The Disaster Artist
It took 35 years after its release for Plan 9 From Outer Space, generally considered the best bad movie of all time, and its transvestite creator Edward D. Wood. Jr. to attain Hollywood apotheosis with Tim Burton’s Ed Wood. By contrast, it only took 14 years for The Room, the Plan 9 of the new millennium, and its oddball auteur Tommy Wiseau, to become the subject of a mainstream biopic.
If you’ve never seen The Room, it’s not easy to synopsize, at least partly because it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Writing about it when it first started to play around the country after wowing Los Angeles audiences for a few years, I said “This is a movie that wants to be a Tennessee Williams play when it grows up, except someone dropped it on its head when it was young and it hasn’t been right ever since.”
But then, if you’ve never seen The Room, I can’t imagine that you’re going to be too interested in seeing The Disaster Artist. I guess fans of the ongoing performance art piece known as James Franco may be interested, though if they’ve never seen the real Tommy Wiseau they’re likely to think that Franco’s performance is way over the top. It’s not—that’s really the way Wiseau looks, talks, and acts.
The real question is, is Tommy Wiseau actually an ongoing performance art piece? I’ve never been able to overcome the suspicion that Mr. Wiseau and his film are a put-on, albeit the most accomplished one since Andy Kaufman started performing in public as Tony Clifton. When I interviewed Wiseau a few years back as he was touring the country with The Room, he was clearly playing a character based on what he figured audiences expected from the character he played in his film. (Here’s a thought that started to take over my brain during a lull in The Disaster Artist: Was I watching James Franco playing Tommy Wiseau, or James Franco playing Tommy Wiseau playing Tommy Wiseau? Or perhaps even James Franco playing James Franco playing Tommy Wiseau playing Tommy Wiseau?)
Wiseau has managed to keep his past a secret; he is supposedly of Polish origin, but half of my family is Polish, and none of them ever sounded like him. And where did he get the money for a vanity production that is plausibly estimated to have cost $6 million?
None of those questions are answered in The Disaster Artist, the best parts of which are recreations of Wiseau’s magnum opus (indeed, pretty much his only opus, aside from a documentary about the homeless that no one seems to have seen and a few episodes of a proposed TV series that no one should ever see.) They’re entertaining enough, but no substitute for the real thing. The joy of bad movies—unintentionally bad movies, not the smirky parodies that studios like Troma began grinding out in the 1980s—comes from the fact that they are for the most part painful to watch, tedious and dull. (It’s all but impossible to watch the sex scenes in The Room without reaching for the fast-forward button.) It’s when you can’t take it anymore that the giddiness and the giggling take over, and it’s that aspect that is lost when you try to condense a great bad movie into “just the good parts.”
The Disaster Artist shares something else important with Ed Wood: Both are less interested in getting cheap laughs at their subjects than they are in paying tribute to characters who fought against substantial odds, not least of all their utter lack of talent, to get a movie made. Burton navigated that aspect better than Franco, whose film occasionally over the edge into unabashed sentimentality (I thought the musical score was an ironic joke.) I can’t fault Franco and his collaborators for feeling affection for Wiseau, who after all has given so much joy to so many people, if only by accident. And if they bring some new fans to Wiseau world, I guess they can be proud of themselves.
BELOW THE TRAILER:
Read M. Faust’s 2009 review of The Room and his 2010 interview with Tommy Wiseau.
My original review of The Room, from 2009:
They say that the movie business is recession proof, that no matter how bad things get people always manage to scrape together a few bucks for entertainment. This current recession must be even worse than we think, because for the rest of the spring all Hollywood has in store for us is a handful of brainless movies made for the most undemanding of viewers.
Still, someone in my line of work has to write about something. So off to the DVD pile I went in search of something off the beaten track, something I fetl readers might like to know about.
Something like…The Room.
The media savvy among you might already have heard about this, or seen clips form it on YouTube. It has been playing once-monthly midnight shows in Los Angeles for five years now, to audiences that react with an interactive fervor that recalls the heyday of Rocky Horror. It’s available on DVD, and while you can’t get it from NetFlix or at local rental outlets, you can buy it for under $10 at Amazon.
Get it. It’s worth every penny.
The Room was written, directed, produced, and executive produced by one Tommy Wiseau. He is not one of those auteurs who is embarrassed to see his name onscreen too many times: the opening credits contain his name so many times that I was reminded of the classic short “Bambi Meets Godzilla.” (“Written by Marv Newland.” “Produced by Marv Newland.” “Choreography by Marv Newland.” “Marv Newland produced by Mr. & Mrs. Newland.”)
A wash of synthesized pseudo-orchestral bombast accompanies the introduction of the film’s main characters, Johnny and his fiancée Lisa. He comes home from work with a present, a new red negligee, cueing the first of many softcore sex scenes. (Though they don’t get down to it until neighbor teen Denny out of their bedroom. He thinks they’re having a pillow fight and wants to join in.)
Despite such evidence of connubial bliss, things are apparently not well at Johnny’s house. Lisa tells his best friend Mark that she is bored with Johnny and wants to be with him instead. This is essentially the entire plot of the film: Lisa talks to Mark and her mother about how she wants to leave Johnny, they tell her that Johnny is a great guy and great provider, her and Mark get it on some more.
But despite the numerous slap-and-tickle bouts, which seem even longer than they are because they’re so dull, this is not a movie with prurience on its mind. This is a movie that wants to be a Tennessee Williams play when it grows up, except someone dropped it on its head when it was young and it hasn’t been right ever since.
The Room is loaded with atrocious dialogue, worse line readings, arbitrary plotting (one major character announces early on that she has just leaned that she has breast cancer, only to forget about it for the rest of the film), cheap sets, and godawful staging (the sex scene on a circular staircase is a highlight). You could laugh yourself sick just concentrating on the set decorations for the main set, Johnny’s living room: it’s painted bright red, has a column against the wall, a tv set behind the sofa, and unexplained frames photographs of spoons scattered about. (Plastic spoons are to LA screenings of The Room what toilet paper and toast are to Rocky Horror Picture Show.)
But what really lifts The Room into the stratosphere is the performance of its writer-director-star in the role of Johnny. Tommy Wiseau looks like an older version of Harvey Keitel in Taxi Driver, by way of Gene Simmons. He has long hair that appears to be dyed black, wears a suit that’s about two sizes too big with a loosened tie (he’s supposed to be some kind of banker), and speaks in an accent that recalls Arnold Schwarzenegger the day he got off the boat from Austria.
What makes this so bizarre is that Johnny is supposed to be an average everyday guy. No one seems to know where Wiseau came from (he’s secretive about his past), but his bizarre accent would indicate some country that doesn’t exist anymore. His line readings (many of which have clearly been overdubbed) are so bad that it sounds like he has no idea what the dialogue means. I wouldn’t blame him—I don’t know what most of the dialogue meant, either—except that he wrote this stuff. And when he gets his teeth into a line, like the Brando-meets-James Dean moment when he screams, “You’re tearing me apart, Lisa!”, watch out! The movie is unintentionally funny enough without him, but when he’s onscreen (which is most of the film), it enters another dimension entirely.
Having checked out Wiseau’s MySpace page, I’m tempted to think that he and his movie are a huge put on, done in the spirit of Andy Kaufman and (apparently) Joaquin Phoenix’s recent antics. But as a longtime fan of bad movies, I think he’s the real thing. Cult movies have got a bad name in the past twenty years as too many Troma-inspired no-talents with cameras have battered us with inept junk they pass of as “cult.” A movie like The Room comes along once in a generation.
And my 2010 interview with Tommy Wiseau:
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 see legendary obscurities they had previously only been able to 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 is 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 indicate. 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 be 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 his 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.)
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.
We have some fans in Buffalo, for your information, they organized this. 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 online, 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, okay, 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.