"I'm sorry, I'm losing my mind," Tommy Wiseau said to me seconds after I shook his hand in the lobby of the Four Points Sheraton in SoHo two Sundays ago. That was more believable than most things he would go on to tell me that afternoon.
It had taken a series of attempts to set up a time to talk to the filmmaker about his new sitcom, The Neighbors—a sort of Three's Company meets The Office meets a meat cleaver meets a lobotomy type-scenario. Andrew Buckley, the producer of and actor in The Neighbors, was also apparently its publicist. When I got to the 4 p.m. appointment Buckley had set up, he was sitting with a writer from the Huffington Post, who'd also been slotted for that time.
About 15 minutes later, Wiseau shuffled into the lobby. He wore black Oakley wrap-arounds, a black tank top with a star on it under an aquamarine dress shirt, and jeans that looked like they'd been bought distressed and had grown more distressed over time. From his belt hung a wallet chain, and from his neck, a dog tag with "T.W." painted on it. He apologized profusely for the overlap, and I told him it was OK.
"Could you get him a water for while he waits?" Tommy asked Raul Phoenix, whom he introduced as his assistant. Phoenix also acts in The Neighbors.
Half an hour passed. Then Buckley fetched me to join the three of them in their circular booth in the Sheraton's San Marino Ristorante. The lighting was a little too bright; the place felt like it could become run-down any minute, like a restaurant in a mall that's about to start dying. The carpeting reminded me of that in the conference room of the Austin Holiday Inn that I once judged a child beauty pageant in.
I didn't expect to see the cold water in front of Wiseau on the table. Wiseau's public life and career have been defined by the marvelously nonsensical 2003 movie The Room. The actor Greg Sestero chronicled his time on the set of The Room in the 2013 book The Disaster Artist, co-written with Tom Bissell. In it, Sestero asserts: "Whenever Tommy is in a restaurant, he always orders a glass of hot water." I expressed my surprise.
"Yeah, I drink a hot water, too. You see it's behind right here," he said, motioning to the ledge behind me. "That's my tea." And then, in a manner that suggested an extraterrestrial attempting to mimic laughter he just heard on American television, Wiseau unleashed a "Haw haw haw haw."
"You want a cold water?" Wiseau offered. There was already a full glass in front of me, too, and I was still hydrated from the 20 ounces of Aquafina I had just downed on the Sheraton's dime. I was swimming in water, thanks to Tommy Wiseau's efforts.
Drinking water is a motif in The Disaster Artist—Sestero and Bissel allege that Wiseau at one point threw a water bottle at actress Brianna Tate's head, yelling, "Nobody in Hollywood will give you water!" after she had complained about having none to drink. Another actor's absence from the set to get a drink of water allegedly set Wiseau off: "This was a mistake: Brianna had already established that water was an issue guaranteed to make Tommy go berserk."
On that Sunday, he merely seemed concerned about my hydration. Or something. Wiseau contests much of The Disaster Artist, anyway. The night before, at an event at the Landmark Sunshine theater to commemorate the 11th anniversary of The Room, he told an audience that he disagreed with "50 percent" of The Disaster Artist. I brought up that estimate in our conversation, and he barked back in his not-quite-Austrian/not-quite French/not-quite Russian/not-quite-of-this-world accent, "Correct! Fifty percent!" That is his number and he's sticking to it.
One thing Wiseau wanted me to know he disagreed with in The Disaster Artist is "three student...did the crazy stuff, that they had guru." I had no idea what that meant. I still don't. Chunks of thoughts fly out of Tommy Wiseau's mouth, sometimes too fast to account for every one and circle back around. Because said circling almost always leads to different chunks of thoughts, you have to pick and choose as the piles start to build around you.
This surreal difficulty of talking to Wiseau didn't surprise me; I'd seen The Room before, and seriously what the fuck. The dialogue is frequently incoherent, the green screening is always obvious, the plot holes are so big you could mount in them a production of "Goddess," the Vegas show within Showgirls. The plot concerns a forlorn, vascular man (played by Tommy) who from afar seems ripped from the cover of a romance novel, his bored cheating girlfriend, his double-crossing best friend, and his peeping-tom manchild neighbor. If you've seen it, you know I'm not doing it justice (what words could?), and if you haven't seen it, you're better served with a bunch of clips:
What exactly Wiseau was thinking when he wrote, directed, produced, and starred in the film remains perplexing, as does how he secured the movie's reported $6 million budget. He claims The Room was intended as a "black comedy"; virtually everyone with intact senses begs to differ. Sestero and Bissel write, "Tommy Wiseau intended The Room to be a serious American drama, a cautionary tale about love and friendship, but it became something else entirely—a perfectly literal comedy of errors." Even if that's true of the movie as a whole, there are hundreds of other decisions made in The Room that defy explanation, particularly one that simple. Ambiguity of intention is the cornerstone of effective camp. It plants the conversational seeds in one's head that will flourish later when he or she congregates with others to celebrate a film's one-of-a-kind awfulness.
That ambiguity has served The Room well since its initial two-week theatrical run that began June 27, 2003. Wiseau says he ran The Room for two weeks so that it could be eligible for the Academy Awards, although the Oscars actually only require a run of seven consecutive days. "We actually, on database [IMDb, probably] I don't know if you check or not, but we didn't won anything, but I'm proud of it," he told me. "Ha ha ha ha ha!"
The story goes that toward the end of that run, it picked up some steam when a screenwriter named Michael Rousselet saw it, recognized its unique hilarity, and implored his friends to check it out. A 2008 Entertainment Weekly piece on The Room's phenomenal following calls Rousselet "Patient Zero of the film's cult." Almost six years after that article shone a spotlight on an underground phenomenon, that cult is thriving.
I stood among the congregation that Saturday (September 27) in a line that extended from the Landmark Sunshine on Houston, wrapped around to Forsyth, and went more than halfway down the block. The rowdily nerdy group had amassed for a aforementioned midnight-screening event that included not just a showing of The Room, but also the premiere of The Neighbors. The presentation would play simultaneously on five sold-out screens. According to Buckley, it did the same the night before, and he thinks Sunday's 10 pm screenings were also all sold out too ("Nobody showing up at 10 was going to find 2 seats next to each other"). Repeated requests to verify this information with Landmark went unanswered.
I was only in one of those theaters, but I think it's safe to assume that in each and every one, during each and every time, the 11-year-old movie was met with the same sort of participatory rapture that I witnessed.
Though I had first watched it at a friend's apartment years before, I'd never been to an actual midnight screening of The Room. I appreciate The Room's utter incoherence (especially via Wiseau's almost always dubbed dialogue), but it's nowhere near my favorite bad movie. That distinction goes to Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, which is readable as a sharp satire, on top of being delirious nonsense. The Room is not even up there with Jaws: The Revenge for me (the shark roars, I rest my case). The Room is regularly amazing, but its dragging pace makes it a chore to get through.
But the audience participation brought to my attention dozens of details I had missed (lead actress Juliette Danielle's bulging, Giger-esque neck muscle, for one). During the midnight showing, two guys in their 20's led the receptive crowd through the participation protocol. They threw spoons to salute the weird framed stock photos of spoons that show up periodically, ran to the front of the theater to position themselves right in Wiseau's wonky eye line at one point ("I'm right here! I'm right here!"), and relentlessly mocked Danielle's appearance. One wore a blonde wig (to mimic Danielle's character Lisa), the other a black one in reference to Wiseau. After the movie outside the theater, the fake blonde told me he'd seen the movie "a lot of times." The one in the black wig, who would eventually identify himself as Nikolai Vanyo, told me he's seen The Room 150 times.
They were both sharp kids. To summarize the appeal of The Room, the kid in the blonde wig said, "It's told from a perspective that's absurd and alienating. The whole idea is he's perfect, and women are all awful. No matter what the movie's going to be, anything coming from that perspective is going to be pretty fucking hilarious."
At one point, I brought up The Rocky Horror Picture Show, the definitive audience-participation cult movie.
"If anything this is, like, replacing it," said blondie. "I mean, obviously it's not going to replace it. Rocky Horror is good in a lot of ways, and it's really enjoyable as a movie itself. [The Room] is, I think, more of an elaborate celebration of the crowd participation. Rocky Horror has that, but this is almost exclusively about the crowd. It's such a wild experience. It's unique in so many ways. For one, you're breaking down the whole concept that the movie theater is a place for you to be silent and to be respectful of a film. You should be, but when it's The Room, it's an entirely different experience. It isn't like watching a movie. It's a whole other kind of thing."
After I got home and looked up the kid via the name he gave me—Miles Guthrie—I realized I had been speaking to Miles Guthrie Robbins, the 22-year-old son of The Rocky Horror Picture Show's Susan Sarandon.
Vanyo and Robbins were less enthusiastic about The Neighbors, which screened before The Room that night. Vanyo described it as "kind of unwatchable" and Robbins agreed it was "rough" in contrast to The Room. The Room may be incompetently executed but it's polished enough to reflect at least part of the small fortune that was sunk into its making.
Wiseau says he shot a pilot for The Neighbors back in 2004, though he told me Sunday that what he screened last weekend he shot "three weeks ago." Most of it was shot over a three-day period at the Wiseau-Films Studio in Los Angeles. The episode presented a series of cornily kooky vignettes that all took place in a Los Angeles apartment complex. Wiseau plays two roles—a resident (for which he dons a blonde wig) and, I guess, a landlord or super or building manager who hangs out in the office, fields questions and concerns, and punctuates every scene with, "What a day." The screened episode featured multiple characters attempting to borrow $20, a busty blonde named Philadelphia who appears in a bikini throughout (played by Karly Kim, who's regularly ridiculed on The Dirty), and an extended plot about the missing chicken of a hysterical resident named Cece.
I asked Wiseau about the chicken storyline. "You know, I want to be vegan," he began. He was eating a piece of salmon at the time. I expected he would explain it as a reference to The Room's script's multiple uses of "chicken" as an epithet (cheap cheap cheap cheap cheapcheap). He did not. Instead, Wiseau rambled through a playful sort of activism ("We have American culture and I think we have a chicken like always I think the chicken always, like, get beat up…So I say to myself, no, let's make a star of the chicken let's see what happen") and a curiosity about the emotional lives of our potential fowl friends ("Who say that the animals they don't have sort of thinking, but maybe they do, I don't know").
He told me that Buckley has been tasked with taking care of the chicken when they aren't shooting. I asked if Wiseau had bonded with the chicken. "Oh yeah, we all do. Next question."
"Move on, next question," was a repeated refrain. He delivered it in a blasé way that felt studied, like he was saying it because that's what stars say in interviews. In the same way that The Room is a facsimile of a movie trying desperately to convince you that it is real, Wiseau seems to be a facsimile of a movie star. From behind the Oakleys that he never removed (he is supposedly very self-conscious about his right eye's droop) and with box-black hair pulled into a ponytail with tendrils framing his head, Wiseau "Next question"-ed his way through the interview.
Sometimes he deployed it to end his own tangents: "At the end of the day, who say that the truth prevail? I don't know somebody say that. Maybe I say it right now. Ha ha ha. Move on, next question."
Sometimes it was to evade—I asked Wiseau about groupies and getting laid as a result of The Room and he told me he wouldn't answer that. I pressed. "No I can't," he said. "I take my fifth because that's not fair. Move on, next question."
He was similarly closed off to discussing his upbringing, which he says happened in New Orleans via his aunt and uncle. I asked about his aunt and he snapped, "Yeah, she was like a church-oriented person. Move on, next question."
Wiseau is elusive about his origins—he says IMDb misreports his age ( the site says he was born Oct 3, 1955, which would make him 59 as of last Friday), but he won't say by how much. "Well, who cares about age? I feel like I'm 20 today." During the brief audience Q&A that took place between The Neighbors and The Room the night before, someone had asked if English was his first language. "No, I speak Martian," he said. "Yes it is. No more about that."
He even grew cagey with me when I asked him about his existential state. In an essay on Vice by James Franco, who will direct the film adaptation of The Disaster Artist and play Wiseau in it, Franco describes Wiseau as a "lonely little boy who wants love." I asked Wiseau about that analysis, and he discussed Franco's choice to end his piece with a French phrase ("Tommy c'est moi"), his plans to work with Franco beyond The Disaster Artist ("We on the same page with James Franco"), Richard Gere's nudity in American Gigolo compared to Wiseau's own ass-bearing in The Room, and the fact that Franco is a "nice guy."
OK, but is Wiseau a lonely little boy?
After more long-windedness about the creative process being at times a necessarily solitary one, Wiseau finally revealed that he would not be so revealing as to actually answer that question as completely as he could.
"I don't want to be too specific because it's my life, but I can give you little bit that I'm not that lonely," he said. "I mean, I have friends around me and I do exercise, I do all that stuff. But sometimes actors need to be lonely."
Waiting for the subway on my way over, while brushing up on my notes and rereading my research, I had realized that Wiseau benefitted from the same ambiguity that The Room does—his mysteriousness and bizarreness only make him more fascinating. He really could be an alien, for all we know. I was not only at peace with the idea that I would be able to pry very few hard facts from Wiseau; I realized that doing so would be a disservice not just to him but for everyone who delights in his charmingly enigmatic ways.
At times, I wondered if he was even capable of having a candid conversation. He sometimes appeared to have the limpest of grasps on facts. A few minutes into our conversation, he referred to me as, "Richard…right?"
"Yeah, Rich," I told him.
"OK, Richard, sorry," he said. He would never refer to me by name again.
I read to him a long passage from a 2012 GQ interview with Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim about their attempt to get The Neighbors on Adult Swim. In it, they allege that Wiseau requested too much help from them in terms of development and directing. To me, Wiseau would go on to claim the opposite—that they were too involved and wanted their names above the title as in "Tim & Eric Present…" He also claims that their motivation for saying such things is that they are jealous that he commanded a bigger crowd than them in London.
I finished reading the section by saying, "And then Eric says, 'He refused to budge.'"
"Who, me?" Wiseau responded.
"Yes, it was all about you," I had to explain.
The best I can do to verbalize what I think is up with Tommy Wiseau is to say that Tommy Wiseau exists on his own vibration. I don't know how or why his brain works the way it does, but I have weird faith that he ably transmits what is going on inside. His gift is articulating precisely how inarticulate he is. And so, appreciating him and mocking him happen simultaneously. That means that when he addresses a crowd of fans, as I watched him do the night before in that theater, those people are cheering out of both sides of their mouth.
"I don't mind," he told me when I asked about being laughed at by his ostensible admirers. "I always say you can express yourself. Have fun. That's the idea behind it. Behind The Room."
Wiseau is at the mercy of interpretation, but, then so are all of us ultimately. You can know yourself and project that as honestly and lucidly as humanly possible, but at the end of the day , your legend is passed on and preserved by others. You do not get to write your own obituary.
The Room is often referred to as "the Citizen Kane of bad movies." Sestero and Bissell refer to it as "the greatest bad movie ever made" on the cover of their book. I asked Wiseau what he thought of The Room being considered bad, and he once more waded through swamps of ideas before arriving at an answer—references to Sestero, New Orleans lingo, Indiana accents, New York manners. Finally, about four minutes later, he gave me an answer.
"People say bad movie," he said. "It's about how you define. How many bad movie I saw in my life? Probably dozen. But I will never say it bad, but you know, if I have a conversation, I say, 'Hey I didn't like it. This is my style.' But some people say the same movie was it, it's a bad movie. And some people say, 'Oh, it's a shitty movie.' Whatever they want to say. So again, it depends on how you express yourself. I don't consider The Room bad movie."
I asked Wiseau why he does what he does, and the answer approached what felt like genuine earnestness.
"Well, you know, I wanna change the world," he told me. "I think The Room it will change the world. And I would say if a lot of people love each other, the world will be better place to live. What I mean by that? That I'm just saying like, 'Oh, OK, let's do love, let's do sex, whatever'? No, that's not what I'm saying. What I'm saying, have respect for each other. Look at New York today. I been in New York six times already here, back and forth. Change, right? I think New Yorkers much nicer people than I remember first time. I don't know why. Same in Bay Area, for example. You go to San Francisco and see all the bicycles, you know? We change. And I think we change in positive way. I think The Room is like a growing also. People change with The Room."
And then the next thing he said required me to bite my cheeks to keep from laughing in his face, a technique I used to use when I worked at VH1 and would interview people who appeared on reality TV competitions.
"Screening The Room midnight eliminated crime in America," he said, unknowingly drawing blood from me. "Look at how many young people—you been young, I mean we still young, whatever—go in the street, you know, walking on the street, nothing to do, go see The Room,have fun. Let's assume you don't see The Room, you don't have The Room, you walk on the street, grab the rock, and by accident you hit somebody, you know? Accident happen, get 'em arrested, go to jail, whatever. Instead, you see The Room. So high probability crime, high probability…you know what I'm saying?"
I mean, I recognize all of those words, yes.
Wiseau has his sights set on major networks for The Neighbors. He told the crowd at the screenings I attended, "If you can blog about The Neighbors, send email to ABC, CBS, etc., say, 'Hey, we want to see The Neighbors by Tommy Wiseau on TV.'" The amount of episodes he has already shot is "potentially three, five, something like that." I suggested that the show isn't quite polished enough for the restrictive world of network TV, and that a less mainstream route might work better—perhaps Netflix (he says he had a one-episode deal with Adult Swim, but wants to push for a better deal...I think that's what he meant, at least). He didn't like that idea.
"Again, that's what we talk about ABC, CBS, The Neighbors," Wiseau told me. "And hopefully they will knock at my door. We see what happens. Move on, next question."
Eventually the questions ran out. The water never did, though—before I left Wiseau asked if I wanted to take my water "to go," but I declined. Was he being kind or nurturing or fixated or inadvertently thematic or merely just living in the moment and saying the thing that came into his head? I couldn't tell, but it didn't matter anyway. I'd had my fill.
[Image by Jim Cooke]