The crazy cult of The Room
A five-year-old box office flop has turned into the newest midnight movie sensation
At a midnight screening in a Los Angeles multiplex, the atmosphere hovers somewhere between rambunctious and mildly terrifying. Whenever a framed photograph of a spoon appears on screen, which it frequently does, audience members throw fistfuls of plastic cutlery. They also perform skits, at one point gathering at the bottom right of the screen and shouting, ”Down here, Tommy!” anticipating the moment when the face of the lead actor, Tommy Wiseau, looks in their direction. And they comment loudly on blurrily shot scenes (”Focus!”) or inadequately introduced characters (”Who the f— are you?”).
Late-night showings of cult films such as The Rocky Horror Picture Show and The Big Lebowski are known for their rowdy and strange behavior too. But people who go to see Rocky Horror and Lebowski think those films are good. Tonight’s movie, an obscure, five-year-old drama called The Room, holds a different place in the hearts of those present at West Hollywood’s Laemmle Sunset 5. ”It’s absolutely terrible,” says Chris Bonk, a talent-agency assistant who has seen the film more than 15 times. ”The script is not the best. The acting is certainly not the best. The music is horrible.”
The Room is a San Francisco-set love triangle involving a banker named Johnny, his friend Mark, and Johnny’s fiancée Lisa, who is sleeping with both men. The film does seem to be beset with problems. Various subplots are inadequately resolved or simply disappear altogether, including the throwaway revelation that Lisa’s mother is suffering from cancer. The film’s many rooftop shots feature an unrealistic San Francisco backdrop, thanks to some less-than-impressive greenscreen work. There are lengthy, unerotic sex scenes, the last of which prompts a section of the audience to depart the auditorium temporarily in mock protest. Finally, in one sequence, a sharp bone seems about to erupt from Lisa’s neck for no reason at all.
The film’s so-bad-it’s-freakin’-awesome vibe has attracted a devout army of aficionados whose membership includes the cream of Hollywood’s comedy community. Role Models star Paul Rudd and Arrested Development‘s David Cross are both fans, as is Jonah Hill, who uses a still from the movie as his MySpace photograph. Heroes star Kristen Bell hosts Room-viewing parties at her house and last year attended the film’s monthly Laemmle screening with Rudd, Hill, and Shaun of the Dead director Edgar Wright. ”There is a magic about that film that is indescribable,” she says.
The Room has even infiltrated the halls of cinematic academia. ”It is one of the most important films of the past decade,” says Ross Morin, an assistant professor of film studies at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota. ”It exposes the fabricated nature of Hollywood. The Room is the Citizen Kane of bad movies.”
If The Room is the Citizen Kane of bad movies, that makes Tommy Wiseau the Orson Welles of crap. Wiseau — who speaks with a thick, Schwarzeneggerian accent — directed, wrote, and produced the film. The muscled auteur also plays the cuckolded Johnny, and, when not exposing his ivory rump in the film’s sex scenes, gives a performance that’s both heartfelt and berserk. In one scene, a vein-poppingly distraught Wiseau howls the line, ”You are tearing me apart, Lisa!” The moment — a favorite of Room fans — is reminiscent of both James Dean’s ”You’re tearing me apart!” howl in Rebel Without A Cause and Marlon Brando screaming ”Stella!” in A Streetcar Named Desire. At least it would be, if those actors had chosen to play their parts as deranged Austrians.
The Los Angeles-based Wiseau is an admirer of Streetcar playwright Tennessee Williams and (indeed) Orson Welles. ”You can relate to it,” he says of their work, over lunch in L.A. the day after the Laemmle screening. ”You see all this emotion. That’s why we are on the same page.” Wiseau is also a big fan of Dean and Brando, but he insists that any discussion of specific films that may have influenced him be off the record. While the actor-director is friendly and infectiously upbeat about his work, he is also incredibly secretive. Wiseau shies away from questions about his background and his age, though he appears to be in his early 50s. ”We tried for a long time to figure out where he’s from,” says actress Juliette Danielle, who plays Lisa in The Room. ”We never got an answer.”
After some prodding, Wiseau does let slip a few personal details. ”I used to live in France, a long time ago,” he says. ”Then I moved to New Orleans — I have family there. Then I moved to Bay Area. I work for hospital, I work for the city. But I always wanted to be an actor.”
Wiseau got his directorial feet wet with a short film, Robbery Doesn’t Pay, and then, in 2002, shot The Room in L.A. and San Francisco. The filmmaker has always refused to discuss where he got the movie’s $6 million budget, but he now hints that at least some of the money came from a clothing import business. ”I tell you a little bit, but that’s it,” he says. ”We import from Korea the leather jackets that we design here in America. If you work, you have to save money, right? I didn’t get money from the sky. I was preparing, let’s put it this way.” The shoot was marred by the constant departures of cast and crew members. ”It was just mayhem,” recalls Dan Janjigian, who plays a drug dealer in one of the film’s peculiar plot cul-de-sacs. ”You could come in and it would be a completely different cast and crew. It was crazy.” Wiseau himself initially denies that he had problems with his behind-the-camera team — ”I was very happy with everyone” — but then admits that he did come into conflict with individuals who tried to tamper with his work. ”Some of the crew members, it’s correct, we changed three times basically,” he recalls. ”Because they tried, for example, to change the script. They say, ‘This is the way to do, etcetera, etcetera.’ I say, ‘No!”’ However, according to one cast member who requested anonymity, the script was indeed altered during the shoot: ”It was actually a lot longer. There was stuff that was just unsayable. I know it’s hard to imagine there was stuff that was worse. But there was.”
Wiseau insists he always intended The Room to be partly comedic, and that the movie’s perceived faults — including the out-of-focus scenes — are deliberate. ”Let’s assume we did everything perfect way,” he hypothesizes. ”You will be asking this question? No, no.” However, another anonymous cast member has no doubt that Wiseau is merely making the best of an extremely bad job: ”I don’t have anything to say about Tommy as a person. He is a nice guy. But he is full of s—. He was trying to put together a drama. It was basically his stage to show off his acting ability.”
The Room opened at a handful of cinemas in L.A. on June 27, 2003. The director, who self-distributed the movie, offered a free soundtrack CD for ticket buyers, and promoted the film with a TV and print campaign that compared The Room to the work of Tennessee Williams. Wiseau rented a billboard on Highland Avenue, which featured a close-up of his glowering visage, and submitted the film to the Academy Awards, without success. Cast member Robyn Paris recalls the film’s premiere screening as ”a big deal. Tommy rode in a limousine. There was a spotlight set up. It was pretty packed. Everyone in the theater was crying with laughter.” Not everyone found the film so amusing, however. Variety critic Scott Foundas noted that it ”may be something of a first: a movie that prompts most of its viewers to ask for their money back — before even 30 minutes have passed.” Foundas also called Wiseau ”a narcissist nonpareil whose movie makes Vincent Gallo’s The Brown Bunny seem the apotheosis of cinematic self-restraint.”
Tommy Wiseau insists that he ”really doesn’t know” how the film fared at the box office on its initial release. However, one industry source states that the combined gross from the two-week run at two theaters — the Laemmle Fallbrook and Fairfax — was just $1,900. Michael Rousselet, a young screenwriter who seems to be Patient Zero of the film’s cult, says he first caught the movie at an ”absolutely empty” theater. ”It was like our own private Mystery Science Theater,” he says. ”I was calling friends during the end and saying, ‘You have to come to this movie.’ We saw it four times in three days, and on the last day I had over 100 people there.” Soon, screenings of The Room were thick with both laughter and cutlery. ”The spoon thing probably started during the fourth screening with my friends,” says Rousselet. ”I was like, Why is there a spoon in the picture frame? Every time it came up, I’d scream ‘Spoon!’ So we brought spoons.”
Wiseau says that he received ”almost a hundred” e-mails thanking him for the film. ”That’s when I say, ‘Let’s just show The Room once a month, midnight screening,”’ he explains.
Wiseau regularly attended these events and answered questions. Sometimes he recited Shakespearean sonnets. Wiseau released The Room on DVD in December 2005, and produced another, promotional, DVD that featured fans of the film at screenings praising the Room experience. And he continued to pay for the billboard, which, as the years passed, became a local landmark until Wiseau finally gave it up in the fall of 2008. ”People started coming up to me randomly in L.A. and saying, ‘Were you in The Room?”’ says Paris. She wasn’t the only cast member to achieve a degree of fame thanks to the film. When Greg Sestero, who plays Mark, attended a screening a year after the movie’s release, he says he was ”mobbed” by fans. Juliette Danielle attended the second-anniversary screening and encountered fans dressed as her character. One even wore a prosthetic neck piece in homage to that scene in which it appears Lisa is about to endure a freakish compound fracture.
By the time the film’s third anniversary rolled around, in 2006, word of The Room had spread through the comedy scene. ”I was at Paul Rudd’s house a couple of years ago, and he said, ‘You have to watch this,”’ recalls Rudd’s frequent collaborator and Role Models director David Wain. ”Within two minutes, I’m like, ‘Okay, this is my favorite thing I’ve ever seen.’ I’ve watched it over and over and over. We’ve had a lot of fun thinking which character we’re going to play when we do our shot-for-shot remake.” Rudd also showed the film to Veronica Mars creator Rob Thomas, who in turn recommended it to the show’s star, Kristen Bell. ”I watched it in my trailer with my mouth agape the entire time,” she recalls. ”I knew I would never be the same. We tried to reference it on Veronica Mars as much as possible.” In one example, during a May 2007 episode of the show, a character mentions ”the new Rocky Horror,” where ”people throw plastic spoons at the screen.”
David Cross became intrigued by The Room while filming the 2004-05 season of Arrested Development. ”Will Arnett and I would always see the billboard and be like, ‘What the f— is that thing?”’ he says. ”Will Googled it, and then we would often watch the trailer.” Soon, the pair were cracking each other up by repeating Wiseau’s signature line: ”You are tearing me apart, Lisa!” Then, at the 2005 Screen Actors Guild awards, Cross noticed a familiar figure. ”I was like, Holy s—, Tommy Wiseau’s here!” he says. ”I was kind of drunk, and kept following him. I was literally finding every excuse to be next to him wherever he was in the building. He was getting weirded out by me.” Eventually Cross made the pilgrimage to see The Room itself. ”The idea of a participatory thing doesn’t sound like fun to me,” he says, ”but I really, really enjoyed it. It’s not like there’s one or two or three things that are bad about it. There are several hundred. I don’t think Will ever saw it,” Cross laughs. ”What a f—ing a–hole he is!”
Cross recommended the film to Eric Wareheim and Tim Heidecker, stars of the Cartoon Network’s bizarre late-night sketch extravaganza Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!, who became similarly obsessed. And Rudd, Bell, and Hill practically transformed the set of last April’s comedy Forgetting Sarah Marshall into a Room convention. (”Paul and Jonah and I were talking off set and Jonah kept snickering,” says Bell. ”And I’m like, Am I being pranked? Finally, I look down, and Paul is wearing a silk-screen picture of Tommy Wiseau on his T-shirt.”) Meanwhile, Rudd and Wain conspired to slip Room references into Role Models. ”There were all sorts of ideas,” says Wain. ”Like someone in the background going, ‘You are tearing me apart, Lisa!’ But Role Models was such a crazy process — we were kind of writing it as we were shooting — I don’t know if any of them ended up in the movie.” It seems like the comedy community is now divided into two camps: those who have fallen in love with The Room, and those who are about to. ”It’s ridiculous that I haven’t seen this,” says Adam McKay, Will Ferrell’s longtime writing partner, and the director of Anchorman. ”I’ve been told by a dozen people that I have to go. I’ve got to find the next showing.” Wiseau’s film has even become a verb. ”When we do a take, and it seems bad, a comment about The Room is often made,” says Joe Lo Truglio, who played the jolly knight in Role Models, and is yet another fan of The Room. ”’Dude, your heart was in the right place, but the acting wasn’t. You Roomed it!”’
Wiseau followed up The Room with 2004’s Homeless in America, a loose but rather moving documentary about the plight of Los Angeles street dwellers. ”I wanted to show people that this exists,” he says, with such sincerity that you want to hug him. ”Because I myself did not know. My God!” Wiseau is currently ”very, very busy” working on a number of future projects, including a sitcom called The Neighbors, the pilot for which he has already shot. And his fame among comedians has started to pay dividends. Wiseau recently filmed a sketch for the next season of Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! ”He kind of took over the set,” recalls star Wareheim. ”He would yell, ‘Rolling! Sound! Speed! Action!’ You could tell he had this feeling that he was a master of cinema.”
Meanwhile, the cult of The Room grows. Increasingly, the Laemmle Sunset 5 shows the movie on two screens, due to demand. Fans have begun to re-create scenes and post them on YouTube. Wiseau is mulling the possibility of turning the film into a Broadway musical and would like to dub it in French and Spanish for a possible European theatrical release. He also, ambitiously, wants to screen The Room at the Staples Center, which has a seating capacity of 20,000. ”We live in America. So everything is possible!” he says.
Wiseau is mum about whether he will see any profit from the film, though it seems doubtful. According to one billboard industry expert, the signage on Highland probably cost in the region of $5,000 a month, comfortably more than the gross box office of the midnight screenings. And one source close to the production admits that the movie ”hasn’t cleared expenses.” Wiseau himself attests that he is ”an artist. I really don’t like to talk about money.”
His secrecy has been key to the film’s success. (As Wain puts it, ”Part of the fun is guessing: Who is this guy? Where is he from? Why did he shoot on a greenscreen instead of going up on a roof?”) His Ed Wood-like innocence and enthusiasm for moviemaking has helped as well: Rudd declined to talk about The Room for this article because he didn’t want to ”mock somebody else’s stuff.” And Lo Truglio later got back in touch, concerned that he had been too harsh about Wiseau. ”It is a guilty pleasure in every sense of the word,” he says of the movie.
Ultimately, it really doesn’t matter whether the comedy in the film is intentional or accidental. Wiseau always planned for The Room to provoke a reaction and entertain, and it has certainly done both those things. And how many other independent filmmakers can claim to have entranced — and even influenced — such a roll call of comedic luminaries? ”Anything that I’ve seen that many times seeps into my subconscious,” says David Wain. ”In the same way that Steve Martin or Woody Allen movies became part of my vocabulary, that’s what happened with The Room. I’m laughing just thinking about it!”
The fact is that Wiseau has succeeded where so many big-screen hopefuls have failed. He has made his mark. True, it may not be quite the one he intended. But he has proved, without a doubt, that there is a place — that there is room — in Hollywood for Tommy Wiseau.
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The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)
The granddaddy of cult films — one that encourages reenactments, rice-throwing, and cross-dressing.
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Kristen Bell, Actress
David Wain, Director (Role Models)
Jonah Hill, Actor
David Cross, Actor-Comedian (Arrested Development)
Paul Rudd, Actor
Joe Lo Truglio, Actor (Role Models)
Tim Heidecker, Actor-Director (Tim and Eric Awesome Show, great job!)
Eric Wareheim, Actor-Director (Tim and Eric Awesome Show, great job!)