you've heard that scene from "The Room." Listen to this scene from "The Disaster Artist" about shooting that scene. Seth Rogen plays the script supervisor who's directing the scene and has to keep giving Tommy Wiseau his lines because Wiseau can't remember them.


SETH ROGEN: (As Sandy) Action.

JAMES FRANCO: (As Tommy Wiseau) What line? What (unintelligible) line?

ROGEN: (As Sandy) I did not hit her. It's not true. It's bull [expletive]. I did not hit her. I did not. Oh, hi, Mark.

FRANCO: (As Tommy Wiseau) OK.

ROGEN: (As Sandy) Action.

FRANCO: (As Tommy Wiseau) What is the line?

ROGEN: (As Sandy) I did not hit her. It's not true. It's bull [expletive]. I did not hit her. I did not. Oh, hi, Mark. Scene 112, take 13, mark it, action.

FRANCO: (As Tommy Wiseau) I did not hit her. I - OK, OK. Line?

SETH ROGEN AND UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters in unison) I did not her. It's not true. It's bull [expletive]. I did not hit her. I did not. Oh, hi, Mark.

ROGEN: (As Sandy) Take 17. Action.

FRANCO: (As Tommy Wiseau) I hit her.

ROGEN: (As Sandy) No. Do you want to change the line?

FRANCO: (As Tommy Wiseau) Script is script. Script stays the same.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) You're doing great, man. We'll get there.

ROGEN: (As Sandy) Action, action, action, action.

FRANCO: (As Tommy Wiseau) You have to say it loud. I can't hear in here. Say action so I can hear.

ROGEN: (As Sandy) OK.

GROSS: So that was a scene from "The Room" and a scene from the new film "The Disaster Artist." James Franco, welcome back to FRESH AIR.

FRANCO: Thank you so much, Terry.

GROSS: So I know...

FRANCO: This is my third time.

GROSS: It is.

FRANCO: I don't know if you remember, but this is my third time.

GROSS: But who's counting? (Laughter) Oh, I'm so glad you remember. So I think a lot of our listeners know "The Room," but a lot of our listeners don't. So I'm going to ask you to describe "The Room" for people who haven't seen it. Like, what's your short version of the description?

FRANCO: Right. OK, well, first of all, just to say, my movie "The Disaster Artist" is about the making of "The Room," which is an actual movie. It is not the Brie Larson, Oscar-winning movie, "Room." It's...

GROSS: (Laughter) That's right.

FRANCO: ...Something else that was written and directed by and stars this man named Tommy Wiseau, who also financed it at the tune of $6 million. Now, it does not look like it was made for $6 million - looks like it was made for about $60. It came out in 2003. And Tommy intended it to be a great drama. He wrote on the original poster that it was a Tennessee-Williams-level drama. It's a very simple story. If I told you the plot, it's basically - you know, Tommy casts himself as this guy Johnny.

Maybe I should say, first, the kind of magic behind "The Room," you know, is due to Tommy Wiseau. There are three mysteries to Tommy - where he's from 'cause he sound - he sounds like this, you know, which would suggest like Eastern Europe by way of France and trying - I don't know - maybe dialect coaches and failing at that. But he say he from New Orleans - he all-American guy.

The second mystery is his age. He was at least in his late 40s when he made "The Room" but claimed that he was in his 20s. And then - where he got the money - the $6 million dollars, which is the darkest mystery. I mean, the other two, you just sort of see through this thin - the thin facade.

But the money - he claims that he made it, you know, selling denim at his own little shop. And every time I've questioned him about that, he's - he, you know, adamantly insists that he made it through selling Levi's jeans. And I'd be, like, Tommy, come on, you know how many jeans that is? He's like, James, you embarrass yourself. You don't know anything about retail. And I'm like, OK. I don't (laughter) - all right, fine.

So, anyway, the - real quick, the plot of "The Room" is this guy who - oh, by the way, you can look him up online, but he looks sort of like the mix between, like, a vampire and a pirate and Michael Jackson or something like that.


FRANCO: And he has, like, long black hair that looks like it's dyed with magic marker and...

GROSS: And has never been washed (laughter).

FRANCO: Yes. And so he casts himself as Johnny, this - you know, the great guy, all-American guy. And basically, the plot of the movie is his girlfriend and his best friend have an affair and betray him. And - spoiler alert - he commits suicide at the end. And that's kind of it.

But that says nothing about all the bizarre, you know, creative decisions - the weird side plots about drug dealers that have - that never show up again, mothers-in-law who say they have breast cancer and then never mention it again - you know, just bizarreness. And almost as if - some people have described this movie as the best worst movie ever made or the "Citizen Kane" of bad movies.

GROSS: So to make your movie about the making of "The Room," you had to basically study everything that makes "The Room" weird and unintentionally funny - the writing...

FRANCO: In a way.

GROSS: ...Acting, the edits, the use of music - because you had to reproduce some of it in addition to telling the behind-the-scenes story.

FRANCO: Yes. But here's the thing - yes, yes. But if all we had was "The Room" and we were just sort of like, let's make a movie on that, it would - we would, at best, probably, be able to make a spoof. In fact, what we had was this book, "The Disaster Artist," that was written by Greg Sestero, who was the other actor in "The Room" and Tommy Wiseau's best friend, and also written by this great journalist, Tom Bissell...

GROSS: Tom Bissell, yeah

FRANCO: Yeah - who was incredible - an incredible writer. And so I think one of the, you know, the smartest things Greg Sestero ever did was to get Tom to co-write this book with him because it's an incredible book. And that's actually how I came to this whole project. I read the book right when it came out about four years ago. I saw it on the New York Times Book Review. And it's a Hollywood story, but it's unusual and unlike any other. And I love Hollywood stories. And so as - like before I was halfway done, I was like, oh, this is for me. So that's all to say we had more than just "The Room." We had...

GROSS: Well, you had even more than that. You had tapes.

FRANCO: (Laughter) Yes.

GROSS: You had tapes that Tommy Wiseau made like his - like audio journals.


GROSS: Tell us about those tapes.

FRANCO: OK, well, so Tommy knows I have them. OK, so let's just say that up front like...

GROSS: Did he give them to you? Or did...

FRANCO: No. Tommy did not - Tommy did not give them to me...

GROSS: How did you get them?

FRANCO: Greg gave them to me. So Tommy calls them now (imitating Tommy Wiseau) the secret tape. I know you have secret tape.

GROSS: Can I just stop right there? For people just tuning in, James Franco keeps lapsing in and out of Tommy's accent. So if he occasionally sounds odd to you, that is why. He's lapsing - he's going in and out...


GROSS: ...Of Tommy Wiseau's accent.

FRANCO: Not only am I lapsing into the accent. I almost can't help it. I just - it's sort of like a virus. It's just in me now. But (laughter) - so it'll come out every once in a while. So 20 years ago, five or six years before he made his magnum opus, "The Room," he was in LA trying to make it as an actor, going to acting school. And so he would drive around in his car and talk to himself on a mini tape recorder. And it's amazing material. As an actor, you couldn't ask for anything more. It was - it's as if I had the running inner monologue of the guy I was playing.

And in fact, it was even more valuable in this case because Tommy Wiseau is the master rewriter of history because when he was making "The Room," I think he was completely sincere. He was aiming for Brando and James Dean and came out with something completely different. But when he realized that people were laughing at his film, he then rewrote the whole - you know, his whole script and claimed...

GROSS: The script of his life, not the script of the movie.


GROSS: Yeah.

FRANCO: Yes, yes, meaning - yeah, meaning he came out and said, oh, I intended it to be comedy, whereas in fact he had kept it in theaters on his own dime for two weeks to qualify for the Oscars. So he had been aiming for this great dramatic movie. He had said, you know, before, yeah, people will see my movie, and they will not be able to sleep for two week; they'd be so disturbed. And - but then people laughed at it. And so he then said, yeah, I intended to be comedy. And now what he says about "The Room" is, you know, "The Room" is a safe place. You can laugh; you can cry. Do whatever you like. Express yourself. Just don't hurt yourself.

So I couldn't very well go to Tommy now and say, what were you like when you were making "The Room"? 'cause he wouldn't give me anything real, you know? He'd just be like, yeah, I intended it to be comedy. So these tapes became even more valuable. They were sort of the truth. And it was a - like, a time capsule of the man from the time that he was making "The Room."

Even though "The Room" resulted in - you know, it was such a kind of wacky bat, you know, conventionally bad thing, we're showing that the passion behind it is no different than the passion of, you know, Francis Ford Coppola or of James Dean or me, James Franco. Like, everybody has the same level of passion. It's just that I guess Tommy had zero self-awareness, you know, when he was making it.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is James Franco. He stars in and directed the new movie "The Disaster Artist," which is about - behind the scenes of the making of "The Room." And it's about the person who made "The Room." "The Room" is a 2003, like, midnight cult-classic film. And he also stars in the HBO series "The Deuce." We'll be back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: My guest is James Franco and his latest project is starring in and directing the new film "The Disaster Artist" and he's also in the HBO series "The Deuce." The first season is over, but it's still on demand on HBO.

OK, so I just want to play another short scene from "The Room." So this isn't James Franco's movie about the making of "The Room." This is from "The Room" itself. And so we're going to hear Tommy Wiseau as Johnny finding out that his girlfriend doesn't want to be with him anymore.


WISEAU: (As Johnny) You shouldn't have any secrets from me. I'm your future husband.

JULIETTE DANIELLE: (As Lisa) You sure about that? Maybe I'll change my mind.

WISEAU: (As Johnny) Don't talk like that. What do you mean?

DANIELLE: (As Lisa) What do you think? Women change their minds all the time.

WISEAU: (As Johnny, laughter) You must be kidding, aren't you?

DANIELLE: (As Lisa) Look; I don't want to talk about it. I'm going to go upstairs and wash up and go to bed.

WISEAU: (As Johnny) How dare you talk to me like that. You should tell me everything.

DANIELLE: (As Lisa) I can't talk right now.

WISEAU: (As Johnny) Why, Lisa? Why, Lisa? Please talk to me, please. You're part of my life. You are everything. I could not go on without you, Lisa.

DANIELLE: (As Lisa) You're scaring me.

WISEAU: (As Johnny) You're lying. I never hit you. You are tearing me apart, Lisa.

DANIELLE: (As Lisa) Why are you so hysterical?

WISEAU: (As Johnny) Do you understand life? Do you?

GROSS: I don't know it's...

FRANCO: (Laughter).

GROSS: You can tell somebody is, like - that Wiseau's trying somehow to just channel some kind of emotion, but it's all just so out of sync. He doesn't seem to really understand human emotion either as a person, judging from how you portray his story, or as an actor. Tommy just seems, like, delusional.


GROSS: Do you think he has, like, a psychological or cognitive disorder? Is that a weird question? Is that OK to ask that?

FRANCO: (Laughter) Yeah, it's OK to ask me. I - it sort of, like, gets a little tricky because if I thought he was sort of, like, suffering - you know what I mean? - if I thought like, oh, man, he needs to be locked away and - 'cause he needs serious help, I - that's something I take very seriously. And I don't think that. I think, you know, he's living his life. He's got a community. And he's not hurting anyone, and he's not hurting himself. I think - you know, I think he's fine.

But yeah, I think he's got a disorder that's sort of on the spectrum that maybe a lot of actors have, that I have to a certain extent, of like, thinking - you know, there's this weird thing that happens in Hollywood and probably happens everywhere where it's like, if I make it into the movies, I will be saved; I will be happy. And I think in Tommy's case - 'cause I do think he was a very lonely guy - that one of the things he was seeking with this movie and also making it with his best friend, Greg, was friendship, a community, love. And I think in a weird way, he got that. When he shows up to these screenings, he does have a community. People are chanting his name.

I know what you're going to say (laughter). Like, yeah, but it's not genuine or whatever. Yeah, he has to do a certain amount of mental gymnastics to translate the laughing and the applause that he gets at those screenings into, like, just pure applause or, you know - but it's still something.

What happened with my movie - at the first screening - the first public screening at South by Southwest, which was also the first time that Tommy ever saw the movie 'cause he didn't want to watch it in private for whatever reason, is we showed it there. It turned out to be an incredible screening, standing ovation. I kept looking down the row at Tommy to see how he was going to react. He was wearing his (laughter) shades in - you know, while watching the movie. I couldn't tell what he thought of the movie. We went up on stage to do a Q&A after - me, my brother and Seth Rogen. We were hesitant to bring Tommy up because we didn't know what he was going to think. He famously said, of the book that our movie's based on, the book only 40 percent true. And we're like, well, he could very well not like our movie because we based the movie on the book. And, you know, we don't want to have an awesome screening and then have Tommy come up and say, well, you know, that movie not true and, you know, whatever. And so we didn't bring him up.

And then this guy came up from the audience and asked a question. Then he said, oh, by the way, I play the real Chris R in "The Room," which is this just side character - this drug dealer named Chris R. (Laughter) They ask Tommy like, why is his name Chris R? Can't we just call him Chris? He's like, no, his name Chris R. He drug dealer - Chris R. (Laughter) And I'm like OK. So he's like I played the real Chris R. Can I have a picture? And Seth Rogen's like, yeah, dude, come on up here. So Chris R came up on stage. And I look out in the audience at Tommy. And he's like 15 rows back, but I can see like this darkness - this dark cloud descending on him. And I don't - and I still haven't talked to him. I don't know if it's because he's jealous that Chris R is up there or that he just hated the movie.

And so I just - I was like, Tommy, come up. Tommy, come up on stage. And he won't come up. And so then the audience in Austin all stood up and started chanting his name - Tommy, Tommy. And - just like in our movie. And he - you know, that's basically what he wanted. So he comes up. And we still didn't give him the mic because I still didn't know what he was going to say. And it's my biggest regret. And I step off stage finally, and I'm like, all right, Tommy, what do you think? And he goes, well, yeah, I approve 99.9 percent. And I'm like wow. And would you - what's the .1 percent? And you think he's going to say, well, you know, I have - that - I never said that - or whatever. And he goes - director to director, he goes, yeah, James, I think you should look at lighting in beginning of movie.


FRANCO: And I'm like, oh, man. Yeah, I'll tell my cinematographer to watch "The Room" for pointers. But then we realize only later that he had been wearing his shades through the whole movie.


FRANCO: So it's like, yeah, of course, the lighting's off. But here's my big point - is I realized in that screen - I only realized later. When they were cheering for him, that - they were cheering his story. You know, they were cheering him on and, you know, the will it took to get his movie made because we made Tommy sympathetic. That was our aim in the movie - in my movie, "The Disaster Artist." And that was the first time in Tommy's entire life that he heard unadulterated, unironic applause for his story. And that - just thinking about that, it moves me right now to say that. Like, he got it. He finally got what he wanted.

GROSS: My guest is James Franco. He directed and stars in the new movie "The Disaster Artist." We'll talk more after a break. And linguist Geoff Nunberg will tell us his word of the year. I'm Terry Gross. And this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is James Franco. He directed and stars in the new movie "The Disaster Artist." And if you watched "The Deuce," you know he played two characters in that HBO series, which is set in Times Square on 42nd Street in the early '70s, just at the very beginning when the mob is moving in and opening up massage parlors and when porn is starting to become a little aboveground and just not underground and starting to be shown in porn theaters. And you play two characters. One of them is a bartender who gets involved with the mobsters and kind of against his will gets involved with the massage parlors. He doesn't want to be involved in - you know, working in a sex trade industry. But he's kind of getting, you know, pushed into it. And you also play his brother...

FRANCO: Frankie.

GROSS: ...His twin brother - identical twin brother who is kind of happy to get involved with the mobsters because that's where the money is.

FRANCO: (Laughter).

GROSS: And he's just a real professional troublemaker. He's a gambler who's always in debt and always in trouble and always looking to his brother, Vince, to kind of bail him out.

FRANCO: Wow, you really are a fan of the show.

GROSS: Oh, it's a great series.

FRANCO: You watched it? (Laughter).

GROSS: Yeah, I really like it (laughter). So I want to talk to first a little bit about playing two twin brothers.

FRANCO: Yeah, yeah.

GROSS: Like, you had to figure out - you and the director had to figure out some distinguishing characteristics so that I, watching it, could tell which character I was watching. Part of it was the clothing because they dressed a little bit differently. What else did you do as an actor?

FRANCO: Yeah, so when a single actor plays twins, there's a lot of ways you can go. Like, you can make them - their look distinct - you know, like one could have a mustache, and one doesn't. You know, you can - you know, one has like long hair. And one, you know, is bald or whatever. You know, there's things you could do just physically to differentiate them and - which is, you know, completely legitimate way to go. I think we settled on making them sort of similar, like real twins, although we knew from the start that their personalities were very distinct.

And the mustache, that sort of was just a practical thing because I hate - there's one thing that I hate. And I'm sure most actors hate - is like glued-on facial hair. It's even worse than just like facial prosthetics, like I wore in "The Disaster Artists" - like I had two-and-a-half hours of prosthetics in "The Disaster Artist." That was not nearly as bad as just a fake mustache. And so we decided that they would both have mustaches so that I could just grow a mustache. And they would both have it.

And then we just decided, you know, you'll be able to just tell the characters apart by their personalities. And as an actor, it was like - and maybe as a slight egomaniac or whatever (laughter), like it was a dream come true. And I thought of it almost as getting to play the Harvey Keitel and the De Niro roles from "Mean Streets," you know.

GROSS: No, absolutely. I thought of the De Niro character in "Mean Streets" right away when I saw...

FRANCO: Oh, yeah.

GROSS: ...Your character.

FRANCO: For sure.

GROSS: And then you have a great shot in the first episode. It's a totally "Taxi Driver" shot where you're walking down the street. And all these like marquees are behind you. Like that's the poster for "Taxi Driver."

FRANCO: Oh, yeah.

GROSS: So you directed two episodes of "The Deuce." And in one of the episodes, there's a scene in which the Maggie Gyllenhaal character, she plays a sex worker or prostitute who's trying to transition into actually making pornography because it's seems like safer and more lucrative and way more interesting and comfortable. And so...

FRANCO: Yeah, I mean - yeah, go ahead.

GROSS: The question is as part of your research did you have to go back and watch a lot of period porn - just to get a sense of like, what is it these characters are making? What is it they're watching? What's like the sex environment of the time?

FRANCO: Yeah, it's the early days of American porn. "Deep Throat" was, you know, obviously the big hit and kind of was the birth of the American porn industry. In the early days, compared to now, it was sort of innocent. There was a bubbliness to it. There was - you know, and they were trying to tell stories. And something like "Deep Throat" did play in more mainstream cinemas. And so, you know, they learn things. Like, you know, it's mostly a male audience. Cut the guy's head out. Don't show the guy's face - you know, and all these things. And cut out the story. People don't want this story. Just cut to the - you know, the juice - sorry for that, (laughter) no pun intended - and that kind of thing. But, yeah, at the time, you know, the early '70s - and, oh, there's a lot of hair - a lot of pubic hair.

GROSS: Oh, and chest hair really.


GROSS: Right, different times (laughter).


GROSS: So anything else with your filmmaker's take on the porn of the period - just like from a filmmaker's point of view? How it looked to you?

FRANCO: I mean, it's shot on film. There's...

GROSS: As opposed to video.

FRANCO: Yeah, there's no - there's hardly any fake breasts. But, you know, the moves...


FRANCO: The moves are basically the same. It's sort of kind of how it's always been.

GROSS: Was it kind of confusing when you were directing yourself in two different parts in "The Deuce"?

FRANCO: That, yes, was a little bit of a - it spun my head a little bit. Like basically, you know, playing twins and then directing yourself as twins is - you know, it's just sort of an extension of directing. And the way, you know, Bryan Cranston described it - I worked with him. He's such a great guy. And he said on "Breaking Bad," when he did it, like as a director, you're already doing the work. You're breaking down the scenes. You're talking to your cinematographer about how you want to capture it. You understand what you want to get out of each scene so that by the time you're shooting, and you step in front of the camera as an actor, you already are really clear on what you want to get from the scene as a director. And so being the actor is just an extension of that.

So then playing twins, you just sort of do that twice over where, you know - surprise, surprise - you know, I'm not actually playing both twins at once. So like I go in, block it out as the director, then act it as one twin and then, you know, make the move to change over from Vincent to Frankie, at this time, so that the cinematographer is now turning the lights around. And they'll be spending enough time so that I can quickly change over to Frankie and not waste any set time and come back and then do the scene from the other side.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is James Franco, and he stars in the HBO series "The Deuce." Season one is over, but you can watch it on demand. And also he directed and stars in the new film "The Disaster Artist." We'll be back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is James Franco. He starred as two characters in the HBO series "The Deuce." And now he stars in and directed the new movie "The Disaster Artist," which was basically the behind-the-scenes story of the midnight cult film "The Room."

So I want to ask you about your movie from a few years ago, "The Interview," 'cause it seems very timely, sadly, right now. In "The Interview," you played a celebrity journalist. And you host a program. And as it turns out...

FRANCO: I was playing one of you.


GROSS: That's right.

FRANCO: I was like, - that character Dave Skylark in "The Interview" was sort of like the Tommy Wiseau, like...

GROSS: (Laughter).

FRANCO: Me to Tommy Wiseau is you to Dave Skylark.


GROSS: That's really funny. So it turns out Kim Jong Un is a fan or so he says.

FRANCO: Yes. Yes.

GROSS: And so he invites your character Dave Skylark...

FRANCO: (Laughter).

GROSS: ...To interview him. And so Dave Skylark thinks, like, this is my ticket to, like, big time...


GROSS: ...Journalism. I'm going to do it.


GROSS: And Seth Rogen is his producer. He's a little skeptical of, you know - but they go, and they do it. And meanwhile, the CIA says, and while you're there, assassinate Kim Jong Un.


GROSS: Here's some ricin. You could just slip it when...

FRANCO: (Laughter).

GROSS: ...When you shake his hand and...


GROSS: ...Assassinate him with that 'cause it's that...


GROSS: ...It's that poisonous.


GROSS: And so what happens instead is that your character has this kind of, like, bromance with Kim Jong Un. They spend the day together, and they play basketball.

FRANCO: (Laughter).

GROSS: And they drink margaritas, and they hang out with attractive women.


GROSS: And they...

FRANCO: They sing Katy Perry together.


GROSS: They sing a Katy Perry song and have a great time together. So your character doesn't want to assassinate Kim Jong Un because he's so kind of smitten with him.

FRANCO: (Laughter) So silly.

GROSS: But in the end, he realizes that the whole thing is a facade. And Kim Jong Un is a bad man.


GROSS: And...


GROSS: ...The assassination happens. We see his head or his whole body explode. I forget which.

FRANCO: Yeah. (Laughter) Both I think.

GROSS: Meanwhile, North Korea's reaction to this - Kim Jong Un's actual reaction to the release of the movie is, do not release it or there will be trouble.


GROSS: And they threatened - there were threats against theaters. There were threats to Sony.


GROSS: Sony...

FRANCO: Sony was hacked.

GROSS: Sony was hacked.

FRANCO: We don't know - I guess we don't know officially if it was...

GROSS: We don't know if officially...

FRANCO: ....North Korea or not.

GROSS: Exactly.

FRANCO: But Sony was hacked. Yeah.

GROSS: Exactly. But I think we were basically told it was pretty much North Korea.


GROSS: And Sony basically released it as an on demand - a video on-demand thing so that people wouldn't have to, you know, feel like...


GROSS: ...They were risking their lives to see it in a theater. This whole time - throughout that whole period, I was thinking, what is going through James Franco and Seth Rogen's minds? So I can ask you now, what was going through your mind during that period when all this really bad stuff was happening attached to the movie? It's a comedy. You know, it's just a - it's funny. It's a comedy.

FRANCO: It's bizarre. Yeah. It was so bizarre. And I think, you know, we'll go down in Hollywood history. I mean - and so in being in the middle of that was - as you can imagine - confusing. Seth and I were sort of in the dark for a while. Like, nobody was telling us what decisions they were going to make. We were sort of learning things as they came out in headlines. And then, you know, so we learned, oh, they're pulling the movie from the theaters and, you know, all this stuff. And so I was sort of in the dark.

And then I went home for the holidays. I was staying in a hotel with my grandma. And every morning, we'd have breakfast together and there - and there's a TV in the hotel. And inevitably, you know, something about "The Interview" would come up. And then one day, it was, like, Obama came out and made a statement. And he said, you know, they should play it in the theaters. Don't be, you know, back down. We don't back down to threats like this. And he said - and it was my big moment - he said, and I love Seth Rogen. I love James Flacco.


FRANCO: I was like, no. It's Franco. No. And I keep hoping I'm - maybe this is the interview with Terry - the great Terry Gross - that Obama will actually hear and come out and say, OK, it's James Franco. I made a mistake.


GROSS: But were you feeling, oh, my God, is this my fault? Is the hack my fault - like, if people are hurt?

FRANCO: Well, it's a - it was such a tricky thing. And that's what people were, you know, like - I think even, like, Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney came out and said, you need to watch this. They - I don't think they had seen "The Interview" at this point. Maybe they wouldn't have said this, but they were like, you need to watch this movie as a - your patriotic duty.

GROSS: (Laughter).

FRANCO: And, you know, so it was a really confusing - and Clooney - a lot of people were coming out and saying, you know, this, you know, keep it in theaters. This is - you know, we don't back down. And it became a really strange thing. And, you know, when we - there was a point before we made the movie where we were, you know, saying, like, OK, should we make it the real guy? Should we use the name Kim Jong Un or should we just make - should we just sort of suggest it's the guy?

And the strange and crazy thing - it's almost like, you know, "The Disaster Artist" in this sense where we weren't really making things up when we were kind of making jokes about North Korea or just showing how it was. Like, that was strangely all based on things we read or things that had come out of reportage that had come out of North Korea. And then, you know, the idea that maybe he's not a great guy - like, I don't think we were going out on a limb there, you know. Like, these threats of nuclear war - like, I don't - you know, I don't know if we were going out on a limb. It was sort of like, yeah, maybe somebody should sort of make a comment on this. Like, and...

GROSS: So...

FRANCO: ...In making no comparison in, like, moviemaking, you know, skill or anything like that, but, you know, "Dr. Strangelove" is a comedy about nuclear war - like, atomic war. Like, I felt like, yeah, we were falling in that tradition. I thought - what I thought was, oh, we're doing what comedy does best. We are slipping you a pill coated in candy except that then it became this much bigger thing. It was supposed to be, you know, this sort of comedy that had political, you know, underpinnings. Instead, it just became completely political. And I think that prevented people from really actually seeing the movie for what it was because I still - I think it's a great comedy.

GROSS: I think it's really funny. The only question I'd have about where should the line be is at the end when we see Kim Jong Un actually kind of blow up, like, get blown up, blown apart. And I was just wondering like...

FRANCO: Maybe that was (unintelligible) bridge too far.

GROSS: Yeah. I was wondering if you ever had any second thoughts about that.

FRANCO: I mean, there were second thoughts. You can read about all of it in the Sony hack. Like, the original cut had his face exploding in a much more gruesome explicit way. And then the one concession was - and this is long before the Sony hack. But you can just read about it in the emails of the Sony hack that we had - they had to cover his face exploding with like flames so that it wasn't as gruesome.

But - you know what, Terry? Maybe you're right. Maybe that was the step too far. I don't know. I kind of doubt that anything would have happened differently with this hack if we - if he didn't get killed. I kind of doubt that. But maybe that was too far. I don't know.

GROSS: So here's my other question. Like, did it make you feel kind of like the power of movies - the unintended power of movies that make you think about movies in any different way than you'd ever thought about them before just in terms of like...

FRANCO: For sure. I mean, I always believe in the power of movies and in, a basic sense, like, what I think they can do. And what I always try to do, because I don't normally make political movies - I mean, not that I'm against them. Like, one of my favorite movies is "All The President's Men." But they show us to ourselves. You know, like Shakespeare said it. You're holding up a mirror to life. It's - that's my favorite thing about movies.

But then, you know, something like "Brokeback Mountain" or, you know, a movie I was a part of, "Milk" - like it starts to turn the consciousness of the country. You know, what art does the best, like, understand another - understand somebody who's different than us. When it does that, that's, you know, also so beautiful. And that's what literature does. That's what all great art does. And then, in the case of the interview, that's, you know, it was crazy. It's unprecedented in the history of movies like that.

GROSS: (Laughter) Yes, it is.


GROSS: James Franco, it's just been wonderful to talk with you again. Thank you so much.

FRANCO: I love it so much. And I remember all of our interviews, and I hope we can do more.

GROSS: James Franco directed and stars in the new movie "The Disaster Artist." After we take a short break, linguist Geoff Nunberg will tell us his word of the year. This is FRESH AIR.



This is FRESH AIR. Our linguist, Geoff Nunberg, has chosen his word of the year. We'll let Geoff tell you what it is and why he picked it.

GEOFF NUNBERG, BYLINE: It's word-of-the-year time again. Collins Dictionaries (ph) chose fake news, and went with complicit. Others have proposed #MeToo, alternative facts, take a knee, resistance and snowflake. It's striking how many of those are the words and phrases that warring political camps have been hurling at each other across our deepening national divide.

The Trump presidency didn't create that rift, but it sort of made it official. The acrimonious climate has ruined a lot of Thanksgivings. As two economists recently demonstrated using cellphone-tracking data, they found that Americans from politically divided families spent 20 minutes less time at the holiday dinner table after the election than the year before.

Wonkish terms like hyperpolarization don't begin to convey that sense of unrelenting rancor. Instead, the meme of the moment is to say that American politics has become tribal, which I'll make my word of the year. It's not a new word, even in that meaning, but in one form or another, it's become the ubiquitous diagnosis from most of our political ills. America's cursed with tribal morality. Tribalism is responsible for fake news and for our inability to confront sexual harassment. Meanwhile, people abroad raise the specter of the new tribalism wherever the traditional nation-state seems to be fraying at the seams, from Catalonia to Scotland.

The word tribe is a little problematic even in its traditional sense as the primordial social group that predates the nation-state, united by kinship, language and rituals. Tribe has a legal status in the U.S., and there's nothing pejorative in using it for the Chippewa or Hopi. But indigenous peoples in other parts of the world object to the word's connotations of superstition, backwardness and savagery. Organizations like UNESCO stopped using tribe some years ago in favor of terms like nation or ethnic group.

But of course, it's precisely those savage, ooga-booga (ph) stereotypes that make tribe so evocative when you attach it to the political groups of modern societies. It suggests that their members have regressed to a more primitive social level where they're motivated only by their bond with their own kind and their hostility to outsiders. At the limit, the story goes, they're driven purely by primal emotions of fear and rage, which bubble up from the evolutionary depths of what people like to call the lizard brain.

With the exception of a few white supremacists, most Americans think tribalism is a bad idea, which is why the word's so often preceded by ugly or toxic. Where we disagree is in actually identifying the tribes. To a lot of people, political tribalism suggests those red and blue family members glowering at each other across the holiday dinner table, impatient to hurry back to their bubbles. They're people whose partisan identities become so central that it determines whom they're willing to date and what brands of pizza and coffee makers they buy, not to mention which news stories they're willing to believe. But for others, tribalism is just another name for identity politics, though which identities count as tribal depends on your point of view.

A Wall Street Journal editorial inveighs against what it calls the crude political tribalism of the groups on the left who are trying to divide Americans by race, ethnicity and gender, but it gives a pass to other groups who tend to vote Republican, like white evangelicals. Yet writers on both the left and right have said that white evangelical has become more of a tribal identity than a theological one.

The fact is that however people map out the geography of American political tribes, they always exempt themselves and their neighbors. In modern America, we don't think of our own political allegiances as tribal. We're the creatures of reason. That gives the word a kind of incantatory power. Calling a group tribal is just a way of pronouncing them impervious to rational discussion, or as one political blogger put it, there's no reasoning with a reptile.

There's virtually no phenomenon in public life that someone hasn't tried to discredit as tribal. A writer in National Review blames left tribalism for creating the myth of rape culture. Senator Jeff Flake said it's political tribalism for Republicans to support Roy Moore. Business consultants argue that it's the tribalism of corporate white males that keeps women and minorities out of the executive suite, but Andrew Sullivan sees feminist tribalism behind Google's efforts to hire more women engineers. The Guardian's John Abraham writes that the Republicans' tribalism has led them to deny human-caused climate change. But according to The Wall Street Journal's Holman Jenkins, it's the tribalism of progressives that leads them to refuse to debate the question.

Who wouldn't find this maddening? People use tribal to obliterate the differences between solidarity and blind group loyalty, between principled concern and reflexive rage, between the cerebral cortex and the brain stem. But this isn't surprising. If we can't see eye to eye on who are the political tribes and who are the forces of civilization, it's because we're fragmented into factions that deny one another's legitimacy. That's what it means to say that America's become tribal in the first place. And one sign of that is that we can't agree on how to use the word.

GROSS: Geoff Nunberg is a linguist at the University of California, Berkeley School of Information. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about the Mueller investigation. What are the possible charges against the president? What approach is the president's legal team taking? Our guest will be Jeffrey Toobin, who's writing a book about the investigation and has been covering it for The New Yorker, where he's a staff writer, and CNN, were he's chief legal analyst. I hope you'll join us.


GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.


Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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