On January 29, 2016, production wrapped up on the The Disaster Artist, an upcoming film based on the events that occurred during the conception and production of Tommy Wiseau's cult 2003 film, The Room, one of the best/worst movies ever made. The Disaster Artist stars James and Dave Franco. While I’m not holding out much hope for the film, the book that it’s based on is absolutely brilliant, and the audiobook, even better.
I read some wonderful books in 2015. I was given a copy of Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant, which I plowed through in a trance. I discovered Anaïs Nin’s Delta of Venus, a truthful and uninhibited exploration of sexuality. I finally got around to reading the Collected Poems (1967-1992) of Allen Ginsberg and had my breath taken away by Howl, and wondered where he had been all my life.
However, one particularly engaging and resonant piece of literature I unearthed was the audiobook of The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside The Room, the Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made, written and performed by The Room’s co-star Greg Sestero and journalist Tom Bissell.
The Disaster Artist - audiobook (2014)
The Disaster Artist spans the period between Greg Sestero’s early years in San Francisco as an aspiring model and actor in late-90’s, to The Room’s 'red carpet' premiere in 2003, during which he’d struck up an unlikely friendship with the mysterious Tommy Wiseau after meeting him in acting school.
Wiseau is an oddity. He wears purposefully youthful attire and appears to be middle-aged, with long, dyed black hair and a craggy face. He has a mangled, untraceable accent, possibly French, possibly Eastern European; nobody knows for sure. He’s a multi-millionaire, but is evasive about how he accumulated his vast wealth. He has a burning patriotism for America, and a reluctance to acknowledge the traumas of his past. He wants nothing more than to be an actor, although unbeknown to him, he’s really bad at it.
In the early chapters of the memoir when Greg expresses his yearning to move to Hollywood, Tommy invites him to stay in his own apartment there. Greg jumps at the offer, and as his career takes off, and he meets new people, Tommy becomes resentful and jealous, and plots to emulate Greg's apparent success. In one instance, Tommy acquires SAG (Screen Actors Guild) membership by producing a commercial for his own shady apparel company, and attempts to copy a scene from the 1999 direct-to-video horror film Retro Puppet Master, which starred a young, frilly-shirt-wearing Greg.
Later, when the pair attend a screening of the suspense thriller The Talented Mr. Ripley, Greg is shocked by how similar Tommy is to the titular character Tom Ripley. Tommy is moved by Ripley's 'plight', and completely ignores the character's sociopathic tendencies. He is immediately inspired to write his own human tragedy, and so he disappears for months on end and spirals into various states of despair, often leaving cryptic and borderline suicidal messages on Greg's answering machine.
When he emerges from his dark place, he has a screenplay for The Room ready to go, and he pours $6 million of his own money into producing the film. The production is wrought with calamity and often hampered by Tommy's insufferable childishness, a series of unnecessary confrontations with the actors and crew, and his failure to follow the simplest acting direction. The result is a wonderful mess, and the rest is history.
What is The Room?
From what I gathered from my first viewing of the film five years ago, where I uttered the words, 'what the fuck?' so many times that it lost all meaning, The Room seems to be a romantic drama about the relationship between Johnny (Tommy Wiseau), an All-American guy (who just happens to look like a spaced-out, vampiric Sylvester Stallone, with a voice like a heavily tranquillised Arnold Schwarzenegger) and his fiancé Lisa (Juliette Danielle), a 'byooodiful', yet devious temptress. He has a handsome friend named Mark (Greg Sestero), who Lisa seduces and begins an affair with … and some other people also pop up … and they do things, I think. Like throwing footballs around in suits, begging for threesomes, and having a spot of tea with their cancer.
In the garbled words of Wiseau, The Room’s Lead Actor, Director, Writer, and Producer:
'The Room is a relationships [sic]. The Room is you and me, and everyone in America, that’s basically what The Room is. I would say you can laugh, you can cry, you can express yourself, but please don’t hurt each other.'
Crystal clear, right?
An alien vampire’s pursuit of the 'American Dream'
There are a number of stories that elegantly capture the naïve, and often hubristic, pursuit of the American Dream', a set of ideals characterised by financial prosperity and upward social mobility in the United States. One of the most widely read examples of this is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s, The Great Gatsby, the eponymous character of which, is the embodiment of what the Dream can bestow: material wealth and glamor - albeit empty and futile, as revealed at the story’s conclusion.
Other books, such as Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club explores the Dream from the immigrant’s perspective, covering two generations of four Chinese-American mothers and their daughters, and their trials and tribulations as perpetual outsiders in the so-called land of opportunity. Alan Moore's and Dave Gibbons’s The Watchmen, captures the disintegration of the Dream and malaise of an alternate America pining for a 'simpler' time. The manifestation of this toxic adherence to political and social conformity is a band of damaged 'heroes', all coming to terms with their past grievances in various self-destructive ways.
Among these stories, we can also count The Room. This seems like a stretch, but believe it or not, 'the Citizen Kane of bad movies' (as described by critic Ross Morin), even with its hilariously bad dialogue, glaring continuity errors, inexplicable plot, and a host of creepy and redundant characters, embodies the themes of all three of the previously mentioned classics.
As revealed in Sestero and Bissell’s The Disaster Artist, The Room, as it transpires, is the memoir of an immigrant trying to cope with the emotional and physical wreckage of a troubled past, while craving to be embraced by his adopted country. His relentless pursuit of the American Dream is peppered with financial hardship, failed attempts at romance, and other tragedies.The Room’s protagonist, Johnny, has a secure 9-5 job, an attractive girlfriend, a nice house, and is constantly surrounded by his best pals. As expressed subconsciously via the film and through anecdotes in Sestero’s book, these are things that Tommy Wiseau either lacked in his younger years, or had once, but let slip due to personal catastrophe. We never fully ascertain the truth, but one thing is for sure; the American Dream is all Tommy ever wanted.
Why The Disaster Artist is great
The Disaster Artist intercuts between the trials and tribulations of Greg and Tommy’s friendship leading up to the conception of the The Room, and the troubled production of the film itself.
What brings the story to life is Sestero’s absolutely spot-on impersonation of Wiseau, which transforms what could have been a run-of-the-mill account, into an immersive radio play. We inhabit the role of Greg Sestero, sitting face-to-face with Tommy, desperately trying to comprehend words and actions unlike that of any human being’s. Sestero’s retelling is absorbing and benefits further from co-author Tom Bissell’s journalistic approach to structurally analysing a deeply flawed, yet loveable character. At first, Tommy puzzles you, and then you dislike him. You then begin to pity him. And at the end, you love him. It’s a proper emotional rollercoaster.
Here is an excerpt from the audiobook:
In the final chapter, Sestero summarises Wiseau as:
'…a man who remains the grandest and most sincere dreamer I’ve ever known. This is ultimately, what redeems his immensely conflicted and complicated darkness. In the end Tommy made me realise that you decide who you become. He also made me realise what a mixed blessing that can be.'
Production for The Disaster Artist’s film adaptation finished on 29 January, 2016. It is directed by James Franco (who plays Tommy Wiseau).
Early signs for the film aren’t good. While James Franco is a decent actor when given the right role (see his performance in the James Dean biopic), his younger brother Dave has been cast as Greg Sestero, despite being much shorter than him. This nepotistic piece of casting wouldn’t be much of an issue in most movies, but in this instance, it undermines the pervasive feelings of physical inadequacy Wiseau felt towards the 6-foot-plus, sandy-haired, blue-eyed, 'all-American' Sestero; the embodiment of everything Tommy ever wished himself to be.
It’s just weird. The whole thing smacks of a dress-up party, or at the very least an ironic joke, rather than the pathos-driven comedic drama it should be.
At the core of Tommy Wiseau is a desperate middle-aged man, who craves to be accepted and loved by the world, but ends up alienating those who are caught in his orbit. It seems that middle-aged male delusion is the central pillar of every great comedy of the last few decades, such as The Office (UK), Fawlty Towers, The Larry Sanders Show, Extras and Curb Your Enthusiasm.
One can only hope that Franco will capture enough of what made The Room special (I doubt it, but I will gladly eat my words if I am wrong). If not, you can always buy The Disaster Artist's audiobook, close your eyes, and dive into the unfathomable mind of the utterly unique Tommy Wiseau.
You can download The Disaster Artist at Tantor Media’s website:
Greg Sestero in Retro Puppet Master (1999)
Tommy Wiseau dressed like a muppet.
An even bigger farce.
Tommy Wiseau and Greg Sestero in The Room (2003).