Interview: Tommy Wiseau and Greg Sestero of The Room
The two filmmakers discuss 'the Citizen Kane of bad movies' and Sestero's resulting book, The Disaster Artist
The Room has been described as ‘the Citizen Kane of bad movies’ - a romantic thriller in which every element, from the script to lighting to acting to editing, is hilariously inept. With a reported budget of $6 million, funded entirely by The Room’s creator, Tommy Wiseau, it has become a cult phenomenon, selling out special screenings around the world, occasionally attended by Wiseau and his co-star Greg Sestero (whose book, The Disaster Artist, recounts his experience on set). Niki Boyle was already a fan when he bought tickets to the screening – he had no idea he’d get the chance to meet Wiseau and Sestero face to face.
When I meet Tommy Wiseau and Greg Sestero, I am woefully under-prepared. I’d come along to tonight’s screening of The Room – part of the Cameo Cinema’s centenary celebrations – as a paying punter, expecting to witness a bit of Tommy’s madness on-stage but never expecting to get face time with him. When he and Greg have finished their introduction to the screening, though – a comedy double-act in which Tommy plays up his own control freak weirdness and Greg plays a resigned but courteous straight man – I nip out of the auditorium after them, on the off-chance I’ll maybe get to say hi. In a velvet-roped section of the Cameo bar, I find Tommy chatting with a gaggle of hangers-on and cinema staff, while Greg checks his phone. I decide to approach Greg first, and play my trump card straight up.
‘Hi Greg – I’m a film journalist, and I was just wondering if I could get a brief interview with the two of you?’
A combination of hyper over-excitedness and my Scottish accent has made me incomprehensible. I take a breath and repeat my question.
‘Oh yeah. Sure, man. Come have a seat.’
As easy as that.
I manoeuvre myself round the rope and sit in a vacant seat, thanking Greg profusely and fumbling to find the recording app on my phone. Greg calls over to Tommy to explain the situation; he nods and resumes his chat with the cinema staff. We wait awkwardly for a few minutes (in reality, I wait awkwardly for a few minutes – Greg continues to check his phone), until I decide to get things rolling with a question about The Disaster Artist, Greg’s first person account of the making of The Room.
‘So, what’s the reaction to the book been like?’
‘It’s been great; the fans have really been surprised at what the book is about and how the information is delivered and I feel like it’s been really great. People who haven’t also seen the movie have responded really well to it and it’s been really a great experience.’
I nod enthusiastically. It’s a rote answer to a rote question, but at least the ice is broken. I consider asking something more in-depth, but then Tommy sits down.
Despite it being around 10pm (and us being indoors), Tommy’s wearing sunglasses. In The Disaster Artist, Greg says Tommy ‘was sensitive about his left eyelid, which drooped noticeably’ – I figure it’s something to do with that. He’s also wearing two belts, something else mentioned in the book: ‘The first belt was at home in its loops; the second draped down in back to cup Tommy’s backside, which was, he always claimed, the point: “It keeps my ass up. Plus it feels good.”’ Greg, for his part, is wearing the scorpion jacket made famous by Ryan Gosling in Drive.
‘So, Tommy,’ I start, aiming to rope him into the conversation Greg and I had already started about The Disaster Artist. ‘Did you know about Greg writing the book?’
‘Yeah, because he informed me about it.’
‘And how do you feel about how you were portrayed in it?’
‘I support him 50%.’ I recognise this as a snappy soundbite Tommy has already used in the audience Q&A not long before. To be fair, it is a good line. ‘But he’s my best friend so I support him,’ he continues. ‘Based on the book, because you asked me about the book, some of his stuff is not 100% correct.’
‘Well we don’t have time to discuss it right now, in detail, but you know, several parts are actually not 100% correct.’ I can see there’s a bigger discussion to be had here, but Greg’s not taking the bait – if anything, he looks bored and wants to get back on his phone. (He’ll later say on an online Ask Me Anything session that he was jetlagged on this tour, which is fair enough). Seeing that Tommy has firmly cordoned off that area of discussion for now, I move away from The Disaster Artist.
‘Ok, so moving away from The Disaster Artist, I just want to ask you about The Room. How do you feel about how The Room is received now?’ A sensible journo would have ended there, but I proceed to dig myself a hole. ‘You can’t have expected it to be received in this particular way.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Er...’ I try to come up with a tactful way of saying, ‘people mock it relentlessly.’ ‘You know, people playing all these games around it, laughing... along with it... When you set out to make the film, was that your intention?’
‘Absolutely. I said this many times – right now, in America, mainstream media understand what is The Room about, but they don’t understand because some of the stuff – I don’t want to say to you, but as a big picture – some of our reporters don’t understand the entertainment, it seems to me.’ This is in keeping with what Tommy’s said about The Room’s popularity before – that the laughs were an intended result of the process – but I’ve never really bought it. Still, I’m glad I asked, because Tommy goes on. ‘Because, I am happy you are here, and you ask directly question – it’s different when you copy from some interview and say I wrote it – this is ridiculous. That’s what I always say, you know – The Room is The Room, and I always encourage people to see behind the scene – Blu-ray as well the DVD – because you discover what transpired.’
This is an important point for Tommy – that the DVD and Blu-ray editions of The Room each feature unique behind-the-scenes footage that back up his story. Sadly, I have seen neither – I always thought of The Room as an intrisically cinematic experience, something that brings a whole theatre full of strangers together, and hence I’ve never bothered with the home entertainment versions. This does make me feel like a bad journalist though, as Tommy goes on to underline.
‘So I think it’s very unjust to criticise The Room, for example, if you don’t do research. That’s my point. But that’s happened to us, as you probably know. Now it’s a little different, so we enjoy it, but at the same time it’s too bad that people don’t do research so they know what they’re talking about, you know what I’m saying? For example, behind the scene what you see in the Blu-ray, from the DVD – by the way, it’s two different footage, and the CL (the compound languages) on the Blu-ray, that’s the only Blu-ray in the entire world to offer that. And they still, mainstream media, either UK or all over the world, they don’t pick up on this. They think, “Oh, this is exaggeration”. No, it’s not. This is the fact.’
The more Tommy hammers home the DVD/Blu-ray point, the more I’m reminded of the one consistent factor in his background story: he is a salesman. It’s been widely reported that the source of his supposedly vast fortune was at least partially derived from selling imported leather jackets when he came to America. There’s also a chapter towards the end of The Disaster Artist when Greg describes Tommy’s ‘Birdman’ phase: upon arrival in San Francisco in 1978, Tommy commenced building his business empire via the sale of toy birds and yo-yos on the Wharf (his legally-changed surname, Wiseau, is derived from the French ‘oiseau’, or bird). And, just 20 minutes ago, ticket-buying punters were informed that they had to buy some official Room merch if they wanted to get their photo taken with Tommy and Greg. When you look at the opportunity The Room presents from a purely financial perspective, it’s no wonder both Tommy and Greg continue to support it in its infamy.
As I reflect on Tommy’s business acumen, he batters on. ‘And another fact which I want to share with you – you wanna hear? The Room was shot in two cameras. It was not just by accident, I planned it that way.’
‘Oh yeah, I remember that from the book.’ Indeed, it’s one of the first stories Greg brings up in relation to The Room’s over-inflated budget. Rather than rent camera equipment the way any major studio does (as there’s no point in owning tech that’s going to be outdated in a year’s time), Tommy bought it all – twice. He arranged for a rig to accommodate both a 35mm film camera and a digital camera so they could run simultaneously – a very costly manoeuvre that also necessitated the hiring of doubly-qualified (and therefore more expensive) crew members.
‘Yeah, so again you see this is sort of unique that the project from the beginning was unique. Same with Greg – he was line producer. It’s not just happened by accident, because he was qualified to do it. He did great job. Same with all the assistants that I had – some people made fun of, “Oh, he has four assistants” – well you know what? I like to have six assistants! Move on, next question.’
I’d witnessed Tommy’s controlling brusqueness on-stage – there was a lot of ‘next question’s during the Q&A session – so I’m not as thrown off as I might have been, and pursue with this new line of questioning. ‘That’s not the way it’s presented in the book – for example, it says that Greg was line producer because you didn’t have one-’
‘No, that’s not true. That’s correctly false statement. I don’t know, maybe Greg said that. Whatever. But if you ask me, it’s incorrect statement because he has many tasks on this thing, same like me. I have many tasks. I used to build the buildings, steel-frame buildings, that’s a fact, so I did have a line producer, had two line producers which was assisting us, but then I changed. I said Greg need to have a credit as line producer because he did excellent job. And people don’t give him credit because they say, “What does it mean, line producer? Bring coffee, or organise actors...” I think he did great job, but again people misrepresent what The Room’s supposed to be, and I say do the research. Did you see the behind the scenes DVD?’
I have been rumbled. I sheepishly admit I have not seen the DVD.
‘I encourage you to see it. By the way, it’s two different footage.’
No kidding. ‘On the Blu-ray and the DVD, you mean?’
‘Yeah, it’s not the same. So this is the thing – we have a camera on 24/7, I have so many footage that we just put little by little.’
At last, I am back on familiar footing. ‘Oh yeah, Greg mentioned that in the book as well – that there was always someone on set filming behind the scenes.’ I look to Greg for support. He blinks.
‘Yeah, so we have proof what happened,’ Tommy continues. ‘So people are changing mind right now because they see behind the scenes, they say “Wait a minute, that’s not what I thought.”’ The salesman has won. As soon as I get home, I’m buying that DVD and Blu-ray. And a Blu-ray player, come to think of it.
‘That’s why I always encourage people to look at it. People think I’m bluffing or something, but I’m happy whatever right now. People enjoy them. I like interaction. But I found today somebody asked me, they said, “Oh people don’t like it,” but overall people do like it.’
I decide to make another attempt at bringing up contradictions between Tommy and Greg’s perspectives on The Room – and, with a little luck, get Greg involved in the conversation. He looked pretty dispirited when an audience member asked him point blank earlier, ‘Do you think The Room has harmed your chances of having a proper acting career?’ By emphasising the book, I want to show that his input is valued as well.
‘Now, I’m not trying to start a fight here or anything-’
Tommy: ‘No, you can say whatever, come on! No restriction!’
‘Well, Greg, I’m just thinking that Tommy’s contradicting a lot of the stuff you said in the book-’
Greg speaks. ‘Well, it’s just different – everyone has a different take.’ Come on, buddy, work with me here! Tommy butts in before I can push Greg further.
‘Which part you mean, contradict? Give me examples. Core, solid examples that you have in your mind. Anything.’
And I draw a blank. I mean, The Disaster Artist is filled with this stuff. It’s a book built on stories that contradict Tommy’s assertion that the current appreciation of The Room – ‘the Citizen Kane of bad movies’ (Entertainment Weekly) – is anything other than a love of self-aggrandising nonsense. But, put on the spot by one of my film heroes – one of my film heroes, mind you, I did not expect to talk to this evening, and so didn't prepare anything – I have nothing. I am a bad journalist.
‘It’s difficult to think of something specific because, very honestly, I’m a bit nervous about meeting you guys-’
Tommy laughs with delight, both at the implied compliment and the fact he has won. ‘Hahaha! No problem!’
I try again from a different angle. ‘Would you say that Greg perhaps didn’t know your full intent of what you wanted The Room to be?’ It’s kind of weird talking about Greg like he’s not here, but he barely is.
‘Well I tell you one thing. Again, I’ve been working on The Room – he has opportunity to actually read the script. He may actually think he doesn’t like it, or whatever, it’s in the book I guess. But, you know, that’s his opinion, whatever opinion he has.’
Greg, striking a perfect balance between conciliatory, defensive and why-am-I-still-awake?, pipes up. ‘Well I think you wanted it to be a great, epic film.’
‘Well see, that’s the thing,’ resumes Tommy. ‘Sometimes you form certain opinions – generally speaking, I mean – based on the environment, so you have maybe some forces from outside say, “Hey, you say this, or that, whatever”, and I’m a person, I like when people say what they feel. And I would say, you may not like the movie, my movie, The Room, but by the same token, there may be something there you may not admit that you like it this time, but maybe someday you say, “Oh, actually, maybe it’s funny.” Hahahaha!’ (Tommy has a really peculiar laugh, where he seems to say the word ‘ha’ rather than actually laughing.) ‘So you need extra time, you know? There’s nothing wrong with that. And the other thing, that there’s nothing wrong if people say, “I don’t like your movie” – that’s fine with me, you know? But again, it’s something then, maybe you will like it. Because you see, a lot layers, people don’t realise – let me give you example. Two’s better than three, right? So words behind the words: what do you think, if you don’t mind my ask you? What is your mind?’
Wait, what? ‘As in, what does “two’s better than three” mean?’
I have been caught off-guard. I can’t see where the question has come from in relation to what we’ve already been talking about, so I try to interpret where it could be going. Based on what I’ve read, Tommy is the definition of an auteur – during filming, everything had to be done precisely according to his singular vision. (Greg uses this fact throughout The Disaster Artist to make excuses for a lot of the cast and crew – good, hard-working professionals who were trying to do their best with shoddy material, but being confounded by Tommy’s iron will at every turn). With this in mind, I interpret Tommy’s question as being in praise of artistic vision and purpose.
‘Well, I guess that means it’s more focused?’
‘Yeah, that’s good one, that’s great.’
I continue, buoyed by his encouragement. ‘And it also means that the vision of two people is more... there’s more compromise between three people.’
‘Absolutely. And also you have much more power as two people than as three, because then you have this divided, uh, different opinion. And there’s people dragging – you know what I’m saying?’
I have no idea. ‘Yeah, kinda-’
‘And so people sometimes ask me, and I say, “Yeah, you ask yourself based on your experience, forget me now.” And then go into real life and see how you deal with three friends, you know? If it’s ok, sometimes it does, sometimes it’s grey area, you know?’
I have no idea what Tommy’s talking about. I try to direct us back to dry land, focusing on the ‘singular vision’ theory. ‘So by that rationale, is one person better than two?’
‘Yes, you may say that also. But then, if you have only one person better than two for example, so you have another different negative force, which for example friendship. Unless you have visualised somebody. So this is a very subjective thing, I would say.’ I don’t even have time to comprehend what this might mean before Tommy’s moving me on – less aggressive this time; more apologetic. ‘A final question this? I’m sorry...’
‘No, that’s fine, and thanks for giving me as much time as you have!’ I am genuinely appreciative – this has already been much more than I expected, and Tommy has proved an engaging (if not always coherent) interviewee. I make one last ditch attempt to get something from Greg, by bringing up the reasonably fresh news that James Franco has acquired the rights to adapt The Disaster Artist for film. ‘How involved do both of you expect or hope to be in the film adaptation of The Disaster Artist?’
‘Well obviously, this is a personal story.’ Yes! Greg is talking! ‘We’d get consulted, talk about different details, but ultimately it’s the filmmaker’s decision, which direction they wanna go in. You know, you gotta trust them to do the right thing.’
Tommy concurs. ‘It’s up to producers, in this case, James Franco – actually I did talk to him. He is very nice, in the sense that he’s good actor. And we as the actor, I always say to people – generally speaking now – not to single out the person, we always I say reshape your acting, everybody. Apparently Greg is happy with his book.’ (That ‘apparently’ makes me smile.) ‘Involvement is up to them. So we’ll see how he wants to do it. That’s his decision making. You may ask him!’
‘I’ll try,’ I say, envisioning the likelihood of catching James Franco hanging out at the Cameo anytime soon. Tommy laughs in that peculiar way he has.
‘Hahahaha. But I have a limitation, you know. It’s up to producers.... my understanding is he wanna involve Greg and somewhat, I don’t know I’ll be involved, which degree, so I cannot answer 100%.’
And that’s all we have time for. I thank both of them for their time, and compliment Greg on the book. It’s not only a really fascinating look at artistic passion and vision (however misguided), but also a well-written and interesting story of a young, naïve actor trying to get his break in showbiz. Again, Greg’s response is muted, and for the first time I wonder if perhaps his co-author, journalist Tom Bissell, maybe did the bulk of the work, and if maybe Greg sees high praise for the book as belonging to Bissell and not him. It wouldn’t be a far cry from his experience in The Room, whose cult popularity has been more fully embraced by Tommy than him. Then again, it’s probably just the jetlag.
For a few minutes after we’ve finished, Tommy asks me about myself – how long I’ve been a journalist, what I enjoy about it. I mention a brief gripe about comparatively low wages (loath as I am to admit it, I probably reinforce the stereotype of Scots being money-minded misers), and Tommy advises me to check online for news agencies that pay a certain amount of money per word. I feel genuinely touched that he’s taking an interest, and I’m smiling as I wander back into the auditorium to watch the remainder of The Room.
As I take my seat, a barrage of plastic spoons whacks me in the head.
The Room is out now on DVD and, yes, Blu-ray. The Disaster Artist is published by Simon & Schuster.