BookForum, Sept/Oct/Nov 2013
The key to understanding Tommy Wiseau's transcendently terrible cult movie The Room isn't just the director's erratic personality, writes Louis Bayard, but Wiseau's bizarre obsession with this book's co-author, actor Greg Sestero.
An obsessed auteur, denied major-studio financing for his audaciously personal project, follows his own path to glory. Declaring himself writer, producer, director, and star, he makes the picture on his terms—ruling his set with an iron fist, shouting down naysayers, and, in his darkest hours, clinging to the belief that he is changing the face of the art form.
Am I speaking of Orson Welles? Jean Renoir? John Cassavetes? Or am I speaking, finally, of Tommy Wiseau?
If that last name doesn't ring a bell, you still might know Wiseau's chef d'oeuvre, a 2003 drama titled The Room. If even that has escaped your attention, then by all means station yourself at some designated urban theater in the vicinity of midnight. Watch a troop of Wiseau-philes perform their mystic rites: tossing around footballs, hurling plastic spoons at the screen, shouting "Shoot her!" and "Focus!," chiming in like a choir when one of the characters screeches, "You are tearing me apart, Lisa!" Marvel at the devotion that has filled every seat and lured back some acolytes for their twentieth or thirtieth viewing.
Ask yourself: Am I watching the worst movie ever made?
The Room is ostensibly about a banker named Johnny (played by Wiseau) who is betrayed by his fiancée, Lisa, and his best friend, Mark. In fact, it is a stew of non sequiturs, crazy-quilt continuity, B-roll footage of San Francisco locations that bear no relation to any story, phrases from some misbegotten ESL phrase book ("Leave your stupid comments in your pocket!"), endlessly respooling soft-core interludes, and a heroine who travels between femme and fatale with dizzying speed. Toss in the heroine's mother, who announces she has cancer and never speaks of it again. Add a man-child named Denny, a thug named Chris-R, a shrink named Peter who somehow morphs into a guy named Steven. Baste the whole mess in a rather curdled misogyny and a fairly robust homoeroticism, and you have something to reckon with.
But what really sets The Room apart is the Dementor-like specter of Wiseau himself, whose bleached, hammered face and gaudy tresses of raven hair, coupled with an accent that might have taken root anywhere from Vladivostok to Marseille, both dominate and invalidate every scene he's in. Wiseau's character is meant to be a paragon of wronged goodness, but we do well to remember the extra who, encountering Wiseau on the film set, told herself: "Run away right now, Piper, or you're going to be killed."
That anecdote is one of many choice bits in The Disaster Artist, an account of The Room's making cowritten by actor Greg Sestero. Sestero started as the film's line producer, when filming began in San Francisco, but stepped into the role of the hero's faithless pal, a perch that gave him a clear view of the surrounding maelstrom. Wiseau, despite insisting on promptness, showed up three to four hours late every day. He was unable to commit his own script to memory, so the simplest shots demanded dozens of takes. He exploded when his authority was challenged. He overspent on technology and underspent on humans. He gobbled vitamins, chugged Red Bull, ran through three directors of photography. He believed from the very start that he was making a masterpiece.
Showstoppingly dreadful movies—as opposed to merely rotten ones—can be created by otherwise competent professionals skewing south (think Showgirls or Ishtar) or by bargain-basement hacks scraping by (the schlock-fests pilloried by Mystery Science Theater 3000). The more interesting case is the oblivious amateur. We are familiar now with the example of Edward D. Wood Jr., who perpetrated such Eisenhower-era artifacts as Plan 9 from Outer Space and Glen or Glenda. Wood had passion, resourcefulness, tenacity, a subversive vision. What he lacked, of course, was anything resembling talent—or talent's lesser cousin, taste. Yet one could argue that his sheer lack of gift gave free rein to his sensibility. Watching his films, we feel ourselves approaching something pure and uncompromised.
Does the same transcendence take hold with Wiseau? He is a figure of deliberate mystery who refuses to divulge his age, his country of origin—or how he amassed his apparently bottomless fortune. Sestero first met him in an acting class, where Wiseau shredded a Shakespearean sonnet and made a hash of Stanley Kowalski. He "did everything wrong," Sestero recalls, "and seemed to take an hour to learn what most people picked up in five seconds." But he had "a blind and unhinged and totally unfounded ambition," which, after he was duly turned back by Hollywood casting agents, took an unsuspected new avenue. "I can make movie," he declared after seeing The Talented Mr. Ripley. "I will make better movie than these fuckers, you watch."
Reviews were unkind. One critic compared the experience of watching The Room to "getting stabbed in the head." In its initial Los Angeles run, Wiseau's movie grossed a mere $1,800, a fraction of its $6 million production cost.
But that's not the only money we need to follow. After all, movies as bad as The Room are made every day—in garages, walk-ups, high schools, and film schools. What keeps us from ever seeing them? Put simply, no distributor with a brain would think to foist them on us.
Wiseau elided that problem by becoming his own distributor—and publicist. He paid to keep The Room in its initial theater. (A film has to run two weeks to be eligible for Oscars.) He bought print ads, TV commercials, a Jumbotron trailer above Sunset Boulevard. He booked a billboard for five years. Money, says Sestero, enabled Wiseau to keep his movie alive "in the dark time between its disastrous initial release and eventual cult success. . . . Money, you could say, is the elephant in 'The Room.'"
Not the only elephant. The Disaster Artist is cowritten (or probably, judging by its wit and literacy, written) by journalist Tom Bissell, and with its allusions to Ripley and Sunset Boulevard, it understands the story it wants to tell. Tommy is a middle-aged man of some means and cloudy provenance, desperately lonely, waiting for the world to take notice. Greg is the beautiful young man who notices.
Out of kindness or fascination, Greg invites Tommy to do a scene in acting class. An unlikely friendship is forged. They kick around a soccer ball. They cruise in Tommy's Mercedes-Benz C280. They worship at James Dean's altar. When Greg decides to give LA a shot, Tommy offers him his apartment.
Greg's mom is worried: "No sex, Tommy, okay? Are we clear?" Greg is straight, and Tommy is—well, what?—but a bitter co- dependency does arise. "Why you talk about me to this friend?" screams Tommy. "I thought I trust you, and you talk about me!" Tommy runs off, then begs for a second chance: "I miss you. I miss you very much." Greg writhes with pity: "As far as I knew, I was all he had."
And with that, a movie that makes no sense begins to make sense. The true villain of The Room isn't Sestero's Mark—a guy who doesn't even understand he's being seduced—but Lisa, the castrating hussy who would separate him from his best pal Johnny. (The two men are seen gamboling together, as gladsome as Huck and Jim.) Indeed, if there's one thing that keeps me from climbing onto the Room bandwagon, it's the punishment meted out to Juliette Danielle, the young (too young) actress tasked with bringing Lisa to life. Like the slut in a slasher pic, she bares her breasts at the first, second, and third time of asking, and her reward is not to be killed but to have her director make love to her.
Wiseau "made no secret of the fact that he was enjoying his physical contact with Juliette, who was obviously suffering between takes. Not only did Tommy stink of body odor, he was foully aggressive in bed. I think half of the guys on the crew had to suppress every chivalrous impulse they had during filming to keep themselves from pulling Tommy off her—especially during the shot in which Johnny appears to be impregnating Lisa's navel." Testimony like this makes it hard to accept Sestero's sentimental coda, lauding Wiseau as "the grandest and most sincere dreamer I've known." If we are to grant the man any redemption, it is not spiritual but financial. By a fluke that Mel Brooks might have appreciated, The Room became a hit— a perennial.
The film's current trailer describes it rather hilariously as "a quirky new black comedy." The website offers hoodies, tank tops, talking-Johnny bobbleheads. Wiseau, with his nose for the bottom line, has seen the light and now makes himself available for Q&A sessions—which just happen to feature his old pal Sestero. Whatever secrets the younger man has disclosed in this memoir ("You talk about me!") are being overlooked for profit's sake. It's as if Norma Desmond had fished Joe Gillis out of her Sunset Boulevard pool and taken him barnstorming.
Wiseau's great fortune has been to arrive in the age of reality TV, which has severed commerce from success. We watch housewives, hoarders, and pint-size beauty queens, knowing they will fail, wanting them to fail because their failure commutes our own shortcomings and sends us home healed and restored. Night after night, in movie theaters across the world, Tommy Wiseau's dreams die so that we may live.