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Tommy Wiseau Goes Legit: An Interview With the Man Behind "The Room"

Photo of Peter Knegt By Peter Knegt | Indiewire June 9, 2011 at 5:38AM

It's been nearly eight years since the world first laid eyes on Tommy Wiseau's "The Room." Initially hailed as one of the worst films ever made when Wiseau gave it an exclusive run for Academy consideration back in 2003, it's turned into a full-fledged cultural phenomenon. The film was infamously financed by Wiseau (he wrote, directed and stars in it), who somehow pulled together $6 million budget for production and marketing. Wiseau has been secretive about exactly how he obtained the funding, although he once claimed that he made some of the money by importing leather jackets from Korea.
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It's been nearly eight years since the world first laid eyes on Tommy Wiseau's "The Room." Initially hailed as one of the worst films ever made when Wiseau gave it an exclusive run for Academy consideration back in 2003, it's turned into a full-fledged cultural phenomenon. The film was infamously financed by Wiseau (he wrote, directed and stars in it), who somehow pulled together $6 million budget for production and marketing. Wiseau has been secretive about exactly how he obtained the funding, although he once claimed that he made some of the money by importing leather jackets from Korea.

This is part 1 of a 2 part interview, the second part of which is available here.

However it happened, "The Room" has earned a totally bizarre and unique place in the history of cinema. The largely nonsensical story of a love triangle between Johnny (Wiseau), his fiancée Lisa (Juliette Danielle) and his best friend Mark (Greg Sestero), "The Room" has a midnight-screenings track record that's probably comparable only to "The Rocky Horror Picture Show." Audience members dress as their favorite characters, throw plastic spoons at the movie screen (a reference to unexplained framed photos of cutlery often seen in the background), and yell insults and criticisms about the quality of the film -- often with Wiseau in attendance.

This weekend, he'll head to the AFI Silver Theater in Washington, DC for two midnight screenings, with a twist: As a companion piece, Wiseau and original cast member Greg Sestero will create a live staging of the film, featuring "never-before-seen scenes and characters." It is perhaps a precursor to a full-fledged stage production of "The Room," which Wiseau has always made clear as his ambition.

Last month, indieWIRE chatted with Wiseau over the phone when he was in Toronto doing a midnight screening at the Royal Cinema (one of the first theaters to start midnight screening of "The Room" outside of Los Angeles), part one of which is transcribed below. Though he occasionally rambled on in manner comparable to dialogue in "The Room," the infamously mysterious man (despite an ambigiously eastern European accent, he claims to have grown up in New Orleans and lived in France "a long time ago") was also very pleasant and charming as an interview subject, often bursting into laughter and always speaking quite sincerely to his film and his ambitions.

Hello, Mr. Wiseau?

Just call me Tommy. So how have you been?

Great, how are you?

Okay. So let me give you a little structure here. As you know, we have no restrictions. You may ask anything you want. So let's move on... Did you see "The Room"?

Yes, many times.

Okay, cool. Peter, right?

Yes, Peter.

Okay, Peter... Go for it!

Let's start by going back. When did you first become interested in film and how did that lead to "The Room"?

That's your question?

That's my question.

Okay, so long story short: I used to want to be a rock star, believe or not.

I think a lot of us did.

There you go... You, too? Anyway, long story short: I wrote this 600-page book and at first I decided I wanted to do it as a play instead. But then I decided, no, I'll do this as a film. So I converted my 600-page book into a 99-page script, and that's what you have today. But to respond to your question about my interest in film. I like a lot of classic movies, like for example "Citizen Kane," James Dean movies, etc, etc.

But going back to "The Room" itself, how long ago was it that you converted that book into a script?

Well, whatever you hear or read online is very misleading because "The Room" is almost 20 years of work, if you really think about it. My background is in psychology and I'm also a stage actor. That's my background. So to respond to your question, it took me like... What is your question exactly?

The question was about the origins of "The Room" and how that came together. At what point did that 600-page book become that 99-page script and where the film go from there?

Oh, okay. You see, I did a study and concluded that in America the number of people who go to see theater on the stage is much less than the people that go to a cinema. And believe it or not, from the beginning I wanted to put it on as a play. But the cost was so much, so I thought to myself about how all this money would be spent and it would just run in a theater for like two weeks.

So then you decided to make it a film.

Basically, I did not approach any studios because, again, I did some research and I knew this movie would never be produced by a studio [laughs]. That was my conclusion! I have some friends who tried to pitch it to studios and it was very unsuccessful. That's the facts. But I'm happy with what happened with "The Room." That's the history of "The Room."

Now that it's clearly become successful, do you think you would turn into a play now?

Absolutely! Actually, I want to show it on Broadway, not off Broadway. You know the difference, right?

Yeah.

For your information, we have an AFI event in Washington DC and we are actually going to put some scenes on the stage and I'll be there. But we want to do it on Broadway, definitely. As you probably know as you've seen "The Room," it is very easy to adapt on the stage. For a Broadway show, how I feel it should be moving. For example, a dozen Johnnys singing, as well Lisa, etc, etc. So I'm very excited to work on it, but it will be extremely costly and a big risk. But we'll be doing it. For sure.

That's really great. I'm sure it will end up being as big a success as the film. And speaking of which, I'm curious what your expectations were going into it? And what has your reaction been in the past six or seven years as you've watched this film travel the world with midnight screenings and undeniably become a cult classic?

Well, Peter, to be honest with you... From the beginning, I did not expect that. My idea was to the "The Room" and then after "The Room," I'd do other movies. But then it didn't happen the way I had planned. It actually came out better than expected! But there was a lot of sacrifice... Do you want to hear a little background about how this happened with the midnight screenings?

I'd love to.

So basically, long story short: I submitted "The Room" to the Academy Awards -- you can check that, it's a fact. We followed all the rules by doing a two-week run in Los Angeles and I'm proud to be in the Academy database. After two weeks' screening, I pulled it from circulation. But then we got all these requests from the audience demanding to screen it again. That's a fact. We got several phone calls from the theater that people were campaigning because they wanted to see "The Room." I said to myself, "What the heck." We got thousands of e-mails. So I said, "You know what, let's just screen 'The Room' at the Wilshire screening room.' But then we got into trouble. Which is good trouble, I guess [laughs]. We violated the fire marshal code. Meaning that there were too many people showing up for the film. People were literally sitting on the floor. And they said we could not do this because we triggered the fire marshal code. So again, whatever you hear or read online is misleading. Because that's exactly what happened. I called the theater back and said, "Can we screen it at midnight?" Because sometimes people are late. And we started screening at the Laemmle Sunset in Los Angeles. We had one screening and today -- I don't if you know, but now you know -- we screen "The Room" once a month there and have 800 or 900 people come. So that's the history of "The Room" and how we started the midnight screenings.

Since then, you've truly become this cult icon and even a bit of a celebrity. What's your life like now? Do you travel with these screenings?

Occasionally. I'm fully booked this year. I do travel a lot. The fans of "The Room" want to see me and we have a groovy time. I think it's beneficial for "The Room" as well. And I like to travel anyway.

What's one of your favorite experiences from these screenings?

Sure! One girl said to me, 'Can you marry me?'

Did you?

Of course not! At this time, no. She was nice, but you know... Are you tripping me, Peter?

No, I'm just joking! Sorry.

I know, I am too. So don't worry about it. Express yourself!

This is part 1 of a 2 part interview, the second part of which is available here.

This article is related to: Features, Interviews






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