How to explain The Room to someone who hasn’t seen it? Here’s a simple plot description: Johnny, a nice, mild-mannered fellow, is betrayed by his future wife and his best friend. This is intended to be horrible and tragic—telegraphed by musical cues and Johnny’s cries of agony—and yet since its release in 2003, The Room has become a comedy cult classic and a staple of midnight screenings.
The Room is the work of an auteur, Tommy Wiseau, who wrote, directed, starred in, and paid for the entire thing at a cost of $6 million. His artistic vision most closely resembles that of an alien newly arrived on earth with only the most rudimentary knowledge of human behavior. His grasp of moviemaking is shaky: continuity errors abound, plot developments emerge out of nowhere and then return from whence they came, and in certain shots the sets are quite clearly falling apart.
But there’s something about it that distinguishes it from ordinary Mystery Science Theater 3000 fodder. “The Room is a drama that is also a comedy that is also an existential cry for help that is finally a testament to human endurance,” Greg Sestero writes in The Disaster Artist, his chronicle (with Tom Bissell) of the making of The Room and his bizarre friendship with Wiseau. It’s to the authors’ credit that by the end of the book, this does not seem like too grandiose a statement.
Sestero and Wiseau first met in an acting class in San Francisco in 1998, where Sestero was struck by Wiseau’s “beautifully, chaotically wrong” performance as Stanley Kowalski and invited him to be his new scene partner. They were an odd pair. Sestero was a 20-year-old “all-America kid,” in Wiseau’s words, who still lived at home with his parents. Wiseau was of indeterminate age and indeterminate origins, with a bottomless bank account accumulated through indeterminate means. He resembled a vampire. He was an embarrassment in restaurants. He berated Sestero for hanging out with other people. At its low points, their friendship resembled The Talented Mr. Ripley without the murder.
But Wiseau could also be generous and encouraging, and Sestero found his optimism infectious. This, in part, explains why he agreed to participate in The Room, serving as a line producer and playing Mark, Johnny’s traitorous best friend. The other part was the large salary Wiseau promised, paid only upon the film’s completion.
The production, needless to say, was one long catastrophe, largely due to Wiseau’s incompetence and hubris. It’s not necessary to have seen The Room before you read The Disaster Artist, but it helps, if only to have a sense of Wiseau’s unique speech patterns and his delivery of such iconic lines as “Oh, hi, Mark” and “You’re tearing me apart, Lisa!”
If The Disaster Artist were just about a possibly insane megalomaniac making a movie, it would have been a hilarious and entertaining book. But Sestero has genuine compassion for Wiseau, and he’s written an “all-America” story about the power of dreams and self-invention. After all, Wiseau did end up making a classic movie. It just wasn’t the one he intended.