When the movie The Room was released in 2003, it was almost universally panned by critics, and Entertainment Weekly called it one of the "worst movies ever made." But that didn't stop The Room from garnering a huge cult fan base that has kept it screening around the world for nearly a dozen years — and it certainly didn't slow down the film's writer, director, and star, Tommy Wiseau.
Since the film's release, Wiseau has devoted much of his career to promoting The Room around the world at midnight showings and Q&As, but he's also directed a documentary. His next project is The Neighbors, a television show for Hulu that keeps much of what made The Room such a cult sensation fully intact.
I chatted with Wiseau about his new show, why he feels people don't take him seriously, and how he's grown as an artist and a filmmaker since The Room. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Kelsey McKinney: Why did you decide to become a filmmaker?
Tommy Wiseau: I always thought it would be a cool thing to do. By the same token, though, I wrote this script, and long story short, it was supposed to be a book. And I think I have something to offer as a filmmaker for the new generation to come. So that's basically when I decided to become a filmmaker and an actor, as well.
It's very stressful sometimes, but it's very rewarding about the concept and how you want to work with people to create something.
KM: Can you talk to me about the major themes you try to embody in your work?
TW: What do you mean by that?
KM: What themes underlie your films? Who are your film inspirations, and what are you trying to get across to viewers?
TW: You have to ask me specific questions, because you know the way you ask questions is pretty vague. So who inspired me or what?
TW: I inspire myself. But I've also been inspired by James Dean, Marlon Brando, and others. For example, Casablanca and others. You know, Citizen Kane. I always had an interest in film. And you know in the film industry you have to actually do something, it's not just talking.
To present something to people, sometimes they won't accept something the way you're thinking they will. For example, The Room. Did you watch The Room?
KM: Yes. I did.
TW: As you know, people will say, "This is a bad thing," or, "This and that happened by accident." I have news for all those douchebags. Nothing happened by accident. I studied film for the past 12, 15, actually close to 20 years. The Room has been screening worldwide for close to 12 years.
KM: You said people think a lot of things in The Room happened by accident. Can you give me a specific example of something you did intentionally that they aren't catching?
TW: Let me give you an example. For the past 12 years a lot of people speculate that my script of The Room does not exist, and that's really disrespectful toward me as a filmmaker and as a creator. I don't know if you've seen it, but you can go to Tommywiseau.com to see the trailer.
You can go behind the scenes to see the production. We had a regular production; a static production. Yes, it's true I did let some crew go because there was a conflict of my vision. But long story short, you can see behind the scenes what I did with a regular crew and a regular cast, et cetera.
Again, this is very disrespectful, including some people in media. I'm very happy with what's happened the past few years. The last two or three years, mainstream media has actually supported my project. As you know we are creating The Neighbors with Hulu. Hulu is owned by the ABC [ed. note: Hulu is jointly owned by NBC, ABC, and Fox], so I'm very happy to work with these people. I never criticize these people, the big studios, because you see work is work. It is like entertainment is entertainment.
With The Room, I never had opportunity to work with a big studio. To summary, it was supposed to be a play, and then I did some research, and I said, "Not enough people go to the plays," and that includes me. I go, what, every six months or something?
But a lot of people go to the cinema, so I said to myself, "You know, I have to make this a script." So I condensed my 800-page book and the play to a script format. Originally, the play is 150 pages. I can condense, but are we talking about two people watching or 400 people.
The other thing — let me give you a little style. We submit to the Academy Awards. People don't realize until today. Some people are just flying in the sky, but it's so awkward because we submitted to the Academy Awards, and you know they have all of these rules, like you have to run two weeks in the theater. So I took the movie out of the theater, because that's what the contract said. I wanted to leave it in the theater, but I couldn't. [Ed. note: Academy rules stipulate that a film must run a minimum of one week in a theater in Los Angeles County.]
I did two weeks screening in Los Angeles, so we could submit to the Academy Awards, etc., etc., but you know, I'm a very respectful guy. If there are rules, I follow them. I'm happy happy. To submit my movie to the Academy Awards, I was very happy to conquer all the rules and regulations, but I respect them.
But long story short, after the two weeks screening, I received several emails and later hundreds that said, "Can we see your movie?" So it's screening at the Wilshire Screening Room [in Beverly Hills]. It's very famous actually. And it's screening two blocks away from Academy Awards.
We got into trouble because a lot of people show up. So many people show up that I had a Q&A, and I couldn't actually go through because people were sitting on the floor. It was really crazy. And the owner of the theater said, "Tommy, you cannot do this because of the fire marshal. We'll get into trouble and get a ticket." Then I decided to call another theater and see if they would show it, and they did.
I think it's important to say again, this is a true story. These are the fact, you know. It's not like other stories about how I used two cameras, for example.
Long story short, the reason I use the two cameras is because at the time 12 years ago, Hollywood was against the HD camera and the HD format. All of the film industry was 35 millimeter [film]. At the time, I tried to do research. Even today, you don't find the difference between HD and 35, so right now, I am writing a book about it.
But the funny story, The Room is the only feature movie shot in the two formats at the same time. We were shooting the entire movie in the two formats. Eventually, I will write a book about it.
Move on now. Next question.
KM: You're making a TV show currently. How do you approach that format coming from a movie background?
TW: I think the difference is in preparation. For The Neighbors, it's also challenging because I'm presenting something that I was always dreaming about. I think we got great reactions. We're screening The Neighbors with The Room in the UK, and we got great reactions.
I think The Neighbors is a good sitcom for TV, too. To respond to your question, it's a different approach. You shoot differently. The set is different. You think differently, too. Directing is different, too.
KM: But has anything been harder for you about making a TV show than it was making a movie?
TW: When we shot The Room, I would say, "I was confused with format," and I wasn't afraid to say that. You know why? Because I'm proud of my project. I'm not scared to say to you. Definitely.
Every time you use a camera — and I believe Clint Eastwood would say the same thing I'm telling you — it's a challenge. When you're dealing with human behavior on the set, I would say to actors, "Hey, the line is secondary," because I wanted to see their movement. Holding the line is important, but I wanted to see them as a whole. We have a script. We have a story to tell.
All these aspects are very important. It's important to make mistakes. As a director, do I let it go when an actor makes a mistake? You need the skills to adjust instantly what you want from actors. Again, it's also teamwork sometimes. I say sometimes because you have a quirky situation when the cameraman doesn't do what you want her to do.
To summarize, I would say any director who is a good director faces a reality check. You have to have a vision. If you don't have vision, forget about your project. That's where I come from.
KM: What kind of tips do you give your actors to help them get through scenes when they aren't quite nailing your vision?
TW: With actors, you know, we have many rehearsals, and the actors, they kind of forget the world for a moment. I can sense, we all have families and friends. I can feel it when one of them is off. I say, "You guys give me a good environment, and I'll give you a good performance."
And I think this is easy to forget and say, "Let's just do the shoot very quickly on the green screen." I'm very against that. I like it when the two actors do the scene together. For example, you have a scene on the green screen and an actor talking to a wall. I'm against that. I prefer the actors talking to one another instead of to the wall, and that's what I believe.
In Hollywood, you talk to walls because someone told you to. This is not art. This takes away not just the happiness of the person who is the actor, but also the realness of real life. This is controversial, what I say, because people want to save money.
As a director, I try to create a good ambience for the actors, but it's very difficult to do that. It's very important to make sure the actors have what they need.
KM: When you're on the set, how do you choose your shots?
TW: We do rehearsal before we're shooting, and after that, I say, "Action. Go." Sometimes we read through the script, and sometimes we stop the scene. Sometimes I stop the actor if I don't feel it. I say, "Cut." It doesn't go anywhere. We do rehearsal, so we can shoot instantly.
KM: Are there specific emotions or experiences you're drawing on in your work?
TW: For The Neighbors, that has been in my mind since doing The Room. Definitely I have a vision, because it's the main character talking to all of the apartment tenants who have dilemmas with this and that. For example, we have two girls kissing. Why are they kissing? Is it true? Is it not? What happened here?
The chicken is not just an accident. Some people you know they have a chicken as a pet, and they don't eat chicken. I'm vegan, but I did try it.
This is the dilemma. I like to work on this kind of situation.
KM: What was it that inspired you to make The Neighbors?
TW: Hollywood did not want to give me jobs when I wanted to make the sit-com called The Neighbors. Long story short, I was trying to do The Neighbors, and I got some small jobs and some commercials I got. Little later I said, "You know what? Let's go back to The Neighbors." I was very happy that we got someone to say yes to us. I didn't want to put this on YouTube, because I wanted it to be seen.
You know I have a certain kind of style that gets a good reaction. It's my understanding that people enjoy it.
KM: How would you describe your style?
TW: Some people say, "What is the idea of success?" And I would say, "Two words: hard work. Hard. Work." Without hard work, nothing would happen, and nothing happens by accident.
To answer your question, it's pretty hard for me to describe who I am or why I am. I'm trying not to be self-centered.
KM: How do you feel like your work has evolved over time?
TW: In the past two years, I've been happy that mainstream media embraces what I created. I encourage emotion. You can laugh. You can cry. It is what it is. I created The Room not by accident. I was a very stubborn guy who wanted to do something different. That's what I did, and I think a lot of people embrace.
I didn't anticipate its fame. I anticipated that I would make a movie and move on to the next one, typical Hollywood story. In a sense, I'm really proud that we are talking today; at the same time, in another part of the world they are screening The Room. I'm very proud of my project, even though, you know, some people disappoint me. Because I noticed that some people, it's true that it's hard to do what you want to do.
KM: How do you take an idea all the way to the screen?
TW: I am very serious. Let's assume people give me a script, I'm very serious about converting it. I believe in preparation number one. And I like emotion.
To respond to your question, whether it's my work or someone else's, I'm very serious. I'm more critical of my work because I have to prepare myself physically and mentally. You know what I mean, right?
KM: Not really, no.
TW: Physically and mentally, because I know let's be nice. My mom always says to me, "Be nice," but sometimes people, they don't understand. And I like when people express themselves.
I don't know if you're familiar with schools, but we've screened The Room from Oxford to Harvard and other places. Long story short, I had a Q&A and one guy asked me a stupid question, and it was kind of a put down. And I said, "Hey man, there's nothing wrong with that." And later on, he was sorry — sort of. He was apologizing, and I said, "First of all. You don't have to like The Room. If you dislike The Room, it's okay with me." But these people that hate it with no reason, that's wrong.
Something quirky can still need some love. To respond to your question again, I'm very serious, but at the same time, I want to have fun, too.