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The Room: how the worst movie ever became a Hollywood legend as bizarre as its creator

Tommy Wiseau's cult hit is a bad movie. It's also an incredible study in mythmaking.

NEW ORLEANS, LA - DECEMBER 05:  Tommy Wiseau poses next to a poster for 'The Room' at 'The Room' screening and Q&A at the Prytania Theatre on December 5, 2014 in New Orleans, Louisiana.  (Photo by Josh Brasted/Getty Images)
Tommy Wiseau poses next to a poster for The Room.
Josh Brasted/Getty Images
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

The Room may not actually be the worst movie ever made, but it almost certainly holds the distinction for weirdest film trajectory: nearly 15 years from premiere to national release. That’s right, The Room is finally about to open, for one day only, in 600 theaters nationwide. The January 10 showing is the latest ironic twist in the journey of a cult film like none other, and the culmination of its creator’s long quest for fame and Hollywood’s respect.

For more than five years during the mid-2000s, an incongruous billboard loomed over Highland Avenue in West Hollywood. It was a mostly black-and-white movie ad, and its only prominent features were the name of its subject, a website, and a phone number to “RSVP” for a showing at one of the film’s only two release locations. Most striking of all was the billboard’s sole photo, a mug-shot-like headshot of a man with a morose scowl and a widow’s peak.

The lack of context surrounding the ominous photo made the ad difficult to parse. Was The Room a noir crime thriller? A gothic horror? A scam ad for a bail bondsman or perhaps a vampire cult LARP?

The Room was, in a way, all of this and much more.

The man in the now-infamous billboard headshot is Tommy Wiseau, The Room’s writer, producer, director, star, and savant. Although The Room played for only two weeks in the summer of 2003, reportedly grossing a mere $1,900 in just two theaters, Wiseau continued to spend a reported $5,000 a week to bankroll the Highland billboard. This odd and exorbitant expense was one of many examples of apparent wastefulness that would come to fascinate fans of The Room, and help earn Wiseau a reputation as “the Orson Welles of crap.”

But amid all the nonsense associated with The Room — its inexplicable $6 million production budget; its awkward, endless sex scenes and vanishing subplots and characters; its incoherent dialogue slurred by Wiseau’s thick, nebulously European accent — the everlasting billboard may have in fact evinced stealth marketing savvy. For by the time the billboard finally came down in 2008, a true Hollywood miracle had occurred: The Room had become a major cult hit.

After failing to secure a wide release after its premiere, The Room became a word-of-mouth fascination around Hollywood, as celebrities like Judd Apatow, Paul Rudd, and Kristen Bell came to its lone monthly midnight showing, organized private viewings, and passed around stories of its mythical filming conditions. The secret of The Room spread until it was a cult phenomenon. Today it has spawned seemingly endless viewings at midnight showings around the world, where fans quote the film’s garbled script by heart, hurl spoons at the screen, and treat Wiseau and the film’s other cast members like celebrities.

From its early days, The Room has hypnotized viewers. Now, with the release of The Disaster Artist, James Franco’s new film about the making of The Room, Wiseau’s creation has finally crossed dimensions and garnered legitimate Hollywood success.

Franco’s The Disaster Artist is an adaptation of the 2013 book of the same name, which Wiseau’s best friend and co-star Greg Sestero co-wrote with journalist Tom Bissell about his relationship with Wiseau and the filming of The Room. The book is a hilarious recounting of a true cult success, as well as a poignant examination of the myth of Hollywood fame and its impact on the lost souls who seek it. It’s not exactly what you’d expect as the outcome of The Room — a film that never actually explains what “the room” is.

If all this leaves you wondering why? how? and what’s that about spoons? you’re not alone. And that confusion is the very heart of the matter: Had The Room not come packaged with so much internal befuddlement, a legendarily strange production experience, and a mysterious man at its center, it would have been destined for obscurity. Here’s how it avoided that fate and turned “Oh, hi, Mark” into a catchphrase for the ages.

What is The Room?

The Room is a 2003 movie written, produced, and directed by Wiseau, who also stars as its main character, Johnny. It was originally envisioned as a stage play, then turned into a 500-page novel, and ultimately finalized as a movie script. Since its cult success, Wiseau has tried to pass his film off as a “black comedy” rather than an inept melodrama that’s unintentionally funny, but he’s not fooling anyone.

The Room is ostensibly a tale of betrayal. Johnny, a stand-in for Wiseau himself, is living the American dream: He owns a nice apartment in San Francisco, he works a cushy, if vague, job at “the bank,” and he’s beloved by his friends. But Johnny’s “future wife,” Lisa (Juliette Daniels), is cheating on him with his best friend, Mark, played by Sestero. Mark is a cherubic but easily confused jock who’s helpless to resist Lisa’s wiles, even as their affair takes a toll on their entire social circle.

The Room plays out like a Jacobean tragedy set to a sleazy slow jams soundtrack, ultimately resolving in what it tries very hard to present as a sad ending. But The Room utterly fails in its attempts to make us take seriously these characters and plot points, because we’re too busy marveling at the weirdness of every single thing happening onscreen.

Lots of movies are weird. Why is this one the weirdest?

The plot description above does nothing to prepare you for The Room’s strangeness. Wiseau’s script and directorial style seem to be channeling a mix of Mulholland Drive and Jingle All the Way. Actors cringe their way through terrible line reads, awkward staging, blurry green-screening, and especially creepy sex scenes. Johnny’s apartment is full of framed photos of spoons.

The characters in The Room seem to be caught in a surreal alternate universe where human behavior has none of its traditionally understood signifiers and human speech is Dadaist nonsense. Characters respond with, “Don’t worry about it,” to everything from impending breakups to terminal illness. “I’m very busy,” Mark insists while doing absolutely nothing. Grown men taunt each other by making chicken noises. Characters perpetually greet each other, until the word “hi” loses all meaning — as in the famous scene (adeptly showcased in the first trailer for The Disaster Artist) in which Johnny seems to switch moods on a dime in order to declare what is now The Room’s most famous line:

Plot points appear and disappear at random. One character completely vanishes without explanation at the end of the film and an entirely new character replaces him, deadpanning, “I feel like I’m sitting on an atomic bomb waiting for it to go off.” One character announces she “definitely has breast cancer” — only to never mention it again.

The inexperienced ensemble struggles to make sense of their parts. Lisa, the femme fatale played by an awkward 20-year-old Daniels (who had no idea what she was getting into), is presented like a sultry Victoria’s Secret model, even though her lines are more appropriate for a scheming daytime television matriarch. Daniels, who was obviously neither of these extremes, winds up looking perpetually uncomfortable, which makes the film’s constant descriptions of Lisa as a conniving sex goddess seem strange and discordant.

Even odder is Denny (Philip Haldiman), a young boy whom Johnny is mentoring: He talks like a high school freshman but appears to be in his mid-20s. He wanders in and out of Johnny’s apparently unlocked apartment with abandon, gets into pillow fights with Johnny and Lisa, and tries to watch them having sex. He might actually be a cat. In one of the film’s most famous scenes, Denny has a brush with a drug dealer known only as “Chris R” (Dan Janjigian), who appears once, brandishing a gun and demanding money, and then is never seen again. As Denny sobs that he’s sorry for all the drama, Lisa screams, “What kind of money?” Johnny continually grabs Denny’s hair, and Mark inexplicably announces, “It’s clear.”

Above all, there’s Johnny, who can’t really be separated from Wiseau’s own baffling, stilted mannerisms and appearance. His stringy hair, his over-the-top acting, and his unfathomable creative choices truly have to be seen rather than described, as in the infamous scene in which he confronts Lisa by imitating James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause:

The film’s absurdism is especially prominent when it comes to women. When Mark tells Johnny a disturbing story about a woman enduring a brutal domestic assault, Johnny responds by laughing. “Men and women use and abuse each other all the time — there’s nothing wrong with it,” Lisa’s mother Claudette declares. The plot line’s overtly misogynistic and homoerotic overtones would be cringe-worthy in another movie, but The Room’s many other abundant oddities make elements that would be controversial in a normal movie seem quaint in this one.

The Room is the quintessential cult film, one whose excess and eccentricities become the cinematic equivalent of an alien trying and failing to assimilate among humans. It’s a film that’s tremendously easy to love ironically — and we all know millennials are good at that. But it’s also a film that’s genuinely mesmerizing, that earns each of its repeat viewings.

And if anything, the story behind the story is even more fascinating than what’s onscreen.

How did this get made?

The story behind The Room’s creation is a surprisingly layered one, as Franco’s film hilariously and poignantly details. The Room is the result of Wiseau’s own exorbitance and desperation to achieve lasting success, fueled by his apparently bottomless wealth. But The Room is also the work of a first-time director who’d never been on a film set before. This combination of excess and cluelessness led to a bloated production that cost $6 million yet still wound up looking as though it were filmed on a shoestring budget.

The production also included nigh-incomprehensible footnotes, like Wiseau’s decision to build a fully functional private bathroom for himself on set while refusing to pay for air conditioning or allow cast members to have water bottles during filming — which resulted in one cast member collapsing on a hot day. Then there was his bonkers decision to shoot the film on two cameras at the same time, using both 35mm format film and digital HD footage, the latter of which he ultimately discarded. In a 2009 interview, he stated that he filmed the movie twice because “entire Hollywood was confused.”

In his Disaster Artist book, Sestero claims that The Room owes what coherence it does have to uncredited script supervisor Sandy Schklair, a Hollywood veteran portrayed by Seth Rogen in Franco’s film. “The only reason we’d gotten anything even remotely watchable on film was due to his ability to turn Tommy’s vision into something slightly less extraterrestrial,” Sestero states. Wiseau’s controlling nature, tendency to berate and publicly humiliate actors and crew members, and habit of arriving hours late to the set made him the greatest obstacle to The Room’s completion.

On its surface, The Room isn’t much different from other great “bad” cult films like Plan 9 From Outer Space, Troll 2, or the long litany of Mystery Science Theatre 3000 offerings. It features many of the same classic bad-film hallmarks, like a would-be auteur writer-director whose primary creative stamp is his bad judgment.

But other terrible movies that have become cult hits have typically been the result of low budgets, bad actors and effects, and creators clashing with studios. The Room, on the other hand, had a seemingly endless production budget, a large film crew of about 30 experienced professionals (nearly all of whom walked off and had to be replaced), and zero studio interference. The Room was uniquely free to be what its creator wanted it to be.

In other words, The Room is exactly as bizarre as its creator itself.

So who is Tommy Wiseau?

Left, Wiseau as a young man, around the time he came to America; right, Wiseau in 2017.
Simon and Schuster; IB Times UK

Tommy Wiseau was born nobody knows when, with an unconfirmed last name, in an unconfirmed location in Eastern Europe.

According to Rick Harper, creator of the 2016 documentary Room Full of Spoons, which Wiseau attempted to block from circulation, Wiseau hails from Poznan, Poland. This is an origin allegedly revealed unwittingly in The Room’s recurring “cheep cheep!” motif, in which members of the cast borrow a common Polish practice and stand around chirping at one another as a taunt of cowardice.

The speculation that Wiseau hails from a part of the former communist bloc is echoed in a climactic chapter of The Disaster Artist. In it, Sestero relates a narrative that he gleaned in bits and pieces from Wiseau over the years, of Wiseau growing up in a repressive Central European society “sometime after the death of Stalin,” dreaming of America and drinking in imported American culture via Disney movies and rock ’n’ roll. Eventually Wiseau bribed his way to France, where he began calling himself Pierre.

According to Sestero’s account, “Pierre” may have endured brutal working conditions, police brutality, anti-communist prejudice, homelessness, and a stint as a prostitute before finally securing a passport and a trip to America to begin a new life. Though Wiseau claimed for a long time that New Orleans was his place of origin, he apparently moved to Louisiana from France to live with his uncle and aunt. From there, all research seems to point to Pierre moving to San Francisco, legally changing his name to Tommy Wiseau and amassing a fortune selling cheap imported goods at a markup along Fisherman’s Wharf.

For his part, Wiseau has deliberately kept the details of his past and his financial history shady, and The Disaster Artist makes clear that all of his narratives — even the ones that Sestero pieces together as likely legitimate facts amid all of the fiction — are unreliable and unverifiable.

But of course all this mystery is part of The Room’s mythos. “I kind of don’t want to know more,” Bissell said about the mystique of Wiseau in a 2013 interview. “The guy is basically Jay Gatsby, and Jay Gatsby is such a more interesting character than James Gatz.”

What does seem clear from Sestero’s account of his friendship with Wiseau is that Wiseau was largely alone and friendless before he met Sestero, which might have to do with his temperamental personality and controlling nature. What’s also abundantly clear is that Wiseau, sans talent or encouragement, still yearned so desperately to be an actor that when Hollywood wouldn’t take his calls, he spent a fortune to make his own movie.

How did all of this lead to The Disaster Artist?

The story of The Disaster Artist is largely a story of The Room’s baffled fans coming to a greater understanding of it, and then wanting to be a part of it. There seems to be something about Wiseau’s struggle for legitimate Hollywood success, the sheer determination he showed in making The Room happen, and the desperate alienation that drove him to it that makes fans of The Room want to insert themselves into the story, to be a part of the film’s legacy in some tangible way.

You can see that impulse coalescing around The Disaster Artist. After seeing The Room for the first time, Bissell wrote a long piece about the film’s popularity in 2010 for Harper’s Magazine. Sestero liked it so much he agreed to meet with Bissell, and then went on to co-write his memoir with him. Franco, as a longtime fan of The Room, then reviewed said memoir, The Disaster Artist, for Vice. “The book turns Tommy’s sometimes ridiculous struggle into a paradigm for those wishing to be creative in a world where it is usually too hard to be,” Franco wrote in his review. “In so many ways, Tommy c’est moi.”

Franco went on to channel Wiseau by co-writing, producing, directing, and starring in the subsequent film adaptation of the memoir. Plenty of Hollywood A-listers were eager to help. “A lot of comedians and great dramatic actors are fans of The Room, so we ended up getting this incredible cast,” Franco told Vox’s Alissa Wilkinson in a recent interview about filming The Disaster Artist. “We had a lot of elements going for us.”

Should I watch The Room or read The Disaster Artist before the new movie?

It’s not necessary to watch The Room or read The Disaster Artist before you see Franco’s adaptation of the latter. But you should definitely check out both when you get a chance.

If you want to watch The Room — and you should; the various YouTube clips included here in no way do it justice — it’s best to watch it in a quiet place before you venture out to one of the many midnight showings in cities around the country. Like other cult films such as The Rocky Horror Picture Show, screenings of The Room have evolved their own performative audience interactivity. If you try to simultaneously parse The Room for the first time and participate in it, you’ll likely end up hopelessly confused.

Once you have watched The Room in a safe environment, however, you are free to bring a packet of plastic spoons to the nearest cinema and toss them to your heart’s content. The art of throwing spoons whenever the framed spoon photos show up onscreen is the midnight showing’s most famed ritual, but there are many others as well, like shouting, “Go! Go!” or, “Water!” whenever any of the film’s numerous establishing shots roll by, and inserting, “Because you’re a woman!” in reaction to the film’s plentiful sexism.

The next stop along your Room journey should be the audiobook of The Disaster Artist, which is narrated by Sestero himself. Not only is Sestero’s Wiseau impression spot-on, but hearing him deliver it so effortlessly is an ever-present reminder of just how well he knows Wiseau, which really enriches the story and is best heard for yourself.

Sestero’s The Disaster Artist serves as a deep dive into Wiseau’s psychology as well as the author’s own Hollywood career struggles. It draws prominent parallels between Wiseau and Sestero’s relationship and two distinct but telling narratives: Sunset Boulevard and The Talented Mr. Ripley. In each parallel, Wiseau figures as the predatory, isolated, and desolate figure whose desperation for companionship and deep ambition draws Sestero helplessly into a codependent relationship. Franco’s film version of The Disaster Artist is lighter on these psychological details, though they’re still there.

The Disaster Artist book stops short of describing what the opening night of The Room was like in 2003. Franco’s version of it, however, inserts a grand staging of the event that ultimately becomes a traditional Hollywood happy ending.

All in all, that seems a fitting conclusion for a saga that is ultimately less a story about bad movies than it is a story of extravagant mythmaking — and one man’s improbable dream come true.

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