“What’s the line for?” a middle aged man asks me. It’s 11:30pm on a Saturday night in Manhattan. I’m in the middle of hundreds of people waiting to get into the Ziegfeld Theater. “The Room”, I answer. “What’s that?” he says, surprised to be totally unaware of whatever it is that can produce a line this long. I’m about to say ‘The best movie ever made’ when the girl in front of me turns to us. “The worst movie ever made”, she says. I don’t correct her.
The Room is not the first dramatic movie to unintentionally produce laughs from the audience, but few have reached this level of success from failing at what it intended to do. It fascinates and delights viewers with its blend of embarrassing attempts at naturalism, perversion of cinematic conventions, and just plain oddity protruding from every performance, plot turn and nuance. As the line slowly moves into the Ziegfeld, I hear a fan tell his friend who was about to see it for the first time, “It’s like if an alien who has never visited Earth decided to make a movie about friendship and relationships on our planet, having only watched the Lifetime TV and Max After Dark as references.”
At the theater known for star-studded premiers where the biggest of Hollywood films begin their run, it feels like The Room has crested. Made in 2003, following a totally unsuccessful independent theatrical release, the film slowly spread globally and has become a cult phenomenon, due in large part to Rocky Horror-like midnight screenings where the audience yells out at the screen and throws plastic spoons on cue in chaotic homage. It seems like the film world is split between people that haven’t heard of The Room and obsessive fans that have seen it many times, and not much in between. This special midnight screening at the packed, 1200 seat, Ziegfeld Theater is to celebrate one year of screenings in New York City.
The obsessive love fans have for the film goes hand in hand with their love for the writer/director/Producer/star, Tommy Wiseau. When initially laying eyes on Wiseau (first as the character of Johnny, and then as ‘himself’ in interviews) it is hard not to think something is out of tune. His look, mannerisms, speech patterns and constant use and mis-use of clichés are certainly the central appeal of the film and also what endears the non-fictional Wiseau to his many fans. It becomes hard to separate the screen persona of Johnny from the persona Wiseau continues to cultivate in real life.
The reported $6 million production was self-financed by Wiseau. The roots of that financing, amongst many other aspects (including Mr. Wiseau’s nationality – German? French? Transylvanian? ) is a mystery. Wiseau claims that everything in the film is as he intended, that everything was meticulously controlled by him with very little compromising. Four sets of crew members were fired, presumably folks that were trying to advise him against certain choices. Thank heaven they didn’t get to him. If they did we would have a marginally better and thereby much less interesting film. As it stands, perhaps more than any movie I am aware of, The Room is the true product of its maker. Everything might be exactly as he intended except one important thing – the film he sees and the film that the audience sees could not be more different. He thinks it is a masterpiece and fans think it is a masterpiece, but for totally and completely different reasons.
I barely get into the Ziegfeld in time, held up, in awe, at a table in the lobby stacked with Tommy Wiseau talking bobble head dolls for sale. To the deafening chat of “TOM – MY, TOM – MY, TOM – MY”, the man himself makes his way down the packed isle, speaks briefly in front of the exuberant crowd, takes a few silly questions (doesn’t really answer them), and then the movie begins.
A live band, set up beneath the giant screen, perform live accompaniment to the slow jams that play on the soundtrack throughout the three famous sex scenes. It seems like every other line in the movie is either verbally mimicked by the audience or a yelled quip of some kind follows quick on its tail. As is the tradition at the fan screenings, (this time hundreds of) plastic spoons are thrown at the screen whenever framed pictures of spoons are seen in the shot. This seems very silly to me and I’m not sure how or why it caught on. I have seen the film quite a few times and never notice this strange set design choice. In fact, the whole event feels very unsettling. I agree with what James Macdowell writes in his wonderful essay on the film, ‘On the greatness of Tommy Wiseau’s The Room’, “one thing I find slightly off-putting about fan screenings of the film is that they tend to fetishise [the] marvelous individual details to the point where noticing them (and yelling out the traditional responses to indicate that they have been noticed) drowns out any sense of the peculiarly unorganically-organic flow of their scenes, and of the movie more generally. The extreme oddness of how The Room’s scenes feel as scenes (not merely as successions of quirks) is one of the things that makes the film so brilliant”.
So when my friend returns from the bathroom with the news that Tommy Wiseau is just “hanging out alone” in the lobby waiting for the movie to end, I have no qualms about leaving the circus to go find the reluctant ringmaster.
First I spot Greg Sestero, who plays Mark, Johnny’s best friend who’s having an affair with his ‘future wife’ in the film. In real life Greg is Tommy’s longtime friend and a producer on the film. I shake his hand. “How does it feel? A film you star in is playing to a sold out audience at the greatest film theater in the world.” He looks forlorn and says, with heartbreaking sincerity to this total stranger standing before him, “Yeah, but why does it have to be this film?”
On the other side of the lobby, Tommy, with his long black hair, suit and sunglasses, is signing autographs for two young girls. When they leave he is alone. I ask him the same question I asked Sestero. “I feel pretty good about it. Thank you very much”, he answers.
I hover and witness something truly remarkable. As the film progresses closer to its climax, Tommy and Greg walk to the back of the theater, careful not to be spotted, and just watch the film. At the moment when Wiseau’s character (Johnny) finally aggressively confronts Sestero’s character (Mark) with “Don’t touch me mother f—-er”, a line delivered (like most of the lines in the movie) with the expectation from an audience of anything but laughter, the crowd at the Ziegfeld wildly erupts into just that. At this moment, Tommy turns to Greg, smiling a proud smile of accomplishment. Greg returns it. For a moment, I could almost make myself believe this all was a grand plan. These geniuses have pulled off the greatest hoax in filmed comedy history. But just then a man quickly comes over to Tommy, taps him on the shoulder and both he and Sestero are whisked away. Why? I don’t know. As the last scene plays out, with Johnny demolishing his apartment, the laughter and cheering in the theater is near riotous. I stare at the screen in the spot Wiseau was just witnessing his life’s work. The ‘grand scheme’ I fanaticized starts to fade away. ‘This can’t be planned,’ I say to myself. ‘No one is this good’.
As we make our way out of the theater into the spring night air, I see why Tommy rushed out before the movie was over. There is a brand new line forming. It’s to get your photo take with Tommy Wiseau. It’s well after 2am. The line is nearly to the corner of the block.
On a trip to LA, I manage to get a proper interview with Tommy. When I first sit down with him, at Jerry’s Deli in West Hollywood, he seems rushed, hyper and annoyed. Again, sporting black sunglasses (that he never removed) and what looks like shaving cuts, he promptly tells me he’ll give me 30 minutes (we ended up talking for an hour and a half) and seems confrontational right off the bat, before I even ask a question. He reacts to something I say in my introductory comments with “Listen, it’s up to you what you want to write about the film. You can spin it any way you like.” I tell him I don’t want to spin anything. “Everybody spins,” he says.
He’s right. I had my own spin happening. In other interviews Tommy has been very withholding of details; specifically, how, in trying to make the film he wanted to make, we got The Room. This is what makes interviewing him almost futile. It is like talking to a child about a brilliantly abstract drawing they have done, accidentally evoking Picasso or Matisse. You try to explain what you love about it to them, but they are defensive because for them it was an attempt at realism. The Room, to me, ranks among the funniest films ever made. Wiseau, however, thinks he made a tragedy. So how could we sit down and talk about this film when there are really two films? I decided I needed to convince Tommy that I see the film that HE sees.
[Note: Tommy Wiseau is a very peculiar man. Toward the end of my time with him, I found him to be a very sweet and gentle person. But there was a facade that had to come down for that side to show. He is very intelligent, certainly, but also most certainly…uh… ‘off’ as well. I tried hard not to mis-transcribe Tommy’s words. As a result, at times, proper grammar would have changed the meaning of some of what I feel Tommy was trying to say (also because at times I am not really certain what he’s trying to say) so I generally left every word exactly as he spoke it.]
Peter Rinaldi (PR): My theory is that people love you as much as they love this movie. The two loves are intertwined. I believe that is because you have put a tremendous amount of yourself into this movie and people respond to that.
Tommy Wiseau (TW): Maybe you’re right. I’ll tell you one thing, I have a great respect for fans and they love me and I love them back. Some people say they are there because they are nice. I don’t think so. You see, because I get a dozen, hundred, thousands of emails, now we get them more that ever – positive, that’s the good thing.
PR: There is a lot of pain in this movie. Do you think people respond to the movie the way they do, with laughter and yelling out loud together, because they don’t know how to deal with the pain?
TW: That’s a gray area because this is very subjective. You see, I am a very modern guy, so I am very open-minded. Some of this stuff is very personal. So my take on this is we communicate through visuals. Some people express emotionally. Some people express by words. Some people just express by silence, without even reacting to it, but inside themselves they do react, but they don’t show it. This is Psychology 101 if you ask me.
PR: This film is almost as much about friendship as it is about love and betrayal. There are so many scenes depicting different aspects of friendship. Why was that so important for you to show?
TW: Friendship is one thing, but it’s also ‘two is better than three’. You see, three is crowd. There is nothing wrong to have three friends, but you might have an issue. It’s always been that way for many years and many decades, from Egyptian [times] if you think about it. If you have three kings you have a problem, but you might have a friendship. But if you have one girl, two guys, you might have an issue if you’re straight or whatever other relationship you have. So this is the dilemma, I think, human-kind, mankind has been dealing with for many decades, centuries. And I have to laugh because some of the stuff people have been writing about The Room is laughable because they don’t understand the concept. I would say 90% of the reviews they just don’t grasp this. It’s not just a concept, but do the research and be honest with yourself.
You see I prefer to meet someone who writes a review, or any person who says something from the heart, and you can sense that. Or, it could be negative stuff. It doesn’t have to be positive. But if you have a hatred, or you have some personal stigma, you can sense that too. And you know people have this assumption, and I don’t like it, because they assume, and there is nothing wrong with that, I will contradict myself, but assuming doesn’t mean you are honest, because you are guessing. You cannot guess and say two and two is five, no it’s four. “Why is it not 5?” Because that’s what it is. Same with The Room.
PR: Jim Jarmusch once said something like, I’m paraphrasing, “You set out to make a film, and you think you’re make a horse, but by the time you get done shooting and editing you realize it is actually a dog”, do you relate to that with this film?
TW: But this is your job to actually prevent that, if I may say that. So you as a creator have a right to say “wait a minute you cannot tamper with that.” This is the biggest dilemma a director has with the studio sharks. Some executives say “wait a minute, that’s not what we want”. You see I like original work. I like something you can create. Yes you can improvise. Improvising is good. But you see with The Room, we had a lot of rehearsal process. I believe that. Hollywood doesn’t believe it. They say “Two minutes! Time! Come on shoot!” Yes time is money, but how creative you can be is up to you, not to the executives.
People wanted me to do porno movies. I said you must be crazy in the head. That’s not what I want. I have no interest. And then people compared The Room to porno or whatever, I said you don’t know what you’re talking about. You see people try to spin it the way they want to spin it; it doesn’t mean you have to accept it. But at the same time, sometimes you have to because maybe you don’t have an option, or you have choices, I believe in choices, especially in America. You have many choices.
PR: There are four sex scenes in the movie. Why so many? They total almost 10 minutes of film time. Why did you want to depict sex so much in the movie? Are you a very sexual person?
TW: No absolutely not. Because we’re dealing with a character Jonny and we’re dealing with a character Lisa. First of all I don’t call it sex, that’s number one. I call it love, that’s number two. And number three, you as a creator decide what you want to present. How long could be what is your take. I mean you can present it by — a person can kiss, can have a bunch of kissing, and a person would say they are in love because they kiss, they are family, whatever, and everything is hunky dory. Well sometimes it doesn’t cut it for me, because you have to go extra miles to present it the way you have a vision. But at the same time you have to decide how far you can go. If I would go halfway, the way I present now you would not ask this question.
By the way, all the scenes, people don’t realize (Laughs), I am just laughing because of this incorrect statement because they think that some of the scenes were reused. Well that is an incorrect statement. Because each scene we did, one through four. It’s almost close, but if you look at it closely you will see the difference. The same is true with the footage of the Golden Gate Bridge. We never used someone else’s footage. Everything was shot original. We had two units, one in San Francisco and one here [Los Angeles].
PR: You were friends with Greg Sestero before you wrote The Room; did you write the part of Mark for him?
TW: I create character based on life. You have many Marks, or Johnnies or Lisas. I interviewed a dozen of them and asked them what they think about relationships. My own relationships are there too of course. Everything is upside down with The Room, because it was supposed to be first a play then I changed it to a script, then we released the movie and now we are publishing the book, but the book is supposed to be first. (Laughs) Everything’s backwards. So that’s what the story is here.
PR: So this book is a novelization of the film?
TW: Yeah, it is 600 pages. We are working with one big company right now but I cannot give you more information. I don’t know what is happening with it. They are very interested, but we’ll see what happens.
PR: What about the documentary, or was it a book, that was supposed to be made about the difference between HD and Film?
TW: Oh yeah, we’re still working on that. I think next year we’ll publish something. This will not just be an educational thing, but it will be for everyone. Because seven years ago we didn’t know what transpired. The Hollywood system, they were appalled, they didn’t want anything to do with HD. But a film is a film if you ask me.
PR: My favorite scene in The Room is the Flower Shop scene.
TW: Oh, “Hi Doggie”.
PR: It is a masterpiece in less than 1 minute.
TW: Less than one minute, that’s a correct statement. Yes, I agree with you, less than one minute.
PR: The woman behind the counter doesn’t recognize the character of Jonny when you come in, even though you are her favorite customer.
TW: Johnny always let her keep the tip, that’s why.
PR: I thought it was also because you were wearing sunglasses. Once you took them off your eyes, she realized you were her favorite customer.
TW: That’s the trigger. I love the friendliness between Jonny and dog. He says “Hi Doggy”. You see, usually you don’t do that. Remember we have another person there in the scene.
PR: Looking at the cards.
TW: Yes, you see, this is the detailed work that people don’t realize. When he goes in and out, gives the money and says “Keep the change”, right? You see the dog. We have a lot of details there. Also you see this vase, the vase represents also clay and the clay represents a long, long time ago. And people don’t realize all the symbolism is there.
And the roof is a perfect example. Do you see when Mark is upset with Peter? Kicking the chair? You see this is a typical thing in San Francisco. You have a few seats and personal things on the roof. I think New York is like this too. But in other cities they don’t have this, like New Orleans. They have stuff in their house. So this is also symbolism. Everything is. Mark is there, Peter is there, the environment, they are familiar with that. The way he smokes the joint, and then you see Deny and Jonny sitting on the same thing. And then again, we go back again to the same environment. See that environment is very important , that’s why I always say to people you have to see it a few times because there’s no way. I was in several different universities and I said the same thing – “You missed the point”.
I myself, when I see certain movies, let’s say “Cleopatra”, with Elizabeth Taylor, when you see it , you see all this details work, and you enjoy it more because you can focus on not just one element, but several different elements because you’re already familiar with one. You say ‘Wait a minute, this is very interesting.’ That’s what people have the tendency to say, “You know what maybe he is right after all.”
PR: Do you see it as an homage to your detail work when they throw spoons in the theater because they recognize the details you put in there?
TW: Yeah, I love what they’re doing. Whatever interaction they are doing, I love it. Again, it’s not going to happen by accident. When some people say “Oh, yeah some fan of The Room decided” – whatever the people decided, it’s in their mind. It’s fine with me.
PR: Do you feel like it’s growing?
TW: It’s growing everyday, to be honest with you. We travel. We’ll be traveling next year. We have a screening here in LA on the last Saturday of every month. We’ve been screening for seven years. We’re not going anywhere. I want people to really enjoy themselves and have a groovy time. I don’t see me abandoning my fans, maybe vice versa, but it’s up to them. At the same time I have a lot of respect for any person, even the person who will abandon me. Because I think it is a grey area, because it is a very personal thing. Ironically, for some reason, always people wanna give advice. And I say “you know what? Maybe you need a little space between you and The Room and come back later”.
And you know what I wanna do actually? I want to put the film in the prisons, San Quentin, actually. And I wanna study if it would help some of the people, instead of thinking about crime or thinking about the personality in people. So it should be interesting because, I don’t want to say this is a different segment of the population, but it’s actually people who are behind bars. They have a different view about the world, some are probably innocent. But, anyway, I love to travel. We have the Blu-ray freedom tour, at the same time we will be releasing the Blu-ray.
PR: Please tell me there will be a director’s commentary.
TW: Of course there will be a director’s commentary. There will be interviews with some of the actor’s as well.
PR: Will there be deleted scenes?
TW: Absolutely. We have a dozen of them. (Laughs)
PR: Will you ever get to the point where you say I’m sick of these Midnight screenings and put a stop to the whole thing?
TW: No. I know myself. I cannot predict the future 100 per cent, but I’ll tell you one thing, I’ll always be connected to The Room because I like it. I’ll be traveling and we’ll see what happens. I can’t predict if the fans tomorrow will say we don’t want to see The Room. But if people see it I always enjoy myself because I love people. Not everyone likes me, but that’s a different story (Laughs).
Sound clips from the interview: Wiseau and Rinaldi at Jerry’s Deli.
Wiseau on being ‘off’
I wanted to be respectful toward Tommy’s film and the effort behind it, but I also wanted to address the undisputable fact that the film is “off”. And if, as Tommy maintains, everything that we have in the film is what he wanted, then why did he make the choices he made?
A typical day on the set of The Room
In this clip, I asked Tommy about what a typical day was like on the set. Also, I wanted to get a real answer about the meaning of the title and why he used green screen.
Wiseau on working with actors
I think it would be wrong to judge these actors solely on the work they’ve done in The Room. In the hands of, perhaps, a more capable director, an acceptable Hollywood style performance could be directed out of them. Yet, it is quite remarkable, I think, that every performance is on the same level. I wanted to find out how Tommy made that happen. Also Tommy talks a little about the forthcoming 3D version of the film.
Wiseau on staying true to his vision
One theory for why The Room is so unique is this: There are a lot of films that are bad. There are so many people that get a chance to helm a film who know nothing about drama, structure, acting, cinematography or anything that makes a film ‘successful’. But because filmmaking is such a collaborative process, at some point these people have to listen to other people’s advice – usually people that are more knowledgeable and experienced. Yes, typically, the film still turns out to be bad on the whole, but there are patches of acceptability in there. But when a filmmaker has an “out of tune” approach to filmmaking to the extent of Wiseau, and listens to no one’s helpful advice to try to get it somewhat in tune (to the point of firing 4 sets of crewmembers, most of whom were likely well intentioned), and simply demands that his vision is seen through, then we have a film like this. What sets this film apart is Wiseau’s unwavering staunchness; his adherence to his own voice. I have the utmost respect for that because without it this movie wouldn’t exist, or it would be better and therefore worse. I asked Tommy about how he stayed true to his vision.
Peter Rinaldi is a New York based filmmaker and writer.