Culture

Room Service: ‘The Disaster Artist’ Author’s Strange Path to Fame

“The Disaster Artist,” by Point Grey Pictures (2017)

“She’s a stupid bitch,” the Dutch-boy blonde in a daytime black negligee hisses into her cordless phone. “She wants to control my life.” The blonde continues in an ersatz-feminist rant about her own scheming mother. “I’m not going to put up with it,” she finishes with a flourish, “I’m going to do what I’m going to do and that’s it.”

I’m watching Lisa’s “mother” speech on a YouTube bootleg of Tommy Wiseau’s 2003 so-bad-it’s-good epic “The Room,” complete with Spanish subtitles, as the same speech was completely unintelligible on the big screen when “The Room” screened two days ago in a sold-out, downtown New York theater.

The moment the film cut from a pensive Lisa on the couch after her mother departs to a determined Lisa at her telephone table, hundreds of cheap plastic utensils were launched across the auditorium as the audience gleefully screamed, “Spoons!” even before the lazy, Lisa-to-Lisa cross-dissolve completes itself.

The disposable cutlery arrives courtesy of a rowdy bunch—men in the ubiquitous tuxedo tee armed with footballs they’ll toss back and forth in the dark, and women in the most hideous red dresses they can get their hands on—who defy the “absolutely no spoons” curtain speech even though it deems them ineligible for the post-screening goody bag. They’ll also scream “Focus!” during the film’s many lapses in sharpness and chant “Go-Go-Go…” during the umpteenth anchorage-to-anchorage pan of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge.

The spoon-tossing is part champagne christening, part rotten tomato hurl at the framed photographs littering Lisa’s telephone table. When the art department was dispatched to buy some decor for the barren set, they returned with bargain frames that already had the arty spoon shots inserted. Though they suggested replacing them with actual photos, Wiseau liked the spoons just fine and the cameras—both of them, as Wiseau sprung for a state-of-the-art-but-why, side-by-side film and hi-def camera rig—kept rolling.

Think of “The Room” as Bro Rocky Horror, but the enthusiastic audience participation that’s cropped up around the $6 million, self-financed and self-starring bizarre love triangle between Wiseau’s affable banker named Johnny, Juliette Danielle’s aforementioned Lisa, and Greg Sestero’s bestie and betrayer Mark is just the tip of the iceberg. There’s also Sestero’s 2013 book The Disaster Artist chronicling his time line-producing, starring, and Wiseau hand-holding through what Entertainment Weekly calls “The Citizen Kane of bad movies.”

Then there’s James Franco’s new film adaptation of Sestero’s book, wherein Franco not only stars as the droopy-eyed Wiseau, but also recreates some of more notorious scenes in “The Room” shot-by-shot as director. Franco naturally compounds the hermetically incestuous vibe of “The Room” by casting his younger brother Dave Franco as Sestero. And let’s not even get into the line of men’s underwear Wiseau has launched, pegged to the holiday release of “The Disaster Artist.”

If this all seems a tad reflexive, don’t worry: it is. But that’s not to say that Sestero’s book isn’t one of the most fascinating reads about making a movie that’s ever been pecked in coffee shops across West Hollywood. And naturally, his book about making movies leans heavily on other movies about making movies. We’ve rounded up the top five here as a kind of filmic primer to prep for “The Disaster Artist.” (As far as the plastic spoons go, you’re on your own, but Walmart’s got a hundred count box for $3.67.)

Macaulay Culkin in Home Alone (1990) © 1990 20th Century Fox

Macaulay Culkin in Home Alone (1990) © 1990 20th Century Fox

“Home Alone”
This 1990 film’s poster of a pre-pubescent Macaulay Culkin doing a histrionic, Aqua Velva splash with both hands bookending the tense circle of his open mouth could serve as an alternate logo for the ubiquitous “Wiseau Films” slapped all over “The Room.” But this one, like most on this list, is actually more about Sestero than Wiseau. It’s included because on Christmas day, before Sestero was a teen himself, he watched this John Hughes classic on the universal (or at least Room-iversal) theme of bratty child and better mousetrap, deciding filmmaking was the life for him.

Instead of propelling Sestero down the typical theater path of school-exempting auditions and summers away at drama camp, it led him to sit down and pen “Home Alone 2: Lost in Disney World.” The script featured a plum role for himself opposite Culkin as his “slightly older neighbor Drake” and an all expenses paid trip to the happiest place on Earth. Sestero promptly fired it off to Hughes’ production company in Chicago and, surprisingly, received a hand-written response from Hughes himself urging the young Sestero to “believe in yourself, have patience and always follow your heart.” This propelled him through his teens and right up to the San Francisco soundstage for “The Room.”

Gloria Swanson in Sunset Blvd. © 1950 - Paramount Pictures

Gloria Swanson in Sunset Blvd. © 1950 – Paramount Pictures

“Sunset Boulevard”
This 1950 noir’s down-on-his-luck screenwriter Joe Gillis is often quoted at the top of The Disaster Artist’s seventeen chapters, but like the other films rounded up here, it will have you asking: Which character is Wiseau, and which is Sestero? An argument could certainly be made for Wiseau making a pretty convincing Norma Desmond manqué with her dead monkey and Hollywood Hills home, in which she imprisons Gillis while he wrestles her bear of a script for “Salome” to the ground, a comeback vehicle in which she intends to star.

Then again, is Wiseau the scrappy, pulled-up-by-his-gifted-bootstraps gigolo-cum-scribe Gillis? Certainly the dressing down Gillis gives Desmond in the final act, just before she empties her gun into his back, is pure Wiseau. Gillis telling Desmond that her public has moved on, there will be no comeback, and that the fan letters she moons over are penned by her butler Max is akin to what Sestero calls Wiseau’s on-set “seagull thing: making a lot of irritating noise while simultaneously shitting on everyone.”

Jude Law and Matt Damon in The Talented Mr. Ripley © Miramax

Jude Law and Matt Damon in The Talented Mr. Ripley © Miramax

“The Talented Mr. Ripley”
“You can change the people, change the scenery, but you can’t change your own rotten self,” The Talented Mr. Ripley’s resident sociopath Tom says at the top of The Disaster Artist’s twelfth chapter. However, in Anthony Minghella’s 1999 adaptation of the Patricia Highsmith classic, Matt Damon’s voice-over of the suicide note he’s penned for Dickie Greenleaf (a trustafarian he’s already offed and then impersonated around exotic, European locales), is preceded by lines calling Greenleaf the “brother I never had. The only true friend I ever had. In all kinds of ways you’re much more like the son my father always wanted.”

Again, who’s the young richie and who’s the homicidal arriviste? By the time Sestero lands a prestige agent while crashing in one of Wiseau’s many Hollywood apartments, I’d lost track, and I suppose one of the points of “The Room” (and yes, of course there is one) is just how interchangeable everything is. When nothing in the plot is actually resolved, why can’t one consistently reshuffle the deck of characters? After all, doesn’t Sestero himself arrive at his plum role in “The Room” only after the actor already cast as the disloyal best friend Mark was gaslighted off the set?

James Dean in the original final scene of "Rebel Without A Cause." 1955 Warner / MPTV

James Dean in the original final scene of “Rebel Without A Cause.” 1955 Warner / MPTV

“Rebel Without A Cause”
“You’re tearing me apart, Lisa!” is probably the single line in “The Room” that begs the most ardent audience participation, no doubt baked in by one of Wiseau’s double-digit takes just to get the line out. As written, the line is actually, “You’re taking me apart, Lisa,” but by the time Wiseau got to set, his adoration and aping of James Dean bubbled to the surface: a line that may have slipped by as homage to Nicholas Ray’s 1955 teenage pot-boiler “Rebel Without a Cause” was now outright plagiarism.

Doesn’t matter. The brooding Dean hovers over “The Room” as patron saint, blessing many of Sestero and Wiseau’s bro-dates: the road-trip to his car crash death site, a day-trip to rebel’s Griffith Observatory where Wiseau puts a tourist to work filming himself and Sestero enacting that film’s infamous knife-fight, even a bromantic dinner date at one of Dean’s Hollywood haunts. After his nemesis in “Rebel” is killed in one of their many “chickie runs,” Dean has a brooding living-room scene where he screams the famous “you’re tearing me apart” line at his father. One can only thank the patron saint that animals don’t figure into “The Room,” or surely we’d be shouting out the line, “Why did you shoot those puppies, Lisa?”

Stephen Blackehart in Retro Puppet Master © 1999 Echo Bridge Home Entertainment

Stephen Blackehart in Retro Puppet Master © 1999 Echo Bridge Home Entertainment

“Retro Puppet Master”
This 1999 direct-to-video horror film is the seventh of ten installments based on the ’89 original, in which super-creepy puppets are animated via an ancient Egyptian spell and kill, kill, kill. This one is an origin story, and none other than our own Greg Sestero portrays the young Andre Toulon.

In a strange case of art imitating life, Sestero allows himself a humblebrag about beating out a young actor named James Franco for the role, a year before Seth Rogen’s production company Point Grey Pictures acquired the book, dashing Wiseau’s hopes of being portrayed on screen by Johnny Depp by casting Franco in the lead.

But let’s get back to “Retro Puppet Master.” As a gig, it’s the thing that picked Sestero up and out of his increasingly “Single White Female” relationship to Wiseau. It’s almost as if Ed Wood came knocking at the Desmond place and said to Joe Gillis: “Hey kid, let’s go to Romania and make a picture.” Sestero seems aware that he’s not upping for “The Lord of the Rings” franchise, though he does mention a Frodo audition clipped early because he was too tall.

The irony here is “Retro Puppet Master” would have made for just as apt a title for his tell-all as The Disaster Artist. Of course, his sub-hed: My Life Inside The Room, the Greatest Bad Film Ever Made need not change.