Tommy Wiseau must be the most secretive exhibitionist in film history. In his 2003 magnum opus The Room, the writer-director-actor thrust his flexing naked ass into the psyches of cult-film lovers with a disturbing yet strangely hypnotic ferocity. Yet Wiseau maintains an air of mystery around the most basic details of his life and career. How old is he? Where is he from? What is the origin of that unplaceable accent? Where did he acquire the $6 million it reportedly cost to make The Room? Why did he acquire the $6 million to make The Room? Why did it cost $6 million to make The Room? What is the source of Wiseau’s apparently bottomless fortune? Where did he come from? Who is he?
Conclusive answers to those questions have been hard to come by, even as the popularity of The Room grows. Wiseau has maintained a level of mystery about his existence more befitting someone in a witness-protection program than a filmmaker desperate for the spotlight. His secrecy is even more incongruous given the way he so nakedly bares his soul, fears, fantasies, and anxieties in The Room. Wiseau opened up the Pandora’s box of his warped imagination with The Room, and bats and ghosts and spiders and other creepy-crawlies of the psychological variety flew out with such insane force and intensity that a decade later, we as a culture are still asking, “What the fuck was that?”
The Disaster Artist is a wildly entertaining, surprisingly touching book-length answer to that bewildered cry. Co-written by The Room line producer and star Greg Sestero, along with journalist/novelist Tom Bissell, it’s an essential chronicle of cinematic failure, in line with previous exemplars of the form such as Steven Bach’s The Final Cut (about the making of Heaven’s Gate) and Julie Salamon’s The Devil’s Candy (about Bonfire Of The Vanities). The beauty of The Disaster Artist is that it raises as many questions as it answers. It provides a rollicking, riotously funny, deeply human account of The Room’s creation and Sestero’s complicated, tragicomic friendship with Wiseau, while leaving the film’s mystery intact.
The Disaster Artist underlines just how central Sestero and Wiseau’s relationship was to the film. At one point in the book, Sestero’s disapproving mother notes that it’s kind of pathetic to spend $6 million just to make out with someone. She might have added that it’s even more pathetic to spend $6 million to have someone publicly and repeatedly profess to be your best friend, even in a fictional context. But per The Disaster Artist, for Wiseau, it could very well have been worth it. Before they made The Room, Wiseau didn’t just want to be Sestero’s best friend. He wanted to be Sestero.
Sestero embodied everything Wiseau wanted to be but was not. He was model-handsome. He had a girlfriend. He was getting lots of auditions. But more than anything, he was young, and Wiseau fetishized youth and beauty. Wiseau wanted to shed his weird, pasty, droopy, ambiguously European skin and be reborn as a sexy, blue-eyed, blond-haired American teenager. Yet the life and career Wiseau envied looked pretty shabby from the inside. Sestero went on tons of auditions and booked almost nothing, aside from a bit part in Patch Adams and a lead in a European-shot cheapo horror movie called Retro Puppet Master. Sestero was living the life of every other struggling aspiring actor, but to Wiseau, he was living the American dream.
Wiseau, meanwhile, possessed two things Sestero desperately envied. Where Sestero was racked with insecurity, Wiseau radiated the childlike faith of an unrepentant dreamer. He believed, and that unshakeable, delusional, but deep-seated optimism rubbed off on Sestero. The other thing Sestero envied was Wiseau’s wealth. Wiseau was rich. Really, really rich. Rich enough that he could spend $6 million making the ultimate vanity project without worrying about going homeless or keeping the lights on.
How exactly did Wiseau make all this money? According to The Disaster Artist, he earned it via a business called Street Fashions USA, but the exact nature, size, and origin of his fortune remains unclear. With money comes power, especially in an industry like show business, where there are vast hordes at the fringes desperate for any opportunity to break into film. Wiseau was able to exploit a very Los Angeles form of desperation: the kind that comes with the suspicion that each opportunity might represent either a last chance, a big break, or some combination of the two.
“The paranoia of the real-life Wiseau didn’t just seep into the film; the paranoia of the real-life Wiseau is the film.”
As The Disaster Artist all but suggests, it doesn’t take much digging to see The Room as a psychosexual allegory about Wiseau and Sestero’s friendship and their relationship to the entertainment industry. In this interpretation, Lisa (Juliette Danielle), the future wife of Johnny (Wiseau) and secret lover of Mark (Sestero), stands in for show business. Her attractiveness and desirability are constantly being affirmed. She’s glamorous and sexy. She bewitches everyone she encounters, but she’s shallow, superficial, mean, and obsessed only with money and appearances. Her future husband is faithful, kind, and loyal to her. He follows the rules and pays his romantic dues, just as Wiseau paid his dues as an actor by reading books, seeking representation, and honing his craft by taking copious classes. (That’s where he met Sestero, beginning their curious collaboration.) But it doesn’t matter.
Lisa isn’t concerned with doing the right thing. She doesn’t care that her husband is loyal and true. No, Lisa is a fickle bitch who only cares about herself, so she viciously screws over her devoted, honest fiancé to have sex with Mark. Johnny earns Lisa’s love by being pure-hearted and kind, but, like a casting director, she goes for the guy who’s handsome and young and doesn’t appear to be a troll afflicted with debilitating mental illness. Johnny wins Lisa’s heart, just as Wiseau’s dedication to his craft should have won him the acceptance of Hollywood, but the world is cruel, and Johnny’s kindness is repaid with betrayal. Just when his union with the fame-whore goddess Lisa is about to be consummated via marriage and a baby, she betrays him, and in his confusion and fury, he commits suicide, transforming a tantrum into a tragedy.
On a less abstract level, The Disaster Artist confirms that The Room is largely about Wiseau’s sublimated longing for Sestero. When Sestero’s tough-cookie mother—whose reservations about her son becoming an actor weren’t exactly alleviated by his intense personal and professional association with Tommy Wiseau—met Wiseau for the first time, she brusquely told him not to try to have sex with her son. Her bluntness is unusual, but her suspicions were not. When Wiseau met Sestero, Sestero was a broke, desperate teenager looking to transition from modeling to acting, and Wiseau was a wealthy weirdo wannabe actor of indeterminate age and origin who later offered to help Sestero achieve his creative goals by setting him up with a sweet apartment in Los Angeles for next to nothing ($200 a month to start, though Wiseau “forgot” to cash Sestero’s rent checks until he got really angry at him). That must have seemed suspiciously like a sugar-daddy situation to Sestero’s mother; watching The Room must have only confirmed her suspicions that Wiseau’s interests in her son went beyond the purely platonic.
Wiseau could rightly claim to be Sestero’s benefactor. His suspiciously cheap rent helped Sestero survive his rough early stint trying to make it in Los Angeles, and when Sestero politely declined an opportunity to play Mark in The Room, just as he politely declined a vice presidency with Wiseau Films, Wiseau offered him so much money that he swallowed his pride, bid his dignity a temporary farewell, and reluctantly agreed to be one-third of a cinematic love triangle with his creepy, off-putting friend, knowing better than anyone just what he was in for.
When Sestero was barely getting by and working straight jobs to pay the bills, Wiseau’s extremely conditional generosity helped keep him afloat. The Room is perversely filled with assertions that protagonist Johnny (Wiseau), a successful banker, is financially supporting people who would be unable to support themselves independently. Lisa’s mother Claudette (Carolyn Minnott) famously lectures her daughter on how, as a mere woman, she’ll never be able to support herself doing whatever it is she does, whereas Johnny is a good provider who can provide her with the various luxury items, roses, and sexy red dresses she craves. It’s similarly established that Johnny pays the rent and tuition for Denny (Phillip Haldiman), the sexually curious, possibly mentally challenged manchild who idolizes him.
In The Disaster Artist, Wiseau fears Sestero, the friend he financially supports, will betray him, either by becoming so successful that he will rocket out of Wiseau’s orbit and leave him behind, or by making better, less bizarre and emotionally needy friends. Wiseau behaved like a jealous lover toward Sestero: At one point, Sestero pretended not to recognize a friend who came over to his apartment to drop off theater tickets, out of fear that Wiseau would explode with indignation upon discovering that Sestero had been gallivanting about town in the presence of other male friends.
In The Room, Johnny’s generosity is selfless and unconditional. That’s why he’s so hurt when the people upon whom he showers his Christ-like compassion repay him with betrayal. In The Disaster Artist, Wiseau’s generosity comes with all manner of strings and unnecessary psychodrama. Money is the glue that kept Sestero personally and professionally attached to Wiseau when his rational mind screamed for him to get the hell away and sever this poisonous bond at any cost.
“The genius of The Room and The Disaster Artist is that they afford us all an opportunity to visit Tommy’s Planet whenever we like, and spend time with its intriguingly enigmatic sole inhabitant.”
This emphasis on money and its effect on power dynamics lends an unexpected poignance to some of the film’s throwaway moments. Late in the film, for example, Johnny tells a long, digressive story about how he first met Lisa, one involving rain and an attempt to cash an out-of-state check. It’s pointless and nonsensical even by The Room’s standards. For Johnny, however, the story of how he met Lisa has an amazing, unexpected payoff: Lisa paid for the meal on their first date. To any other filmmaker, this wouldn’t be worth mentioning at all, let alone as the explosive payoff to the origin story of his and Lisa’s epic romance. Yet for Wiseau, the idea that a beautiful woman like Lisa would pay for his meal as well as her own, instead of instantly bleeding him of his life savings, is a tender (and pathetic) fantasy, even if it’s ultimately just the opening gambit of a long grift that ends with him lying in a pool of his own blood. The Room represents Wiseau’s outsized fantasy of being a movie star, a filmmaker, and a leading man, but also his poignantly life-sized fantasy of being young, well-liked, in love with a beautiful woman, and embraced by society. That seems as out of Wiseau’s grasp as becoming the next Marlon Brando.
The paranoia of the real-life Wiseau didn’t just seep into the film; the paranoia of the real-life Wiseau is the film. Just as Johnny tape-records Mark and Lisa’s conversations to uncover their betrayal, Wiseau had someone on set to document everything that was going on, ostensibly for the sake of a behind-the-scenes featurette for the DVD release, but really so Wiseau could furtively discover what people really thought of him, what they said about him behind his back.
Sestero performed multiple roles on the set of The Room. He was a line producer and he played Mark, but most importantly, he acted as a Tommy Wiseau whisperer to an understandably perplexed and enraged cast and crew. Sestero had a unique lifeline to the frazzled haunted house of Wiseau’s psyche, and could consequently act as a translator between Wiseau and the outside world. This is essential because Wiseau was functionally illiterate in just about every conceivable sense. He spectacularly, sublimely did not understand the English language, and had written a script that reflects his accidentally poetic confusion.
Wiseau also fundamentally did not understand the language of cinema or the basic rules of storytelling. More than that, however, Wiseau did not understand the basics of how human beings think, talk, and behave. If you were to show a space alien with no experience with human life snippets from A Streetcar Named Desire, Rebel Without A Cause, and Last Tango In Paris, then ask him to write a movie that reflects the duplicity of women and the intricacies of human relationships, the result might look like The Room. Though it’s not exactly clear where this alien would get the notion that life among humans consists primarily of announcing arrivals and departures, and throwing footballs across short distances.
In The Room and The Disaster Artist, Wiseau cuts a figure that’s simultaneously human and alien. His needs are so common as to be universal. He wants to be liked. To be respected. He wants to have a wife so gorgeous that her beauty must be referenced constantly, and friends who look up to him as a mentor and as a father figure. He wants to look young and be accepted by a warm, successful, attractive group of friends, preferably decades younger than him. Yet Wiseau’s attempts to win the validation and approval he so desperately craves could not be more insane or counterproductive.
As a longtime devotee of The Room, I wondered if knowing the story behind its making would diminish or complicate my enjoyment of the film. Would knowing the story of the strange, suffering man behind the eminently quotable cult sensation make me feel guilty for deriving joy from his ineptitude? I am pleased to report that the opposite is true. Reading The Disaster Artist didn’t lessen my enjoyment of The Room, it deepened it. Part of the poignancy—and the comedy—of watching The Room after reading The Disaster Artist lies in the fascinating tension of watching reasonably sane, reasonably professional grown-ups attempt to transform the incoherent rage, lust, tenderness, and confusion of a charismatic madman into a coherent film. Their Herculean task was to render concrete and cinematic the darkness and yearning inside Wiseau’s mind.
One of the astonishing revelations of The Disaster Artist is that the film easily could have been far more insane and nonsensical if not for the borderline-heroic efforts of crew members like script supervisor Sandy Schklair, a veteran who somehow managed to convince Wiseau to change some of the script’s most egregiously undeliverable lines, and suggest that maybe he shouldn’t indulge narrative whims like having Johnny secretly be a vampire. The shell-shocked, exhausted looks on the actors’ faces are understandable in light of a grueling, six-month shoot that seemed less a professional film production than an elaborate exercise in psychological warfare. Yet despite the enormous money and resources devoted to The Room, Wiseau still somehow managed to get just about everything wrong. Wiseau needed take after take after take to deliver the simplest lines—lines he wrote for himself—yet he screwed them up so consistently and spectacularly that much of his dialogue is awkwardly post-dubbed.
The Disaster Artist highlights the bizarre incongruities littering the film. I’ve seen The Room a good dozen times, yet after reading the book, I derived fresh delight from the punishingly, perversely extended and unnecessary sex scenes, the Dadaistic dialogue, the dazzling parade of non sequiturs and dead ends, and the whiplash-inducing tonal shifts between bizarrely bland comedy and tormented melodrama. But more than anything, I was astonished and delighted by the rooftop scenes in The Room, which were cobbled together using multiple rooftop sets and green-screen effects that, as Sestero remarks in the book, have the disorienting effect of making San Francisco seem like a hazy daydream of the Middle East one moment, and something from outer space the next.
Wiseau set out to make San Francisco look as beautiful and exciting as possible. He didn’t want real life, he wanted better than real life: He wanted movie magic. Instead, he ended up with images so jarringly removed from anything anyone has experienced, in real life or in films, that it almost singlehandedly catapults The Room into the realm of fantasy. Sestero suggests that the green-screen rooftop where so much crazed melodrama goes down provides a fascinating glimpse into Wiseau’s psyche. In The Disaster Artist, Wiseau, in a moment of ingratiatingly childlike openness, tells Sestero of a fantastical world in his imagination called “Tommy’s Planet,” which is part fantasy realm and part retail emporium, and offers to let Sestero stay on it for a little while. The genius of The Room and The Disaster Artist is that they afford us all an opportunity to visit Tommy’s Planet whenever we like, and spend time with its intriguingly enigmatic sole inhabitant. And it gives us the comforting reassurance that, unlike Wiseau, we will eventually be able to leave.