This Bizarre Story Behind ‘The Room’
The Room is a cinematic paradox. Simultaneously considered one of the worst films ever made and an unintended work of comedic geniuis, it has enjoyed remarkable success since its original 2003 release. Despite being the subject of numerous documentaries and most recently a film starring James Franco, The Disaster Artist, that ironically eclipsed the film it was inspired by’s box office run, nobody really knows how the film came to be, largely because the man behind it has staunchly refused to ever give a straight answer about almost every aspect of the film’s production and his own history.
That man is Tommy Wiseau, an enigmatic figure who despite the best efforts of fans, friends, and interviewers, we know virtually nothing about. Where Wiseau was born, how old he is and even his real name are a mystery, with what little biographical information about him we do have being the best guesses of people who’ve invested far more time than they’d care to admit deciphering the human enigma that is Tommy Wiseau.
Starting with when he was born, while filming The Room (which he wrote, directed, produced and starred in), Wiseau was asked directly by co-star and on-off friend Greg Sestero about his age; he answered “However old you are, Greg”. An answer that didn’t sit well with the young actor who at the time was in his mid-20’s, whereas Wiseau looked to be in his mid-to-late 40’s. Sestero, not taking no for an answer, eventually found out through, according to one source, “Wiseau’s brother’s girlfriend” that the raven-haired auteur was born in the 1950s. Wiseau himself has never confirmed this, masking his true age by apparently dying his hair, generally wearing large, face-obscuring sunglasses and adopting a punishing physical exercise regime that has resulted in him possessing a stocky, muscular frame not exactly stereotypical of a man who is supposedly in his 50s or 60s. To this day, there is no definitive answer about exactly how old Wiseau is.
Likewise, we have no idea where he was born, with Wiseau himself giving contradictory, often meandering, garden path answers to the question in interviews. For example in one interview Wiseau explained:
I’m originally from Europe, but I’m, right now, American like everybody else. Long story short, I used to grow up in New Orleans, Louisiana. So, people ask me, ‘Where you come from?’ Right? So, what’d you wanna do? Which country do you pick? Um, you know, I pick New Orleans.
Confusing matters further is the fact that Wiseau has sometimes claimed to be from France and at other times said that he actually grew up in America, all while speaking in a thick eastern European accent. Actors working on The Room would later reveal to Entertainment Weekly that they made a game of trying to figure out where Wiseau was from and, despite the combined efforts of the entire cast and crew, nobody ever got a straight answer from him.
Experts studying Wiseau’s accent, on the other hand, have concluded that he likely hails from Poland, which is commonly accepted by Wiseau fans. Exactly where in Poland isn’t clear, but fan and filmmaker Rick Harper has suggested that Wiseau’s birthplace was the the Polish city of Poznań after researching this issue for a documentary on the making of The Room.
This was a hypothesis confirmed, in part, by additional sleuthing suggesting Wiseau’s original surname was Wieczor (a fairly common Polish name) after finding the obituary records of his aunt and uncle. Again, none of this has ever been confirmed by Wiseau himself who remains fiercely protective of information related to his life before emigrating to the United States and settling, for a time, in Louisiana where he claims he has family.
Education wise, Wiseau claims to have a background in psychology as well as stage acting, the latter being especially hard to believe considering Wiseau’s performance in The Room.
The most mysterious aspect of Wiseau’s life, though, is his seemingly unending cash reserves, with Wiseau reportedly financing the entire production of The Room from his own pocket. A film, we should add, had a $6 million budget (about $8.5 million today), despite, as actor James Franco would later quip of it “[looking] like it cost $6” (something we’ll address in more detail in a moment).
Prior to this, Wiseau was often observed driving around in fancy cars, wearing expensive suits and always carrying hundreds of dollars in cash on him on set. To date, nobody has ever established with any certainty how Wiseau was able to amass so much wealth. When asked directly, Wiseau’s wildly unsatisfying answer was as follows, ”I tell you a little bit, but that’s it. We import from Korea the leather jackets that we design here in America. If you work, you have to save money, right? I didn’t get money from the sky. I was preparing, let’s put it this way.”
Theories about where Wiseau made his fortune have ranged from suggesting he was involved in some sort of crime ring in Eastern Europe (which doubles as an explanation for his secrecy regarding his youth) to a rumor that he was hit by a car driven by a big-wig Hollywood producer and received a generous cash payout for his silence. This one seemingly came about because of a claim by Wiseau himself, who said he was, at some point in his life, involved in a car crash in California. Alternatively, Wiseau has variously claimed in the past that he amassed his fortune through flipping property or selling jeans. Again, we have no idea which, if any, of these things is true.
Moving back to the topic at hand, The Room began life as either a 500 or 600 page novel (Wiseau seems unsure of the original length and has changed it multiple times in interviews) written some 2 decades prior to the film’s eventual release in 2003. Wiseau’s supposed intention was to turn the novel into a play, but he abruptly changed his mind and decided to turn it into a film instead; his reasoning being, he claims, that he did some research and found that more people watched movies than plays…
Initially put forward as an independent drama depicting a love triangle between a banker (played by Wiseau), his wife and best friend, the film is infamous for its numerous plot holes, logical inconsistencies and inexplicable tonal shifts. Combined, these elements make the film unexpectedly hilarious, leading Wiseau to retroactively claim that the film was actually intended as a black comedy all along. A claim few believe, insisting that the film was just poorly made, as Sestero would later write: “Tommy Wiseau intended The Room to be a serious American drama, a cautionary tale about love and friendship, but it became something else entirely—a perfectly literal comedy of errors.”
Examples of unintended hilarity include a scene where Wiseau’s character, mid-way through a monologue denying that he beat his wife, stops to say “Oh hi, Mark” in the most upbeat manner possible. A short while later in that same scene, Wiseau’s character laughs after hearing the aforementioned Mark recount the tale of a woman he knew being badly beaten by her boyfriend, telling him, “What a story”.
In another scene, a character’s mother interrupts her to casually inform her “I got the results of the test back. I definitely have breast cancer.” (a plot thread that is never addressed again)… In yet another scene, the film’s male cast inexplicably play a game of football while wearing tuxedos. This adds absolutely nothing to the plot and is never explained, nor referenced again, nor is why during the scene the camera zooms in on the character of Mark’s face randomly, all the while with dramatic music playing. When asked directly about the purpose of the Tuxedo scene for the DVD commentary of the film, Wiseau’s answer was a meandering response about playing football without protective equipment being a challenge.
Minor details that likewise add nothing to the plot, but fans find hilarious, include the general poor quality of the film’s production as well as the fact that, for absolutely no apparent reason at all, the main character has a framed picture of a spoon on his coffee table. When asked about the significance of the framed spoon, a cast member revealed that the crew simply forgot to put a photo in the frame they bought and that the spoon was the stock photo that was already in the frame.
On that note, the overall poor quality of the film from a technical standpoint, combined with its $6 million budget, led many to initially assume that it was an elaborate money laundering scheme, with it being speculated that it couldn’t possibly have really cost that much to make. In reality, the film really did cost over $6 million to make thanks almost entirely to Wiseau’s seeming unfamiliarity with the basic elements of film production. For starters, Wiseau insisted on purchasing the equipment used to film The Room, rather than renting it as would be the norm for an indie director on a tight budget.
Wiseau then literally doubled his filming budget by choosing to film the movie in two formats simultaneously (specifically high-definition video and 35mm film), sticking the two cameras together on a custom-made rig and filming every shot twice. This resulted in Wiseau having to hire two sets of staff to work each camera; even then, he only used the film version in the final production, making the secondary expense of buying digital cameras and a crew to operate them entirely pointless.
Wiseau himself has claimed he did this purely so that he could claim to be the first director to film in two formats at the same time, while others have claimed he simply didn’t know what the difference was between the two formats and just bought both kinds of camera to be sure.
Wiseau also frequently fired and replaced cast and crew members, seemingly on a whim and at a great cost. Exactly how often this happened isn’t known and depending on which Wiseau interview you consult, he fired and replaced the entire cast and crew up to 4 times. In his own words: “Some of the crew members, it’s correct, we changed three times basically. Because they tried, for example, to change the script. They say, ‘This is the way to do, etcetera, etcetera.’ I say, ‘No!”
On that note, one of the cast members told Entertainment Weekly anonymously that the script had many lines “that [were] just unsayable. I know it’s hard to imagine there was stuff that was worse. But there was.”
Wiseau also insisted that every actor, regardless of their prominence in the film itself, had multiple understudies and entire days of filming were wasted filming unnecessary re-shoots. Scenes involving Wiseau in particular were incredibly painful to film because he’d frequently forget his own lines (a factor later attributed to nerves) and his impenetrable accent made it hard for his co-stars to understand his cues, leading to yet more re-shoots.
Unhappy with his own delivery, Wiseau eventually ended up re-dubbing most of his own lines in post-production, adding yet more cost to the production. Wiseau also refused to let anyone see the entire script, with the sole exception of Greg Sestero who claims the director/actor/producer left out some amazing content. Sestero is also noted as being the only person on set who could “speak Tommy’s language” and he was able to prod Wiseau into cutting some of the more ridiculous ideas he had for the film’s plot, including a scene that would have revealed a character was actually a vampire the whole time by having them fly into the sky in the middle of a fistfight.
Wiseau also insisted on building expensive and elaborate sets for scenes that could have been cheaply filmed on location with the purchase of a relatively inexpensive permit. For example, to film the many rooftop scenes, rather than going to an actual rooftop and filming, Wiseau filmed the scenes in a carpark and had a city skyline CGI’d into the background at considerable expense.
As for promoting the film, he spared no expense here either, though once again did it in perhaps the least effective way possible, renting space on a massive billboard on Highland Avenue. This depicted a black-and-white close-up of his own face with some basic information about the film. The billboard famously stood for five years and led to endless speculation about how exactly Wiseau secured such a lucrative deal and how on Earth he kept paying for it. As James Franco who plays Wiseau in the film, The Disaster Artist:
There was an insane billboard in L.A. for like five years that [Wiseau] must have paid hundreds of thousands of dollars alone, and it is the scariest thing you’ve ever seen, with his lazy eye, like, staring at you. It looks like an ad for a cult …
As with most questions related to his finances, Wiseau has never explained where the money to keep the billboard standing came from and has kept mum about how much it personally cost him, though conservative estimates say it likely cost in excess of $300,000 for the whole five years it stood.
Wiseau continued to flash the cash when the film was finally ready to be released, turning up to the premier in a limousine and a fancy suit.
Reportedly crushed by the slew of negative reviews the film received directly thereafter, Wiseau dislikes talking about how much the movie made during its initial two week theatrical run. Reports indicate it was around $1,200-$1,800…
Unphased, Wiseau states, “I submitted “The Room” to the Academy Awards — you can check that, it’s a fact. We followed all the rules by doing a two-week run in Los Angeles and I’m proud to be in the Academy database. After two weeks’ screening, I pulled it from circulation.”
Unsurprisingly, the film wasn’t nominated.
According to Wiseau, after pulling the film, news of how amazing it was had made it a hit with local students who’d since bombarded the email address on that giant billboard we just mentioned with requests to show it again. Wiseau, confused but flattered did just that, surmising that midnight screenings would be best so that everyone who wanted to see the film could do so regardless of their work schedule. As an aside, Wiseau believes that his choice to screen the film at midnight helped lower America’s crime rate as teenagers couldn’t get into trouble if they were sat in a cinema watching The Room. We’re not making that up.
Since then, the film has gone on to become a cult classic and Wiseau himself spends much of his time travelling the globe attending screenings. Oft likened favorably to fellow cult hit, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, fans turn up to screenings dressed as their favourite characters and throw plastic spoons and footballs at the screen- a practise supposedly started by drunk college students watching the film during it’s initial 2 week run in LA.
Although initially savaged by critics, The Room has enjoyed sustained and consistent success since its release, still being a staple of the midnight theatre circuit over a decade later. Wiseau himself is critical of those who call The Room a bad movie, telling an interviewer in 2014:
People say bad movie. It’s about how you define. How many bad movie I saw in my life? Probably dozen. But I will never say it bad, but you know, if I have a conversation, I say, ‘Hey I didn’t like it. This is my style.’ But some people say the same movie was it, it’s a bad movie. And some people say, ‘Oh, it’s a shitty movie.’ Whatever they want to say. So again, it depends on how you express yourself. I don’t consider The Room bad movie.
Co-author of The Disaster Artist, Tom Bissel, perhaps explains it a little better stating,
It is like a movie made by an alien who has never seen a movie, but has had movies thoroughly explained to him. There’s not often that a work of film has every creative decision that’s made in it on a moment-by-moment basis seemingly be the wrong one. […] The Room, to me, shatters the distinction between good and bad. Do I think it’s a good movie? No. Do I think it’s a strong movie that moves me on the level that art usually moves me? Absolutely not. But I can’t say it’s bad because it’s so watchable. It’s so fun. It’s brought me so much joy. How can something that’s bad do those things for me?
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