Some of the greatest artists of our generation are people who commit to their work so fully that they themselves become part and parcel of that art, but no one — not Bjork, not Marina Abramovic, not even Prince — does it quite like Tommy Wiseau.
The creator (and star) of the cult movie The Room, Wiseau initially tried to sell his love-triangle drama about a banker and his fiancée as a play and a 500-page book, before scraping together a reported $6 million to turn the tale into an independent film on his own. Despite renting a giant billboard on Highland Avenue in Los Angeles to advertise what he hoped would be a successful Hollywood film, the self-funded drama flopped pitifully in 2003 — before making a miraculous comeback as a cult favorite.
Over the last ten years, The Room has developed a devoted following at the sort of midnight showings where one might otherwise find The Rocky Horror Picture Show, while the colorful Wiseau has increasingly become a living extension of his infamously terrible art. And even now, in the midst of the 10th anniversary of the film, no one is sure whether or not it’s on purpose.
A decade into his life in the limelight, Wiseau is still a shambolic figure, even for the world of cult celebrity. For a long time, it was difficult to tell whether or not Wiseau was in on the joke that made The Room successful. Did he really shoot the movie in alternating 35mm film and digital dilm on purpose, as he explained to the media, or was he just confused as to which was which? Did he honestly intend for The Room to be a “black comedy,” as he’s claimed in the past, or was he just so dedicated to the melodrama of Lisa tearing Johnny apart that he never realized how absurd its abandoned plot lines, recycled bedroom scenes, and inexplicably tuxedoed football games really are?
His personal email address is easily found online; it’s the primary contact info on the website for The Neighbors, a television show Wiseau has being attempting to get off the ground since 2007. His “assistant” — a person named “John Caffrey” — not only reads his boss’s personal emails but uncannily shares his distinct speech patterns (Wiseau talks like Alex Perchov, the comedically Ukrainian narrator of Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything is Illuminated, except he’s real). The only other place this assistant exists on the Internet is a YouTube account whose sole activity is leaving theatrically impressed comments on Tommy Wiseau videos and Wiseau-related comments on random videos about Paris Hilton. After I sent an interview request to Wiseau, “John Caffrey” responded within hours, arranging a time for Tommy to call with the message, “let us know if the above schedule is okay with you if not what is your suggestions?”
When WIRED got him on the phone last week, Wiseau demonstrated a series of truths: Regardless of how self-aware he is — or was — about his movie, he’s good-natured enough to play along with becoming famous for being terrible, and smart enough to keep every detail of his personal life (including whether he’s got everyone fooled) a complete mystery.
1. Wired: How does it feel to make a movie and have people want to celebrate its ten-year anniversary?
2. Wiseau: Okay, we started interview right now? OK, cool, cool. You can ask whatever you want, doesn’t mean you receive the answer, right?
3. Wired: That sounds fair enough.
4. Wiseau: I want you to have happiness at the same time.
5. Wired: Okay, I’ll do my best to ask questions you can answer, though.
6. Wiseau: You know, I am pro-freedom. So what’s your question?
7. Wired: How does it feel to have people want to celebrate ten years of your movie?
8. Wiseau: You know what, I’ll be honest with you, I am completely shocked. I really mean it with a very sincere way, because my original plan was, you probably know about billboards, we did have billboard for past five years, over five years. So my idea was to produce the movie, have a billboard and move on to the next project. It did not come out that way. But happy to report, very happy what’s happening now and I don’t know if you know but I want to tell you at the same time that we are worldwide right now. We just opened recently Portugal, Poland as well.
9. Wired: How many screenings do you think have been held since The Room was released?
10. Wiseau: Well, let me finish my answer to first question. I’m very happy where… As you know, originally supposed to be a play, and it didn’t come out. I decided that wait a minute I don’t wanna do a play because no one especially in America goes to the theatre… because I’m a stage actor, believe it or not.
If a lot of this conversation sounds familiar (because, say, you have an exceptional memory for Tommy Wiseau interviews), it’s because Wiseau gave roughly the same interview to Indiewire in 2011. He swapped out certain details to make it timely, of course, but as our conversation went on, more and more familiar pattern emerged. He has a habit of using idioms like “as you probably know,” “believe it or not,” and “for your information” to segue from direct questions to the entirely different topics he would prefer to discuss, like The Room‘s international success and its forthcoming Blu-Ray edition, offering to send me a copy multiple times (“free of charge, free of charge,”). Once, he parried a question by complimenting my interviewing skills… and immediately moving onto another tangentially-related idea.
At first, when I got off the phone with him, I was a bit disappointed. Almost every answer seemed intensely studied, like this conversation was his next film project and we were running lines (only problem: we’d brought different scripts to rehearsal). Every response seemed to come out exactly as planned — vague, yet full of positive reinforcement — but rarely offering anything meaningful beyond a “yes” or a “no.” It felt like, once again, Wiseau had entered the ring with a journalist, and come out on top, or at least without offering me anything I didn’t already know.
But then I realized: Isn’t that sort of the whole point of Tommy Wiseau and The Room in the first place?
Some people believe it’s all an elaborate act, that Wiseau has known exactly what he’s doing the whole time, like a Real-Deal, long-game Joaquin Phoenix — a walking, talking testament to the superficiality and ineptitude of traditional cinema. One film professor even argued that Wiseau’s movie was “the Citizen Kane of bad movies,” and that it “exposed the fabricated nature of Hollywood.”
Wiseau has one of the most recognizable and odd faces in cult film, but despite years of interviews and fan Q&As, no one knows where he’s from (not even his cast and crew), whether he actually went to film school (he refused to tell WIRED where he studied), or how he actually makes a living. He couldn’t have raised the millions of dollars he put into The Room‘s budget simply by importing Korean leather jackets, could he? He can’t possibly be living in Los Angeles solely off The Room screenings and the occasional appearance on Tim & Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!, can he? He won’t even divulge the name of some recent movies he’s seen; “I like dramas,” is the most specific he would get, though he did admit he’s not a big fan of other bad cult movies like Troll 2.
In one of his few tangible responses, Wiseau acknowledged The Room‘s reception wasn’t what he expected (“I want people to have fun with it, and if they do, I did my work as an entertainer”). But by accepting the fandom that his movie inspired — even if it wasn’t the fandom he went looking for — Wiseau has achieved his own distinct form of success. He found a way to make the The Room into both the the book and the play he wanted it to be. He’s giving talks to students at Oxford and Harvard. [BritMarling. BillMaher. GilHoffman. ThomasFriedman. CharlieRose.] And best of all, people want to see his movies.
In the beginning, no one could tell where The Room ended and Tommy Wiseau began, and a decade later, he’s managed to keep it that way – and his fans are still into it. He’s found success by being terrible at what he does, or perhaps by being really good at being terrible at what he does, while handing out encouraging affirmations along the way. And isn’t that what makes the whole phenomenon remarkable?
I’m still not sure if I’ll take Tommy up on that “free of charge” Blu-Ray, though.
New York City’s Sunshine Cinema will be hosting back-to-back special tenth-anniversary midnight screenings of The Room this Friday 9/6 and Saturday 9/7. Tommy Wiseau and Greg Sistero, who plays Mark in the film and is also credited as its line producer – and is releasing a memoir about filming The Room this fall – will attend and hold live Q&As after the movie. For more screening information, visit the film’s colorful official website.