A few weeks ago, certain corners of the internet were set alight with strange, cultish buzz, all because of a picture of James Franco. Instead of causing an international incident by baiting a North Korean dictator, this time he was channeling an entirely different breed of infamy: this was the first picture of Franco as Tommy Wiseau on set for his new film The Disaster Artist. Not quite a face to launch a thousand ships, but certainly a face to launch a thousand plastic spoons at (if you know, you know. If you don’t, read on).
Then just this week, a rough cut of the movie – a comedy about the making of Wiseau’s 2003 cult film The Room and based on the 2013 non-fiction book written by The Room’s supporting actor Greg Sestero – was screened at SXSW and met with rapturous applause and even some incredibly early Oscar buzz.
You might well be sitting there thinking “It’s just Franco in a black wig and a baggy suit, what’s the big deal?” Well get ahead of the curve and familiarize yourself with the source material; the insane world of Tommy Wiseau’s masterpiece The Room – the greatest bad movie ever made.
Well, that’s a very good question as The Room is a film that takes place in several locations, none of which is very clearly defined as the room. We’re getting ahead of ourselves here though.
It’s now known as “The Citizen Kane of Bad Movies”, and Wiseau himself as “the Orson Welles of crap”, growing in popularity with every one of its weekly cinema screenings, but upon its initial release in 2003, it grossed only $1,900 in its first week before being unceremoniously pulled from cinemas – a fraction of its $6 million budget.
At its core The Room is a melodrama about a love triangle, but it’s so much more (and so much less) than that. To say that it’s a movie that’s so bad it’s good is to do it a huge disservice. The film is terrible but incredibly re-watchable – nothing about it makes sense. The casting choices, the bizarre dialogue, the excruciatingly cringe-worthy sex scenes, the fact that it looks like it was shot on a budget of $6, let alone $6 million. The nonsensical storylines that randomly appear and disappear bearing no relevance to the plot, and the mystery surrounding Wiseau add so much to the mythos that once you consider it, it’s easy to see why word spread.
Take, for instance, The Room’s advertising campaign. Shortly before the film’s release a billboard appeared on Highland Avenue in Los Angeles advertising the movie – the only image on the billboard was that of Wiseau, his uneven eyes staring a million miles past the lens, the texture of his face, contorted into a pout, so unnatural. The text accompanying the billboard was a web address and a phone number which you had to call to get tickets. It turned out to be an answering machine in Wiseau’s L.A. apartment. That’s not even the strangest part – the billboard stayed up for six years at a personal cost to Wiseau of over $300,000.
Who's Behind It?
Speaking of money, where the hell did it come from? And where did it get spent? Well the source is a mystery – the film's credits list two producers other than Wiseau – Drew Caffrey and Chloe Lietzke. Were they the money people? Nope. Caffrey had been dead a couple of years by the time The Room was even conceived and according to Sestero’s book, Lietzke was “a much older woman who lived in Oakland, was confined to a wheelchair and had never been involved in film production before, during, or after The Room." No mention of financing there. It appears Tommy himself was independently wealthy - apparently owning a chain of clothing stores in San Francisco specializing in fake Levis, although it’s still not quite clear how that came to be either.
So where did the money go? Well, Wiseau’s production methods were, um, unorthodox to say the least. Whether you’re making a low budget indie film, or the next Avengers movie, it’s standard practice to hire all your camera and lighting equipment for the duration of the shoot. Why pay $100,000 for a camera you’ll only use for a few weeks after all?
Well, nobody asked Tommy that question and so against all better judgment he bought everything. Not only that, but he basically bought everything twice. In a masterstroke of money wasting genius, he decreed that The Room should be the first film shot on both 35mm film and Digital HD formats at the same time. Meaning he bought two cameras (costing tens of thousands, or possibly hundreds of thousands of dollars each) and had to get an entire rig built that could hold two cameras at the same time. He used none of the digital footage in the entire final cut of the movie.
Which brings us onto the enigma himself – writer, director, producer and star of The Room; Thomas P. Wiseau. Firstly, that’s not his real name (nobody knows what that is), his age is undisclosed (he’s incredibly cagey about personal details in interviews) and he claims to be from New Orleans despite his Eastern European-tinged accent. In fact, promotional posters for The Room came with fake pull quotes that said “Tommy Wiseau is the new Tennesse [sic] Williams, a true ragin' Cajun.”
He cuts a pretty unsettling figure – the word vampire gets thrown around a lot when describing Wiseau. His shoulder-length, dyed jet-black hair frames a unique face textured with either a pout or a grimace (this is his entire range of expression), which sits atop a compact body so muscular that it looks accidental. Then there’s his accent – Eastern European in origin but morphed into a cadence so unique that it’s hard to keep track of. He emphasizes the wrong parts of a sentence, making his onscreen dialogue bizarrely hilarious and insanely quotable.
Behind the camera Wiseau was just as maddeningly indecipherable – forcing the crew to shoot scenes that weren’t in the script and had no importance to the story, reshooting entire scenes in locations that had already been dismantled and therefore had to be rebuilt, and insisting every single member of cast and crew be on set every day from early morning ‘til late evening – even if they weren’t needed that day. Tommy himself, however, would consistently show up to set four hours late. Needless to say, there were crew walkouts. Tommy had to replace his entire crew at least once and even recast roles halfway through filming. The shoot took six months.
Wiseau unsuccessfully submitted the film to the Academy Awards for consideration after its abysmal qualifying run in L.A. cinemas. The Room was seemingly set to languish in obscurity and if it wasn’t for some of the film’s early celebrity fans, that would likely have been the case. Word began to spread in L.A. about this terrible movie that had to be seen to be believed; comedians like Paul Rudd, Jonah Hill and David Cross saw it, were amazed by it and spread the word. Actress Kristen Bell would host viewing parties in her home, showing it to her colleagues and co-stars from Heroes and Veronica Mars. One way or another, from hushed whispers to screams from green screen rooftops, Hollywood was finally talking about The Room.
Now, finally, word has come to you. It’s time to step into The Room, but it’s good to go in prepared. Here’s a few tips.
How to Watch 'The Room' for The First Time
One of the biggest mistakes you can make when watching The Room for the first time is choosing the wrong company when you watch it. With fan screenings seemingly happening all over the world regularly, you might think it’s good to head over to one of those and familiarize yourself that way, but you’d be wrong. Those screenings come with a plethora of rules, rituals and in-jokes that require you to have a near-encyclopedic knowledge of The Room to get the most out of them.
Similarly, maybe you’ve got a group of friends who love this movie, quote it often and keep bugging you to see it. It’s not a good idea to watch it with these people, as well-intentioned as they may be, they’ll kill it for you. Here’s what you do – get a friend or two who have never seen it. Trust me, it’s not one to watch alone either. Watch it in your living room, bring snacks, be prepared to involuntarily shout “WHAT THE FUCK WAS THAT SUPPOSED TO BE?!” or something similar.
The Room’s main players are the infallible and universally loved Johnny (Tommy Wiseau), his bride to be Lisa (Juliette Danielle, in a role nobody wanted) and his best friend Mark (played by Greg Sestero and apparently named after Matt Damon. Really).
The trio and a cast of peripheral characters enter and exit Johnny’s apartment building for various convoluted reasons for an hour and a half, essentially saying the same plot points repeatedly. Brace yourself for gratuitous sex scenes that go on forever – there are four in total including one that’s just a rehash of footage from an earlier scene. The soundtrack is stock music R&B perfection.
We could mention the heap of establishing shots of San Francisco that make no sense to the story, the out of place football throwing scene, the rooftop set with such painfully atrocious green screen work that words escape us, or the character of Peter – whose role is replaced midway after the actor left production due to other commitments, but like many things, the monstrosity that is The Room needs to be seen to be believed.
How to Watch 'The Room' at a Screening
You made it! You sat through the 99-minute masterwork and you’ve come out the other side mesmerized. You want to go and share this niche joy with likeminded people and you want to do it in the dark! Well, then you need a cheat sheet for the rituals and in-jokes that seem so off-putting to a newbie, but a seasoned fan relishes with joy. Here’s a few favorites to get you started – you’ll pick the rest up as you go.
Told you we’d explain that spoon thing eventually, right? Look around Johnny and Lisa’s apartment – all the artwork is spoon related, and thus whenever somebody sees some spoon related artwork, it’s customary to yell “Spoon!” and throw a shitload of plastic spoons toward the screen.
“Who The Fuck Are You?”
Not only is there the previously mentioned debacle with Peter disappearing from the story and a random actor taking his lines, there’s also a scene early on where two people break into Johnny and Lisa’s apartment to have sex with no mention of who the hell these people are. Thus, it’s completely appropriate to shout “Who the fuck are you?” whenever somebody appears without a proper introduction.
Any time Denny appears on screen it is customary to greet him. Similarly, make sure you say goodbye when he leaves a scene.
“Because You’re A Woman!”
The Room is incredibly misogynistic. If you think the writing of the male characters is two dimensional, then the way women are portrayed is downright cruel. Tommy Wiseau hasn’t heard of the Bechdel Test, and if he had, he wouldn’t care for it. Yell this after any piece of casual misogyny you hear.
There’s a moment in the party scene close to the film’s climax where Johnny appears to look to the bottom corner of the screen. Without fail, someone from the crowd will stand in that corner until it looks as if Johnny is breaking the fourth wall and looking right at them. Of course, it’s only polite to say hi.
At one point, despite knowing all the facts already, Johnny decides to hook up his phone to a tape recorder to catch Lisa out. “I will record everything” he says to nobody before magically plugging a recording device into a household phone with no trouble at all. Such masterful espionage commands that the Mission: Impossible theme be hummed to soundtrack the moment.
What to Do When You’ve Yelled Things at a Screen for 99-Minutes and Still Want More
You’re a fully-fledged fanatic now, and despite having been to a bunch of screenings, including that one time you got your very own baggy tuxedo and long black wig, you’re still dying for more. So full of questions, so void of answers – where do you go from here?
The answer, is Greg Sestero’s 2013 book The Disaster Artist. Partially a behind-the-scenes recounting of a legendarily dreadful production, partially a memoir of friendship whilst trying to "make it" in L.A. It’s an incredibly honest and brilliantly structured look at someone who was right there beside Tommy Wiseau during some of his most formative years.
Honestly, even if you’re only mildly curious about The Room this book is worth a read. Wiseau himself is simultaneously portrayed as the hero, the antagonist and the tragic loner. You’ll find it hilarious and infuriating but you might understand him a little more. By the time Franco’s film which is based on the book hits theaters, you’ll be a certified expert, ready to enjoy and savor every nuance, easter egg and offhand reference that it might throw at you.
What of the real Wiseau and Sestero? They will return to the big screen this year in the surreal thriller Best F(r)iends which honestly looks dreadful. We can’t wait to see it.
For more from this year's SXSW, check out the upcoming documentary Barbecue, which highlights the cultural importance of barbecuing around the world.