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article imageReview: Memoir tells story behind 'The Room' with expected hilarity Special

By Jeff Cottrill     Apr 2, 2014 in Entertainment
If you've never been to a public screening of Tommy Wiseau's 2003 cult film “The Room”, you've been missing a wonderful, surreal experience. Few legitimate intentional comedies hurt your belly from laughter the way this terrible flick can.
Imagine a movie made by someone who has never seen or experienced how real, living human beings act, speak, think, interact or imitate chickens. Loaded with absurd dialogue like “Leave your stupid comments in your pocket!”, irrelevant subplots with no resolutions and inexplicable scenes of characters tossing a football, The Room is so inadvertently funny that some of its biggest fans are famous comedians, including Patton Oswalt, Will Arnett, David Cross and Paul Rudd. Intended as a Tennessee Williams-esque drama about a tragic love triangle – and later marketed by Wiseau as an intentional comedy when he realized that people were enjoying it for the wrong reasons – The Room is our generation's Plan 9 from Outer Space. As you watch it, you keep thinking there's no way this movie could get any more weird and stupid, and then it does. It's so beautifully, hypnotically bad in every imaginable way that it's already a modern “classic”; in addition to a loyal fan following, it has spawned a stage adaptation and even a video game.
If you're wondering how a film so colossally inept and ludicrous could get made with professionals and semi-professionals involved, actor Greg Sestero provides all you need to know in his recent memoir, The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside The Room, The Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made. Sestero had the misfortune (or fortune?) to co-star as Mark in this Grade-Z calamity – and to serve as its line producer, without knowing what a line producer actually does.
The Disaster Artist (soon to be a movie itself, directed by James Franco) is not just about the making of a film, but also about a bizarre friendship. Sestero first met Wiseau, The Room's larger-than-life producer-writer-director-star, in 1998 in a San Francisco acting class, where the latter's awful, over-the-top performances and uninhibited overconfidence fascinated Sestero. He asked Wiseau to be a scene partner and eventually became his closest (and apparently only) friend, even sharing a condo with him in Los Angeles. In The Disaster Artist, Sestero alternates between the story of their early oddball bond and that of The Room's chaotic shoot.
The Room's premiere was testament to Tommy's unrelenting drive and determination,” Sestero writes (with the help of co-author Tom Bissell) near the end. “He'd inflict his vision on the world whether the world wanted it or not. He was a movie star whether the world saw it or not... Tommy made me realize that you decide who you become. He also made me realize what a mixed blessing that can be.”
While it's a hilarious and addictively readable book – I laughed out loud many times – you have to keep in mind that Sestero probably didn't write it, at least not the final draft. The authorship credit is split between him and Bissell, an award-winning journalist and author who has contributed to The New Yorker and Harper's. This explains why its wit, style and structure are often far too professional for you to believe that an actor and first-time author wrote it. Far more likely, Bissell wrote The Disaster Artist based on Sestero's tales, and this may make you question the veracity of the book's craziest bits.
Then again, if you've seen Wiseau's performance in The Room, nothing will surprise you about his real-life wackiness. And you'll hear his voice in your head as you read, because Sestero and Bissell perfectly capture the man's unique brand of mangled English in quotations like, “You will receive majority of candy [i.e. money] when completion of production,” and “We have groovy time playing with your soccer ball,” and “I feel like businessman big shark today.”
The Disaster Artist dishes plenty of anecdotes from The Room's always tense and unpredictable set. It recounts how the movie's most iconic scenes and lines came to be, and it gleefully confirms that all of the blame (or credit?) rests with Wiseau himself. The director arrived on set four hours late every day, hired a cameraman to spy on the cast and crew (under the guise of shooting a “making of” doc), threw tantrums and refused to compromise even when his ideas made no sense whatsoever. Cast and crew members were frequently fired and replaced, including the original actor playing Mark; Wiseau initially avoided telling him and shot his scenes twice, once with him and once with Sestero. After another actor was hired for a more legitimate project, Wiseau replaced him without even bothering to explain in the film who the new guy was – leading to audiences' Rocky Horror-style cry of, “WHO ARE YOU?!”
You also learn that the infamous “I did not hit her. I did naaaaht. Oh hi Mark!” scene took literally thirty-two takes, because Wiseau couldn't get the lines and blocking down. “Most school plays contain scenes that pose bigger technical acting challenges,” the book says about this seven-second shot. More disturbingly, during a scene in which Sestero's character talked about a female friend who had been beaten up and hospitalized, Wiseau reacted to the story with a casual chuckle, through multiple takes, even after repeatedly being told how tasteless this reaction was; his laughter is in the finished film.
And one of the book's kookiest revelations is that Wiseau wanted to include a gratuitous shot featuring his character's Mercedes-Benz flying off a rooftop and into the sky. Why? “Possible side plot. Maybe Johnny is vampire,” Wiseau supposedly said.
Sestero and Bissell do invite you to laugh at Wiseau's eccentricities, but it's clear that Sestero feels a lot of empathy for his old friend, who often comes off as the loneliest man in the world. “He was the weirdest person I'd ever met – but lovably weird,” Sestero (ostensibly) writes. “Around Tommy, I could be who I wanted to be – and to me, that felt like freedom.” At another point, the book says, “Even before he was famous, he acted like he was famous. Maybe that's what, in the end, best explains him.” Sestero's recollections of Wiseau, sometimes fond and sometimes baffled, play like a case study of the world's most narcissistic and least self-aware person.
For years, Wiseau fans have been asking, “Where is he from?” “How old is he?” “Where did he get all that money?” Sestero reveals answers to the most persistent questions about The Room's enigmatic creator, or at least partial answers. Evidently, Wiseau was born in an Eastern Bloc nation sometime in the 1950s, defected to Paris as a young man and eventually found his way to San Francisco. There he sold flying toy birds to tourists near Fisherman's Wharf, taking the name “Wiseau” from the French word for bird, “oiseau” (thinking that the “W” would make him seem more American). Wiseau later founded Street Fashions, a wholesaler of defective jeans, and used six million dollars from the company's profits to fund The Room.
If Sestero and Bissell had limited The Disaster Artist to being an unauthorized biography of Wiseau, it would have been a perfectly satisfying read. But as told from Sestero's perspective, the book occasionally dwells a little too much on his own story as a struggling young actor. This might have worked in another kind of nonfiction book – say, a personal journey through the jungle of Hollywood – but here, you just get impatient for more of the Tommy Wiseau sideshow. Each chapter is introduced with relevant lines from Sunset Boulevard and The Talented Mr. Ripley, a motif that gets a little tiresome after a while, although it's interesting to learn that Wiseau conceived The Room in part as his own warped take on Ripley.
Funny, compassionate and even heartbreaking in its own way, The Disaster Artist works as humour and as a cautionary tale. You could even call it a feel-good story, in one sense: no matter how big a loser or failure you think you are, at least you're not Tommy Wiseau.
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