This past summer marked the 10th anniversary of The Room’s opening at two theaters in Los Angeles. Since its cult reception began with a couple of college students during the last week of the film’s initial 2003 exhibition, The Room accelerated into a bona fide cultural phenomenon complete with Rocky Horror-like rituals, public script readings, a video game, and countless experiences of uncanny disbelief from everyone who has enjoyed the enviable experience of viewing this film for the very first time.
There have been great bad movies before, and there will be more in the future. What separates The Room from the rest is that the context from which it was made seems like something that could only exists as a hypothetical: what if somebody with an enigmatic personality and no evident competence for filmmaking produced – and somehow completed – a feature film from his endless well of unspecified resources?
Other great bad films emerged from conflicts between producers and talent, misguided attempts at earning a cheap dollar, or earnest efforts at a high-concept idea on a shoestring budget. What makes The Room unique is that it is unquestionably the singular vision of its maker, writer/director/producer/actor Tommy Wiseau. For all its obvious and beloved faults, The Room must be recognized as an ideal work of indie filmmaking passion. It is, in total, an uncompromising film characterized by its author’s total intent.
So, accompanied by a large grain of salt, here is some free advice (for fans and filmmakers alike) from the man who’s still being torn apart by Lisa.
Independent Filmmaking Should “Look Hollywood”
“Whenever an issue came up that Tommy wanted to deflect, he attributed his needs to what ‘the producers’ wanted. This was also a way of creating the illusion that Tommy had confidently navigated Hollywood’s upper echelons. And it worked, initially, at least, no one doubted the existence of any of these producers. Considering how much money Tommy was throwing around, how could they have?”
Producing The Room, which ultimately cost a staggering $6M, must have seemed a more legitimate venture from an outsider’s perspective. The production team had exclusive access to a studio space, used state-of-the-art equipment, and was surrounded by an experienced (though, I assume, non-union) filmmaking crew.
One issue, however, was that Wiseau – the source of all the film’s funding, and whose wealth remains a mystery – would spend extravagantly and carelessly in some areas (such as when he had the set staff completely rebuild a taken-apart set to film an alley scene that had no bearing on the film’s “plot,” or when he chose to buy and construct together both a 35mm camera and an HD camera to shoot the film simultaneously in two formats) while being irresponsibly cheap in others (like failing to pay his crew on time, or refusing to rent a generator to cool the film’s sweltering indoor set, which led to an elderly cast member fainting).
Wiseau’s oscillation between bizarre extravagance and extreme frugality – chronicled in detail in The Disaster Artist, the recently released making-of tell-all by Greg Sestero (“Mark”) and journalist Tom Bissell, quoted above – illuminates several key rules of filmmaking: 1) it helps if you have a whole lot of money, 2) money can buy the certain performance of credibility, and 3) money can also have the opposite effect, shattering the illusion of an above-the-line production in control of its resources.
Understand the Intricate Differences Between Drama and Comedy
#1: They’re different words (or was it “awards”?).
Spy on Your Crew
“At the beginning of production, Tommy had hired a young Czech kid named Markus…to shoot rough footage for a making-of documentary about The Room. Tommy’s orders to Markus were to film everything, all the time…What no one knew—what I didn’t even know at the time—was that Tommy was daily watching all of Markus’s raw footage until the wee hours, which went some way toward explaining why he was always so late in the morning. All this time, Tommy had been spying on his own production.”
As depicted in The Disaster Artist, Wiseau possesses an unceasing paranoia even toward his closest confidants. Sestero even discovered at one point during their years-long friendship that Wiseau was spying on their phone conversations by putting the phone on speaker and recording their dialogue with a tape recorder similar to Johnny’s bizarre makeshift surveillance contraption depicted in The Room.
Exercising such paranoia on a film set certainly doesn’t inspire confidence in the relationship between showrunner and crew (the ever-frustrated crew of The Room, individually and as a group, walked out on production and had to be replaced numerous times as a result of Wiseau’s insistent amateurism), but it did give Wiseau a wild-card advantage when negotiating with his crew. It takes a certain degree of narcissism to direct a film at all, let alone do so while also casting oneself in the lead and being the sole producer of something one wrote. Wiseau’s unreflective, unchecked, aggrandized sense of self is strangely honest, even when he exercised unmitigated deceit during filming.
Watch Citizen Kane
Wiseau is right. It is quite the coincidence that Citizen Kane and The Room are both movies that exist.
In Love Scenes, Perfectionism Can Be an Ethical Issue
“[Tommy] made no secret of the fact that he was enjoying his physical contact with Juliette [Danielle], who was obviously suffering between takes. I think half of the guys in the crew had to suppress every chivalrous impulse they had during filming to keep themselves from pulling Tommy off her—especially during the shot in which Johnny appears to be impregnating Lisa’s navel. In the end, Tommy was so pleased with the footage he shot of his love scene that he felt compelled to use it all in his final film, even going so far as to add an additional Johnny-Lisa love scene using recycled footage. Tommy assumed this would go unnoticed by audiences. It did not.”
It’s easy to cast Tommy Wiseau as the oblivious clown with his Dadaist understanding of storytelling, his indiscernible accent, and his one-of-a-kind acting style which consists of either full-throated passion or wooden delivery and nothing else in between. But as a director, producer, and lead actor, he is still in a position of considerable power, and I think Spider-Man’s uncle had something insightful to say about that.
A movie set, whether studio or independent, can be a vulnerable place, especially for inexperienced actors, and especially if those inexperienced actors are filming their first love scene. Wiseau’s approach to the character of Lisa – from long make-out sessions during casting to the above description of the film’s notoriously discomfiting love scene – was, quite frankly, often irresponsible. According to Sistero and Bissell, Wiseau filmed the love scene through endless takes over days on an open, not closed, set. The tenor of this shoot shows up in the finished product: a transparently egocentric set piece resulting in the unintended, cringe-inducing image of a man clearly overpowering a woman.
This is also an example of the perils of shooting a film with, essentially, only one above-the-line crewmember: there was never anybody else of authority to challenge Wiseau or to confide in when the director crossed the line. Any collaborative project necessitates a series of checks and balances up the regime of power. No wonder Sistero says that he walks out or closes his eyes during these scenes in public screenings.
There is a Blurry Line Between Failure and Success
The last few seconds of this trailer sum up Wiseau’s relationship to the public afterlife of the film. Wiseau has unambiguously reiterated time and again in interviews that he always had the intention of making The Room a dark comedy, though various cast and crewmembers have contradicted this claim. But Wiseau seems to possess no ill will towards the fact that The Room, his expensive passion project, has not exactly been received the way that he clearly intended. He seems to have totally embraced the great bad movie status, and not as a way to save face or to (solely) continue exploiting what remains his only feature-length cinematic venture (though Wiseau has since been busy), but because he genuinely seems to enjoy the fact that people love it.
Wiseau is perfectly capable of possessing two obviously contradictory ideas at once, and his psyche is such an ever-changing soup of mixed ideas such that we may never know if he truly sees (or could ever see) The Room the way that we appreciate it.
But that doesn’t really matter. He’s treated his film’s reception exactly how he should: as a recognition that people have watched, responded to, revisited, shared, and loved his work, even if not in the ways he envisioned. That’s much more than could ever be asked for. As NPR observed in a 2006 profile of the film’s cult following, how many other films are crowd-pleasers like this? Failure and success are certainly subjective, contextual, eye-of-the-beholder-y ideas.
What We’ve Learned
The Room was produced through a series of contradictions, the most evident of which is the fact that the film is both a vanity project for the promotion of its helmer, and an earnest (if unintelligible) attempt to address several facets of the human condition. Throughout interviews, production histories, and as evinced in select moments of the film itself, Wiseau is absolutely convicted that he has made a film about human relationships, even as those interviews, production histories, and majority of moments in the film also reveal that The Room was also about one human in particular. It is this contradiction that makes The Room such a delightfully epic work of filmmaking incompetence.
At one moment in the film, Wiseau’s Johnny recites, as if it were part of the natural progression of human conversation, that clichéd platitude about the blindness of love. But one can also be blind to their own aspiration, confidence, or sense of social boundaries. It is this blindness that made for a film, as well as a behind-the-scenes history, whose enduring hilarity is occasionally met with the flicker of discomfiting fear. It’s easy, then, to see The Room’s relationship to filmmaking as something of a cautionary tale. But we can also recognize some virtue in the blindness of Wiseau’s passion without overlooking his transgressions. Perhaps there are some aspects of filmmaking that could benefit from a little less calculation and self-consciousness.