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There's something a little, well, off about the costumes currently on display in New York’s Regal Union Square multiplex to herald the coming of James Franco's new comedy The Disaster Artist. In one glass case, there's a bulky shirt with a big stain. In another, a flimsy red gown hangs oddly on the mannequin.
But to costume designer Brenda Abbandandolo, that dress, a recreation of one from the 2003 cult classic The Room, represented one of her biggest challenges. “The red dress was tricky,” she says. It was also crucial. For fans of the original film, an infamously crappy movie directed by and starring strange auteur Tommy Wiseau, the garment is iconic. And The Disaster Artist is all about how The Room came to be, which meant the recreation needed to look perfectly awful.
In the film, Franco casts himself as Tommy, a man of unknown origin and age with a preference for layering belts on top of one another. The action, which spans from 1998 to 2003, charts Tommy’s friendship with The Room’s other leading man, Greg Sestero (Dave Franco), and how their oddball camaraderie resulted in a cult classic. The Room’s plot is inane: It's the nearly unintelligible story of a man named Johnny (Wiseau) and his girlfriend Lisa (Juliette Danielle), who cheats on him with his best friend Mark (Sestero). The Disaster Artist remakes its predecessor’s most iconic moments, and there’s pride in just how accurately it does so. The (new) movie ends with the Franco version side by side with the Wiseau one.
Getting clothing for The Room was haphazard endeavor to say the least. In the book The Disaster Artist — written by Sestero with journalist Tom Bissell — designer Safowa Bright is framed as a “decent and conscientious on-set presence” who had an extremely difficult task. “Tommy had given her a minuscule budget and so she spent much of her time despairingly combing through L.A. thrift stores to piece together outfits,” Sestero writes. “The result was a ‘Wardrobe’ unit consisting of a single homeless-shelter rack of clothing and a few plastic laundry tubs.”
Abbandandolo wasn’t working with Wiseau — only Franco directing in character as Wiseau — but in some ways her job mirrored Bright’s. She scoured Goodwills and costume houses. To find an oversized suit for Franco to wear as Tommy playing Johnny — a look that was outdated even for the early aughts — she took advantage of a thrift store’s half-off sale. “I went and pulled 15 suits and loaded up my car with them,” she says. “I didn’t need high-end stuff; I actually need like kind of crappy stuff that just gave me the right weight and the right drape and the right sizing.”
But when it came to what Ari Graynor would wear as Danielle as Lisa, the outfits were too specific to simply stumble across. “You are never going to find like a halter with all those grommets,” Abbandandolo says, referring to a burnt-orange number she dons. “So we just accepted we were going to build all of Lisa’s clothes.” Yes, including the red dress that Johnny gives to Lisa as a gift in The Room’s opening scene.
“You kind of guess it comes from whatever the Forever 21-version store is in the late ’90s or 2000,” Abbandandolo says. “So you have to kind of channel this low-end vibe and really get those fabrics, but you also need a fabric that drapes the way the original dress did.” She constructed it on Graynor's body, using what was likely a poly stretch material. The color, she notes, is not an exact match: “Our dress is a little more saturated, but I sacrificed it because the fabric we found gave us the hang that I wanted.” Graynor eschewed glamour for realism when it came to Danielle. “Ari really embraced her and wanted to be ill-fit,” Abbandandolo says. The actress apparently was thrilled to wear Rocket Dog flip-flops for a scene where The Room cast gathers before production.
Bright herself appears as a character in The Disaster Artist, played by Charlyne Yi, and the audience is witness to her frustration as Wiseau dresses himself, performs with junk in his pockets, and refuses to poses for a continuity photo. Despite reaching out, Abbandandolo never made contact with Bright. Given that she also wasn’t able to examine items actually used in The Room, Sestero ended up being one of her main resources. He was available to field questions about Wiseau during long meetings, and provided behind-the-scenes photos.
Another research tool? The nearly nine hours of footage Wiseau accumulated from the archivist he hired to document every moment of the shoot — and essentially spy on the cast and crew. She studied it all. “Even what the crew is wearing is almost what the actual crew was wearing,” she says. “I got as accurate as I could without being, like, insane.” She explains that, having worked on Saturday Night Live, she's particularly attuned to getting every detail right, including the differences in the tuxedo shirts the male members of The Room cast wear when they make strange chicken noises.
Where Abbandandolo could get creative was Tommy's pre-The Room wardrobe, a lunatic hodgepodge of billowing shirts and patterns. Wiseau’s mythology has always been tangentially connected to fashion — if you want to call it that. Upon meeting Sestero, Wiseau revealed he had a business called Street Fashions USA. He once made a commercial for the enterprise riffing on Hamlet. These days, there’s a Tommy Wiseau line of underwear for purchase. His uniform when making appearances at The Room screenings involves a vest, tie, and, yes, multiple belts. But Abbandandolo says his style evolved into that, allowing her to create a sartorial arc for the character with Franco’s blessing. “We decided we were going to start the movie in very Tommy as rocker-slash-vampire and sort of lighten him up as he got closer to the filming of The Room and he got more vulnerable,” she says. “That’s why in the beginning he’s very dark and sort of gothic and rocker and, you know, he sheds some belts as we move along.”
Franco is a sight to behold in the film. In the very first scene he wears a gold-embellished military jacket. Purple paisley pops up at one point. There’s one particularly outlandish-sounding Tommy outfit Abbandandolo wishes had made the final cut. “We made this pirate shirt out of acid-wash denim and then I made it an acid-wash denim tuxedo, but with a pirate shirt so he was in acid wash from head to toe, but the top was the pirate shirt,” she says. “It was really funny.” That kind of get-up would seem unbelievable, but pretty much everything to do with Wiseau is anyway.