Nothing can truly prepare you for the experience of meeting Tommy Wiseau. Oh sure, you can get a sense of what he’ll be like by watching his unforgettable directorial debut The Room (2003) eight or nine times, as I have. Reviewing the film upon its 2003 release in a single Los Angeles theatre, Variety’s Scott Foundas speculated that the film’s “primary goal, apparently, is to convince us that the freakish Wiseau is actually a normal, everyday sort of guy.” But the sensation of actually meeting the legendary Wiseau – he of the long black hair and indeterminate accent – is something akin to an out-of-body experience.
Despite having all the glossy sheen and softcore coupling of a Cinemax TV movie, and all the outsized emotions of a classical Hollywood melodrama, The Room nevertheless appears far cheaper than its reported $6 million budget (raised under suspicious circumstances). There are plot holes aplenty, four ludicrously overextended sex scenes (during which Wiseau always seems to be thrusting into his leading lady’s navel), characters and plot strands that appear and disappear at random, and plenty of odd cutaways to the Golden Gate Bridge.
The Room, which plays monthly at the Royal, has been called one of the worst movies ever made, and, more charitably, the most entertaining bad movie since Plan 9 from Outer Space, but like Ed Wood before him, Tommy Wiseau deserves better than his reputation. Unlike many so-called “good bad movies,” The Room’s story of infidelity and betrayal has an insane momentum: it keeps getting crazier and crazier right up until its unhinged climax. More importantly, it has Wiseau, a leading man who, with his vaguely Eastern European accent and Fabio-meets-Harvey-Keitel-in-Taxi-Driver look, is deeply, strangely magnetic. His version of basic human interaction – a character who always greets others by saying, “Oh, hi [character name],” and who is always up for tossing the ol’ pigskin around at three-foot distances – is what makes The Room such compulsively watchable entertainment.
Mock him all you want, but midnight screenings of The Room, complete with Rocky Horror-type audience participation, have made Wiseau a bona fide celebrity – at several points during our interview in the lobby of the Royal (where he recently introduced three Toronto screenings), astonished onlookers waved at him through the glass doors. Wiseau Films, which still handles the film’s distribution, will be expanding the screenings to more cities and even to Europe, and Wiseau continues to talk up spin-off products, including a 3-D version, a Broadway musical, and a 600-page novelization (admit it, you’d love to read it).
In this interview, Wiseau discusses his future projects, his artistic process, and his thoughts on everything from cult fame to the female gender with typical passion. We have chosen to run the interview uncut, with all of Wiseau’s grammatical choices intact, to best represent the force of his personality.
THE VARSITY: The poster tagline says that the film “has all the passion of Tennessee Williams,” and it’s actually very rare to see a movie with the type of overt emotion – that kind of overt, passionate content. And, I’m wondering, did you find it intimidating or scary to create a movie like that? Because you’re really putting yourself out there when you create a movie that emotionally vulnerable.
TOMMY WISEAU: No, absolutely not.
TW: Yeah, because, y’know, I’m believing…y’know, like in The Room, “Two’s better than three” […] You just have to take risk. All media, all the criticism, all that stuff is secondary to me, they can say whatever they want as long as people see The Room and have fun with it, I did my job well. But you’re right, you question is very good question, ‘cause some people are much more conservative. I’m like, whatever, y’know, as long as, I wanna do the way I wanna do it. So I have a vision before I do the movie, so I knew exactly what I wanted. That’s why we here today, you see? Otherwise we wouldn’t [be] talking about it.
TV: It’s true, it’s stuck around.
TW: There you go, thank you.
TV: You mention you had a vision before you made the movie, and the movie encompasses so many topics – it has infidelity, it has cancer, it has love, it has drugs in one scene. When you came up with the idea for The Room, did it include all those topics, or did you envision it as just a film about infidelity?
TW: No, no, no, no. You see, first of all, can I correct you a little bit? I don’t know if you know, or your audience or your listener knows, that The Room is based on 600 pages novel what I wrote already, number one. Number two, I condense to 99 minutes, that’s the standard feature movie. And before that, I decided that actually I want to put it on as a play for the theatre, but I said, the number of people going to theatre is less – I’m talking about play theatre – [than] the number of people going to cinema. So I said, “Well, you know what, I’ll change it.” And I did a lot of research about studio system, etcetera etcetera, and they said, “This movie will be never produced,” except I have to do it. So that’s what the story is, you see? So, whatever you reading online or what other people assuming is incorrect because I already have from the beginning a vision. And plus, I used two format of the cameras – HD and 35mm. That’s another aspect why I want to do it. And I want to tackle, you know, as many issues as much I can.
TV: I suppose you had to cut a lot out, since the book was 600 pages or so.
TW: Oh yeah, yeah, when they publish the book you will see it, all the description of certain scene or situation, it’s much more detail.
TV: You mentioned it was going to be a play, but there’s also talk of it becoming a Broadway play soon. Will the Broadway play encompass a lot more of what was cut out for the movie?
TW: No, not really. The Broadway show I see it will be similar to what you see in the movie, except it will be musical. As well as, you will see… like, for example, Johnny, we could have maybe ten Johnnys at the same time singing, or playing football. So, the decision have to be made at the time when we actually doing choreography, ‘cause I’ll be doing choreography, as well I’ll be in it only one time, that’s it, as Johnny.
TV: Opening night?
TV: [Laughs] Really? Well…
TW: And it cost a lot of money, if you ask me. But we… first we actually be releasing the Blu-Ray and 3-D [versions], and then the Broadway – maybe we do before, I don’t know yet at this time.
TV: What about The Room do you think lends itself to the 3-D format?
TW: Well, it’s a process of doing it in the sense… I don’t really know if your listener knows, you have to scan from a 35 [35mm print], and then you have to edit certain way because it is three-dimensional, you may say that, so it’s a lot of work. It’s a certain process. Yes you can do it – if you ask me if you can do it, the answer is yes, that’s what we are doing.
TV: Because the movie incorporates so many topics, when you were writing it was it a challenge to juggle everything?
TW: Oh yeah, good question again, you making my day. At least someone is thinking.
TV: Thank you, thank you.
TW: Absolutely, you’re absolutely right, it’s extremely difficult. Again, I will say you have to be detail-oriented based on how you want to do it, but original material is very important, and when you juggling with many different topics like relationships, drugs, cancer, etcetera etcetera, you get into trouble. Like you say in the beginning, it’s a great question: why is that? You take the risk, and I like to take risk. Without risk, you don’t have life.
TV: You talk about it being a very original film, but you also have very obvious influences, like Tennessee Williams. Who are some of the other people or filmmakers or authors who have influenced you?
TW: Well, I don’t really have influences, I just have, maybe… I’m fond of some of the work. And one is Tennessee Williams, or Citizen Kane, Orson Welles, James Dean, Elizabeth Taylor, and all of contemporary as well. So, I don’t see as an influence, but they work on the same page, I would say – including Hitchcock. Because they dealing with human behaviour, and I said this a few minutes ago, the mainstream media – they don’t understand the concept of The Room, as far as I’m concerned.
TV: Speaking of Elizabeth Taylor, you said last night that you felt that Lisa [Wiseau’s unfaithful on-screen wife, played by Juliette Danielle] has some similarities with Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra.
TW: Absolutely, yes.
TV: How so?
TW: Well, how so? Because, you know, if you at today’s society, you know, woman always say – or girl, whatever you name it, female – you know, they have to wear jeans, they have to wear this and this, “Oh yeah, we are better than guys, whatever.” I’m just paraphrasing, right? Just a general statement.
But the fact also is, they don’t realize, especially girls, that they can offer more. They don’t understand based on the nature, they have much more power than guys. I can rebuttal anybody, because Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra, you can see the power of woman, and girl, or woman, female. And, in today’s society – and I notice in Canada it’s the same thing like in America – they’re missing the point. The girls missing the point. Are you telling me the girls who actually going be a fireman is a better girl because she is a fireman… fireman, firewoman, whatever you call it? Yeah. They have something, they can manipulate guys, and they can actually use their own stuff, but they don’t wanna do it, that’s the thing, because they think if they dress up differently and do certain stuff whatt guys do that, “We’ll sorta beat the guys,” okay? But that’s not how it works – they’re missing the point. And that why I always say, coincidence, I don’t know, coincidence, accident, whatever it is, but for some reason we noticed – I noticed personally – that we have more girls up for these screenings of The Room across the world right now. So I don’t know if they like it…
TV: Do you think it has something to do with the Lisa character?
TW: Probably yes, but I’m not sure to be honest with you. That would be great question to ask some of the girls, I invite you to the screening, you may ask this question because I really… I noticed this past two years. Before we had more guys; now we have equal or sometimes more girls. So, they embrace their well, so maybe they like, y’know, certain stuff the Lisa character does. And this also process of learning, because they know what I come from. I always equal, means that I always treat character equal, but the character of Lisa show it… so this is what I’m saying: you can compare it to Cleopatra and directly to the manipulation of power. What is behind a girl mind? But we forget about this stuff.
TV: Do you find Lisa completely unsympathetic?
TW: Well… you may go both ways. But I personally think that Lisa is what it is, meaning that the character, we open her heart inside her, not outside. So we have two images, one is good, one is evil [about] why she’s doing that, you see? And this is destruction of somebody else for party, and she destroy everybody – life, actually, directly and indirectly, if you really analyze very deeply. If you really look at… all this negative and positive, whatever you put on the site, and said, “Wait a minute, let’s be objective.” What is Lisa? Who is she? What’s she doing, why is she doing? For fame, for money… or just for pleasure? And that’s what she’s doing. Cleopatra did the same thing if you really look at it very closely. And again, in a funny way, it’s different era but the feelings and emotions are almost the same if you ask me.
TV: You were a first-time director when you made this movie. Was it harder to make a movie than you expected, and what did you learn from the process?
TW: Yeah, that was extremely challenge, because… let me say this way: if you have a ship, you are captain of the ship, and your ship is sinking, everybody’s leaving, what do you do? And that’s how I can describe my production. The fact is, four times crew quit, four time actors had to replace – quit or been replace. People tried to tamper my project. It was very difficult for me – extremely difficult. I could cry right now if you ask me, it’s true, because it’s very… it is what it is. That was my first project, and people try to tamper, that’s the fact. We actually have a strike on production.
TV: How did they try to tamper? Because it seems to me to be so much… your film.
TW: Well, let me give you example: we have a script, right? And people say, “No, no, no, you have to do this way.” Because, you see, we have a lot on the production, a lot of people are “old-timer” we call it in Hollywood, who actually worked for big studios – lighters, designers, for example, grid lights, etcetera. And I say, “No, that’s what I want shot, particular shot,” they say, “No, no, no, we can’t do it.” I say, “No, that’s not what I want.” I have an issue with my script supervisor – “I want it this way,” “No, no, no, you do it this way,” I say, “No, that’s not what I want!” So, it was very frustrating for me, and that’s a fact.
Actors, you know, was actually slightly different, but I noticed… give you another example: we had rehearsal process before I started shooting at least six months, but during this rehearsing process, I replaced the actors, some of them quit, whatever. And, at the same time, when I have new actors, for example… I’m just give you example because, like I say, there are so many example I could write a book about it. Probably I will, you know?
So, with the actors for example, I replace it, then we started doing shooting, the actors are not doing the same thing what they do in the rehearsal. And I was completely shocked, I said, “What’s going on here?” And my background’s actually stage actor, so I’m familiar with the entire process, you know. One of the good things that I did, I’m proud of myself: all the actors, I had doubles, or triples, meaning that one character, like Lisa, we have understudies. So, for example, Juliette Danielle, she was understudy, she was supposed to be Michelle, but she switched to Lisa because the other person did not work out.
TV: For a low-budget film, that must be hard to coordinate.
TW: Thank you very much, at least somebody’s open-minded. I appreciate your statements and questions. You’re absolutely correct, you seem to be know what you’re talking about. One of the good things – let me say something else here, if I may – that people who quit come back after eight years and decided that they want a credit after they work in the movie for two hours.
TV: Yeah, I read about that. [Wiseau is here referring to script supervisor Sandy Schklair, who recently told Entertainment Weekly that he directed The Room when Wiseau became too busy with acting]
TW: Well, this is so laughable that… you know what? I don’t know, probably only in America it can happen, this kind of stuff. Because, you know, I’m a person, if I work with somebody… I say to all filmmakers as well: do not quit the production. Whatever you do in life, you don’t have to be filmmaker: give the notice three days, not just to quit, or finish your… at least you finish. And people still don’t understand, and what I’m saying to you on this part of the interview with you, that people don’t understand, and probably they will understand now, that each time you replace somebody from any task, it cost you more. That’s why it cost so much money to produce The Room. Imagine, I replaced almost one hundred people, you know, going back and forth, back and forth, each time you replace one person, you have to fill up with somebody else, and they have to be filled up with information, study, interview, etcetera etcetera. Again, I don’t… you know, be honest with you, I don’t ask people to understand, but it seems so many misleading stuff going on, so I’m trying to explain to you what’s happened.
The same about how the movie, The Room, became sort of called whatever you call it, which I don’t call “cult,” y’know, but people decided to, fine with me. But that not how happen. You want to hear the story?
TW: The story is that we submitted The Room to Academy Award. It didn’t won anything, but I’m very proud of it, we in the database, I’m very proud of it, we follow all the rules, etcetera. Again, I have great respect for studio system and for everybody in Hollywood. But anyway, long story short, we submitted to Academy Awards, then we pulled the movie out from the theatre circulation, and suddenly I got a lot emails as well as phone calls from the theatre that some people are camping outside the theatre, they wanna see me. I say, “What’s going on?” I swear, I say, “I’m not going there!” [Laughs] Long story short again, we decided, because there so many email, I say, “You know what? Let’s screen The Room in Wilshire” – that’s the Wilshire Screening Room in Los Angeles. Again, long story short, we got into trouble because so many people show up for The Room we got in trouble with the fire marshal because people were sitting on the floors, and I have a Q&A – I literally couldn’t go through the people, you know, it was just crazy.
TV: Was this about 2004, 2005?
TW: Actually, yes, that was the time, 2002, 2003. So, we got into trouble. I call the theatre and say, “Look, can we screen The Room, because there’s just no way we cannot do this.” And I didn’t realize, the guy was very nice guy, but he say, “Tommy, we can’t do this,” so I say, “Okay.” I call theatre, okay, we’ll put back in the theatre [in] the Sunset 5 in Los Angeles, and since that day we’ve been screening The Room for past eight years, and we have five screening once a month, so I’m very happy with that. So, that’s what started […] that’s the history of The Room.
So we didn’t know about that “midnight screening” that’s supposed to be all this, you know, sort of phenomenon – I myself did not know, to be honest with you [Wiseau is referring to the tradition of theatres programming cult films like The Rocky Horror Picture Show at midnight]. But this happened because a lot of people was late at the time, the Wilshire, and I say, “You know what? It’d be cool to do at midnight, why not?” And then I studied this in Psychology 101, I don’t know if you know – you wanna hear?
TV: Yeah, sure.
TW: Yeah, so, the crime committed in America – I don’t know how it is in Canada, okay, but in America, between 12 and 4 o’clock in the morning [is the highest crime-rate period]. So I always say to many interviewers, I say, “You know what? The Room eliminate crime somewhat!” [Laughs]
TV: Well, I’m sure the rate of muggings at screenings of The Room goes up exponentially.
TV: You mentioned to the last interviewer that you generally like to keep your private life private, but you’re entering a world of celebrity where everyone expects to know everything about celebrities. How have you found dealing with that?
TW: Well, again, I would say choices. In America, we have a choice, so you decide at what you want to do as a choice, you as an individual. Good question, I commend you for the question. Yes, it’s hard to do because, you don’t like people recognize you, whatever, but again, I am simple guy, but it is what it is. So it is good and bad at same time. I don’t mind… like I said, we travel a lot right now, we go next year to London, maybe this year, and then, you know, even in Canada people say, “Oh hey, how you doing, Tommy?” I say, “Fine, how are you?” So it’s fun, you know?
But you’re right, it’s a matter of choices, and fans of The Room… again, I want to say thank you to all fans of The Room: support The Room, as well as see The Room. I always say, “You can laugh, you can cry, you can express yourself, but PLEASE don’t hurt each other” [Editor’s note: keep in mind Wiseau’s comic exaggeration of the word “please” in this oft-repeated catchphrase]. But again, let me just respond to your question: it is tough sometimes, to be honest with you. I like to grocery shop like everybody else, but sometimes you say… [mimes wearily waving to a fan] “Ooookaaaay.” You know? But, you know, it’s just complementary somewhat, you know. You get used to it, I guess.
TV: You said that the movie had a lot of obstacles, and I often think that art, shall we say, thrives under limitations. Do you think The Room would have been better without the obstacles – if it had had, y’know, a big Hollywood budget – or did the fact that it had so many obstacles, and that it was made on a low-budget, make for a better film?
TW: Well you know, I agree with you a hundred percent based on the statement in the question what you are saying. But certain stuff I disagree, meaning that, for example […] how much money you want to spend for the movie to be successful – vice versa, is it small, could be better, or vice versa? I think it’s again, I would go do same thing what I said it before, original. And you’re right, there are lot of obstacle, I would not take obstacle out, meaning the issue we are dealing with, because you would not have The Room.
The same, for example, like the Golden Gate Bridge, you know, the panels of Golden Gate Bridge: why is thirty seconds, not fifteen, you know? [Wiseau is here referring to the film’s often exceedingly long establishing shots of the Golden Gate Bridge]. Typical, as you probably know – seems to be very knowledgeable guy here – typical film will be five seconds, because you don’t want to stretch thirty second. But guess what? If you look at the test, simple test, if you look at something five second, thirty seconds, make a huge difference. Because thirty seconds give you what? The time to think about it, right? So this is the challenge for me as a filmmaker: how I can do it to actually convincing, and this is the risk, and, you know what, this is one of the best interview I have in Canada right now…
TV: Oh, thank you.
TW: You really challenging me, because I like your questions, you see? That’s the thing what I like to talk about. Let me finish, I’m sorry. So, this is the thing: how you can create something when people will think about it? So imagine if I put the Golden Gate Bridge, for example, five seconds instead fifty second, or thirty seconds. It would be huge difference, because people would just look, “Oh yeah, it’s Golden Gate Bridge.” And now what we notice on the screening, directly, I didn’t know that but it is there, that people actually yelling, “Golden Gate Bridge!” or “Woo! Woo! Woo!” whatever, to me is flatter. Because you see, again, this is not happen by accident, because this is my choice. I remember, like, today, you know, we been in San Francisco, and you have different hills, and it’s very easy to shoot, actually. And I say, “Give me a nice pan,” you know? And also, we been in San Solito, I don’t know if you’re familiar with it…
TV: I’ve heard of it.
TW: Yes, San Solito is after Golden Gate Bridge, it’s a little town, it’s pretty, pretty cool town. And you have beautiful, spectacular view of also the entire city. So again, you actually having a couple shots from San Solito panning to the city. So again, this is great question, maybe some day we do it again.
(hear the audio version at our In Conversation With blog here)