Chances are you know I’m a huge fan of The Room, the best worst movie ever made. You can imagine my delight late last year when I learned that its co-star, Greg Sestero, had written an account of its making that would come out just in time to go on my Christmas list. I finally got around to devouring The Disaster Artist this week and I was not disappointed. I was also taken off-guard by just how sad some aspects of the story are.
For those not in the know, The Room was sort of released in 2003. It was written and directed by Tommy Wiseau, who is also the film’s star and executive producer (read: sole financier). Tommy hails from an undisclosed country, most likely somewhere in Eastern Europe, and his grasp of English and the lifestyles of Americans is tenuous at best. At worst it is the fevered hallucination of a man dying of some strange tropical disease. The movie is an absolute trainwreck, with atrocious dialogue, inscrutable character motivations, no continuity, and Wiseau’s performance as Johnny (no last name–the only character in the film who has anything close to a surname is the oddly-titled drug dealer Chris-R) will surely stand the test of time as one of the most overwrought, slurred performances of an English-speaking character. The film apparently cost $6 million, all provided by Wiseau himself.
In short, it’s a fantastic trip and I own the DVD and I’ve seen it several times.
Greg Sestero plays Mark, Johnny’s best friend, and he was present in Tommy’s life from before the film’s inception to the present day, making the rounds with him to midnight screenings across the globe. The book describes two storylines: how Greg and Tommy met and became odd friends, and the making of The Room itself. When you watch the film, one primary question that arises is how such a movie could get made by a group of rational, reasonably intelligent human beings. Tommy Wiseau is clearly delusional about his own skill as a writer, director & actor, but what about everyone else? What about the director of photography, the camera operator, the set designer, the PAs? What was going through their minds as they watched this film unfold in front of them? How could they stay on? This is addressed by Sestero in the book, and it’s a telling characteristic of the film industry. It’s full of competent artists and crew willing to suffer a great deal of insanity for a decent paycheck and footage. Granted, several people did walk over the course of the filming, but not everyone, and very few people walked without suffering through humiliation, frustration, and confusion. Turns out we’re all willing to put up with a LOT for the privilege of working on an actual film set.
Another interesting aspect of the book is Sestero’s journey as a struggling actor in late-90s LA. It turns out he had some brushes with the next level, getting called back for some big projects and meeting with some serious players in the business before falling backwards into The Room, which would immortalize him as the guy who had to say “Keep your stupid comments in your pocket!” He could’ve gotten a lead role in a Joel Schumacher film, but instead the roulette wheel landed on Tommy. It’s a strange business.
What I found most fascinating, and quite sad, was Tommy himself. As Sestero describes him, he was actually a very lonely guy who probably had a tough life in whatever country he left for America. It seems he had some trouble with the communist regime of his home country and spent some time penniless in France before finally making it to America, a place he’d been obsessed with since childhood. Once here he somehow ended up doing very well for himself (yes, unfortunately we finish the book still not knowing where exactly Tommy is from or how he got his seemingly unlimited bankroll). But other than Greg, he has almost no human connections, no family to speak of or friends. Probably as a result of being hurt in the past, he tends to shut people down and isolate himself before anyone has the chance to hurt him again. In spite of this, he and Sestero develop a strange mismatched friendship several years before The Room actually starts production, before Tommy has even considered making his own film, when both are just incipient actors who meet in a class in San Francisco. Sestero paints a complicated picture of Tommy, a person who’s optimistic and self-confident to the point of delusion, whose confidence is barely hiding a deep pit of fear and loneliness. His strange behavior, overexcitedness, and support of Greg allow his friend to be himself around Tommy without any fear of judgement. But in a moment it can all crash down as Tommy decides to shut himself off again. It’s a roller coaster.
Tommy reaches an inexplicable low point, near suicide really, before finally bouncing back and deciding that if Hollywood won’t have him then he’ll do it himself. He writes what eventually turns into The Room, and he uses his own money to finance the film he also directs and stars in. He does it all himself, the American way. It is of course an unmitigated disaster, but one has to admire his gumption. He knew exactly what he wanted and the finished product, finished largely because of Tommy’s willpower, is it. At the premiere, in his tear-filled eyes, the film is perfect.
This got me thinking. We actors, writers, and artists, we’re not so different from Tommy. It’s so difficult to judge your own work. You have an idea, and you try to carry it out to the best of your ability, and along the way you’re never sure how it’s going. You do your best to convince yourself it’s great and you’re on the right track, but you just never know. You finish it, look at it and say “it’s done?” with a raised eyebrow, then blindly toss it out to the public. Who knows what they’ll say? If you’re lucky you have friends you can trust, and maybe they’ll give you feedback as you’re working. Tommy had that in Greg, and Greg did what most friends do. He told Tommy yes, it’s great, keep it up. Because what can you do? Destroy your friend’s dreams? Take away the one thing that pulled him out of a pit of despair? Tell him no, Tommy, this is not for you, show biz. Your lifelong obsession with American and James Dean is just a fantasy. You need to let it go. No, Greg didn’t say that. He smiled and nodded and played along. We artists know there’s always the possibility that that’s all our friends are doing. We have to rely on ourselves, our inner compass, to guide us along our path. We have to forge ahead when there is no path, trusting in our abilities. That’s all Tommy did, really.
I’m going to keep watching The Room, and I’m going to keep laughing at the insanity. I’m going to laugh at Tommy’s terrible chicken impression, and the terrible green-screened rooftop scenes, and awful sex scenes (two in the first 20 minutes!). I’m going to laugh at the line deliveries and the unintended subtexts and plot bridges to nowhere. But that laughter may be tempered by the knowledge that behind all this there is a human being, a guy who went through some dark stuff. He went through the darkness and came out the other side and found what he wanted. Success and fame, of a sort, all on his own. The American way.