Kelly Alto

"Paul Scheer’s Guide to Making a Great Bad Movie" [Vanity Fair]

Kelly Alto
"Paul Scheer’s Guide to Making a Great Bad Movie" [Vanity Fair]

Paul Scheer’s Guide to Making a Great Bad Movie

The Disaster Artist actor and host of How Did This Get Made? explains what a film needs to elevate itself from boring-bad to sublimely terrible.

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First, a caveat: Paul Scheer is somewhat over the idea that any art can be so bad it’s good. The comedian, who’s spent nearly seven years dissecting the worst that cinema has to offer on his popular podcast How Did This Get Made?, argues that the kind of cult movies that draw audiences for all the wrong reasons—Showgirls, Battlefield Earth, the Nicolas Cage version of The Wicker Man—aren’t necessarily bad, per se: “It just has to be entertaining. It’s not a bad movie—it’s a good movie, but we’re embracing it in a different way.”

No one movie exemplifies what he means better than The Room, Tommy Wiseau’s divinely inscrutable 2003 drama. “I think a lot of bad movies, they make like, 50 percent the wrong choices,” explains Scheer. But The Room, he says, makes 100 percent of the wrong choices, from its amateurish acting and its laughable script to its out-of-focus camerawork and inexplicable set decoration. (So many spoons!)

The whole is so much more than the sum of those ridiculous parts, which is why The Room has gained a reputation for being a transcendent fiasco, the ne plus ultra of enjoyably awful movies—and why James Franco decided to make a movie about the birth of The Room itself, a true story almost as unbelievable as Wiseau’s finished product.

Scheer appears in that film, The Disaster Artist (opening in limited release Friday), as Raphael, a composite character representing multiple directors of photography who cycled in and out of The Room’s chaotic production. The actor is, naturally, also a longtime fan of Wiseau’s work. Scheer likens being inducted into the cult of The Room to an ayahuasca trip: “One weekend, a bunch of friends, we rented a house. We watched it, and then immediately the next night, we watched it again.” Soon enough, Scheer bought a copy of the film just so he could lend it to everyone he knew.

Sure, Scheer, his friends, and the umpteen others who love The Room are laughing at Wiseau. But on another level, they’re also cheering his sheer audacity. It would be impossible to make a movie this purely, hysterically terrible on purpose; The Roomcould have been created only by somebody who earnestly believed he was crafting a masterpiece. (After the movie premiered to derisive snorts, Wiseau tried to save face by insisting he’d been making a “black comedy” all along—a heel-face turn that also has the benefit of softening The Disaster Artist’s ending, preventing it from feeling too cruel.)

That, says Scheer, is one of the most important differences between The Room and, say, the intentionally schlocky B movies of the Troma school (i.e. The Toxic Avenger), or the cynical, calculated trash produced by The Asylum (which invented the Sharknado franchise). The line can be a fine one—but films like those, or Adam Sandler’s oft Golden Raspberry-nominated late output (what Scheer dubs “unwatchable— Gary Busey is The Gingerdead Man type of movies”), or the dull and loud Transformers series, aren’t really what we’re talking about when we talk about entertainingly bad movies.

So, what does qualify? Scheer has a few guidelines in mind:

The Auteur-Driven Spectacle

First and foremost, Scheer loves bad films that make bold choices, because “a big swing is way more interesting than middle-of-the-road nothing.” Movies that both fail to entertain and also don’t try to do or say anything new or different—the sort that engage in what New York Times critic A.O. Scott once called “deliberate mediocrity”—are simply boring.

But when grand ambition and hubris fail spectacularly—when a film that takes itself deathly seriously can’t inspire that same feeling in anybody else—the result is always fascinating. There’s something good-hearted and admirable about these kinds of movies, despite the depths of their shortcomings. “I can sit and talk about Valerian for two hours, because it’s like, ‘What’s going on here, and why was this choice made?’” Scheer says, after citing other ambitious catastrophes like Jupiter Ascending and Maximum Overdrive (“such a cocaine-fueled masterpiece”). “I just want to get excited by things. I want to have an experience. I don’t want to sit there going, ‘Eh, that’s fine.’”

The Studio Thirst Trap

On the other end of the spectrum, Scheer also appreciates these sorts of films. They’re the opposite of passion projects—clumsy, transparent, desperate attempts to capitalize on trends or appeal to all four quadrants of the filmgoing audience.

He thinks the conversations that produce these films might go something like this imagined discussion about Airborne, a 1993 curiosity that tried to glom onto the nascent popularity of extreme sports: “They’re like, ‘O.K., we like that he plays hockey. But what if he’s also a surfer?’ ‘O.K., yeah. But also, what if he also loves in-line skating?’ He is four things in that movie!” A more recent example is The Snowman, a disastrous Jo Nesbø adaptation that tardily tried to cash in on the Nordic noir craze—only to falter spectacularly, thanks to an inscrutable plot, troubled production, and way too many shots of menacing snowmen.

The Otherwordly Failure

“Often times, bad movies live in a world that is not our world,” Scheer explains. “Someone is like, ‘Yes, this is how humans interact’—no, no, no, they do not.” Think, for instance, of the absurd behavior practiced by basically everyone in Collateral Beauty, or The Book of Henry, perhaps the 2017 film most likely to enter the annals of bad-movie history—a story that would have you believe it’s completely normal (spoiler alert!) for a single mother to embark on a murderous vendetta against her next-door neighbor, all because her dead 11-year-old son ordered her to do just that in the diary he left behind. If you haven’t seen the drama that may have lost Colin Trevorrow a Star Wars movie, it’s actually even crazier than it sounds.

The Re-Watchability Factor

This quality’s a little more nebulous than the others; Scheer cites it, but doesn’t completely explain it. The gist, though, is that the best bad movies—like The Room—don’t just do one thing wrong; they miss the mark in myriad amusing ways, inspiring audiences to dive in over and over again to catalogue every flaw, or simply marvel at their degree. (Here seems as good a place as any to plug The Number 23, a dense disaster that gets more preposterous every time you see it.) Re-watchability may be in the eye of the beholder, but it’s an essential element—one that goes hand in hand with the last item on Scheer’s list.

The Communal Experience

Though great bad movies come in a variety of guises, they all play better in a crowd—because nothing bonds a group of strangers better than the joy of discovering an accidental masterpiece together. Scheer tries to channel that warm, communal feeling on his podcast, which also features his wife, actress June Diane Raphael,and actor Jason Mantzoukas as co-hosts. (Both of them appear in The Disaster Artist as well.) Their goal is also to re-create “the moment that you would have with your friends as you’re leaving the movie theater,” and trying to unpack the insanity of whatever you just saw—which is also crucial, because great bad movies are just as fun to pick apart as they are to watch for the first time.

 

“We could talk about Phantom Thread the same exact way,” Scheer adds. “It just would be less entertaining.”