On the set of the forthcoming movie “Best F(r)iends” ― which reunites the infamous Tommy Wiseau with Greg Sestero, his on-and-off-again pal who starred in “The Room” ― director Justin MacGregor needed Wiseau to let a resurrected evil clown choke him.
Beforehand, MacGregor demonstrated how the scene would unfold. It needed to be physical, a little violent even, or risk looking phony. But Wiseau wasn’t having it.
“Tommy became really, really upset,” MacGregor told HuffPost by phone earlier this month. “He just went on a tirade about, ‘Don’t you know anything about real acting? You never touch an actor like that.’”
That’s right: Wiseau, a cult figure known for writing, directing, financing and co-starring in the proverbial worst movie ever made, insisted he was the one who knew a thing or two about “real acting.” MacGregor, worried he wouldn’t be able to get the necessary shot, humored him. “You’re right, you’re right,” the 25-year-old director said. They rehearsed a gentler version of the same altercation. It “looked like shit,” so, unbeknownst to Wiseau, MacGregor told the actor portraying the clown to strangle him with the same ferocity originally planned.
“And Tommy blew up,” MacGregor recalled. “We have behind-the-scenes footage of it, too. He rained down on the clown-man actor, not on me, because as far as Tommy was concerned, I had given the direction to do it softly, and the clown man ignored me. Basically, we got the shot, it’s amazing, and it plays so well in the film. I threw the clown under the bus that day, but I would do it again. That happened a few times, where I had to be sneaky and creative to get something out of Tommy that he wasn’t going to do.”
Such is the agony and ecstasy of working with Tommy Wiseau, the enigmatic multi-hyphenate whose profile is again rising thanks to this month’s release of “The Disaster Artist,” a comedic biopic directed by and starring James Franco, who plays Wiseau immediately before and during the making of “The Room.”
Wiseau has become one of Hollywood’s most mythologized oddballs. He refuses to disclose his age or the exact origins of his vaguely Eastern European accent. He also won’t say how he became wealthy enough to pony up $6 million to make “The Room,” his misguided passion project, released in theaters for an Oscar-qualifying two weeks in 2003. (Wiseau has offered select tidbits over the years, claiming his funds stem from real-estate deals and leather-jacket imports from Korea. Now, he runs Street Fashions USA, a site that sells “The Room” memorabilia and underwear with Wiseau’s name on the waistband.) For the past decade, the likeliest place to find Wiseau has been at one of the many midnight screenings of his notorious film ― an interactive experience that rivals “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.”
In 2018, you’ll also be able to see him in “Best F(r)iends,” conceptualized and written by Sestero.
Sestero told HuffPost he’d been brainstorming ideas for television series and movies when he saw a rough cut of “The Disaster Artist” about a year and a half ago. Even though Sestero had co-written the book on which the film is based, Franco’s performance painted his old friend in a new light: Wiseau “just wanted to be taken seriously,” Sestero realized.
The two were on “OK terms” at the time, so Sestero started pondering what it would take to write Wiseau a part that fit him ― something far removed from “The Room,” in which Wiseau is unbelievable as an everyday, all-American type. Sestero then received a text from Wiseau, unprompted: “Maybe you should take a risk.” It was a sign. Sestero quickly developed a concept specifically for his friend, an “LA noir” in the vein of “Nightcrawler,” “Drive,” “Double Indemnity” and Michael Mann’s work.
“We rehearsed scenes every night,” Sestero said. “I know how to write Tommy at this point. I can pretty much think like him. [...] Obviously when you have a friendship like ours, there’s going to be a lot of real-life material that bleeds into the story.”
Soon thereafter, a mutual friend in the industry introduced Sestero to MacGregor, who’d first seen “The Room” in 10th grade and would go on study its awfulness via YouTube clips. Sestero and MacGregor bonded over cinematic favorites, and Sestero liked MacGregor’s demo reel. He hired the young filmmaker as the cinematographer on a concept trailer that would ideally become a “stepping stone” to making a feature-length project.
MacGregor met Wiseau the day he arrived for their five-day trailer shoot in Los Angeles. He spotted the long, jet-black hair in a parking lot across from a 7-Eleven, where Wiseau stopped to buy Red Bull because “the man drinks an inhuman amount of Red Bull.” Wiseau was wearing his signature multiple belts. (You can see evidence of the hair, the belts and the Red Bull consumption in “The Disaster Artist.”)
“You’re almost nervous about what he’s going to do,” MacGregor said. “There’s a tension in the air around that guy.” (Wiseau did not respond to a request for comment sent to the email address for “The Room.”)
And yet, once filming began, MacGregor was struck by Wiseau’s sense of professionalism. Just as he’d intended with “The Room,” Wiseau wanted to make a quality product. He listened to direction and asked to watch playback to be sure scenes came out OK. “I don’t know how much he understood it, but he would pretend to,” MacGregor said of the notes he gave to Wiseau throughout the shoot. “He would try to interpret it, and there was kind of a sweetness to his personality, as well.”
Wiseau and Sestero showed the trailer for “Best F(r)iends” at screenings of “The Room.” When they decided to move forward with the feature, Sestero asked MacGregor to direct. The shoestring budget, according to MacGregor, “rivaled” that of “The Blair Witch Project,” which was made for a reported $60,000 in 1999. (Sestero wouldn’t confirm or deny the costs, as he is currently negotiating theatrical distribution deals.)
From there, a beautiful marriage was born. Sestero and Wiseau inducted MacGregor into their strange little world. In small spurts across 2017, they made two volumes of a bizarre “fable” about a lonely mortician who might be a vampire (Wiseau) and a drifter with a mysterious past who lives under a bridge (Sestero). The mortician gives the drifter a job, which provokes a series of misadventures in underground LA.
“The reason that Tommy works in ‘Best F(r)iends’ is he’s not trying to be somebody he’s not,” MacGregor said. “He’s not trying to extend himself to be the guy in ‘The Room.’ Rather than do that, [Sestero wrote] something in Tommy’s cadence already. It’s written in his likeness. He has all the virtues of a hero, presented totally in a different way.”
The title of the new film evokes “My Best Fiend,” the documentary Werner Herzog made about his turbulent relationship with actor Klaus Kinski, who starred in five of Herzog’s movies, including “Aguirre, the Wrath of God” and “Fitzcarraldo.” MacGregor always imagined that Wiseau and Sestero’s kinship was similar to that of Herzog and Kinski.
“Everything that happens is something that actually happened between Greg and Tommy in real life,” he said. “An example of that is, in the movie, when the friendship goes sour, they confront each other on the edge of this cliff. You get the feeling one of them is going to go over the cliff once this argument has transpired.”
To wit, Sestero said Wiseau once suspected that Sestero was going to kill him during a 2003 road trip from Los Angeles to San Francisco. He’d asked Wiseau to meet him out back after he checked into their motel, and Wiseau apparently thought that meant his life was in danger. Wiseau casually mentioned his hunch while falling asleep that night, as if it were just another bump in the road. During the same trip, Sestero imagined how Wiseau would manage if Sestero abandoned him in the cliffs of Bodega Bay. Little moments like these made their way into the movie. Meanwhile, other events in “Best F(r)iends” are ripped from seedy headlines.
“They sell gold teeth on the black market, which is also a true story,” MacGregor said. “People think, ‘Oh, that’s really unrealistic, who came up with that? I don’t see it being plausible.’ But I assure you it really happened. Greg’s brother is a dentist, actually, so a lot of this comes close to home.”
Throughout the shoot, which spanned about 28 days across 2017, MacGregor found that Wiseau lived up to the try-hard image presented in “The Disaster Artist.” He didn’t always have the vocabulary to express himself eloquently, but underneath the ego and the oddities was a real person who, over Chinese food at 2 a.m. after a long day of work, would tell “personal stories” about his business dealings and his time growing up in New Orleans, though never anything especially deep or mystery-shattering.
As for the incident with the evil clown, well, that, too, became fodder for the production. When MacGregor needed Wiseau to laugh on-camera, he would say “clown man,” and Wiseau would lose himself in a fit of giggles.
Sestero and MacGregor showed a work-in-progress cut of “Best F(r)iends: Volume 1” to test audiences in the U.K. and LA. A handful of folks who presumably caught one of those screenings have reviewed the film on Letterboxd, a social media platform where users rate, review and discuss movies. Their responses range from euphoric (“It’s the hardest I’ve laughed in a very long time on the sheer principle of insanity”) to baffled (“I’m not quite sure what I just watched”). Some note that it’s surprising to see Wiseau appear in something he didn’t write and direct himself ― a notion MacGregor knew he would encounter upon taking the job.
For better or worse, “The Disaster Artist” could heighten this movie’s following. MacGregor and Sestero said the first volume will “definitely” open theatrically in 2018, possibly as early as March. Separately, they declined to elaborate, but MacGregor said distribution prospects and festival bookings “are presenting themselves, seemingly on a daily basis.” Whether that puts more pressure on the film to reach an audience beyond “The Room” diehards makes MacGregor a bit nervous, as it’s “meant for the fans.” But if it contributes anything to the overall “mythos and lore” of Wiseau, he’s thrilled to be part of that.
“We did the opposite of what Tommy did with ‘The Room,’” MacGregor said. “He had all that money, and then ― God bless that movie, we all love it — he made something godawful. We’ve done quite the opposite. We had nothing, and with good story and good filmmaking and good creative minds coming together, we’ve done something we’re proud of.”