Several years ago, I saw Tommy Wiseau, the enigmatic, vaguely European writer/director/star of the so-bad-it’s-good cult classic THE ROOM, introduce a screening of his opus at the Coolidge. He was… less than enlightening. Wearing five belts (I counted) and dark sunglasses (indoors, long after midnight), Wiseau deftly deflected every single question, from the silly (“What’s your favorite dinosaur?”) to the relatively straight-faced (“Who are some of your influences as a filmmaker?”). If I recall correctly, his response to the latter was “Dass a rilly stoopid question”, followed by some rambling about breakfast cereals. He also made several attempts to pick up female questioners and spent the entire evening with the microphone pressed directly to his lips, making each of his answers sound something like a swarm of bees coming through a drive-thru speaker (although, in retrospect, a lot of that may have just been his voice).
At one point, Wiseau handed over the mic to Greg Sestero, the square-jawed, model-type actor who plays Wiseau’s best friend Mark (as in “Oh hi, Mark”) in THE ROOM. Sestero seemed just as baffled by his erstwhile director as the audience did, trying his best to maintain a straight face as Wiseau proceeded to hijack each subsequent question with more one-liners. It raised the question: how did this seemingly normal guy get sucked into all this, touring the country behind one of the worst films of all time with a director who is, by all appearances, a raving lunatic?
Sestero recently attempted to answer this, along with some of the many, MANY questions surrounding THE ROOM, with his new tell-all memoir THE DISASTER ARTIST. In it, Sestero details his entire relationship with Wiseau, from their first encounter in an acting class (Revelation #1: Tommy Wiseau took acting classes!) to the long and predictably tortured shooting of their anti-masterpiece to THE ROOM’s unlikely ascendance to national prominence. It is, in short, essential reading. This past Friday, Sestero returned to the Coolidge to give his fans (or, perhaps more accurately, his “fans”) the answers that his friend and tormentor refused to provide.
The evening began with a short documentary Sestero shot for the tour, alternating between priceless behind-the-scenes footage of Wiseau on set and interviews with almost the entire cast (I didn’t see the underwear guy, but everyone else was accounted for). They all seem to maintain a good sense of humor about the monstrosity they’re a part of and speak of Wiseau with a mix of affection and dread. It appears that Wiseau was no more transparent in his motivations with his cast than he is with his audiences. Basic questions about character motivations, such as drug dealer Chris-R’s backstory or whether Lisa’s mother Claudette is actually supposed to have breast cancer for the entire film, were shrugged off with a disinterested “You can decide that for yourself”. Possibly as a result of this, nearly every cast and crew position was filled at least twice, due to walk-offs and wanton firings. Also of note: a hilarious ad for Wiseau’s jeans warehouse, with the director reciting Shakespeare in a ridiculous hat.
After the documentary, Sestero took to the stage and read an excerpt from his book, detailing the insanity of going to a restaurant of Tommy Wiseau. Sestero’s relationship with Wiseau seems to be a mix of Sancho Panza and Jane Goodall, alternately indulging his friend’s flights of fancy and studying him with an almost anthropological eye. He clearly knows how crazy Wiseau is, but he also seems to genuinely like the guy; they have, after all, known each other and kept in contact for over fifteen years now. As a result, the best parts of the reading were the passages where Sestero got to exercise his spot-on Wiseau impression. I would watch Sestero perform a Hal Holbrook style one-man show as Tommy Wiseau, though he would probably need some Rick Baker grade makeup effects.
The highlight of the evening came when Sestero revealed his big surprise: several copies of Wiseau’s first draft of THE ROOM’s screenplay, from which he led dramatic readings with the help of audience volunteers. This proved perhaps more enlightening than Sestero’s or any of his cast mates’ testimonials, as it included several deleted or elongated scenes. We learned, for example, that the infamous laundry-humping scene was originally MUCH more graphic. We also got to hear some of Wiseau’s stage directions, written in the same hysterically broken English as his dialog. The final direction in particular is as golden as anything spoken out loud in the film: “The sound of silence can be heard in the distance”.
Finally came the Q&A, which I’m sure is why many of you clicked on this article. Cutting to the chase: Sestero is himself unsure of Tommy Wiseau’s nationality, but he explained that the auteur’s famously inexplicable accent is due in part to a series of unsuccessful programs to train himself out of his native tongue. The money for the film likely came from a handful of clothing stores that Wiseau co-owned in the ’80s, but it’s possible he also owns a building or two; Sestero compared trying to wrap his head around Wiseau’s finances to navigating the Winchester Mystery House. Wiseau’s professed vampirism does not extend to drinking human blood (probably), but he does apparently sleep hanging upside down. He has read THE DISASTER ARTIST and briefly felt betrayed by his friend’s confessions, but suddenly changed his mind when he heard of talks to turn it into a feature film of its own (Sestero says that he dreams of casting Javier Bardem as Wiseau, though Wiseau insists that he’s more of a Johnny Depp type).
This hairpin turn of heart captures much of Wiseau’s charm. Just about every interviewee professes admiration for Wiseau’s tenacity; THE ROOM is a god-awful movie, but he got it made. Sestero confirms that Wiseau was indeed earnest in his intentions for the film, but rather than defending it against its mocking cultists he rolled with it and started calling it a “black comedy”. He’s not quite an Ed Wood, the appeal of whose films is tied to the bizarre nature of his personal life; rather, its his own opacity which invites viewers to try to pin down what the hell he’s all about. They never will, of course, but thankfully Sestero is here to guide them as close to the truth as they’re ever going to get.
It is, to turn a phrase, quite a story, Mark.