The Irresistible Mystery Of Tommy Wiseau

Rick Harper became obsessed with finding out more about “The Room” creator, and it cost him their friendship.
Tommy Wiseau puppet created by <a href="" target="_blank" role="link" class=" js-entry-link cet-external-link" data-vars-item-name="Katherine Voorhies" data-vars-item-type="text" data-vars-unit-name="56a11990e4b0d8cc1098fdb8" data-vars-unit-type="buzz_body" data-vars-target-content-id="" data-vars-target-content-type="url" data-vars-type="web_external_link" data-vars-subunit-name="article_body" data-vars-subunit-type="component" data-vars-position-in-subunit="0">Katherine Voorhies</a>.
Tommy Wiseau puppet created by Katherine Voorhies.
Jedediah Johnson / Katherine Voorhies

Juliette Danielle still remembers the mortification she felt as she watched “The Room” for the first time.

The actress, then 22, had signed up to play the oddly titled role of “future wife” in the low-budget and somewhat mysterious movie. There were some sex scenes involved, sure, but Tommy Wiseau, Danielle’s partner in the scenes, as well as the film’s credited writer, director, producer and star, repeatedly assured her that they would be edited tastefully in postproduction.

At the movie’s premiere at the Laemmle Theater in Los Angeles on June 27, 2003, Danielle quickly realized that there was nothing tasteful about “The Room.” Roughly five minutes into the film, Danielle and Wiseau engage in a prolonged sex scene in which Wiseau appears to hump Danielle’s navel. The scene goes on for several minutes -- an entire song’s worth -- but eventually seems to mercifully end with a shot of Wiseau’s bare butt. Then, just minutes later, they start back up again.

The sex scenes were extensive. So extensive, in fact, that one of the film’s cast members, Dan Janjigian, who played the rooftop-dwelling gangster Chris-R, remembers wondering exactly what kind of movie he had participated in.

“Oh, my God,” Janjigian thought to himself. “Was this a porno?”

Even ignoring all the sex, anyone at the premiere could see that the film was an unmitigated disaster. Wiseau, as he often told his collaborators, had attempted to create a dramatic movie in the vein of Tennessee Williams' "A Streetcar Named Desire." Instead, he had created a 99-minute train wreck.

The plot at the center of the movie was simple enough, if a little strange: Wiseau’s character, Johnny, gets upset when his “future wife” cheats on him with his best friend. But the film, which featured a cast of entirely unknown actors, was filled with some of the worst scriptwriting, acting, cinematography and directing ever captured on film.

The crowd at first sat in shock, then proceeded to erupt throughout the film in fits of laughter.

“No one knew what they should say about it, because we didn't know who we could be honest with.”

- Robyn Paris, who played Michelle in "The Room"

"I was dying laughing almost from the beginning," remembered Robyn Paris, who played Michelle, a character who memorably enjoys combining sex and chocolate.

Those involved in the film had an inkling something was amiss even before they saw it. For one, no one seemed to have any idea what the film was about until they had seen it, as Wiseau had never given the actors a full script, just a few sheets at the beginning of each filming day.

Then, the night of the premiere, some suspected that the people there unrelated to the cast and crew had been paid by Wiseau to fill out the crowd and seek the cast’s autographs. "It was so evident that someone had just hired people to come in and do all that,” Janjigian said when talking to The Huffington Post. “That was such a weird situation."

After the movie finally ended, none of the cast and crew knew quite what to say. At the afterparty at the Mimosa in Hollywood, they did what they could to steer the conversation away from any talk of the movie itself.

"No one knew what they should say about it, because we didn't know who we could be honest with," Paris said.

"I drank so much champagne to try and deal with my feelings," remembered Danielle, the embarrassed actress who had engaged in the extraordinarily long sex scenes.

When the party ended and people started to leave, most if not all of those in attendance expected to put the film behind them and move on. Carolyn Minnott, who played Lisa’s onscreen mother, Claudette, was among them. But when she returned to her Cadillac, she found it had been broken into and destroyed. Eventually, she made it to an airport rental car company. Dressed in rhinestones, another customer asked what had happened to her that night.

"Don't ask,” Minnott replied.

Like so many other people involved in the film, Minnott never expected anything to come of the movie. "I was certain that this thing would go straight to video and wind up on a Blockbuster shelf somewhere gathering dust," she said.

But over a decade later, “The Room” is doing anything but gathering dust. Today, the film is considered one of the great cult classics of modern cinema -- "the 'Citizen Kane' of bad movies," as Ross Morin dubbed it in 2008 while an assistant film professor at St. Cloud University in St. Cloud, Minnesota. Fans all around the world attend monthly participation-based screenings of the film with props and in costume, a la "The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” Greg Sestero, who played Wiseau's onscreen "best friend," Mark, won a National Arts & Entertainment Journalism Award in 2014 for The Disaster Artist, a behind-the-scenes book about the film, which has since inspired an upcoming James Franco film of the same name (Franco plays Wiseau).

💥"THE DISASTER ARTIST: The making of THE ROOM."💥 It has begun!!!!!

A photo posted by James Franco (@jamesfrancotv) on

In some ways, how "The Room" came to be so fantastically and famously awful remains something of a mystery. The film cost millions of dollars to make, and it employed a crew that had credits with other successful movies, including “Spiderman” and “Transformers.” How could it be such a wonderful disaster?

The answer is quite simple: Wiseau, a man whose oddness and whose mysterious past have made him the focus of intense speculation and interest.

Wiseau wanted to be a star like his hero, James Dean. (One of the most famous lines in "The Room,” in which Wiseau's character yells, "You're tearing me apart!", is lifted directly from “Rebel Without a Cause.”) And with only one terrible movie, he has become something of one. Fans of "The Room" obsess over stories of its creator's strange behavior, about how he bragged about the size of his American flag on set, or how he paid for a billboard advertising “The Room” to loom over Hollywood for five years.

Film professor Morin, who now teaches at Connecticut College, vividly remembers meeting Wiseau for the first time in 2010. He was at a screening of the film at the Ziegfeld Theater in New York City.

"When Tommy arrived with Greg ... the audience erupted," Morin recalled. "George Clooney could not have elicited such a response. Near riot-level shrieking ensued. He [Wiseau] was mobbed with adoring fans. Two of my friends were crying tears of joy."

But even as Wiseau appears to enjoy the spotlight, he has worked to keep some of the most basic information about him secret. “Tommy Wiseau,” for example, isn’t even his real name. For years, fans have not been able to figure out what is, nor how Wiseau got the money to make “The Room” in the first place. They haven’t even been able to figure out where he’s from. Wiseau, in short, is as much a mystery as “The Room."

“It was never as interesting to me to try to solve Tommy, because I think, in a lot of ways, you can't.”

- Greg Sestero, who played Mark in "The Room"

He seems to like it that way. Wiseau doesn’t answer questions at screenings about his true origins. He is known to tell interviewers to essentially only ask him about the fandom surrounding “The Room.” Actors from the movie even told HuffPost that Wiseau doesn’t want them to participate in events related to “The Room,” lest they alter his narrative.

If Wiseau has fought to keep basic facts about himself secret, then Sestero has been a willing accomplice. The two met years before the making of "The Room" at an acting class in San Francisco, where they became good friends. Sestero even lived in an apartment owned by Wiseau at one point. He also knows the answers to many of fans’ questions, but decided against including them in The Disaster Artist because he felt withholding that information was in “The Room” fans' best interest, even if they couldn’t realize it.

"I think one of the big appeals of 'The Room' is the mystery,” Sestero told HuffPost. “It was never as interesting to me to try to solve Tommy, because I think, in a lot of ways, you can't.”

That may be so, but Rick Harper, a documentarian who shared his research on "The Room" exclusively with HuffPost, thought he could. Ever since he first saw “The Room” described as "the worst thing ever committed to celluloid” on an art house poster, Harper has been fascinated with the film.

Hoping to meet Wiseau, Harper created a production company and successfully sponsored a screening of “The Room” in Ottawa, Canada. In April 2011, Wiseau and Sestero attended, and Harper convinced Wiseau to give him a job expanding the reach of the film to new international markets, selling merchandise and dealing with other assistant-type tasks. The two became friends, and fairly soon thereafter, Harper pitched Wiseau on the idea of working on a documentary about “The Room,” which he says Wiseau originally agreed to co-produce as part of Wiseau-Films.

“You know when you just become obsessed with something you want to know everything?”

- Rick Harper, director of "Room Full of Spoons"

Harper started uncovering everything he could about the film and Wiseau. He interviewed just about everyone directly and tangentially involved with the making of the film. He tracked down people involved with “The Room” who had all but disappeared since the movie came out. But he also did something else: He talked to people that Wiseau expressly told him not to. One such person was Sandy Schklair, who is credited as the film’s script supervisor, but who also claims to have actually directed “The Room” due to what he perceived as Wiseau’s incompetence. This was Wiseau's first movie, and Schklair claims he didn't know the first thing about directing at the time.

If Harper wanted to keep his relationship with Wiseau intact, he knew he should stop. But by this point, he couldn’t help himself.

"You know when you just become obsessed with something, you want to know everything?" Harper said.

Wiseau initially agreed to speak to HuffPost about the documentary, but when asked via email about his origins and the movie's other claims, he declined to answer those or any other questions.

Almost five years after meeting Wiseau, Harper's finished film, "Room Full of Spoons," will premiere this Sunday, in Madrid at the CutreCon V Festival.

Harper spoke with HuffPost multiple times over the past year about what he and his production company, Rockhaven Pictures, have uncovered. Rockhaven also gave HuffPost exclusive access to the documentary, which is named after one of many strange traditions at "The Room" screenings, in which audience members throw plastic spoons at the screen every time the background of a shot has a framed picture of a spoon-themed stock photo.

Along with capturing the excitement and joy the movie has brought to those fans all over the world, Harper’s documentary solves a long list of mysteries fans have wondered about “The Room” for years. It's a very impressive feat of reporting.

It also cost him his friendship with Wiseau.

Fernando Forero, Greg Sestero, Rick Harper and Tommy Wiseau (left to right).
Fernando Forero, Greg Sestero, Rick Harper and Tommy Wiseau (left to right).
"Room Full of Spoons"

At some point, Harper explained, Wiseau backed out of participating in the documentary without explanation. Left without substantial financial backing, Harper started a Kickstarter campaign, through which he gathered $26,101 to finish the movie. The focus of the project shifted as Wiseau left, too, from highlighting the cult phenomenon surrounding the film to finding the answers to the many remaining questions surrounding Wiseau, especially one: Where, exactly, is Tommy Wiseau from?

“We spent two days in graveyards finding all of Tommy's family. That's when I realized, I think, I took this project too far.”

- Rick Harper, "Room Full of Spoons"

Wiseau clearly speaks with a non-American accent of some sort. Yet, for as long as he has been in the public eye, Wiseau has been unwilling to divulge his origin story, and no one has ever been able to quite figure it out. The cast repeatedly tried and failed. So have fans.

Schklair, the man who claims to have directed "The Room," is currently writing a tell-all book about his experience with Wiseau, which he hopes will answer every question fans still have. "Except for one: wherever the hell Tommy was born," Schklair said.

Harper was determined to find out, so he conducted interview after interview until he found a confidant close to Wiseau who gave him the clue he needed: Wiseau’s real name. With that in hand, Harper scoured records to piece together “The Room” filmmaker’s family history and true origin story. Then, to confirm what he had discovered, Harper took his crew all the way to Europe to verify the findings and find members of Wiseau’s family.

They dug and dug, and eventually started to figure out the answers to many unanswered questions: Wiseau’s age, his family tree, his early European life.

But most important, Harper’s team found the answer to the question that has plagued “Room” fans for over a decade. And, ladies and gentlemen, Tommy Wiseau is from Poland. Poznań, specifically, a city with a population of around half a million in the western center of the country. (Over email, Wiseau had no interest in engaging with the fact that his supposedly true origins are revealed in Harper's movie.)

Tommy Wiseau poses in front of a poster for "The Room."
Tommy Wiseau poses in front of a poster for "The Room."

“The Room” had actually hinted that Wiseau might be Polish all along. The vodka Wiseau’s character drinks with scotch ― lovingly deemed “scotchka” by fans ― is Sobieski, a Polish brand. The repeated taunts of “cheep cheep” throughout the movie is apparently a turn of phrase native to Poland, according to Polish students Harper worked with in his research.

But just as Harper was discovering what he spent over half a decade seeking out, a thought came over him.

“We spent two days in graveyards finding all of Tommy’s family,” said Harper. “That’s when I realized, I think, I took this project too far. When you catch yourself, it’s kind of messed up, but I’m in a baby cemetery for infants looking for the plot of one of his aunts that died when she was 2 years old. What the hell does this have to do with ‘The Room’?”

To say Wiseau seems upset with Harper would be an understatement. He knows the film will reveal many personal details that he has long kept secret. In the weeks leading up to the film’s premiere on Sunday, Wiseau has been releasing fake-explosion-laden videos that seem to respond without context or irony to a few of the claims made in Harper’s documentary.

Harper said he understands that Wiseau is “scared of things coming out,” but isn’t trying to “crucify” him by releasing the film. He withheld certain information about Wiseau that he thought could be potentially damaging to him.

“This is a love letter to a movie that has, in a lot of ways, changed my life,” Harper said, “and a man I’ve admired so much.”

But there is a chance that Sestero understands something about “The Room” that Harper doesn’t. Unlike Harper, Sestero didn’t leave details out of The Disaster Artist to protect Wiseau, but because part of the fun of “The Room” is not quite understanding where its creator came from, not fully knowing how he came to be himself. Now that Harper has solved all of the mysteries for himself, he might understand better than anybody why Sestero made that decision. For Harper, the mystery of Wiseau has been solved, and now he just can’t get as excited about Wiseau or “The Room.”

“Now I feel like I’m at that point where I can almost let go of it,” he said. “In a sense, you can say it’s ruined it for me. The magic isn’t really there anymore.”

“Room Full of Spoons” will be touring in select cities for three weeks late this winter. Harper is asking fans to request a showing at their local theaters. You can follow the movie on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and check out more information at their website.

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