On a recent humid night, a woman stopped outside the Ziegfeld Theater in Manhattan to ask someone what he and hundreds of others outside the theater were waiting for. “The worst movie of all time is about to play in there,” the boy said, pointing to the Ziegfeld's closed doors. “And the director is coming.”
Fifteen minutes later a limo appeared. A roar went up. “That is not Tommy Wiseau!” came a voice through a megaphone. It belonged to Adrian Spencer, a former D.C. theater manager who used to screen Wiseau's "The Room" until he became Wiseau's right-hand man. "Yes it is!” someone shouted back. The limo turned the corner -- for suspense, Spencer later told me -- and emerged again. A pale man with long inky hair stepped out. As the crowd chanted his name -- Tommy, Tommy, Tommy -- he jogged awkwardly down the line, slapping hands and quoting lines on command with the strained obedience of a large dog that might snap.
This was Tommy Wiseau, writer, director, producer and star of “The Room.” In the accidental cult hit, Wiseau plays a virtuous man named Johnny who loses faith in life after his fiancee Lisa sleeps with his best friend. It is a slow and surreally-flawed production, with cancer diagnoses and actors lost halfway through.
On one side stand the movie’s fans, thousands who've gathered in Chicago, London et al armed with the necessary tools to mock it – plastic spoons to throw when framed pictures of silverware inexplicably appear onscreen, tuxedos to reference a vestigial wedding-picture-day scene, footballs to parody an ongoing device in which Johnny and his friends throw a football back and forth about five feet (two characters are inexplicably injured during a “game,” including my personal favorite, the "me underwears" guy). These fans have the twisted affection of a bully for a repeat victim. Like Wiseau, who has a mysterious accent and a naturally sinister laugh, the movie’s an easy target. Alone on the other side is Wiseau, a noted fan of Welles and Brando who believes no matter what the crowd says or does, “The Room” is popular because it is fundamentally very, very good.
For a novelty item released eight years ago, it is, if nothing else, potent. Wiseau says so far more than a million people have "experienced" "The Room." There are no third party box office or DVD statistics for it -- it isn't a "real" movie as such.
This was its second showing in six years at the Ziegfeld, New York City's last single-room theater. The regular movie in rotation at the time was “The Help,” for which ticket sales on a good night hit around 80. "The Room,” by contrast, had pre-sold 500 tickets, with 200 more expected at the box office. Its first time at the Ziegfield, it sold 1000. One concierge told me that even though the theater isn't exactly chummy with Wiseau -- who's apparently the only personality besides Oliver Stone to insist on visiting in advance -- they aren't about to excise a cash cow. Perhaps tellingly, while Stone wanted to stop by preliminarily to check the sound, Wiseau was hoping to set up a table to sell posters.
This fall Wiseau and Spencer plan to further milk “The Room," with dreams of a 2012 run on Broadway and a pitch for a reality show about casting it. The movie's already live in a modest way, showing as a play later this month at the American FIlm Institute in D.C., where the movie version's been screened since 2010. As a play, it's scheduled to run through December in cities like Chicago and Portland, locales that tend to court ironic live shows. Greg Sestero, the actor who plays Johnny's treacherous best friend, and has been nicknamed “Sestosterone" by fans taken with his representation of virility, is signed on.
I spoke to Wiseau after the Ziegfeld screening, hoping to understand how he reconciles the franchise with a creation he thinks is great. I knew not to expect too much. Though critics tend to like him these days, in line with early legitimizers like Tim and Eric (Wiseau directed a 2009 "Awesome Show" episode called "Pig Man"), he's a notoriously tough nut to crack. Read on for this strange star’s take on his strange success story, and why he says people are finally starting to “get it.”
At these midnight screenings, do you stick around to watch people watching your movie? Sometimes I'm watching, sometimes I'm not.
What do you think about the crowd's reaction? I like everything. Express yourself, don't hurt yourself. Move on next question.
The movie was clearly a personal venture for you, given that you wrote, directed and starred in it. What inspired the plot? I inspire myself.
Have you experienced infidelity? I been in similar relationships. Not hundred percent but we all experience experiences with people.
Do you think people understand what you were trying to do? Aha! Great question. I give you A- for that question. Minus because you were not sure. You were hesitating. Yes, for the past two years I noticed that the public much more appreciate “The Room” and they really really want to do what I was saying, to have fun with it. Mainstream media they're much more kind to “The Room,” as well as theater owners, some of the producers, etcetera etcetera. They didn't grasp at the beginning.
If it's actually a serious movie, then why do you think it's been interpreted the way it has? The true story is we..I don't know why I did certain things, but some things happen and that way you open the bad door and the good door at the same time. Like we had some conflict with crew. That's why we had to replace Peter as Steven. People ask like, why did you replace Peter. But he is a different character. He does not take the place of Peter. So you may argue that it worked out. It is what it is. I suggest you see it few times because you do have subliminal messages. I got complimentary statements about “The Room” when I went to Harvard University last October.
Why were you at Harvard? It was a question and answer session. They showed it and then people asked me questions about it and they really gave very good answers that show they're starting to get it.
Can you give an example of one of the questions they asked? Oh you know, they asked about the character's life. Who they are? Are they real people actually living in the planet Earth? I have a Q&A in L.A. as well and people ask some really challenging questions. Somebody ask for example what happened to Peter. He went to the hospital because he couldn't catch the football. People do not understand layers of the subliminal messages but also words behind the words. Is it OK to be with two person, three person if you go into relationship? You think we are very far away from Egyptians. I would say no. Relationships it was the same thousands years ago. It was about jealousy. Compare Cleopatra and Lisa for example.
You think they're similar? Yes. Okay, move on next question.
When you were young, what did you dream you'd be? When I was little kid I used to want to be a rock star. I actually have 800 pages book that will eventually be published.
What's the book about? I don't want to talk about that now!
Are you happy with where you're at now, in your life? I am very happy. Like I say. I'm going to do more movies and travel. I want to actually show the people that actually we can put “The Room” on Broadway.
Do you have investors lined up? Why? Do you have money? Let me know! (laughs) Let's put it this way, we're happy where we are.
WATCH the official trailer for 'The Room,' featuring the ex post facto "black comedy" tagline: