The Disaster Artist composer Dave Porter
With The Disaster Artist, James Franco transforms the tragicomic true-story of aspiring filmmaker and infamous Hollywood outsider Tommy Wiseau — an artist whose passion was as sincere as his methods were questionable — into a celebration of friendship, artistic expression, and dreams pursued against insurmountable odds. Based on Greg Sestero’s best-selling tell-all about the making of Tommy’s cult-classic disasterpiece The Room (“The Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made”), The Disaster Artist is a hilarious and welcome reminder that there is more than one way to become a legend — and no limit to what you can achieve when you have absolutely no idea what you’re doing.
The movie features an original score by Dave Porter (Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul, The Blacklist), and in our new interview, Porter talks about why he loved working with James Franco, dealing with creative block, and more!
You’ve worked mostly on television composing projects, with just a few movies under your wing. What was it like working on such a highly anticipated, big screen film?
For starters, I’m not sure it was always a highly anticipated film. (laughing) It’s a pretty small movie in it’s budget and it’s original designs I think, but it’s been amazing how it’s caught fire. I’ve been lucky enough to have a very successful career in television, but I’ve also been doing movies here and there all along. No doubt, for me, there’s pluses and minuses to both. They’re different mediums and have different challenges, so I like being able to work in both because it gives me some new challenges to try to meet.
The Disaster Artist came to me because I was working on a project already with Seth Rogan and producing partner Evan Goldberg, which is a television series called Preacher, [that] they executive produce and often direct as well. I overheard them talking about The Disaster Artist, it intrigued me, so I went out and bought the book and read it and was really interested. They started working on it and luckily enough for me, they thought it was a good idea to introduce me to their friend and longtime collaborator, James Franco.
What was your initial reaction when you did watch The Room? What were your favourite moments of that movie?
The original, to be completely frank, I’ve never made it through the entire film in one sitting. (laughing) I’ve seen it all many times over, doing research for it, but I can only handle it in small doses. It’s excruciating, but I absolutely appreciate everyone’s love for it and I love it too in small doses.
Were there any stand out moments in there, even if they were bad?
(laughs) I think what attracted me to that movie and the whole project was the earnestness behind all of it. There’s this refreshingly naive poignancy and optimism about how they approach everything. That’s what is so great about what James Franco captured in The Disaster Artist, is it’s so alluring.
It’s truly a story of triumph in the face of total adversity, two friends who were the only ones who believed in each other and carried each other to their unexpected, yet a little odd triumph. What was your favourite part of that story, or how he portrayed it?
I think it’s so real and relatable. It’s not different from the story of almost everyone I know working in the business that I work in. Those of us that have been lucky enough to find success have all found it in ways that probably weren’t exactly the way we envisioned it when we started. These folks are the most extreme example of that, but there’s truth to that story [that] I think [is] in every hollywood story.
I think that was a lot of the reason that James related to it so much, everybody, actor and producer alike go through that struggle. Everybody is saying you can’t make it and it’s so difficult.
Yeah, for sure. I would even broaden it to say that anyone who puts anything creative out there in the public space to beshared with anyone takes that leap of faith that requires a belief in yourself and the strength to be criticized. That takes bravery and it takes strength. That’s a founding principle [to] all things artistic.
(L to R) The Disaster Artist director and star, James Franco, and The Room director, Tommy Wiseau.
Yeah, I think all things – be it art, writing, or however you put it out there, it’s truly a piece of yourself that you’re sharing with the world and it’s terrifying sometimes.
On the note of how difficult it is, because everyone wants to do it. Being in the film industry in general is extremely competitive. Would you say that being a composer is as competitive as being an actor or director?
I would actually. I think it really is. There’s a couple of factors that I think contribute to that. One is that in an era where making music for a living has become harder in all fields, certainly in the recording world, in the pop music world, and the classical world, the world of collaborating and making music for television has remained a stable way to make a living. It has drawn even more people than it ever has to be interested in the art-form, which is great, but it’s made it very much more competitive. You think about on a given project how many actors may be involved, how many writers could be behind a TV show for example, there are many directors, but there’s only ever one composer. So the available jobs out there has decreased in number, it’s a narrow path. I consider myself extremely fortunate to be able to do it.
That’s really interesting because if you think about it, it truly is the only way to be sure that you’re going to make a living at it. Very few people are buying records, people don’t buy the music anymore, but you’re still going to get paid to work in a film because the box office is paying for that and people are going to see it.
That’s right, because you’re wrapped up in the budget of something else that is still a profitable business.
You scored every single episode of Breaking Bad and gained a lot of success from that series, even taking home the ASCAP Composer’s Choice for Best Television Composer of 2013 and just this past year were nominated for Best TV Composer by the Soundtrack Academy Awards. What did you take from your experience working on the Emmy-Acclaimed series?
I definitely grew up as a composer working on Breaking Bad and I’m fortunate for that experience. So fortunate to work with Vince Gilligan, which I continue to be able to do. I came into it with a lifetime’s worth of music experience and some film and television composing experience, but to work on a high level drama like that taught me the most important things about writing music for TV and Films, which is how to be a storyteller. How to be really involved and supportive of the overall arc of a dramatic plot line and ways that music can contribute to make an overall project a stronger piece. How music can play a role and not just something that’s visceral, but can truly be embedded deeply into the whole project. Vince Gilligan fosters a very creative environment that allows everyone involved in the project to take risks, to try things. Having that ability and that permission to take risks and occasionally go the wrong way before correcting myself is really how I learned the craft.
What was it like going from working on a television show like that to working on a major production like this? How does your process differ between those two worlds?
I think the big difference between working in Film and working in TV is time. By that I mean there are two different aspects of time. One is how much time as a composer you have to write the music. In the television landscape, time is a precious commodity. We are often turning around episodes as fast as people can watch them. I may have a week to write enough music to fill an hour’s worth of television, whereas in a film project like The Disaster Artist, in the best case scenario, which we had in this case, where we have enough time – I had months to write enough music for a two-hourmovie. A lot of different time and again that allows time to explore and throw things at the wall and see what sticks, really hone in on exactly what you think is working.
The second aspect of the time issue is how much time in terms of time real estate there is for your music to have impact. One of the positive things about working in TV, if you take Breaking Bad for example, is that over the course of the show I had 62 hours worth of time to develop story and thematic things, to really grow ideas and musical offshoots of other ideas and really get in deep with the story. In a film you have the two hours and that’s it, so you have to move a lot faster in how your development moves and you have to follow the quicker pace that films have of getting a plot while getting characters from point a to point b.
A lot more concise too I’m sure.
Vince Gilligan also did the X-Files and the theme song for Breaking Bad is so acclaimed, people love it, which is the same with the X-Files – you just hear it in your head when you think of the show. Did that put any kind of pressure on you?
(laughing) I certainly grew up watching the X-Files and I consider Mark Snow a great friend, who is the composer for the X-Files. It is absolutely one of the most iconic themes in TV history. I don’t know that I was trying to reach such lofty heights when I was writing the theme for Breaking Bad. I was just trying to capture… not just the spirit of the pilot to Breaking Bad, which is what we were working on when I came up with that piece, but the spirit of where the whole story was going over Vince’s larger scale image of where he wanted the story to go. I happened to strike the right chord and of course the show struck the right chord. With any television theme, which again is very different from film because you don’t have that in a movie, it is such a great musical opportunity to put a unique identifier on a series. I love that process of TV show theme creation.
Especially when you hear it so many times, and people are binging shows on Netflix, you get so sick of it that you just wanna shut it off and skip it. It’s really great when you find a piece like that, that can actually fit and not make you wanna turn the episode off as soon as it comes on.
You’ve worked, of course, with a lot of different directors and people in the past. What were some of your favourite things about working with James Franco as a director? How would you say that he’s different from other directors you’ve worked with in the past?
What I loved about James… I’ve only been blessed to work with him on this one project so far, but, his obvious enthusiasm and passion for this particular project was just infectious. Like any time you were around him he’d… he was just so excited to be working on this movie and everyone else was too of course, but just being around that and someone who you know is spending so much time and energy. Obviously when you see his performance it’s clear how hard he works to get that, nevermind directing, producing, and all the other masks that he wore in the making of The Disaster Artist, was really great and it’s just so impossible to ignore and it got everybody really fired up about a movie. I’m not sure on paper it looked like it was an obvious success, it was a risky movie to make.
(laughing) And just like the original, The Room, you know I think it took everyone’s passion and complete dedication to get it to come out and it really did.
The Disaster Artist is nominated for two Golden Globes, including Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy, and Best Actor – Motion Picture Musical or Comedy.
It’s said of course that he was acting a little wild, I know you didn’t get to see it, but he was completely in character the entire time and that really reflects what you just said – he put so much of himself into this film. I think it really encompassed him for probably the entire time he was doing it. Have you heard some stories from people who were on the set seeing his antics?
(laughing) Well, as you probably know, composers are really late in the process – we’re one of the last things that happens. So I um, unfortunately, all the shooting was done by the time I was really getting involved and I didn’t really get a chance to see any of them in person. I did hear some stories, some rumblings, funny little things from Seth Rogen and others about it, and at moments of hilarity or frustration he would break into the accent when we were in meetings and stuff, which was always good fun and a quick way to lighten the mood.
You notice that he does that in the interviews after the film. I think he really enjoys putting that accent on.
(laughing) I agree – I totally agree.
I think it must have been really funny, especially for Seth because they work together so much, so it must have been so interesting for him to see such a contrast.
I would imagine, absolutely.
His brother as well, James and Dave Franco were starring in this movie together, and you said that your score aimed to highlight the friendship of the film’s protagonist. Would you say them being brothers made that more natural?
I think it probably did, I think it allowed them… I mean I can only think of my relationship with my sibling and think about how intertwined and complicated our relationship is, in the same way that Greg and Tommy’s became. I think it’s great and I will say that I think that for all the very well deserved attention James is getting, I think Dave Franco is fantastic in the movie too. In a role that, I don’t know much about acting, but it seems like it would be really hard, you know, to be just a bad actor. (laughter) To play, to really perform well as a poor actor, [is] hard to imagine, but their interplay is terrific in the movie and so is Greg and Tommy’s in real life. It’s really fascinating to see them together and I really credit Greg’s book The Disaster Artist, for sort of helping find the that moral center, that tonal center to the movie and I think in some ways, you know, we are witnessing all that unfolds in the room through his eyes a lot of the time and I think that both Greg and Dave Franco’s portrayal of him are so honest and vulnerable that it really allows for all of us to so quickly feel invested in their story.
The vulnerability is quite endearing.
It is. Absolutely.
I couldn’t imagine having to do that cause you spend so much time trying to be good at it, then get on thereand be bad. It’s really quite interesting.
It is, and I can’t say that I’ve had a lot of experience with it, I guess the closest I’ve ever come in my world is, in Breaking Bad we made some rock’n’roll tracks for Jesse’s theoretical band, his really bad garageband [that] appear on some of the DVDs and stuff like that. So I had to get, you know, my usual group of very talented studio musicians together, and we had to play earnestly but poorly and it was a really interesting experiment. [It’s] a really interesting artistic process to try to remove all the training, which becomes so inherent in anyone, whether you’re a writer, a musician, or actor, that if you’re doing something for a living you get so invested in, and frankly sometimes bogged down in.
It becomes almost like a second nature right, so it’s really hard to break that habit.
The movie was, of course, a representation of the two main characters and filmmakers of The Room and you said that you tried to keep your score from being similar to the score of the original movie. What was the hardest part of trying to keep it that original?
I actually don’t think it was hard. I just really think that The Disaster Artist and The Room are very different movies and very different stories, even though of course they have this huge thing in common. So I didn’t reference the original score on purpose but I didn’t necessarily go out of my way to [create] an anti-version or a diametrically opposed version, or anything like that. It just felt natural to do what we were doing for the Disaster Artist and my thought process there was that I was trying to do something that kind of straddled two worlds at once.
I wanted it to feel modern and very current so that this story didn’t at all feel – even though this story takes place right in the 90’s, late 90’s – trapped in that time frame. I think all the licensed music does a great job in positioning the film in that time space. I think the score’s role is to make it feel more universal in terms of time. It could be any time, but at the same time I was doing a little wink and a little nod to older Hollywood film scores that were more openly earnest, more openly swelling and brimming with expectation and positivity. So those were my two big goals for the score and I think the score for The Room does what it does for the Room, and I wasn’t impacted by that.
Did the book inspire you at all while you were composing?
Absolutely. I think the book’s inspired me most of all and I actually recommend it to anyone who gets interested in The Room or The Disaster Artist as a film and I know it inspired James too. It’s a great story and really opens up so many things, I mean as great as all the stuff, all the amazing stuff that goes into The Disaster Artist the film, it’s a small fraction of the crazy insanity that goes on in the book.
What parts of that story, aside from the relationship with the two main characters, did you try to impose into your music?
I think their relationship is the big thing, but there are other interesting sidebars, if you will, to the story. There is certainly the mystery that surrounds Tommy, particularly at the beginning of the film, which I found very interesting. He’s obviously quite an enigma, which plays into so much of the story and of course again is diametrically opposed to the Greg’s character, who’s an open book.
I really enjoy some of the frustrating moments in the film and moments that are frustrating for the artistically inclined person. Again, the repeated failures, the auditioning scenes, the meetings, and the interviews, and all those things that when you’re working in this world you do so much of and so much of, some of the time feels so fruitless. I definitely had empathy for those moments and I enjoyed being able to express that musically alongside how well all the actors do.
The best music comes from pain a lot of the time, so having that deep emotion and that sense of failure can really help create something more beautiful.
Absolutely, yeah. Pain, risk, and joy too. Any extreme emotions I would say, and all of them are present in The Disaster Artist.
Yeah, it’s an extremely emotion based movie. So that must’ve been very fun to work with.
Yeah, [when] as a composer you get a chance to work on something like that that’s so varied emotionally, it’s a great challenge but it’s also really exciting.
I like to finish off my interviews by finding out a funny quirk or story about the person behind the musician or whomever I’m speaking to. Do you have any quirks or anything that would surprise people about you that you haven’t spoken about publicly before?
(laughing) It might surprise, well it wouldn’t surprise people to know, that like most creative people living in California, I work in my backyard behind my house. My studio’s in a separate building behind my house, but between my house and the studio we have a small swimming pool in the backyard and when I get creatively frustrated, I have been known [at] (laughing) any time of year, to just walk out of my studio and directly into the pool.
Clothing still on?
Sometimes yes, depends on my state of being. (laughing)
So it’s kinda like an extreme splash of water in the face?
Exactly. The extreme cold shower. (laughing)
That’s a convenient place for it – right between the studio and the house.
That’s right. If it works and I’m jarred into some sort of creative light bulb-exploding moment, then I can turn around and go right back in the studio and if it doesn’t work I can head straight inside for a towel.
This article can also be found on Aesthetic Magazine’s website.