THE FIRST TIME I SAW The Room I was in New York City, at home with friends, rounding out a grueling all-day marathon of bad movies. We had watched Quigley, starring Gary Busey as a callous businessman who dies and comes back as a Pomeranian in a necktie, and Gymkata, which tried to make gymnastics seem badass by mixing it with karate. We’d trudged through the patchouli-stinking hippiescape of Oliver Stone’s The Doors (worse than you remember, even with Crispin Glover popping up as Andy Warhol). At around the 10-hour mark the whole thing felt less like a movie marathon and more like a poorly conceived experiment to see how long humans can appreciate things ironically. We were ready to call it a day, but then someone pulled out a DVD with a black-and-white photo of a strange, scowling man on the box.
None of us knew much about The Room — only that it had spawned some kind of midnight movie craze in Los Angeles — and we didn’t expect much beyond standard schlock. But we were in for a surprise that I count as one of the most purely joyful movie watching experiences of my life. Everything about The Room is aggressively wrong. The script is like something scribbled on a burger wrapper during an Ambien blackout, with scenes that meander, characters who kick off storylines only to wander away like distracted cats, and dialogue that sounds like a parody of human interaction generated by a robot obsessed with Red Shoe Diaries. But somehow it all adds up to something worth watching and, for a certain subset of film-going masochists, even cherishing.
The intense, duck-lipped man on the Room DVD box is Tommy Wiseau. He’s also the film’s writer, director, and sole producer, and he stars as Johnny, a well-to-do banker in San Francisco who’s engaged to a cruel harpy named Lisa. No romantic treachery is too sadistic for Lisa, who for reasons unexplained wants to destroy the sweet-natured Johnny. Actually, “sweet-natured” doesn’t begin to describe Johnny: he’s a saint in relaxed-fit cargo pants. He’s generous to all and trusts everyone he meets.
The real-life Wiseau is, to put it mildly, more guarded. In Greg Sestero’s hilarious and unexpectedly moving new book The Disaster Artist (written with frequent New Yorker contributor Tom Bissell), Wiseau comes across as a black hole of ego and eccentricity who warps the social fabric of every situation he enters. Sestero, an actor who appeared in The Room as Mark, Johnny’s backstabbing best friend with underwear model good looks, emerges in The Disaster Artist as not only an engaging chronicler of the folly of a first-time director convinced he’s making one of the greatest films of all time, but as an exasperated yet sympathetic friend to a troubled soul.
Sestero writes about first meeting Wiseau in San Francisco at an acting workshop, where the auteur-to-be would hack all soul and subtlety out of Tennessee Williams monologues, then push back arrogantly against classroom critiques. Wiseau was a lumpy mystery with a jet-black ponytail and a white tank top whose performances Sestero describes as both “extraordinarily bad” and “magically uninhibited.” We’re treated to a memory of Wiseau reciting Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 116”:
“Let me not to the marriage of true minds,” [Wiseau] began, “admit impediments.” He bludgeoned his way through the rest, each line a mortal enemy. Where the sonnet demanded clear speech, he mumbled; when it asked for music, he went singsong. Everything he said was obviously the product of diligent mismemorization, totally divorced from the emotion the words were trying to communicate. He was terrible, reckless, and mesmerizing.
While other members of the class avoided Wiseau, Sestero asked him to be his scene partner.
What followed was not a normal friendship. Judging from The Disaster Artist, Sestero approached Wiseau like a kid in an abandoned house, tempted to run away but charged up with morbid curiosity about what he might find if he ventures a little deeper. For reasons known only to himself, Wiseau continues to be incredibly unforthcoming about everything from his Eastern European origins to the source of his apparent fortune (he financed The Room with an estimated $6 million of his own money), right on down to the most mundane details of his life. The persona Tommy Wiseau presents to the public is a lot like the characters in The Room: inscrutable, erratic, and missing a backstory.
Sestero and Bissell scrub away the layers of muck on Wiseau’s history, revealing a poor emigre from Communist-bloc Europe who spent unhappy years in France before moving to America to live with an uncle in New Orleans and eventually starting a life on his own in San Francisco. After years of peddling yo-yos and toy birds at Fisherman’s Wharf, Wiseau found a patron who helped him open a knickknack booth at an indoor marketplace, a gig he parlayed into a small retail empire with a specialty in bootleg streetwear.
This is already an impressive feat of reinvention, but for Wiseau it wasn’t enough. He wanted to scuttle his old reality and make a new one that was bigger, more American, and specifically, more Hollywood. And that’s where the story gets sad. The authors allude frequently to the Billy Wilder classic Sunset Boulevard, drawing parallels between Wiseau and Gloria Swanson’s aging, delusional silent film star Norma Desmond. But Desmond is a Hollywood has-been, whereas Wiseau is a Hollywood never-will-be, who doesn’t understand why he can’t become the next Johnny Depp.
Believe me when I say: there are a lot of reasons. Aside from Wiseau’s AARP-qualifying age and unsettling physical appearance (Sestero compares him to a pirate and a vampire; elsewhere I’ve seen him described as looking like “Gene Simmons’ squat, constipated brother”) there’s his personality: a gamey stew of arrogance and insecurity that repulses would-be friends and makes creative collaboration impossible. This is a guy who, as Sestero relates, refused an actress’s request to play an Alicia Keys album while shooting a particularly unpleasant love scene (not that The Room contains any pleasant love scenes). Wiseau’s reason? “We are not here to promote other people’s work.” Great! Why give Alicia Keys the satisfaction?
Still, even as you’re praying you never get stuck alone in a room with him, you root for Wiseau, which turns out to be The Disaster Artist’s best surprise. Just how hard you root for him might depend on your own familiarity with the dispiriting, corrosive side of ambition. It’s something that Sestero — whose IMDB page peaks with a featured extra role in Patch Adams and a star turn in the horror film Retro Puppet Master — really seems to understand. The Wiseau he depicts is a Hollywood cautionary tale, sure, but in the end he’s more than that. He’s a damaged and deeply lonely man who wanted something ridiculous, but wanted it so badly that he put his entire soul into the pursuit. Sestero describes his impressions upon first reading the convoluted, semiautobiographical mess of a script for The Room, shortly after tending to one of Wiseau’s black moods:
I had a sobering, sad, and powerful realization: Our friendship was the most human experience Tommy had had in the last few years. Maybe ever. The happy news was that whatever Tommy had been running from, he’d managed to turn and face it down in his script. Instead of killing himself, he wrote himself out of danger. He did this by making his character the one spotless human being amid chaos, lies, and infidelity.
After seeing The Room for the first time, most people want to know if Wiseau is for real. It seems impossible that he could be, but strangely heartbreaking to imagine he’s not. I found myself asking similar questions about Sestero and The Disaster Artist. A friend of mine told me about seeing Sestero and Wiseau at San Diego Comic Con in 2009: Wiseau basked in the fan attention, while Sestero looked like he would rather be anywhere else in the world. The story made me wonder if Greg Sestero is really a less-than-enthusiastic participant in the strange, unfolding phenomenon that is The Room. Does he truly care about Wiseau, or see him as a useful idiot and a source of unexpected income? Are the portions of the book that made me feel less guilty about laughing harder at this earnest but completely misguided movie than at any other deliberately funny movie in recent memory — namely, the stuff that finds some grace and redemption in the friendship between Wiseau and Sestero — really just feel-good bullshit grafted onto a rollicking behind-the-scenes narrative by a New Yorker writer intent on adding depth?
Or are those questions beside the point? It’s true that Greg Sestero might be less Boswell to Wiseau’s Johnson than a reluctant Jesse Pinkman tied to a self-destructive but undeniably profitable Walter White. But that doesn’t matter. Watching The Room you wonder, over and over again, “Why the hell did he do it that way?” The Disaster Artist doesn’t tell us, but that’s as it should be; half the fun is in wondering.
Scott Jacobson is a writer for Bob’s Burgers on Fox. He lives in Los Angeles.