The Worst Story Ever Told
Greg Sestero and Tom Bissell
The Disaster Artist:
My Life Inside The Room, the Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made
(Simon & Schuster, October 2013)
In August 2010, Harper’s Magazine published a story by Tom Bissell about a very bad movie that had become something of a phenomenon at midnight screenings in Los Angeles. Bissell’s article was one of several pieces in recent years to examine the strangely pleasurable mix of disorientation and schadenfreude that comes from watching very, very bad movies. Douglas Wolk’s Notes on Art So Bad It’s Good from the March 2004 issue of The Believer looked at an opportunistic bit of post-Rocky Horror pastiche gone awry called The Apple, and coined the term SOBIG (So Bad It’s Good) to describe the phenomenon. The AV Club’s Nathan Rabin has written two series of bad movie reviews I Watched This On Purpose and My World of Flops, labeling the most amazingly bad ones “shitty miracles.”
Bissell coined no new terms, but his article Cinema Crudité is about what may well be the worst movie in cinema history. The Room is written, directed, produced, and financed by its star, Tommy Wiseau. In the film, Wiseau—a haggard, hatched-faced, indeterminately Eastern European, with a wildly unique accent and a generous mane of greasy hair—plays a young, all-American guy named Johnny who just wants to succeed at banking and marry Lisa, the love of his life. According to Bissell, the movie seemed to have been made by an alien, who had heard about, but never seen an actual film; it systematically defies all expectations instilled in the audience by more than 100 years of cinema history. A description like that promised the ne plus ultra of awfulness, so as soon as I could, I got my hands on a copy of the movie and watched it.
Bissell was right. The movie is jaw-droppingly inept. The inexplicable casting is far from the weirdest part. There’s very little plot. Characters arrive and disappear without reason, their relationships tenuous and unexamined. The dialogue often seems to be composed of a string of non-sequiturs, and the action is surreally nonsensical. At one point, for example, everyone dons tuxedos to play football in an alleyway. The characters display an almost frenetic need to toss a football around. Absurd sex scenes are shoehorned in without warning. Most scenes are either incredibly mundane or incredibly melodramatic. Characters are either telling each other how great Johnny (Wiseau’s character) is, or threatening to kill each other. Lisa’s mom, infamously, announces that she has breast cancer and then it’s never brought up again.
It’s hard, in fact, to overstate the strangeness of this movie. But perhaps most perplexing is why The Room exists at all. Most terrible movies are fractured reflections of the cultural zeitgeist. When a bad movie rises to the level of “shitty miracle” or “SOBIG,” it is usually a failed attempt to ride a wave of popular appeal set by legitimate previous hits—as is the case with The Apple, or Battlefield Earth. There are innumerable low-budget horror, comedy, or sci-fi rip-offs that fall apart when too many corners are cut. The ones that manage to be entertainingly horrible tend to follow a typical protocol: the ambition of the director, the actors, or the producers outstrips their resources and talent, in observable, cringe-inducing ways. But The Room doesn’t have any predecessors. It doesn’t try to capitalize on trends or lean heavily on old tropes. In fact, it’s blessedly free of even the basic codes vital to storytelling, bouncing along on its own merry path, giddily defying all attempts to make sense.
How could any viewer with even a passing interest in cinema not want to figure out how (and why) a movie like this was made? How could anyone watch this without wondering just who the hell Wiseau is, where he’s from (How old is he? How could he have possibly made enough money to afford this movie? Seriously, where is this guy from?), and what happened to him to make him so clearly wounded and so utterly sure of his ability to act and direct, fields whose very basics he not only knows nothing about, but seems defiantly uninterested in understanding? The movie raises a host of questions and answers precious few.
Fortunately, a new book provides some context, even if it doesn’t (or can’t) answer every question. The Disaster Artist is co-written by Bissell and Greg Sestero, The Room’s other main star (and quite possibly its muse). Their book recounts both the making of the movie, and Sestero’s odd relationship with Wiseau. Sestero is a handsome actor with a sweet face and a nondescript mien in the tenor of Owen Wilson or Keanu Reeves. In the movie, he plays Johnny’s best friend Mark. Mark is Johnny’s foil—the man who steals Johnny’s girlfriend Lisa, and drives Johnny insane. And yet Mark is as blank a slate as any of the other characters.
The Disaster Artist is written entirely from Sestero’s perspective, and though he clearly had a fascinating (and at points terrifying) experience both knowing Wiseau and making The Room, Bissell’s writing style is all over the book, and it benefits immeasurably from his skills. He clearly relishes helping Sestero describe some of the many, many absurdities of the filmmaking process, including this description of possibly one of the strangest characters ever to grace a screen, that of Johnny’s overly creepy semi-ward, Denny:
During the making of The Room, Tommy demanded that Philip Haldiman, who was playing Denny, enter some scenes singing his lines, asked him to “cry hysterically” while Juliette yelled “What kind of drugs?,” and made him lingeringly eat an apple early in the film because, Tommy explained, this was “very sexual symbol.” Given the nature of the character Philip Haldiman was asked to play—a man-child Peeping Tom neighbor who has no purpose in the story other than to ambiguously propose a threesome and be saved from a drug dealer—he did about as well as any young actor could have.
The book’s behind-the-scenes tales are so outsized that they are due to become part of movie-making lore. Like Werner Herzog directing Klaus Kinski from behind a gun during the filming of Fitzcarraldo, or the legendary stories about Francis Ford Coppola’s behavior on the set of Apocalypse Now, Wiseau comes across as an uncanny and unpredictable director, an autocratic overlord making unreasonable (nonsensical) demands and driving the rest of the cast insane. Sestero’s stories of Wiseau’s conduct make it clear that it’s a miracle the movie was even finished. I don’t want to describe too much because half of the fun of the book is being constantly surprised by Wiseau’s behavior.
Ludicrous war stories aside, the book makes evident that The Room, oddly, was a legitimate labor of love. As Sestero and Bissell detail, the reason it seems so unmoored from commercial interests is because it was. It was an earnest attempt at self-expression, made exactly as Tommy Wiseau wanted it, for millions of dollars—a vanity project fully funded by a man with mysterious resources deep enough to allow him to do fantastically extravagant things. (For instance, he purchased all his cameras despite the fact that even summer blockbusters rent their equipment, and he insisted on sets being built even when much cheaper and more realistic-looking location shoots were available.) The farcical appearance of the set, the terrible lighting, and the out-of-focus camera work were all in spite of pleas from his cast and crew, who came to him with reasonable alternatives and solutions. It was such a completely realized product of Wiseau’s vision that in 2003, the year it was released, after viewing the final product, he submitted it for an Academy Award.
If roughly half the book details the making of The Room, the other half deals with the mystery of Wiseau and Sestero. This is much harder to sort out. Sestero describes meeting Wiseau in an acting class, partnering with him for different scenes, and eventually getting caught up in a strange, slightly unhinged friendship. Chapters are headed with quotes from both Sunset Boulevard and The Talented Mr. Ripley—movies no doubt chosen for the intense relationships, borderline personalities, and rich/poor power dynamic that mark Sestero and Wiseau’s interactions. Many of these interactions read like scenes from The Room, with Wiseau behaving cryptically, nonsensically, or creepily. By the end of the book, Sestero is still unsure where Wiseau is from, how he made his money, or even how old he is. Nonetheless, The Disaster Artist shares more than the intensely private, even paranoid Wiseau would probably prefer, and it’s unclear whether Sestero and Wiseau are still or will remain friends after the book’s release. Sestero doesn’t seem concerned about revealing things Wiseau wants to keep private, but he still seems to genuinely like this very odd person, and writes fondly about some of their early adventures, even as Sestero feels he (and the rest of the cast) have been manipulated and abused. Thankfully, The Disaster Artist is everything The Room is not: a lucid, well-wrought story of one of the most fascinatingly surreal movies—and one of the most fascinatingly surreal people—in cinema history.
CHRISTOPHER MICHEL is a writer and stay-at-home dad. He lives in Brooklyn's secret Chinatown.