My friend Mel and I have a history of buying each other the same presents. One Christmas we both (without consulting each other, but having set a £1 budget for gifts) bought each other a wind-up man on a penny farthing. This birthday (our birthdays are six days apart) we both got each other the non-fiction book The Disaster Artist (2013) by Greg Sestero and Tom Bissell.
This one is perhaps less of a coincidence – we have both enjoyed the so-bad-it’s-good film The Room, and its a genre of films, indeed, that we love. There’s nothing quite like watching a movie that defies logic in its staggering ineptitude, and if you can find one where the writing, acting, directing, audio, visual, and scene-building all combine into being a horror show of terribleness, then you’ve hit the sweet spot. Such, if you don’t know it, is The Room. Here’s a (fan-made) trailer…
The history of this 2003 ‘masterpiece’ is a bit bizarre – the lead actor/director/writer Tommy Wiseau funded it being screened in a cinema for an age, and had a billboard advertising it for five years in Hollywood. Over time, it became a sleeper cult hit – the twice I’ve seen it were at special screenings at a cinema in Leicester Square, where people fling plastic cutlery at the screen, join in with many of the lines, and dress in costume. But how did it get made, and what was behind so many of the odd choices in the film?
The world is likely to become a lot more alive to this film soon, as The Disaster Artist is a film coming out in the next few weeks – but it is based on this book by Greg Sestero (who played Mark, the second lead actor) and a journalist Tom Bissell – by which we can probably assume that Bissell wrote most of it and Sestero’s contributions were in interview form, but who can say.
The Disaster Artist wisely jumps between two timelines, rather than being entirely chronological, so that we get chapters about the making of The Room from the outset – interspersed with chapters which show how Greg and Tommy met, and the story of their friendship. It is an odd one. They met in an acting class, and became oddball friends. Greg was a young, handsome man embarking on an acting career against the advice of his parents; Tommy was a loner who refused to give his real age, nationality, or where he’d acquired enormous amounts of wealth from – and, to this day, he won’t say those things.
An unlikely friendship developed, though every step would be a huge warning flag in a film about a stalker. Tommy let Greg use his apartment, which had almost no furniture, but wasn’t happy if Greg spoke to any other friends. He would drive Greg around until late at night, and get upset if he asked too many questions. He was clearly jealous when Greg started to have minor success as an actor, and would ramble to him for hours on the phone about it all.
Somehow Greg agreed to make a movie with him.
Undoubtedly, it’s the chapters about The Room that are the most entertaining (if you’ve seen it before, at least). Tommy’s behaviour is entirely bizarre – Greg’s involvement on screen only came about because Tommy wanted to replace the original second lead. Rather than fire this unfortunate (or perhaps fortunate) gentlemen, though, Tommy just filmed the same scenes twice – one with Greg, one with this guy – but didn’t use film for the latter. Eventually, shockingly, he was rumbled.
Tommy would ask for sets to be dismantled then demand they be put together again. He filmed on a terrible alley set, despite there being an available alley immediately next to it – because this is a ‘real Hollywood film’. He wouldn’t let anybody deviate from his nonsensical script, and he auditioned actors by screaming “you’ve just won a million dollars!” at them, and hoping they would act in response. And, despite his script-despotism, he couldn’t remember his own lines – it took him over thirty takes to deliver this 13-second scene:
The Disaster Artist is a hilarious and fascinating exploration of how appalling scenes came to be as they were, how the crew was replaced twice, and explains enigmas like the ubiquitous framed photos of forks, and an actor being replaced halfway through the shoot. Alongside, it is also a portrait of a man so unusual that he would be unbelievable in fiction. Because Tommy Wiseau seemed delighted with the result of his efforts. We don’t comprehend him because he is impossible to comprehend. But we see something of the frustrating composite that Greg saw. And they must still at least speak to each other, as they’ve made a new film: Best F(r)iends. Greg’s written this one…
The one major flaw in The Disaster Artist is that it’s written with the assumption that Tommy was the sole problem with The Room. Occasionally Sestero will acknowledge that (say) the sound guys were terrible, but blames this on poor guidance and lack of experience. More awkwardly, he doesn’t really acknowledge that his own performance in The Room is pretty shoddy. Yes, nobody else comes close to the surreal ineptitude of Tommy Wiseau, but Sestero ain’t great either. There were plenty of bad cogs in this machine.
In the end, Wiseau is something of a sad figure – lonely, driven by desperate ambition that can never be fulfilled. But Sestero makes him seem more like a man so deluded that he is protected from realising how much his dreams have failed. And, indeed, have they failed? I’d love to read a book that shows the aftermath of the film – how they dealt with its unexpected and slightly warped success – but, however that fame has manifested itself, Tommy Wiseau has undoubtedly made a film that has brought joy to millions. This is a unique Hollywood story.