BookDrunk: The Disaster Artist
It’s not uncommon for someone to try to capitalize on the success of a cult film with an accompanying book, but The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside The Room, The Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made, is so much more than that.
For starters, it was written by Greg Sestero (with co-writer Tom Bissell), who not only acted in the film (he’s the Mark of “Oh, hi, Mark” fame), but, serving double duty as “line producer,” also signed all of the checks. Meaning that perhaps no one else was in a better position to know how much Tommy Wiseau, The Room’s infamously eccentric, self-described vampire auteur, spent on it. It was reportedly upwards of $6 million, for a film which nonetheless looks like some college kids could’ve knocked it out in a weekend. And probably gotten a C. Among other baffling, needlessly wasteful decisions, Wiseau attempted to shoot all of it on HD and 35 mm film simultaneously, as well as bought, rather than rented, all of the equipment.
As one of Tommy Wiseau’s closest friends and his former roommate, Sestero was also in a unique position to tackle some of the most enduring Wiseau mysteries. Where is Tommy Wiseau actually from? How old is Tommy Wiseau? Where did Tommy Wiseau’s seemingly endless fortune come from? Not to mention an endless source of Tommy Wiseau anecdotes, from his 4 am pull-up sessions to his strange demands (a cup of hot water, every time he goes to a restaurant, which he never drinks), and bizarre fashion sense (baggy blazer, cargo pants with pockets full, two belts).
What makes The Disaster Artist so compelling (and I’m not the only one who thinks so, James Franco is attached to direct a film adaptation) is that it sets aside the usual, dull question of “what makes this bad movie such a cult favorite” to tell the far more interesting story of Sestero’s strange friendship with this strange man. (It’s in the vein of My Best Fiend, for the film fans). Befriending Tommy allowed Greg to move to LA to pursue his dream of acting, but also became his albatross, spending years studying acting from the best teachers only to become best known for movie widely regarded as terrible.
Or at least, it could have. These days, I’m starting to wonder if Greg Sestero’s secret is that he’s actually pretty good actor. Hearing him read The Disaster Artist audiobook, in which he does all of the accents, including a dead-on Tommy Wiseau, gives you a whole new perspective on the guy who once growled “Leave your stupid comments in your pocket.” A perspective fleshed out further in Dude Bro Party Massacre III, in which Sestero plays a major role and turns in arguably the most believable performance.
Recently I sat down with Greg and Dude Bro’s co-director, Michael Rousselet, of the 5-Second Films mafia, who, as one of The Room’s very first viewers, is often credited with helping to start The Room cult, as well as some of its first audience participation traditions. It also happened, through sheer coincidence, that the first screening of Dude Bro Party Massacre III coincided with the 12th anniversary of The Room’s first screening.
FILMDRUNK: So The Disaster Artist is one of the my favorite audiobooks of all time, just because not a lot of books necessarily gain that much in audiobook form compared to reading it. But the fact that you do all the accents, I doubt I’d be able to hear it in Tommy’s voice so easily if you hadn’t read it.
GREG SESTERO: That was actually one of my favorite things. I stuck to my guns to do the audiobook, because they didn’t want me. They wanted some professional narrator. And I said no because getting to play Tommy is the role of a lifetime. Having experienced all that first hand, I felt like I had to do it to bring that character to life.
Yeah, and not only Tommy. Tommy’s one thing, because he’s got such a distinctive accent, but then even some of the minor characters like Sandy [Schklair, The Room’s script supervisor, who has also claimed to have secretly directed it], that’s a really subtle impression that you do, where I really got a mental picture of what he looks and sounds like.
GREG: When I was doing the book with my co-author, we watched the behind-the-scenes footage and came up with each character’s voice. And Sandy was so specific. He’s kind of this Hollywood guy. He wore these Magnum PI shirts, and so it’s just trying to capture that character and– I think the name was “Magnum Pastrami” that we came up with for Sandy [laughter].
Rouss, can you tell me how you discovered The Room?
MICHAEL ROUSSELET: Oh, man. It was in 2003, I saw a trailer for it at the Sunset Laemmle, and it was the most abrasive, ridiculous trailer I’ve ever seen, but it seemed like it was a drama, like it was trying very hard to be very serious. But for some reason, it just made me laugh, and I was the only one laughing in the theater. And then immediately–
Were there other people in the theater?
MIKE: There were other people in the theater, but I was the only one laughing– I just felt smacked in the face with the trailer. “A film with the passion of Tennessee Williams. Electrifying drama.” So then it came, and it went, and it left my life, and I immediately kind of forgot about it. And then about two weeks later, I saw a billboard with a marquee saying The Room playing at this theater. And I was like, “Oh my God, it’s that movie.” So I grabbed two of my friends that were with me, and I basically held them hostage, because I was driving. I’m like, “We are watching this movie right now.”
We went up to the the box office, and it had a sign that said, “No tickets for The Room will be refunded after the first 15 minutes.” And then we were like, “Three for The Room.” And they go, “Well, this movie’s really bad, guys. Everyone walks out.” And they pointed to an IMDB review, and the review that they had stuck on the window said, “This film is like getting stabbed in the head.” And I was like, “Now, we’ve got to see it.”
So we’re all alone in the theater, and we just started calling friends immediately afterwards saying, “We’re staying for the next screening. You have to see this movie before it disappears.”
And for either of you, what was the point at which it felt like it was officially some sort of phenomenon?
GREG: I would say for me, when I got a call from Clark Collis at Entertainment Weekly, that he wanted to do an article on the film, that kind of blew my mind. And I figured when the article eventually would come out, it would be like two sentences. It ended up being a six-page article in Entertainment Weekly, and at that point I could not believe it [chuckles].
MIKE: Immediately after that article, all five theaters in that Sunset Laemmle were sold out.
GREG: Yeah, it was over 1,000 people, and then it started showing in New York, London. It just really took off from there.
Have you traveled with it to screenings in other places at all?
GREG: Yeah, I’ve been just about everywhere with this damn movie [chuckles]. I’ve been to Ireland. I’ve been to Australia. It’s now screening in Spain, Portugal. It’s going to start screening in China, I think Tommy told me. I can’t wait for the censors to get hold of that.
And does it seem to translate well outside of The US?
GREG: Yeah, it does really well in The UK. With their sense of humor, they really love it. There was an event in Paris actually, and they really got it. So I think it’s just one of those things that’s so absurd, that it translates. I think also when Tommy appears on screen, you just wonder, “What the hell is this thing?” I think that’s universal.
And I think that’s the draw of The Disaster Artist, because I see all these things about cult movies, where they ask people, “What is it that makes this a cult phenomenon?” And I think every single movie that’s a cult phenomenon, there’s a mysterious, weird auteur that goes along with it, and you want to know, “What is up with that dude?”, basically.
MIKE: Yeah, like, “What message is he trying to send? Clearly, he funded it. He wrote it. He starred in it. There’s something that’s trying to be told here.” And it’s so out of touch, you’re still trying to figure out what the point was.
GREG: It’s his point of view. This is Tommy’s world, and this is–
And, “Where does this guy come from? What is his deal?”
MIKE: Yeah, this is what he feels relationships are, and this is how people talk, and you’re like, “What?” The whole mystery and charm of The Room to me is, “Who is Tommy, and what is his deal?” And I think the fact that he’s a mystery makes it even more interesting.
GREG: I have the original script from when we [Greg and Tommy] were roommates, and it’s a masterpiece. I let Michael read it, and he said, “Every character talks exactly like Tommy. It reads like him. They all say the same things. They’re all best friends. It’s fascinating.
MIKE: And I love how everyone loves Johnny [Tommy Wiseau’s character in the movie], and he’s the nicest guy in the world, like he can do no wrong.
I have a million questions about you guys being roommates, but before that maybe if you guys could tell me what your favorite Room scene is?
MIKE: Oh, man. It’s probably the flower shop scene. I know it’s cliché to say now, but when I first saw that, I was like, “What is the scene, this moment?” And then the, “Hi, doggy,” which just took off.
GREG: I think the football scene in the alley, where I pushed Mike into the trash can.
MIKE: Why!? Why does he do that!?
GREG: It was in the script [chuckles]. It’s all about trying to capture that moment, where he falls down and– I don’t know. Just the opening of that scene, you watch Johnny, and it’s a little alley. It’s enclosed. And at the beginning of it, Johnny’s just walking straight towards the brick wall. And if he wasn’t stopped by Mike, he would’ve walked straight into the brick wall. And so just the dialogue about, “Oh underwear, I got the picture.” It’s so–
“Me underwears,” is the weirdest line-read in the whole movie, which is saying something.
MIKE: I was thinking that Mark thought that maybe he left some evidence that he had an affair with Lisa, and Mike was catching on, and then he had to shut him up, and that’s why you knocked him out. That’s what I thought. What’s that about? And then you quickly hit him to stop the conversation.
GREG: It’s so interesting to have people actually watch The Room as a movie, because I just saw these collection of scenes that exist in Tommy’s world, and I was just there to survive it. But to think of that, to try to get behind what the plot was really trying to do, yeah that’s actually a clever point.
I really enjoy that you guys filmed in this parking lot to try and recreate the idea of a rooftop, and then you finish almost the entire film, and youend up going to San Francisco, where he owns a building with an actual–
GREG: The perfect rooftop in San Francisco! With a view of Alcatraz, which would’ve been perfect, but we saved those for the establishing shots.
You basically shot the green screen shots from the location that would’ve eliminated the need for a green screen in the first place.
So what do you think is the most wasteful thing that Tommy did during the shooting of The Room?
GREG: Good question. It’s tough to say, because had he done it the ‘right way’, it wouldn’t be The Room. So I don’t really think anything was wasted [chuckles], because it all paid off in such a big way. But I think the equipment, probably, purchasing all the Apple boxes and all the equipment is something I’ve never heard of doing.
MIKE: Because he didn’t rent anything. He just bought it all.
GREG: No, he believed in owning everything. I’ve never heard of anybody doing that before. And then obviously, the shooting in the parking lot with the green screen and then having to CGI in that all after. But again, his reasoning behind that was he thought it would add a special effect dimension, trying to be cutting-edge. But I feel like that aspect of that rooftop, which makes it look like they were flying through space, is a huge component with the movie.
And it’s like, if you know San Francisco… There’s landmarks that are run-together, and it’s just… off, and you can’t figure out why.
GREG: Yeah, it doesn’t look like San Francisco. One angle, you see Coit Tower. And then the next angle, you feel like you’re in Lebanon or something [chuckles].
And it all looks smoggy like the city’s on fire. It’s just bad.
So, I’m trying to think of my favorite scene from the book about when you and Tommy were living together. So, you would just go to sleep, and Tommy would open the door to your room and start doing pull-ups in your doorway?
GREG: Yeah, because that was the peak-time of his day [laughter], so he would workout during that time. He would do voice work, and that’s the time I’d be going to bed. So I’d wake up four in the morning and I’d see him pacing back and forth. And through the light and the darkness, he kind of looked like a caveman. And I was like, “Man, what am I doing with my life [chuckles]?” And I’d see him hanging upside down, and then I’d hear him talking to whomever, practicing voice work and saying the same line over and over. And then I heard him writing a script. And then nothing. [I really should’ve asked who Tommy was talking to on the phone at 4 am, saying the same phrase over and over here. That’s another mystery.]
So he’s got the pull-ups. He’s got trying to lose his accent by saying the same phrase like 87 times…
GREG: He’s got the tea going on whistling for like 20 minutes before it’s turned off [chuckles]. It was the dream life for a 20-year-old actor.
And then he orders the cup of hot water every time he goes to a restaurant. what are some of Tommy’s weirdest personal idiosyncrasies?
GREG There’s definitely the hot water. One of the mantras I really liked when we were roommates – he had it up on the fridge – it was like, “I, me, you. Body, voice, mind. We all have that!”
MIKE: Did he write that?
GREG: He wrote that, and I thought, “That’s kind of brilliant.” Yeah, he had the Hollywood Reporters that were stacked up, which I used as pillows the first night I was in there.
GREG: Coming home, you never knew what was going to be going on. The black curtains — he was so intent on having his own corner in that apartment, that he put up black curtains.
How big was that area, where he put up the black curtains? Was it just an area of the living room, or–?
GREG: Yeah, basically most of the living room was draped off with the curtains.
And that’s where he did all the writing?
GREG: Yeah, you’d walk in, and the black curtains would start about halfway into the living room. And then that big TV – that was actually used that he throws out the window in The Room – that was our TV, and–
MIKE: What? He destroyed his own TV?
GREG: Yeah [chuckles], and then you walked in and there’s this little kitchen and then my bedroom. When my brother walked in, he’s like, “This looks like a theater.” So, it was probably the weirdest apartment in Hollywood.
That’s saying something. So you guys met at an acting class in San Francisco?
GREG: Yeah on Sutter Street, right off Union Square.
And do you ever think back to the day where you’re like, “What possessed me to be this guy’s scene partner?”
Yeah. You know what? Just going to class and watching him perform, it was kind of like what you guys see when you watch The Room. You just want more. And so I’d noticed that when I watched him perform in class before that night. And then I had come close to getting a role in a movie. And living in San Francisco, the opportunities are not as frequent as here, and so I got really– I went to four callbacks for this role, and that morning I found out that I didn’t get that part. And it was at a point where I was kind of like, “Do I just give up? Where do I go from here?” Anyway, I went to class, and he was up there. He’s arguing with the teacher, and I was in a destructive place [laughter]. So I figured, “Just go up to him, and–” nobody else wanted anything to do with him, so I was like, “Why not it just do scenes with this guy and see where it goes?”
And from that point on, everything changed. Because I was thinking, “Get a role. That’ll get me an agent, and then I can move to LA.” But really, ending up meeting Tommy was the best ticket to actually come to LA. Because within a week or two, he’s like, “Oh, vacant apartment.” It was kind of the key that opened everything.
MIKE: But he forgot to give you the key, and he gave you the wrong key.
GREG: Oh man, that was a great moment. 2:00 in the morning, getting the apartment, it was a great start. The key doesn’t work.
That moment almost feels like it’s been foreshadowed, because before that in the book you talked about Tommy’s enormous key chain. And then he’s like, “Oh yeah, you can move into my vacant apartment.” And then it’s like, “Well of course he would give you the wrong key.”
GREG: Yeah, because everyone told me I was making the worst decision. And then getting there and having that happen and having to try to find a hotel at 2:30 in the morning on a Friday night in LA, I thought, “Man, everyone was right.”
Well, they were right and wrong.
The other thing I wanted to ask was, throughout the book, Tommy is very private. He tells you not to talk about him, not to talk about his Mercedes, not to talk about where he lives. He gets upset even about a throwaway aside about the street that his building is on. What’s it been like writing an entire book basically about him? Is he–
GREG: Well since that point, he’s become a little bit more open with The Room emerging as a cult success. And the more interviews he’s done, he’s become a little bit more open. But for me, it was really– I’d interviewed him when I told him I was going to do the book, and we talked about the stores and stuff. So really it was about just sharing the experience of what it was like to be around him during that time and really keep the mystery. Most of the stuff he would stand by in the book.
Except for that The Room‘s referred to as the “greatest bad movie.” He would just say it’s the greatest movie. That’s the stuff he doesn’t really care for.
Don’t you think somebody could make a legit good biopic about Tommy? He’s had an insane life.
GREG: I don’t know if you could. A lot of the mysteries of Tommy’s, I think even if you found out where he was from, or how old he is, and all these things, it would just keep opening more doors of mysterious things. I don’t know if we could ever really know everything we want to know about Tommy Wiseau and be satisfied.
MIKE: Yeah, and I feel like it’s kind of good not to, because then you can always own your own theory of what he’s about.
But you do go a long way in the book. There’s the whole interlude with Pierre [basically a sequence about Tommy’s childhood, living in the Eastern Bloc and emigrating to France, before he was Tommy]. Did that just come out of interviews with Tommy?
And you’re trying to piece together a background?
GREG: Yeah, because I have family in Europe. My mom’s French, and French was my first language, so I’ve been to Europe many times. So I think that kind of an openness we both shared. So he’d tell me stories about living there, and my mom was obviously an immigrant. So he came and lived in New Orleans, kind of a similar story. And then just trying to piece together what’s there and fill in the holes. I didn’t find out about that incident in the police station in Strasbourg until 2010, so that was years into knowing him.
And then so, the best guess about the origins of his fortune are that he just somehow had some connection to trinkets, or…? [the trinkets that he sold in his tourist shop in San Francisco – see our podcast with a guy who worked there for more on that]
GREG: Yeah, he is an extremely hard-worker. That’s what he’s about. I think he must have found connections and made things happen. And what he did with The Room, he probably took that same philosophy towards retail and opened stores, and people showed up–
MIKE: Counterfeit jeans. [chuckles]. Made a counterfeit movie.
GREG: Yeah, and I think he parlayed that into real estate. Again, it’s just one of those things you don’t really know exactly how it all worked out, but I think he just finds a way.
MIKE: My theory is he’s the black sheep little brother of some big Eastern European mafia, and they just gave him a bunch of money, so he just goes away [chuckles]. That’s what my theory is. And of course, I’ve heard so many other theories.
There were a lot of strange fortunes that came out of the fall of the Eastern Bloc, that’s for sure.
MIKE: Maybe he just actually won the lottery. It’s the American dream. Tommy wanted to be a movie star, and he came over here, and he is a movie star.
GREG: One of the theories – and this didn’t make it into the book – but that I found out that he had won the jackpot in Monaco on his 18th birthday or something, and I thought that was really interesting.
Did that come from someone who knew Tommy or from Tommy?
GREG: That was apparently a rumor that had been floated around his hometown. I thought that was interesting. It didn’t make it into the book, but that story– I don’t know. He’s lucky, but he also works hard, so things happen.
He has a very Jake Gyllenhaal in Nightcrawler quality to his personality, where he obviously doesn’t have normal boundaries, which definitely helps you when you’re trying to get something from people and being persistent in a way. And also a weird outsider vibe like, “I don’t know how to do this, so I’ll look it up, and then I’ll just do it, because I have no shame.”
GREG: Yeah, he doesn’t really think about it. He just goes for it. He’s got that confidence. And just being around him for so long, it’s amazing how many things happen, when you just go for something.
MIKE: Yeah, he made a movie. How many people can say that? A lot of people talk big, but Tommy did it. He made a f*cking movie.
[There’s more of this interview to come. Check back soon for part two…]
[Part Two of this interview is here. The full audio version is here.]
Vince Mancini is a writer and comedian living in San Francisco. A graduate of Columbia’s non-fiction MFA program, his work has appeared on FilmDrunk, the UPROXX network, the Portland Mercury, the East Bay Express, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.