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Who is Tommy Wiseau, James Franco’s Inspiration for The Disaster Artist?

California, summer 2003 – At the corner of Fallbrook Avenue and Vanowen Street, a small theatre advertises what appears to be unusual signs to its regular customers. One of them, with a pretty aggressive effect, reads “NO REFUNDS”. Another offers a surprising viewer’s opinion about one of the movies currently showing at the venue, “This film is like being stabbed in the head.”

“This film” is The Room, a movie publicized as a corky, black comedy, directed by, produced and starring a certain Tommy Wiseau. Most of its plot focuses on Johnny (Wiseau), a San Francisco banker who discovers that his soon-to-be wife is having an affair with his best friend. And at the time, almost everyone who has seen it seems to hate everything about it – for good reason…

The Room is filled with unrelated subplots, inconsistencies, clichés, incomprehensible and repetitive dialogues, as well as lengthy, terribly acted monologues. When it premieres on June 27, 2003, viewers laugh throughout the entire screening (those remaining who didn’t ask for their money back and left before even 30 minutes had passed, that is). Yet, Wiseau’s dreadful semi-autobiographical piece of work, only released in a limited number of theatres and which will later be described as “one of the worst movies of all time” by many critics, is about to become a cult film with a strong, global, long-lasting fan base, and the inspiration for a best-selling book and an Oscar-worthy movie directed by James Franco, both influenced by a curious fascination for its mysterious and eccentric creator.

But who is this Wiseau, and what makes him and his awful movie so interesting?

“It is like a movie made by an alien who has never seen a movie, but has had movies thoroughly explained to him. There’s not often that a work of film has every creative decision that’s made in it on a moment-by-moment basis seemingly be the wrong one. […] The Room, to me, shatters the distinction between good and bad. Do I think it’s a good movie? No. Do I think it’s a strong movie that moves me on the level that art usually moves me? Absolutely not. But I can’t say it’s bad because it’s so watchable. It’s so fun. It’s brought me so much joy. How can something that’s bad do those things for me?” – Tom Bissell, Co-Writer of The Disaster Artist

One day, when he was just an aspiring artist, Wiseau was involved in a near-fatal car accident, following what he spent weeks at the hospital where he had an epiphany. He was going to stop living a safe, boring and financially secure life and finally go after his lifelong dream of becoming an actor! That’s at least what Greg Sestero, his long-time friend and co-author of The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside The Room, the Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made, the main source of inspiration for James Franco’s latest movie, claims in his book.

Because that’s the thing about Wiseau, not even his closest friends can address his past with certainty. It’s, in fact, an aspect of his life the self-made director/actor continuously played with, feeding many’s imagination with contradicting theories for many years.

Tommy Wiseau

In his famous 2013 novel, co-written with journalist Tom Bissell, Sestero is the only person who manages to offer a coherent theory as to Wiseau’s identity and what led him to direct The Room via the account of their singular relationship.

Detailing the troubled development and production of The Room, in which he acted as Mark (Johnny’s disloyal best friend), Sestero goes back to the very beginning, when he first met Wiseau during an acting class. What mostly struck and captivated the young actor was Tommy’s total lack of fear. Although he had the weirdest accent and was an over-the-top performer, the man felt totally free.

But as he got to know Wiseau, Sestero began to notice that he perpetually seemed to play a character, especially as he always refused to talk about his past. One day, Greg took Tommy to the theatre to see The Talented Mr. Ripley because of what he felt was an extreme resemblance in attitude between Wiseau and the lead role. Although the experience didn’t have the expected effect, it did shake Wiseau in a major way. He loved the film so much, he was going to write his own story inspired by it!

In 2001, The Room was born in the shape of a stage play. It was about a man named Johnny, whose fiancée Lisa would betray him by sleeping with his best friend Mark (named after Matt Damon, but Wiseau misunderstood his name…). Its title was supposed to allude to a room’s potential for being a site of good and bad events, with Wiseau describing the play as “an advisory warning about the perils of having friends.”

In love with his creation, Wiseau is said to have later converted it into a 500-pages novel. However, frustrated by the fact that no editor wanted to publish it, he then decided to self-produce a movie adaptation, instead.

TPW Films

Today deemed “the Citizen Kane of bad movies,” The Room was an accidental masterpiece engendered by a long series of terrible decisions. As a consequence of the total absence of filmmaking knowledge, Wiseau’s project was a complete disaster. For starters, not sure about the difference between a 35mm and an HD camera, the first-time director decided to use both at the same time, requiring a larger crew he actually later fired and replaced twice. What’s more, fueling the mystery surrounding him, the budget of The Room reached a whopping amount of $6 million, coming directly from Wiseau’s pocket, no one knowing for sure where it really came from.

Eventually, it took 6 months and 400 employees to produce The Room. A painful process made extremely difficult by Wiseau’s attitude on set. Moody and with creative ideas that no one understood but himself (such as insisting on his character laughing when another said a very sad line, recreating outdoor locations in studios instead of shooting directly there, wanting Johnny to be a vampire, or even touching himself after his character was supposed to have committed suicide), the director wrote complicated and illogical dialogues, which led to many long days of re-shoot, mostly due to his own inefficiency as he kept forgetting his lines and even camera placements.

Once finally complete, The Room was released in very few theatres, with audiences reacting to the movie as they would to a grotesque joke. Pulled out after just 2 weeks, it seemed to mark the end of Tommy Wiseau’s career. But something very unexpected ensued. The director started to receive a lot of fan mail from people who loved the film, prompting the artist to book more showings as a result.

Even celebrities like Paul Rudd, Will Arnett, Patton Oswatt, Seth Rogen, the Franco bothers, and Kristen Bell (who later acquired the movie’s reel and hosted private viewing parties) publicly expressed their affection for the horrible production, so horrible that it was amazing.

Tommy Wiseau and James Franco at the premiere of The Disaster Artist – Getty / Isaiah Trickey

Whether we like it or not, Wiseau, whom we still hardly know anything about – and maybe it’s better this way – has managed to create a masterpiece, just not the one he likely initially thought he would…

“I always say that you don’t have to like ‘The Room’, but you will discover something – maybe a tiny little thing – and say, ‘Wait a minute, maybe I want to see more.'” – Tommy Wiseau

Now back in the spotlight thanks to James Franco’s comedy, he and Sestero are expected to come back to the screen in 2018 in Best F(r)iends, directed by Justin MacGregor and written by Sestero himself, based on a road trip he took with the filmmaker after the release of The Room back in 2003.

The Disaster Artist in now out in theatre. You can watch the trailer, below: