>>Finally got around to it: January 2014
Tommy set his chopsticks aside. “For me,” he said, “I always wanted to have my own planet. Call it Tommy’s Planet. Build a giant building there, you see, like… Empire Tower. Some casino thing. My planet will be bigger than everything.”
I found myself unexpectedly charmed by this burst of subdued bravado. It wasn’t obnoxious. It was sort of endearing. I felt like I’d just asked a child what he wanted to be when he grew up. And a child had answered me, honestly, with no adult filter telling him what was and wasn’t possible.
“Your own planet,” I said. I wanted to laugh but I couldn’t. In fact, I had goose bumps. This man sitting in front of me had no detectable talent, did everything wrong, wasn’t comfortable saying how old he was or where he was from, and seemed to take an hour to learn what most people picked up in five seconds. Still, for that moment I believed him. I believed he could have his own planet.
“Yeah,” he said, looking up. “I see this big thing and big light and big events with stores and hotel and movie. All these things all together. It will be spectacular.” He reached for his glass of hot water but hesitated before lifting it to his mouth. Tommy peered at me from beneath his large protruding brow. “And you can live in my planet, if you decide. Maybe I let you stay for a little while.”
I was already fascinated with Tommy Wiseau—the mysterious and enigmatic man behind what’s known as the Citizen Kane of terrible films, The Room—long before picking up Greg Sestero and Tom Bissell’s The Disaster Artist. After reading the book, which is both an exposé on the lives of Tommy and Greg as well as a post-mortem on the film itself, I’m somehow even more baffled by the existence of the half-pirate, half-vampire man, his seemingly limitless pockets, and his absolute tin ear and lack of narrative comprehension.
Though primarily authored by Greg Sestero, who plays Mark in The Room (and in tens of thousands of “Oh hai, Mark” Internet memes), The Disaster Artist is very much the story of Tommy Wiseau. Divided between two timelines—Sestero’s first steps into acting, meeting Wiseau, and the difficulties faced in moving to Los Angeles to find work as an actor; and the troubled production and subsequent release of The Room—The Disaster Artist is a brutal, sometimes impossible to believe account of one man’s ridiculous dream to make a film so shocking, so utterly soul destroying that it would stay with anyone who watched it for weeks on end, and having it turn out to be quite literally one of the most laughably terrible films ever crafted.
Upon meeting in an acting class in San Francisco in the late ’90s, Sestero talks about his first encounter with Wiseau as if the latter were a peculiar wildlife specimen he couldn’t help but want to observe:
His accent, at least from what I could hear, didn’t quite sound French, which he obviously knew and spoke. He looked older in everything but his attitude; he sat in his seat like a slouchy teenager in detention. The more closely I studied him, the odder he appeared. He seemed half comic book character, half hair-metal icon.
Despite Wiseau’s outward awkwardness, Sestero was inexplicably drawn to him, going so far as to offer to partner with him in class. This action sparks a strange union—not so much a friendship as one person’s tacit acceptance of another far stranger individual, either out of curiosity, sympathy, or fear of cutting ties once they’d been established. From the simple beginnings of this sort-of friendship, the narrative follows both Sestero and Wiseau as their careers diverge—Sestero finding some modicum of early success while Wiseau continues to paddle upstream against the industry’s total lack of interest in him—before eventually coming together again for the filming of Wiseau’s Tennessee Williams-esque “masterpiece,” The Room, which he intended to use as his calling card for future film stardom.
As should be obvious for anyone picking up a copy of this book, what wound up being filmed has gone down in history as an incomprehensible mess of character inconsistencies, plot holes, timeline problems, and amazingly awful acting and production values across the board, even for an indie project. The Room is the Rocky Horror of terrible films, one that inspires audiences to come together with startling regularity to mock its quirks and weirdness and the all-around difficult to pinpoint “Wiseau-ness” of it all. The Disaster Artist embraces the film’s fate, exploring how, in retrospect, given the litany of production problems and Wiseau’s difficult to work with nature, it’s nearly impossible to believe that the film was ever released at all, let alone that it has become a veritable cult phenomenon.
From the beginning, Sestero writes about Wiseau as if the latter is from another planet altogether. From his broken English and his inability to be truthful about his age or his origins to his overactive love of America, his extreme nocturnal habits, an inability to take advice or criticism from literally anyone, and a dangerous Red Bull habit, Wiseau is a clearly broken individual wrapped half the time in a boisterous, threatening shell determined to shake Hollywood and the film industry in general to its core, and the other half of the time turtled beneath a shell of self-delusion so thick that no amount of doubt or criticism could ever successfully break through. He’s seemingly incapable of learning anything—ever. This includes his own dialogue, which he seemed to flub more than anyone else on the set of the film he himself wrote and directed.
While the chapters detailing Sestero’s life and moderate success as an actor are interesting, as one might guess it’s the chapters devoted to the production of the film itself that really give The Disaster Artist its meat. From the first day of production it’s clear that Wiseau has no idea what he’s doing, or for that matter how to work and cooperate with actual flesh and blood human beings. He’s perpetually late, verbally abusive, mistrusting, withholding of payment, and overly demanding while at the same time underperforming in his own roles. The film has a rotating stable of DPs (Director of Photography), most of whom storm off set calling Wiseau a liar and a fraud, others who, like most of the actors, simply grin and bear an impenetrable narrative with character motivations that change on a dime and new characters and story threads being created and shoved unceremoniously into place with little or no thought as to how they work (or don’t, as was often the case) with the existing narrative.
In short, these chapters offer a fascinating and greatly illuminating look at the many ways a film’s production can spiral totally out of control. In fact, the only way the film was ever finished was that Wiseau himself was willing and somehow able to personally tackle the production costs, further cementing the idea among many of the cast and crew that The Room truly was nothing but an elaborate vanity project concocted by a man who’d deceived himself into thinking he had some idea as to the workings of the art form. Where this money came from is another of the book’s more curious subplots. Was Wiseau actually a business savant who’d started and sold off a number of ventures to great personal gain? Was he laundering money for a criminal enterprise? Even after having known Wiseau for fifteen years, Sestero makes clear he still knows so little of the notoriously protective man—a man who hired an individual specifically to film every interaction on set so as to effectively spy on his own production.
The Disaster Artist is a hugely entertaining read, though one’s mileage will be determined by their love of and interest in the film industry—especially failed (or should have failed) productions—as well as, naturally, one’s familiarity with the film. If anything, after reading Sestero and Bissell’s book, I’m even more amazed by the existence of The Room. The sordid details of the film’s creation, in combination with the unsettling and in some ways frightening aspects of Wiseau’s stalker-ish personality, which are on full display throughout both the film’s production and his relationship with Sestero, are often shocking, always interesting, and quite frequently laugh-out-loud hilarious.
If nothing else, The Disaster Artist has achieved the impossible: it’s made me want to sit through The Room all over again.