This is a review of a film, which is based on a book, which is, in itself, a recounting of how a film was made. Usually that level of distillation from the original source is associated with refined cocaine. But, it does mean that, in order to tell this story, I have to discuss the original source and its creator. Which is where I immediately run into trouble.
In order to discuss The Room, the first thing you need to know is that human language simply is not adequate to describe it. It would be like describing Monet’s Water Lilies to someone who has been blind since birth. I’ll do my best to describe it, but, understand, anything I write about this subject would be like writing an obituary that read, “She was a good person, and my friend. And now she’s gone.” It’s 100% accurate, but it leaves innumerable little details.
I once heard The Room described as, “If a deer made a human melodrama,” or, “A film made by alien sociologists after studying humans.” That’s not bad, but, again, fails to capture the extreme weirdness in any meaningful way. So; let’s say some aliens came to earth to write their dissertation on humans, but were only allowed to study them via telescopes and our television/radio broadcasts. So, they do it; then they run it through Google Translate. That is The Room’s script.
How bad is this film, really?
As someone else has noted, at the half-hour mark of the film, 24 minutes are explicit sex scenes, and I use the word “sex” loosely; these are more like from a sex ed film that uses a celibacy-only approach. You could probably show this to a bunch of impressionable, hormonally-crazed teenagers, shout, “This is what sex is!” and they’d probably join a monastery the next day. It is that mind-bogglingly bad.
In very, very broad strokes, Johnny is a popular, successful guy, engaged to a beautiful woman (we know this because we’re told, over and over, again, how beautiful Lisa is)(that is also Lisa’s only major positive personality trait)(if you find yourself thinking “What the fuck…?” during this review, you have understand, that is the overwhelming emotion this film evokes — I have never seen it in a single dose; and I’ve only ever seen it in 10–20-minute bits, because that’s about how long a human brain tolerate it before being forced to look away and reassure yourself you’re still mostly-sane). Johnny is an all-American kind of guy (we’re also told this repeatedly), even though he has the world’s weirdest accent, and it is clear that English is not his first language (or even second, or third). Johnny’s fiancee (another delightfully-insane little twist in this whole thing is that, at no point in the film, is the word “fiancee” EVER used — it’s always “future wife” or “future husband”)(I am not making this up), however, cheats on him — repeatedly — with his best friend, and, upon confronting her; Lisa rejects Johnny, who shoots himself. Again, everything stated there is accurate (and, for hardcore fans, the classic summary can be found in an “Ask Amy” column here: https://www.freep.com/story/life/advice/2015/07/04/amy-dickinson-toxic-relationship/29637387/). Normally, we’d just write it off as a weird little experimental film that failed, or a bad episode of “Days of Our Lives” written by the Hungarian understudy, and get on with our lives.
This is where things get magical. Tommy Wiseau — who bankrolled this whole thing for six-million-ish dollars (the exact dollar amount spent on this film, and where the money came from, are two enduring mysteries surrounding this film), kept a billboard advertising this film on Sunset Boulevard for years — there are a lot of photos of it on the Internet. I saw it several times, and, in addition to Googling it, allow me to describe the experience. Imagine Christopher Lee, as Dracula; malevolently gazing down at you, three meters tall, 10 meters above ground level. Below that unsettling image, the words “The Room,” and, above it, a phone number with the line, “For reservations.” I saw it several times, and I assumed it was a goth club or a quasi-legal BDSM club. I was pretty sure dialing the phone number would be the start of an after-school special about child safety. As it turns out, it was an advertisement for the film itself; the number was T. Wiseau’s personal number, and he’d show it once or twice a month in various Los Angeles independent (read: rentable by the public) theaters. Marriage vows include the words, “In sickness and in health, for better or worse,” but imagine the insane (possibly inhuman) willpower required to sink a seven-digit budget into a vanity film, be laughed out of the theater, and still have midnight screenings of it years later. But that’s the thing about this film — the minute you start asking any questions apart from “What the hell is going on,” or, “Why does this atrocity exist,” it leads to bigger, weirder, stranger questions.
Normally, there are three main questions asked in conjunction with this film:
- What is the super-secret origin story of Tommy?
- How much money actually was put into this film, and where did it come from (There are numerous film-makers who’ve heard it cost six million dollars to make this film who are also on record saying that there is no way that money showed up on screen; which lead early-on to one of the enduring fan-theories; that this is a really weird one-off money-laundering scheme on behalf of some sinister Eastern European crime syndicate)?
- How old is Tommy Wiseau, really?
What kind of turned me on to this film — or at least gave me the strength to finish watching it — was the podcast How Did This Get Made. If you can enjoy a film ironically, you need to check out this podcast. In the particular episode I’m referencing, they actually talk to costar Greg Sestero about how weird it all is, and the thing that stays with me is that they pointed out that there a million tiny little creative decisions that go into visual story-telling, from the obvious (dialogue, directing, acting) to the almost-inconsequential (any time you see a set in a film or TV show with family photos in the background, someone had to find and pay for those photos), and what amazed them about this particular film — they said — was that, in most bad movies, a film is awful because no one cares enough to do that (exhibit A is, of course, Michael Bay’s aggressively awful Transformers films, which should be retitled, “Look, they paid me enough money to buy a Malibu beachhouse, so I just made the damned film”). What elevates The Room into the rarified stratosphere inhabited by the likes of Ed Wood, is that Wiseau was directly involved in virtually every artistic aspect of this movie. And somehow, he managed to make the wrong call every single time. From a more quantifiable perspective, this is like getting a 0 on the SAT — a test that literally gives you points just for showing up and spelling your name.
Or, to put it another way; there’s always a disconnect between theory and reality. Tucker Carlson unwittingly illustrated this in his weird, “It’s not racist if I call them the N-word in my head.” If that were what it was limited to, no one would know or care. However, if you’re racist mentally and insist on calling black people the n-word in your head, pretty soon, you’ll be shouting racial epithets on the street.
In this case, if I (or Tommy Wiseau) showed up at your door tomorrow and said, “I’ll give you $25 million to make the worst film in the universe,” and you took it seriously — went to film school, studied art, writing, the history of film, etc, and wrote the script — your theoretical worst film, no matter how bad, can not possibly be half as bad as this film actually is. It’s so bad — on every level imaginable — that it developed a cult following amongst film makers and comedians. It became profitable, oddly enough. My generation is inheriting a terminal planet, and we were born long after Rocky Horror Picture Show left midnight screenings in favor of VHS, this film is the best we can do. I have not been to a screening of this movie, but I’ve been told it is the very best cult film experience ever. Given how inadequate human language is to describe the film itself, I’m inclined to believe it. A fundamental part of all art is affirming the audience’s humanity, and, the weirdly reassuring message from The Room is, “No matter how creepy, awkward, or otherwise isolated from humanity you are, there is someone who is, somehow, more removed from the human experience than you.”
Again, if that were the end — “Really weird movie comes out, bombs, but becomes eventual hit,” we’d all clap at the epilogue, and go home. But that’s not the end of the story. These fans kept pulling at the threads of this film and things just got weirder and more disturbing. If you’re a film connoisseur, troubled productions are frequently more interesting than the films themselves, because the stories that come out of the “making of” DVD bonus are usually more entertaining than the film itself (my personal favorite is that the original director of the unforgivably-awful 1996 Island of Dr. Moreau asked a friend who claimed to be a witch-doctor to perform a sacrifice in his name when studio executives were considering scrapping it)(this is true). The Room is truly unique in that all the stories that emerge from the “Making of” segment are every bit as weird and unique as the film itself (Tommy is, apparently, every bit as creepy as he presents himself in the film), but, somehow, never upstage the film itself. For instance, most film studios rent the cameras used to film movies, because new cameras are being developed all the time, and the equipment used to film it is literally technologically irrelevant a year later. It’s far cheaper to rent equipment; which is what major film studios do (there is an entire industry involved in buying and leasing film equipment). T. Wiseau decided to actually buy all the cameras used to make the film, however, because the film package he purchased came with a novelty digital camera to make “Behind the Scenes” add-ons, and he didn’t know what it was for; he literally shot every scene with two cameras strapped together, which is why every single shot in the film is off-center. This is the most-rational part of this film and the lore surrounding it. That’s the tale as Greg Sestero tells it (we’ll discuss him in greater detail later).
So, if we want to treat the cult following of The Room as a religion (and I honestly don’t think it’s any weirder than Scientology or what Raelian teaches), and The Room as the sacred document — our Bible, if you will — another part of this whole, weird tale is that Wiseau is notoriously recalcitrant toward fame, and has shrunk from media attention. Meanwhile, everyone involved in this film’s making is eager to discuss it. Again, in our religion analogy, Jesus has returned to heaven, but the disciples are all writing tell-all books, and each is weirder than the last, and, bear in mind, the madness is all increased exponentially because we have various financial records, tax returns — modern, accurate first-hand verifiable sources. Which not infrequently clash with the stories told by Tommy and the disciples. The most-comprehensive, plausible look at the whole thing we have (sort of), is the book, “Disaster Artist,” written by The Room’s co-star (and line producer), Greg Sestero. Without going into too much detail (which would be far beyond the scope of this article, or my inclination to research), Greg was Tommy’s roommate for a while, was eventually offered the role of “Mark” in The Room, acted as unofficial producer for The Room, and is the closest primary source we have for the hilariously awful The Room (the weird fact that Tommy Wiseau could literally just give an in-depth interview with any publication and lay to rest any number of questions — but refuses to do so — just adds to the mystique of this film)(in my religion analogy, it’s like if Jesus came back after the Ascension, said, “Dad’s an asshole who rented out my room” and then retreated from the public eye while leaving Paul, Matthew, Mark, and Luke to handle PR).
In 2013, after years of weird, cult-movie buzz, Sestero got “Disaster Artist” — his account of making The Room — published. As ever, if that had been it — bad movie is made, it somehow becomes a word-of-mouth sensation, major actor writes tell-all; that would have been it. I am certain that a major part of this film’s appeal is its sheer unkillability, like C. Lee as Dracula. Like everything else related to this very weird film, that’s just the beginning of a whole new, very weird thing. So, the book comes out, dishes on various weird stuff, including discussing the Big Three questions — Sestero thinks Tommy was originally from some former Soviet Union, illegally emigrated to France, then legally emigrated to Louisiana, where he spent a number of years. Sestero also points out that that, despite appearances, Tommy is a sales/marketing savant who owns several very successful clothing stores in the bay area (which makes far more sense than Tommy’s stock answer, “I sell leather jackets, and, if you make money, you save it; I put saved money into Room.” (that’ almost verbatim and is a little preview into the sort of English fluency level you can expect from the film). Sestero also points out — in answering accusations of money-laundering — he’s never been approached by the IRS, FBI, or any other group that might investigate fraud or money-laundering, and, if the gaol of a money laundering enterprise is to give illegally-obtained cash a plausible, legal, taxable back-story and put it back in the villain’s pockets; making a crappy film and then waiting ten years for it to gain economic traction is the least-effective method of doing it. Wiseau immediately lashed out against the book, saying it was only 40% accurate. To recap, a bad film is made, tanks, eventually gains a cult following in Hollywood, a guy heavily-involved in the film (Sestero paints an unflattering picture of Tommy as being tight-fisted and micromanaging of the crew, but who blew a quarter-million dollars on a private bathroom on the lot) writes a tell-all. Again, if this were literally any other movie, we’d all sigh and move on with our lives. Astute readers can see an M. Night Shyalaman-style twist coming.
The Franco brothers get interested in the book, and adapt it into a film. And, it must be noted; it’s not a high-fidelity adaptation — whereas Sestero’s book focused on the weirder, kookier aspects of making the film (apparently, Tommy spent two hours a day dying his hair, every day), the film focuses more on stuff like Sestero and Tommy’s weird, quasi-functional friendship, and their joint determination to make it in the entertainment industry despite seemingly-insurmountable odds. Again, normally, this would be the end of the story (and my interest), but Tommy Wiseau has said that this film is 99% accurate. It’s rare that the film based on the tell-all-book that was bashed by the original director gets praised as being more-accurate than the book (to be fair, the film breezes over the “Big 3” questions and only offers Tommy’s weird, stock answers, so there is that aspect)(it’s worth noting that if you’re looking for any concrete, verifiable facts or stories that give insight into this thing, there’s still very little to go on)(which could be a part of Tommy’s bizarrely brilliant marketing strategy). The first act of the film is shockingly generic, the standard, “Two losers try to make it in the acting world,” made watchable by James Franco’s literal scenery-chewing as Tommy Wiseau (You can not appreciate “Streetcar Named Desire” until you’ve seen Stanley Kowalski climb the drape in the middle of the “Stella” scene). The one bit of insight at this point is the suggestion that Tommy’s weird obsession with touch football started when seeing Sestero playing in the street with some friends. Before any direct Jeffrey Epstein comparisons are made, it’s worth noting that, at this point, Sestero was 19, and no one has ever accused Tommy of any direct impropriety, but their relationship is still weird as hell. In the book, Sestero points out that he was 19, living at home in the East Bay Area, and attending acting classes in San Francisco when he met Tommy, which eventually developed into becoming Tommy’s roommate while pursuing a modeling career. Sestero lightly mentions in the book that his mother was notably upset at his decision to move 40 miles away with a (very) strange man, but the film highlights this interaction by showing Tommy driving up to the house in his Mercedes to pick Greg up, and his mother’s incredulity and vague horror at letting her son go off with the creepiest-looking vampire ever to pursue a career in the arts. This is where the film and book start to diverge — in the book, Sestero mentions that he spent several years in the Bay Area, taking acting classes and pursuing an almost-successful modeling career, while speculating over Tommy’s history and wealth. In the film, they skip this and head directly to Los Angeles, and Tommy’s background and wealth are treated like the enormous and unaffordable apartments in sit-coms: they’re just the backdrop for the gang’s zany antics.
After getting to Hollywood and fruitlessly chasing jobs (while living in Tommy’s palatial condo)(again, just go with it), we get another Fan Insight, in a class where the teacher recommends that, based on his looks, sullen demeanor, and just general Dracula-ness, Tommy try to find character work as a villain. I honestly have no idea if this happened in real life (according to Tommy, this film is highly accurate, though), but it opened up another entire avenue of weirdness and questions I never knew of. Tommy is — by all accounts, and his rare media appearances — way beyond weird, beyond the DSM, and into Hollywood portrayals of creepy craziness (if you told me he had a pit in his basement that was his favorite fourth date destination, I would totally believe it), and he always comes off as bizarre and slightly sinister. If he’d just shrugged and auditioned for B-movie villains, there is virtually no doubt in my mind that he would be in line to voice the next major Disney villain. It’s not a stretch to see him as the next Boris Karloff (or, possibly-more-accurately, Torgo)(if you get that reference, you are the target demographic of this essay and the film). Tommy, for reasons beyond those of us without a deep, personal connection to Cthulhu, adamantly refuses this career advice, and insists that he is the hero.
Here’s the first part where this film provides not only a keen insight into Tommy, but connects with the audience. Tommy, despite all evidence to the contrary, despite drastic financial incentive to the contrary, desperately wants to be seen as the hero of the piece. As we all do, but this was a kick in the gut for me, to stop seeing him as some bizarre, other-worldly figure who somehow created the world’s weirdest film, and just a guy who wanted to be successful and popular, just like every other person on this planet. This sequence culminates in Sestero lightly suggesting to Tommy, “We should just make our own movie,” and Tommy saying, “That great idea.” Sestero hinted at this interaction in the book, saying he’d mentioned how much easier the creative endeavor would be if they just found an angel investor and made their own thing.
It’s at this point where the film moves back into fan speculation, by showing Tommy writing the script. When I say, “Fan speculation,” of course I mean, “There are only a few confirmed sources and facts surrounding this whole thing, so, when in doubt, keep calm and assume the most-logical, plausible explanation is wrong. According to Sestero in interviews, Tommy was torn about doing this as a play or a film, so he wrote the script as a stage play, and then eventually adapted that into screenplay after figuring out that the logistics of running a play were beyond him (of course, that scenario seems likely and plausible, so…) This is that scene that’s prominently portrayed in the trailers with the line, “Also, maybe Johnny is vampire; we’ll see.” It’s at this point I had to pause the film again (the film, which, let’s remember, is based on a tell-all book about making another film)(writing about this whole thing, there’s a very distinctive “Heart of Darkness” sensation that you’re moving upriver to meet Mr. Kurtz at all times) to investigate. Again, since Tommy is notoriously tight-lipped on every topic ever, we have hearsay and fan conjecture. Thankfully, this is not a court of law, it’s just the Internet. According to Reddit (that’s the level of journalistic excellence here)(it’s also a warning to creative folks on the importance of aggressively doing your own PR rather than leave it to Internet message boards), early drafts of the script ended with Johnny revealing himself to be a vampire, and driving his car off a cliff. In a sane and rational universe, that would seem bizarre and unlikely. We’re talking about The Room, so “bizarre and unlikely” is suddenly looking like the safe bet. In Sestero’s Disaster Artist, Sestero actually publishes photos of early script drafts, which include — I am not making this up — the never-before-written insult, “Old man donkey.” That vampire theory’s looking pretty good now.
Tommy finishes writing his play, hands it over to Sestero, and offers him the part of Mark (the best friend who cheats with Johnny’s fiancee), and Sestero immediately accepts. This is a rather dramatic departure from the book. In the book, Sestero discusses how his modelling work was starting to support him, how he was starting to get infomercials and bit parts in television shows, and how, even though his career wasn’t exactly flourishing, it was profitably floundering; so he initially resisted Tommy’s offer, but agreed to work behind the scenes on an as-needed basis (it’s also around here that things get blurry, as Sestero admits to some fairly passive-aggressive behavior, such as warning a female model and hopeful actress auditioning for the part of Lisa that she’d be auditioning for the role of Lisa, the villain of the piece, and the sex scenes would be lengthy and gruesome)(in the context of Sestero and Tommy’s relationship, it’s a little passive-agressive; in the context of warning a potential actress that she might be headed toward a career-destroying film, it could be just the decent thing to do)(again, conflicting stories and multiple interpretations of this thing just add to the mystique). After months of holding auditions, negotiating with agents, and still finding no suitable actor for Mark, Sestero claims Tommy offered him the part for a jaw-dropping amount of money (No actual figures are mentioned, but Sestero wrote, “This might be the thing I had to do in order to afford to do thing I loved to do.”) Again, details are thin and disputed, but, what’s indisputable is that G. Sestero was friends with Tommy and on the ground with him for The Room from Day 1.
The film jumps over the arduously-described casting/script-editing process and leaps right into another really bizarre aspect of The Room; the scene where Tommy decides to buy the camera equipment rather than rent it. Again, this is almost unheard of in film-making; the equivalent would be flying to Tahiti (already an expensive proposition), walking to the rental counter, and saying, “Thanks, but I’d like to buy a car.” The film briefly highlights this (with “How Did This Get Made’s” own Jason Mantzoukas in a cameo)(one of the beautiful things about this film is that, even though it definitely mocks Tommy and The Room, it never feels like it sneers at either, and it openly celebrates the weird fandom that surrounds the film) with the camera rental/leasing group having a minor freak-out about how unorthodox this is, then offering Tommy a package deal that included the use of their (tiny, limited) studios (which were mostly maintained as a place to repair and check camera functionality). In the book, Sestero paints it as more of a dramatic extension of politesse and manners on behalf of the camera-leasing agency; here, it’ part of the “package deal.” Which includes introducing Tommy to de facto director Sandy Schklair (played by Seth Rogan)(Sandy also has a tell-all book out; I have not read it, but, in true Room form, he starts by implicitly accusing everyone involved with The Room as being liars, starting with T. Wiseau). In Sestero’s Disaster Artist, he points out that Sandy was hired as a script supervisor, but wound up being the de facto director (Sestero discusses that a lot of people wound up working overtime and underpaid in various functions they weren’t qualified or particularly suited for — he discusses the fact — which is ignored in the film — that he wound up being the line producer of the film). Sestero also points out, in the book, that the concept of getting an editor or writer for the film was almost ludicrous, as Tommy took to any change or criticism the same way foliage takes to Agent Orange. Still, they hired him to make Tommy’s nearly unintelligible script into something slightly more-intelligible (in his book, Sandy claims he was hired as the director)(again, dramatically different stories about the same events are just a part of this film). In both the book and film, Sandy’s involvement is rather minimal, apart from frequent clashes about the writing (in one interview, Sestero referred to himself as “the Tommy whisperer” because he kind of grasped Tommy’s vision when it wasn’t as clear to those around them), because he’s upstaged by Tommy and Sestero, apart from one weird moment, when Sandy goes to cash a check, and casually jokes to the cashier, “If there’s anything in that account,” to be met with the line, “This account’s a bottomless pit.”) This is the closest this film comes to answering the Big 3 questions (and the film’s careful skirting of those questions might be why Tommy approves of it).
It’s during this primary shooting sequence that the film finds its real message and story, of the importance of staying true to your artistic vision no matter the cost, and the story of these two weird outsiders trying to make it in a notoriously hard industry. At one point in the book, Sestero discusses (briefly) how ridiculously hard it was to both manage Tommy’s expectations (no, Spielberg and Scorcese would have no interest in this script) while encouraging him to go for it. And that weird balance between your inner dialogue and reality, in an artistic manner, is the heart and soul of this film (the heart and soul of The Room has yet to be found), best exemplified when Sestero asks the actress playing Lisa’s mother why she’s driving 50 miles for a relatively puny paycheck and a hot lunch, when she could be doing something more lucrative, and she responds, “The very worst day on this set is better than anything else I could possibly be doing.” This film beautifully embodies that, “Art is for the artist” aesthetic. Having said that, this film does gloss over the largely-indisputable fact that Tommy and the crew were usually at odds with one another (I say it’s indisputable because if we do even a cursory bit of research about who was involved in this film and has a beef with Tommy reveals near-endless accounts of weird, shady business transactions, uncontracted work, etc.), and only hints at it in a few scenes later in the film, when Sestero and Tommy have a bit of a kerfuffle about what each has sacrificed on the other’s behalf. Forgive me for not going into detail, it’s largely a “He said, she said” issue, depending on whose narrative and view you trust.
All of this, however, is just a lead-up to the premier, which also is probably mostly-fictional. In the film, it’s portrayed as a jam-packed independent theater that is instantly raucous about the hilariously bizarre spectacle they’re viewing. In the book, Sestero describes randomly handing out tickets to nearby homeless people to put butts in seats. Given that it took over five years for this film to be “rediscovered” and appreciated as, “The Citizen Kane of bad movies,” that seems slightly more plausible (of course, by my own words, this film and all aspects of it are allergic to plausibility and logic, so, feel free to imagine the premiere in any way you like). What this film does do quite well is imprint just how hard it is to get any collaborative artistic effort off the ground, and getting a finished film into a theater is nearly-miraculous. The lasting shots show the two main characters celebrating just how unlikely that minor success is.