What does 2017’s Best Picture, Moonlight, have in common with cult-classic The Room, which has been widely described as “the Citizen Kane of bad movies”?
For that, you’d have to ask the folks at Watson Design Group, the agency behind the campaign for The Disaster Artist, starring James Franco (who also directed) and Seth Rogen, which is out for wide release this Friday, December 8.
A movie about the making of a movie, much like 1994’s Ed Wood, The Disaster Artist is the film adaptation of Greg Sestero’s memoir by the same title. But according to Watson’s Senior Copywriter and Strategist Arin Delaney, all roads do not, in fact, lead back to The Room, a film that’s inspired showings where audience members don wigs to look like their favorite characters, shout along with the dialog, and toss footballs back and forth. “It’s not about The Room so much as it’s the story of a dreamer, someone who’s trying to make something original, and of his friendship with Greg.”
That dreamer is Tommy Wiseau, and the universal emotional themes of the story are what inspired the team at Watson.
Along with big budget releases from studios like Disney, Pixar, and Universal, Watson’s catalog of work includes collaborations with New York-based A24, the studio behind Moonlight and another recent awards contender, Lady Bird.
“It may sound strange,” says Delaney, “but the film that most prepared us for working on The Disaster Artist was Moonlight.”
Executive Creative Director Hleb Marholin chimes in, “We wanted to reflect not just the film, but the conversation around the film. What did these movies mean to the people seeing them? Moonlight brought up so much about people’s personal experiences, and we wanted to keep that conversation going.”
It’s not surprising that we’re talking about a campaign functioning as a conversation—talking to the two of them simultaneously feels like a peek into the larger team’s creative process. There’s lots of laughter and enthusiasm, finishing each other’s sentences, and jumping between topics and referencing past projects about which they still seem passionate.
And passion is a defining idea when it comes to this project. It wouldn’t be hard to imagine a very different kind of movie about Tommy Wiseau and the making of The Room, a film that seems to revel in bad acting and blatant technical blunders.
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But James Franco’s approach aims at something different, an earnest exploration of the complicated nexus between creative ambition and talent in a town that’s notorious for crushing the former while often passing over the latter.
It also happens to highlight some parallels between Wiseau and Franco, including the fact that Franco cast his brother Dave Franco as Wiseau’s best friend, Greg Sestero.
“James Franco could have gone a different way with his film,” says Delaney, “but he chose to bring it to A24. We knew that meant we could create a more bespoke approach, and because of our relationship with the studio, we had the kind of trust where they just let us run with it.”
“Be original, ok.”
Running with it, for Watson DG, has given rise to all sorts of wonderfully weird ideas on previous projects. For the cerebral, sci-fi thriller Ex Machina, they created a Turing test on Tinder by posting a profile for the film’s lead, a cyborg named Ava, with hand coded AI. She got plenty of swipes at SXSW, with some users scoring free tickets to the screening.
And for A Ghost Story, in which a white-sheeted Casey Affleck returns from the afterlife to observe his grieving wife (Rooney Mara), they created an actual online Ghost Store with a pop-up New York shop equipped with web cams, from which users could select and purchase their own ghost sheet.
Innovation may come naturally from the cross-pollination of ideas made possible by the Watson team’s wildly diverse roots. “We’re all pretty weird here,” Delaney jokes, “Not too many of us have traditional advertising backgrounds.”
Delaney created her own major at the University of Washington, mainly, she says, in order to study abroad in Athens and Buenos Aires; Marholin hails from Belarus and has a background in science; Copywriter Madison Palasini, who channeled the peculiar voice of Tommy Wiseau for the campaign largely by absorbing his bizarre Twitter feed, came to Watson from the fashion industry; Developers Raoul Gaillard and Baptiste Briel are from France; WebGL Developer Haihang Du is from China; and Designer Marvin Schwaibold, who created a series of Wiseau-inspired inspirational posters, is from Germany. Producer Sam Schulz, Animator Garrett Gioia, Social Media Manager Alex Cipriano, and Back-end Developer William Chen round out the team devoted to The Disaster Artist campaign.
“The goal is to make something we’re proud of for the long haul.”
“Ultimately, we just want to make art,” Marholin says. “With music you used to get a CD and it had this booklet with it and you had artwork and lyrics and text—a whole experience. Now there’s a just a thumbnail.”
Delaney adds to the point, “We want to create something for these movies that adds to the experience and deepens the conversation around them, but the goal is to make something we’re proud of for the long haul, not just 6 months from now or a year from now.”
In this, it seems they’ve taken to heart one of Wiseau’s maxims: “Be original, ok.”
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Rachel Starnes is the author of The War at Home: A Wife's Search for Peace (and Other Missions Impossible) (Penguin Books, 2016). She received her MFA in Creative Nonfiction from California State University, Fresno and her BA from the University of Texas. Her essays have appeared in The Colorado Review, Front Porch Journal, and O Magazine. Born in Austin, Texas, she has lived in Scotland, Texas, Saudi Arabia, Florida, California, and Nevada, and is currently at work on a novel. More at rachelstarnes.com