[From the vaults, an interview I did with Tommy Wiseau prior to his local appearance in 2010. His film The Room—unique in the true definition of the word—will be showing at the North Park this Wednesday (August 31) at 9:30 pm. The event is co-sponsored by Community Beer Works, whose products will be available at the event—and if ever there was a film that was improved by a little imbibing, this is the one.]
Ed Wood or Tony Clifton—who was I going to get when I spoke to Tommy Wiseau?
Wiseau is the writer/producer/executive producer and of course star of The Room, the first true cult movie to emerge from the Hollywood fringe in years. Since it began to play in Los Angeles [in 2003], it has acquired a Rocky Horror-ish cult, with audiences dressing up as characters from the film and armed with essential props like plastic spoons and footballs.
Ever since the 1980s, when home video made it possible for film buffs to view legendary obscurities they had previously only read about in books like Danny Peary’s Cult Movies and Michael Weldon’s The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film, opportunistic filmmakers have tried to exploit that appetite with manufactured cult movies. That’s a contradiction in terms: you can’t create the mixture of sincerity, enthusiasm and incompetance that marks, say, the oeuvre of Ed Wood, the legendary transvestite creator of Plan 9 From Outer Space and Glen or Glenda.
At least, I don’t think you can—I’ve certainly suffered through enough bad attempts (most of them released by Troma). But it’s just possible that someone might do the equivalent of what the brilliant comic Andy Kaufman did when he created lounge singer Tony Clifton: create a parody with such straight-faced fidelity that it became indistinguishable from the real thing.
The Room is the story of an ill-fated romantic triangle. Wiseau, who looks like a less threatening Gene Simmons and speaks with an thick accent that seems to be primarily Austrian but has hints of French and Italian as well, stars as Johnny, a naïve banker. His live-in fiancée Lisa claims to be in love with him, as numerous soft-core sex scenes seem to verify. But behind his back she is also sleeping with Johnny’s best friend Mark.
With it’s subtly bizarre main set (why is the TV set behind the sofa? And what’s with that column up against the wall?), subplots that disappear as fast as they’re introduced, and baffling dialogue, The Room was not kindly received at its initial screenings. But when it was discovered by LA camp aficionados, it took on a whole new life.
Wiseau has been happy to ride that wave, making a career out of what for any mainstream filmmaker would have been an unqualified disaster. The following condensed transcript of our telephone conversation has been carefully scrubbed for errors: these are all exact quotes. I’ve tried to preserve Wiseau’s distinctive syntax and pronunciation, not to make fun of someone with a thick accent but because they’re so essential to the man. And if, perhaps as a result of doing too many interviews, he occasionally seems to lose sight of the question he was asked to answer one he anticipates being asked next, it’s hard to fault the man for being excited to talk about his work. (If you’re new to Wiseau World, you might want to take a moment to find an interview clip of him on the internet to give you an idea of his speaking voice before you continue reading.) Is he making lemonade out of lemons, or has he engineered a brilliant parody? You tell me.
How would you briefly describe The Room to someone who has never heard of it?
Relationships, fun—I always say you can laugh, you can cry, you can express yourself, but don’t hurt each other. For me it doesn’t matter if it’s a big audience, an audience is an audience. Plus I like to travel.
Is it different to see The Room in a theater as opposed to on DVD?
Oh yeah, absolutely, and it is also different to see it with a crowd of people. I don’t want to tell the audience what to do, each screening is different, but the idea is have fun, experience something different, and have respect for each other. My goal is for every American to see The Room. When you see it with an audience it has much more impact than if you see it by yourself. But there’s nothing wrong to see it by yourself.
How many cities have you shown The Room in?
I would say dozens but right now I will say maybe hundreds of them, and soon will be thousands. And remember is R-rated so kids are not allowed—no, I’m just teasing! [laughs] But at the same time is different cookie cutter from Hollywood.
I would say that The Room helps fight crime. Usually we screen The Room at midnight, and that’s when, as you probably know—I studied psychology too—statistically speaking that’s when crimes are committed, between midnight and early in the morning, 4 am, something like that, across the country—actually across the world!
Right now I’m traveling a lot back and forth – we call it the “Love is Blind” tour. We are showing it in England, in Canada, we have just opened in New Zealand and Australia. We’ll be dubbing it for French and Italian next year, and putting out a Blu-Ray.
For foreign markets, do you prefer dubbing or subtitling?
Yes, I absolutely one hundred percent—speaking my opinion as a director right now, though my background is as an actor—don’t believe what you read about me on line, I just want to say! [laughs] You know what, I can’t control people, they can say whatever they want. I prefer dubbing to a particular language because you can concentrate much more on the picture than on the reading. Another thing I think, by subtitling you are missing certain points within the movie. It’s a grey area because of the costs—subtitling is less expensive than dubbing.
From watching The Room with so many different audiences, have you learned anything about the film that you hadn’t known yourself?
Absolutely! Good question—I commend your question! If you talk about interreaction I have learned a lot, because I am open about it. Because each audience react differently. But in America, we have almost the same idea of what is behind The Room, so reaction is almost the same. They may react south slightly different than north, or east or west. I travel across the country, and I always find a good laugh myself.
All the stuff, good and bad, bad and good, I don’t care about that. I’m talking as the director right now, my job is to present something which is unique and different, that’s what The Room is about. Whether you’re 16 or 18 years old, 16 with your parents, or 60 you should see it and have fun with it. That’s my take on it. Next question.
Is there a particular city that has had the best reaction?
This is tricky question, thank you Michael for saying that, but you know what for me, if I go to San Jose or if I go to New York I treat everybody equally. I would never say because you know fans are fans, and a lot travel.
I know you studied acting – did you go to film school, and if not how did you learn the craft of filmmaking?
I studied acting many years, I’m a stage actor, and you have to be adaptable to every situation. An actor has to be ready at any time. By the way if you want to give me a test, give me the words and I can do it easily right now if you want me to. Now let me just say a couple more things … I studied with the teacher of Stella Adler, Jean Shelton in San Francisco, so acting is a big deal, but directing is too. I study every day to be honest with you, you always have to be able to reshape your skill. To me words are secondary—chemistry is much more important.
As an actor on screen, you are a very mysterious presence. Is it fair to say that you want audiences to be a little confused or off-center so that they don’t know what to expect?
That’s a good statement actually, again I commend you. Yes, absolutely. As a director I will respond to your question that, the actors, they have certain limitations based on the script.
You have to work closely with a director, what does he or she expect. This is the grey area. In reference to The Room, I told several actors, I’m sorry, I will not work with you, because don’t put your five cents in when you don’t know anything about it. Also refer to me several people in the media—by the way, the media to me right now are very kind to me [laughs], they are much different than they were [in 2003], I be honest with you! You are part of the media, I am just laughing. I have to have a good time, otherwise let me tell you, I fear a heart attack, so hopefully you understand that!
It’s a process of discovery. I always say to writers who like to write about The Room. I’m not a Santa Claus, but I tell you right now people will be talking about the movie for years. Because each screening is very unique.
There is no way you can see the movie only one time and say, OK, I know now what it is about. Because each time you see it you will discover something new. Maybe history—why was the Golden Gate bridge [recurring shots of which occur through the film] which was built 70 years ago, why did it survive when we had 15 years ago the earthquake and the Bay Bridge collapsed, when it was built after the Golden Gate Bridge? We could go on and on—why plastic spoon? Plastic could relate to for example chemical—is it good for you, is it bad? This is the area I notice now people are talking about at Q&A—why is this, why is that? Because that’s the idea behind The Room.
Are you working on a new film?
I just finished for Comedy Central [a short] “The House That Dripped Blood On Alex,“ which we showed at Comic Con. That’s something I was hired as an actor, and it was fun.
How about a film you will be writing and directing yourself?
I can’t tell you the title, but we have it for Christmas release, then one for after Christmas, and I am working on the vampire movie. The one I am working on right now is about the economy. And I also made a documentary after The Room called Homeless in America.
Last question: if you could bring anyone back from the dead to appear in your next movie, who would it be? Maybe Greta Garbo, or William Powell …
Greta Garbo, my god, you open door for me – Michael, you are a good sport, let me tell you! Do you know me from somewhere?
I don’t think so …
Ha ha! [excitedly] Well, Greta Garbo, that would be ideal if you ask me! I mean, this actress, she did so much – you make my day actually, because I love this actress. She really present herself on the big screen, glamour. I always say to some of the girls at my Q&A, you guys are missing the point, because you should use your charm as a girl, as a woman, and Greta Garbo, she represents such a power, if you ask me, On the screen and off the screen, as a person, she’ll be forever regarded in the history of cinematography. Hitchcock the same. Orson Welles, he could play my character if you ask me. So many actors—we could go on with the list, but that’s my answer. Good question!
I’m glad you enjoyed the question.
Yeah, Absolutely – it was very tricky, but it was very creative, I like that—I like challenge.