“Oh, hi Mark…”
Sometimes something becomes so famous (or infamous) that people end up learning a lot about it without ever having watched or read it. There is a large portion of the social media world, for example, that has heard about The Room through memes and clips and video reviews or satirical recreations, yet haven’t actually seen the movie. Because, well, it’s bad. Really bad. I mean, it’s quite possibly the worst movie ever made. You have to be in the right mindset to subject yourself to that kind of pain for a feature-length amount of time.
Fortunately, The Disaster Artist is not bad. Quite the opposite. On the one hand, it’s an engaging look at a young man’s journey through Hollywood. Greg Sestero’s story is no doubt a common one for struggling actors—the classes they take, the jobs they have to do to get by, the things they’re willing to do just to get a shot at steady work, the false starts and minor victories that amount to nothing in the long run but are all part of the process when someone is working their way up. That story is worth reading on its own.
And then there’s Tommy.
Amidst a story of a struggling actor that has probably been shared by hundreds of others, you have Tommy Wiseau walk in. Well, blow in like a tornado, really. At first, he’s just an oddity, a guy who is going to the same acting class as Greg, but who is clearly not all there upstairs. Yet he is strangely fascinating, compelling even, and Greg just has to act out a scene with him in class. That is perhaps the most fateful decision of his life, and in short order he is dragged into “Tommy’s World.”
The Disaster Artist decides to tell this story in a non-linear format. Chapters alternate between the making of the infamous film The Room (from pre-production right up until its release), and Greg and Tommy’s journey as actors and friends that eventually leads to Tommy deciding to write the film. They are two separate journeys, though they dovetail together at the end. This stylistic choice keeps the narrative fresh throughout.
The making of The Room is a fascinating and mind-boggling affair, one that defies all logic. You can’t help but ask (repeatedly) “How the hell is this getting made?” Yet it becomes more understandable the more you get to know Tommy and see what lead to him spending millions out of his own pocket to make it.
Which of course leads to all kinds of questions—where did a struggling actor get millions of dollars? Just who the hell is Tommy Wiseau? Where is he from? How old is he? The short answer is, nobody knows for sure. At least, not at the time this book came out. The answers Tommy gives (when he talks about his past at all) range from the contradictory to the unbelievable. Towards the end of the novel, Sestero teases out a possible version of the man’s history, cobbled together from the various stories he’s heard. Is it all true? Is any of it true? You’ll have to judge for yourself.
The film that is based on this novel is well worth watching, but glosses over many of the details, compressing time for certain events, and even adding some minor details that never happened. For example, Bryan Cranston never offered Greg a part on Malcolm in the Middle during a chance encounter just because he looked like a lumberjack. But some of the things that did happen to Greg are easily just as strange.
What the book and the movie share in equal measure is showing how The Room is a passion project, and the reasons it’s so bad are inextricably linked to that. Wiseau’s heroes include people like Orson Welles, James Dean, and Marlon Brando, people who were defined by their rugged individuality and determination. The Room is very much Tommy’s Citizen Kane.
In fact, it could be argued that The Room is an auteur film. Now, don’t get me wrong. No one will ever argue it’s a good film. But what drove Tommy to make this? The film icons he worships. He wanted to make The Great American Film the way such films used to be made. He wrote, produced, directed, and starred in this film, backing it with his own fortune.
Tommy wanted to make a film just like his heroes, but failed to recognize that the elements that made those films stand out were decades old. Obsolete. Even if everything had been done right it still wouldn’t have resulted in a good film. What’s more, it’s reflective of a very toxic environment, with the belief that such toxicity is ultimately justified because it creates “art.”
The Room is an auteur film, and yet represents everything that’s wrong about that type of filmmaking.
If you’ve ever had an interest in Hollywood, either in the journey actors take trying to get noticed or what goes on during the production of a film (especially now NOT to make one) then you must read this book. But it’s also equally entertaining as a character piece, both for the affable and ambitious Greg Sustero, to the driven and sometimes infuriating enigma that is Tommy Wiseau.
Perhaps my favorite take on The Room, which inspired this article, asking what might seem like a silly question: Is Tommy Weiseau an “Arteur”?
This Article first appeared in KODT Isssue #255