Inside The Room: Or, my coffee date with Tommy Wiseau

The News in Brief:

  • Tommy Wiseau, to dispel claims from former collaborators that his 2003 cult hit The Room  was filmed without a script or with scripts written during takes, plans to release the entire original script in March 2015 on TommyWiseau.com and TheRoomMovie.com.  (Note: As promised, Wiseau released the script on 25 Feb. 2015.  Fans can purchase the script on either website for $17.99.  Each script comes with a “free” pair of Wiseau-brand underwear.)
  • Wiseau announced in Edinburgh on 13 Feb. that he has filmed four full episodes of his new TV series, The Neighbors, and has secured US distribution.  He is currently seeking a UK distribution deal.
  • In an exclusive interview Wiseau shared that he still hopes to publish the 800-page manuscript (also titled The Room) which predates his film. Wiseau condensed the novel into his sleeper-hit screenplay after failing to secure a publisher.  He would also consider writing a book in response to co-star Greg Sestero’s critical 2013 memoir The Disaster Artist, his account of the making of The Room.
  • While working on further episodes of The Neighbors, Wiseau is finishing a second feature-length film.  Titled The Foreclosure, the film will center on “Richard” (played by Wiseau), the foreclosure of his house, and his subsequent battle with banking interests.  Asked whether the film was a response to the 2008 financial crisis, Wiseau suggested the real focus of the movie was a more timeless question: ” ‘Will truth prevail?’ you know.”
  • I had a coffee with Tommy Wiseau.

.     .     .

I was inside The Room before I knew it.  As a college freshman my dorm  walls bore the obligatory Animal House and Reservoir Dogs posters, but it was Tommy Wiseau’s baffling 2003 cult classic that came to dominate my armory of hip film quotes.  I didn’t hit her.  I did naaahhht.  I overheard these words in the library; I caught them from across the room in the early hours of flat parties.   I laughed.  I didn’t know why I was laughing.  Finally one of my friends sat me down and played a YouTube montage of the best quotes from The Room, a film usually among the top five in lists of the worst movies of all time, a work so bafflingly bad that the viewer’s most burning questions – Does writer, director, producer, and star Tommy Wiseau know how bad this is? – did he intend it? – is it all some kind of … comment? … on … something? – are made ludicrous when refracted through it, and discussions of it soon prove as futile as an inquiry into angels salsa dancing on the head of a pin.  So, as a freshman, I started to quote from The Room – even though, aside from a seven minute YouTube clip watched countless times – I hadn’t actually seen the movie.  Most people hadn’t.  We promised ourselves we would.  We planned viewing parties which never materialized, or else ended in giddy intoxicated readings of the film’s WikiQuotes page, an illegal copy of the feature never located.

The legend grew.  It grew so much that when on one foggy Friday the 13th I found myself sipping a black coffee across from Tommy Wiseau – wearing dark Oakley shades in a dim theatre bar some time before midnight, downing his own heavily-creamed Americano, which he took after two Red Bulls (sipped through straws) and yet another Americano – telling me for the second time about how the US bought the great state of Louisiana from Napoleon himself, it struck me that I was still in “The Room” – that though the movie had ended, some part of me hadn’t left; indeed, might never leave.

.     .     .

The candles, the music, the sexy dress. I mean, what’s going on here?

– Mark, The Room

In late January I saw that Cameo, my favorite Edinburgh cinema, was showing The Room over Valentine’s Day weekend – “with Tommy Wiseau in attendance,” so the ambiguous advert promised.  I scarcely believed it.  I imagined the writer-director-producer-star showing up in shades and an early-2000s suit and tie, saying a few words, and disappearing.  (I was right about the shades, if nothing else.)  I bought a ticket for Friday the 13th.

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Center, Tommy Wiseau wearing his trademark Oakley shades sits across from Raul Phoenix, 27 year-old co-star of his new TV project, The Neighbors. Like his character Johnny, Wiseau didn’t show any interest in touching alcohol – but he did consume two Red Bulls and two Americanos over the course of about two-and-a-half hours.

 

It didn’t take me long to find Tommy that evening: he was behind a red felt rope in an alcove of the theatre bar, quickly filling up with fans, nodding their heads toward Wiseau as if pointing or looking directly might make him, like a ghost seen out of the corner of one’s eye, disappear.  He sat facing the bar, though he never looked up from his conversation with a young man – Raul Pheonix, 27, though he looked 24, co-star of Wiseau’s new TV project, The Neighbors – wearing a red letterman jacket emblazoned with those words, and a cartoonish rooster.  When I returned with a G&T, Wiseau’s iconic sunglasses were up – whether to get in character, or to mitigate any side effects of his excessive caffeine consumption, I couldn’t yet be sure.

When one watches The Room, one is watching Tommy Wiseau.  This becomes clear as the movie begins, and his name flashes across the screen six times, in various forms, interspersed with – let the record show: beautiful – shots of San Francisco.  TPW Films … A Wiseau Films Production … Starring … Executive Producers … Written By …  Directed By … The audience greets each with a cheer – and I mean a cheer, a high-school pep rally rivalry matchup cheer, the biggest coming when Wiseau’s “Johnny” first appears, in dark suit and dark sunglasses, pushing his long locks behind his ears, as he sits in a San Fran trolley car.  The counterpoint comes in the form of vicious booing, verging on growling, when names like Greg Sestero (who plays “Mark,” and who, one might say “betrayed” Wiseau by publishing his memoir The Disaster Artist) and Juliette Danielle (the film’s “Lisa,” whose sociopathic cheating drives Johnny to suicide) besmirch the screen.

In the lobby in between showings, a Cameo regular – there for Selma or perhaps Fifty Shades – came up to a group of us massed behind Wiseau, who shook hands and took pictures with almost every fan to come out of the theatre.  “Who is this guy?” the Scotsman, a man of about 47 in straight-from-the-office attire, asked us.  And I realized that I couldn’t even begin to answer.

Tommy Wiseau greets fans at Edinburgh's Cameo

At these packed late-night screenings, where oftentimes the star appears to field questions and deliver his non sequiturs, one is consuming Wiseau and his cult-celebrity.  As fans filtered into The Cameo’s main screen – many of them college-aged, who would have been 10 or 11 when The Room first debuted in ’03 – Wiseau was standing on a platform at the bottom, jeans sagging well below his sacrum, shades on, beside a table stacked with merchandise: t-shirts and hoodies bearing an agonized Tommy with the caption “You are tearing me apart, Lisa!“; beanies, bobbleheads, and boxer-briefs (unisex!) labeled with “TOMMY WISEAU” just as often as “THE ROOM.”  Wiseau shook hands, touched females, and signed whatever fans thrust at him: notebooks, footballs, t-shirts, and exactly one breast.

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Much like The Room, the subtleties of Tommy’s message to me continue to provoke contemplation. Is that an apostrophe-S – or a semicolon? This small difference could contain a world of meaning.

 

He then took questions for a little over five minutes, very much playing the “director” even from the stage. “You know the pictures of like the boxers and stuff?” one audience member asked – referring to clip-art-type adverts for Wiseau-brand clothing shooting across the top of the screen, crossing over the forehead of Tommy’s ghostly green and odd-eyed visage, the same image that graced a billboard over LA’s Highland Avenue, reputedly for five straight years.

“Ok, you are politician, next question,” Wiseau said, pointing somewhere else.

“No – NO! I mean – the chicken – what’s with the chicken???” Indeed, in between the ads, the screen featured a .gif of a chicken.

“Ok, it’s the chicken, we have a chicken in The Neighbors, good, ok, next question.”

Another asked, “Are you the same person you were before the movie came out?” – perhaps an allusion to Wiseau’s mysterious past and unknown country of origin.  Wiseau has hinted at an early life in eastern Europe and some years spent in France – and when The Room‘s Johnny offers a monologue about moving to San Francisco with two suitcases and no friends, one can’t help but hear Wiseau speaking from memory.  But he offers no new information.  “Always,” he says, and points somewhere else.

Favorite movies?  “The GiantCitizen Kane, Orson Welles, Casablanca, of course The Room.”

Will you go out with us tonight?  “Ask Raul, he’s in charge.  Ok sure.”

What’s your favorite thing in life?  “Life, respect, love, ok.”

“Does Lisa’s mom recover?” someone shouts – alluding to the fan-favorite throwaway line “I definitely – have – breast cancer,” one of many subplots introduced and never again mentioned.

Yes!” Wiseau says –  and the Scots might as well have been cheering for Queen Elizabeth.  “And you know why?” he goes on; “Technology. Computers!”  And it feels so good to know this.

At the second screening that night – a sold-out 9:10 show, featuring a preview episode of The Neighbors – a viewer asked how Wiseau had funded the The Room.  The question has long vexed fans, journalists, and former collaborators, some of whom speculate that The Room was entirely a money-laundering operation, accounting for its estimated $6 million budget.  Wiseau claims to have been independently wealthy, and has previously cited importing leather jackets from Korea.  He elaborated for his Edinburgh audience, although clearly the question bored him.  “I did not just sell them.  I design, I sell, I import, we design and we well leather jackets, jeans.”  (Wiseau revealed to me later that night that he also has a hand in real estate, building and renting properties in the Bay area – perhaps a source of material for his new sitcom, set in a Bay area apartment building managed by his character Charlie.)

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Tommy demanded that four girls he’d met in the handshake line join him onstage while he answered questions. “Of course it’s your choice,” he said. Again, he played the role of director, splitting up two sisters and physically turning one girl (whose dress he admired) to catch the best light.

And then the Q&A time was up.  “Laugh, cry, express yourself, just don’t hurt yourself,” he said as he left the stage – now a common parting blessing at these midnight screenings.  “I’ll be watching too … a little bit.”

.     .     .

“People are very strange these days.”

– Mark, The Room

As I mentioned earlier, ticketed showings of The Room promote its notorious ineptitude.  Posters usually carry the subheading, “dubbed by Entertainment Weekly as the ‘Citizen Kane of bad movies’.” But this is a misattribution: in the Entertainment Weekly article discussing the phenomenon of The Room and its following among A-list celebrities and comedians, writer Clark Collis quotes St. Cloud State University Professor Ross Morin, who actually coined the phrase now associated with the film – which underscores the fact that thousands more have watched (and rewatch) The Room than have read the various articles criticizing or contemplating it.

So what about the movie?  Johnny, a successful businessman in the booming computer industry of (we assume) the early 2000s is set to marry Lisa (always “my future wife”; never “my fiancée”), who’s sleeping with Johnny’s best friend Mark (played by Greg Sestero).  “Johnny’s my best friend,” Mark says – about a dozen times – but he’s quite literally powerless against Lisa, a character written to be something like a sociopathic Calypso, who claims that she’s keeping Johnny in the dark because she doesn’t want to hurt him, but simultaneously brags that she feels no guilt, and escalates her affair in what seems to be an attempt to force Johnny to acknowledge it (in one late scene, she tells all the guests at Johnny’s birthday party to leave for “fresh air,” closes the door, and attempts, for the umpteenth time, to rape Mark in Johnny’s living room).  Lisa’s mother encourages her daughter to reconsider – for purely economic reasons.  He bought you a car, he’s buying you a house, etc. … “And darling you can’t support yourself.”  Johnny and Mark’s mutual friend Peter, a psychologist, actually diagnoses Lisa as a sociopath, which, though true to the audience’s eyes, his character has absolutely no reason to believe.  Johnny overhears Lisa telling her mother that she’s seeing another man; he attaches a tape recorder to the apartment phone; and despite not needing this evidence after Mark’s abrupt turn against Johnny (“I don’t like him anymore,” he tells Lisa, as if he, too, suffers some chemical imbalance) and his vocal admission to sleeping with Johnny’s “future wife,” Wiseau’s character must listen to the tape before being fully convinced.  “Everybody betray me!  I fed up with this world!” he cries; and blows his brains out with a gun – retrieved from a miniature treasure chest; probably taken from a drug dealer who threatened Denny – and forever warps the theatrical meaning of Chekov’s famous weapon.  Oh, I forgot to mention Denny?  Johnny’s quasi-foster child with a key to the house, a weird pansexual attraction to both Johnny and Lisa, a taste for unspecified illicit substances, and a probable mental handicap?  Sorry.  But if I gave the intricacies of this movie’s plot full justice, you’d have to read at least another 1,500 words.

Just trust me that none of that really matters – not the melodramatic soundtrack, not the way characters walk in and out of scenes without cause or reason, not the unnecessary green screen shots or the footballs tossed over improbably short distances, and especially not something as banal as the question of what the thing means.  The composite parts (a compendium of blunders and mysteries) don’t add up to The Room, because The Room is not a movie.  There is a movie titled “The Room,” of course, but – as I discovered at The Cameo, and never would have guessed before that – The Room signifies not only a movie, but a transformative, even spiritual experience simultaneously communal and deeply personal.

Within minutes of the opening credits, we got the first sex scene – notorious for offering audiences a generous shot of Wiseau’s bared glutes.  Girls – first-timers – shrieked, and there were chuckles at the, ah, discrepancies of anatomy.  (“Get that navel get it!” someone shouted).  But, despite at least one-third of the audience experiencing The Room for the first time, the reaction to this gratuitously long shot of Wiseau humping and scattering rose petals over the giggling Juliet Danielle was immediate and united: we all clapped, more or less in time, for the duration of the the R&B slo-jam that played throughout the liebe-machen.  (Oddly, I kept thinking of Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet groping Kate Winslet’s Ophelia.)

There are three and a half of these sex scenes.  Each was accompanied by a different R&B jam, each as thematically dissonant as the first.  And by the last one, we were clapping like die hard Queen fans during a ‘We Will Rock You’ encore.  This was the minimum of audience participation.

“Who the hell are you?!” someone yelled when an unnamed party guest suddenly took on a main role.  We shouted along with our favorite lines.  Some, I’m sure, shouted along with every line.  In response to Wiseau’s strange but enchanting choice to intersperse every single scene change with a short shot of San Francisco’s trolleys, houses, and landmarks, the chorus must have bled into the theatre’s other two screens: “MEANWHILE, IN SAN FRANCISCO!!!”  After the first hour of this, they might even have heard us in the street.  When Lisa appeared, she was drowned out in boos and howls; when she seduced Mark or delivered some of her colder lines, fans everywhere shouted “SLUT” – “skank!” – “die Lisa DIE” – among other things.  And whenever a shot showed the framed picture of a spoon in Johnny’s living room, the veteran fans shouted out “SPOON” and pelted the screen with handfuls of plastic utensils.  (Later, a Cameo steward filled an extra-large garbage bag with the refuse; he might have needed another had many fans not retrieved spoons for Tommy to sign.)  A football made several circuits of the theatre during the film’s 99 minutes, and no one was injured.

All these things unite fans of The Room into the sort of collective achieved more often through national tragedies, fascist rallies, or Great Awakening-type tent meetings than Hollywood hits.  I couldn’t tell you why or how it works, but a viewing of The Room is so powerfully communal that it’s ultimately ineffable – we only know that it “happened” once we leave the theatre and sense a change, sense self-hood and the outside world rushing back in at us.

But it’s also personal.  One young fan, no more than 19 years old, caught Wiseau on his way out.  “Tommy,” he said, “that was … that was my first time, that was … the best night of my life.”  There wasn’t a drop of irony in his voice, not even a single layer of sarcasm.  The line carried him onward; but, in case Tommy missed the message, he caught a hold of the handler Raul, and looked into his eyes.  “Tell him” he said.  “Tell him it was a heart,” he choked – “a – full of – a heart-experience.”

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“Twp is great but three is a crowd,” Johnny tells Denny in The Room, after the latter interrupts a pre-coitus pillow-fight between Johnny and Lisa. Strangely enough, Wiseau said the same exact thing to me when I questioned him about the ultimate moral meaning of his movie. But the auteur loves nothing more than a crowd around him whenever he holds a microphone in front of his fans.

.     .     .

“I’m wearing my own underwear, want me to prove it?”

– Tommy Wiseau, to me

Only the second of Friday night’s audiences got to see the first episode of Wiseau’s TV project, The Neighbors.  He apologized to the first group.  “If you want to see it, you know, ask the manager, I’m sure she’ll show it,” he said.  Offstage to his right the Cameo manager made three decisive slashes past her throat.

I wasn’t supposed to be among the second sell-out audience; but Tommy found me waiting for him in the bar (he had come out to get two cans of Red Bull, with straws) and invited me to stand with him in the back.

The audience was restless to see The Room, but a fair majority seemed to gaily tolerate The Neighbors, a comedy about the eccentric residents of a San Fran apartment building, which resembled nothing so much as the accidentally filmed workshops of a desperate Hollywood acting class attended by an insane woman, a few restless 20-something community college students, and a handful of low-budget porn performers.  It gestures toward a few of The Room‘s quirky hallmarks – there’s a habit of repeating non-punchlines, there’s the familiar trope of young men being seduced by insatiable females, and comically frequent shots of the outside of the apartment building, set to pulsing tuneless bass lines, recall the beloved San Francisco shots of The Room.  But the script consisted mostly of improvised shouts; racial and sexual stereotypes abounded; the acting was actually worse than in the The Room – worse because it lacked The Room‘s guileless passion; and the production values were far lower, with most of the jumbled dialogue inaudible.  We offered up laughs; but Wiseau is perhaps at his best as a dramatist.

Then The Room started for the second time that night and Tommy and I made our way back behind his roped-off corner of the bar.

This was the part that I couldn’t believe: that this mythical cult hero, catapulted by his mad art and forces none of us understand into a sort of hyperreality, was about to sit across from me and direct his shaded eyes into mine.  I had a feeling the elusive Wiseau would be the most difficult subject I’d yet interviewed (beating out my former college president by a long shot).  I wasn’t worried that I’d upset Wiseau – he’s a kind soul more than anything else, wide open to “life, love, respect” – but I worried that I wouldn’t be able to ask questions fast enough to capture his mad caffeinated mind.  He ordered us each an Americano before pointing his Oakleys in my direction: “Ok, so,” he said.

The ensuing conversation spanned everything from his other stage roles (he played Stan in Tennesee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire before he began work on The Room, and happily gave me his minimalist, almost laconic reading of Stan’s famous “Stella!“) to his thoughts on New Orleans and President Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase, his love for American culture, and his favorite music (Metallica, Mozart, and Chopin were the first to come to mind).  We found common ground in out mutual love of the Napoleonic Code and our basic beliefs about America (“We crazy in the U.S.,” he said; “Great respect for other cultures … We do have a culture.”).  Among other things, Wiseau told me that he loves to travel, and has fun sharing The Room whether it’s to an audience of “20 people or 100” – though even his higher estimation fell far below the attendance at Cameo that night.  He works on the road – “Always have idea,” he said – and while he rejects his former collaborators’ claims that The Room never had a script, he blames their allegations on American nature.  “We always want a controversy,” he told me.  Wiseau understands that for most people, memory is malleable.  “People will say, you know, maybe you didn’t interview me.”

But, to settle the issue, Wiseau plans to release the original script of The Room some time in March 2015, simultaneously on TommyWiseau.com and TheRoomMovie.com.

This was only one of the revelations about future projects he shared in our candid interview.  He said that The Neighbors will see its US release in March, while he continues to work toward a deal for distribution in the UK and Europe.  Meanwhile, he’s mulling the idea of writing a memoir about making The Room, a sort of counter to Greg Sestero’s 2013 book The Disaster Artist; laughing, he suggested the title The Disaster Artist: By Tommy Wiseau.  And he won’t rule out publishing the 800-page manuscript version of The Room, which he wrote and attempted unsuccessfully to publish before turning it into the screenplay that became the cult smash – he just needs to find a publisher.  Meanwhile, behind his touring schedule and his various works in development, Wiseau has continued the entrepreneurial projects which helped in part to finance his first movie.  He spoke with pride about his work in Bay area real estate, saying it helped him to cope with some of the criticism that followed his movie.

Then, of course, there’s the merchandise.  “I design clothes,” he told me.  “I’m wearing me own underwear, want me to prove it?”

“Um.”

Wiseau was already standing.  He began by tugging down at his jeans – a startling move, revealing his hirsute hypogastrium – before reaching down with his left hand to tug up at the bright yellow waistband of his eponymous briefs, reading “TOMMY WISEAU” with all the boldface aplomb of police tape.  Not for the first time that night, I couldn’t help but laugh.

I had been laughing all evening.  We had laughed.  We all laughed together at a movie that, in all probability, Wiseau had once intended to be a passionate Tennessee Williams-style drama.  But anyone who’s attended a showing of The Room knows the peculiar kind of laughter that comes along with it.  There isn’t any meanness in it, no smart cynicism and no cruelty.  It’s just good heartfelt laughter.

I asked Wiseau about this – if he knew that The Room would create this kind of joyful mass experience.  He didn’t take to that question, so I hit it again from another angle: “Did you ever consider any other titles, or was it always The Room?”

Apparently, The Room was “The Room” from the very beginning.

“It’s a special place, we all have it,” he said.  “It’s not supposed to be just ‘The Room.’  It can be anyplace, a basement, a forest.  No hard feelings.  It’s yours.”

These words – characteristically esoteric – slammed the keystone into the theory I’d been building all night: that The Room was exactly the kind of pure accident mixed with the purest of intentions the only English word for which is ‘miracle.’  None of Wiseau’s greatest fans could argue for a logical, plot-based reason why the film should be titled “The Room.”  I dare them to try.  Rather, Wiseau set out like every other artist from Tu Fu to T.S. Eliot to carve out of the granite of human existence a space for himself – a space that might too offer shelter to others.  The difference is that Wiseau accomplished this magic we call art through a series of willful happy blunders.  And we’re lucky he did.

If The Room was the sum of its parts, it would have been forgotten after its $1,900-grossing box office run in 2003.  But it’s something more.  Even reluctant audiences find themselves feeling like Johnny when, in one pivotal scene, Lisa fills two crystal tumblers with half scotch and half vodka and presents them to him.  “If you love me you’ll drink this,” she says.  And we all say, with Johnny: “You’re right, it tastes good.”  Thus intoxicated, anything becomes possible in The Room.  Drama is comedy, plot is superfluous, spoons fly, and we’re ready to cheer when Wiseau tells us that “computers” have cured Claudette’s cancer.  A jaded generation no longer fluent in the language of absolute values can hear strange familiar truth in the script’s abundant clichés.

“You know what they say – love is blind,” Johnny tells us.

And oh – don’t we know it.  At least – as long as we stay in The Room.

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One thought on “Inside The Room: Or, my coffee date with Tommy Wiseau

  1. Pingback: Interview with Theramin Virtuosa Lydia Kavina | Aidan Ryan

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