If you haven’t seen the 2003 cult classic movie The Room, stop reading and come back after viewing it here. There is a reason it has attained the status of “the Citizen Kane of bad movies” – and that reason is a hilariously oddball writer/director/producer/star named Tommy Wiseau. But many of its fans are unaware of the surprisingly poignant backstory to both the movie and its creator.
I was already aware of The Room and its awkward acting (“You are tearing me apaaart, Lisa!”), memorably weird dialogue (“Leave your stupid comments in your pocket!”), inconsistent character motivations, scenes that go nowhere, and inexplicable football motif. But I didn’t realize that the making of The Room was far more entertaining and intriguing than the film itself until I stumbled recently across a 2013 book called The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside The Room, the Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made, written by Tommy’s longtime friend Greg Sestero, who also starred in and helped make the movie.
The book is an unexpectedly absorbing page-turner, not just for its behind-the-scenes look at the wacky incompetence of The Room, but because it also gradually revealed the secretive Tommy Wiseau to be a lonely figure whose obsessive need to express himself through this film masked an “immensely conflicted and complicated darkness.”
An aspiring actor, Sestero first encountered the defiantly eccentric Tommy, with his unidentifiable accent, distinctive hair, and refusal to discuss his past, in an acting class. Sestero, who found himself becoming Tommy’s best – and perhaps only – friend, slowly teased out the details of Tommy’s obscure origins and the dark life experiences that shaped him.
He lived on the street in Europe. He was wrongfully arrested and tortured by French police following a drug raid at a youth hostel, a traumatic experience that led him to move to America. He worked as a street vendor selling unique bird toys to tourists on San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf, acquiring the nickname “The Birdman,” after which he legally changed his name to Thomas Wiseau (a reworking of the French word for bird). He was involved in a near-fatal car crash, the turning point that led him to pursue his dream of becoming an actor and director.
Tommy threw himself into developing, producing, directing and starring in his own script called The Roomdespite having no knowledge of filmmaking (though he did have, strangely, a seemingly inexhaustible bank account which enabled him to sink a jaw-dropping $6 million into the making and marketing of this romantic drama). Sestero began as a curious crew member but found himself pushed into replacing a key actor – after filming had already begun.
It’s impossible to describe or summarize the degree of the dictatorial Tommy’s ineptitude as a would-be Orson Welles. He was unable to remember the simplest lines of his own dialogue, much less deliver them capably. He drove actors and crew members either out of their minds or out of the project altogether. He demanded that scenes be rewritten in the middle of filming them, that sets be broken down but rebuilt again the following day; that his muscular butt be prominently featured in his overlong sex scenes. The result is an hallucinatory comedy of technical and artistic errors.
This didn’t discourage Tommy from moving heaven and earth to promote The Room, including paying for a massive billboard on highly-trafficked Highland Avenue. The creepy billboard featuring a droopy-eyed, unintentionally menacing Tommy stayed up not for the usual couple of months or so, but inexplicably for a full five years, becoming a sort of Hollywood landmark.
Despite the comedy, one moment highlighted something for Sestero about his mysterious friend. After filming a party scene in which Tommy’s character is at the center of a room full of happy friends, Sestero realizes that the scene reflected the happiness, the friends, the life that Tommy would have wanted for himself but never had.
The book closes with Sestero attending Tommy’s “world premiere” of The Room. When Tommy stood to introduce the film to the crowd,
he was completely devoid of the bravado he’d always had in front of an audience. His hands trembled as he raised the microphone to his mouth. He paused for a moment, too overcome to speak… The audience became very still. Then, at last, Tommy managed to say something: “This. This is my movie. This is my life. I hope you learn something and discover yourself.”
Just before the house lights went down, Tommy turned in his seat to smile at Sestero behind him. There were tears in his eyes. Some at the premiere walked out demanding refunds, but the film went on to become an international midnight movie hit along the lines of The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
Sestero concludes with a musing about Tommy and the pursuit of dreams. At the risk of overreaching, I believe it is an epiphany that could be applied to grand dreamers everywhere – in other words, to all of us: “In the end, Tommy made me realize that you decide who you become. He also made me realize what a mixed blessing that can be.” [Emphasis added]
This past February, Seth Rogan and James Franco picked up the rights to The Disaster Artistand will be co-producing a movie based on the book, starring Franco as Tommy, whom the actor correctly describes as “part vampire, part Hollywood dreamer, part gangster, part Ed Wood, and super lonely.” I hope they can capture not only the unique hilarity of the book, but also the loneliness at the heart of Tommy’s dream.
(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 11/6/14)