Book Review: “The Disaster Artist” by Greg Sestero and Tom Bissell

[originally posted at Blogcritics]

When Greg Sestero was trying to make it as an actor, his friend Tommy Wiseau asked him how to earn a Screen Actors Guild membership. Sestero responded that he could gain admission to the actors’ union by being the principal actor in a TV commercial.

Wiseau, naturally, decided to produce, write, direct and star in a bizarre “advertisement” for his company, Street Fashions USA, in which he dressed as a Shakespeare character and asked, “To be or not to be, that is the question.” When Sestero saw the commercial, he quickly realized that it was an homage to his own role in the B-movie Retro Puppet Master. “When it ended I wondered if Tommy’s commercial had sent the SAG people deep into their application’s fine-print jungle,” writes Sestero, “searching for something, anything, to prevent this Shakespearean denim peddler from joining their ranks.”

A few years later, of course, Wiseau went from making his own TV commercial to producing, writing, directing and starring in his own feature film, The Room, which he thought would make him a superstar. And it did, in a way. Eleven years after its release, The Room is still packing them in at midnight screenings around the world, where audiences partake in rituals like throwing plastic spoons at the screen (don’t ask) and screaming their favorite lines.

Sestero co-starred as “Mark,” who is having an affair with the irresistibly seductive girlfriend of Wiseau’s pure-hearted, successful and saintly character, “Johnny.” But he met Wiseau years earlier in his San Francisco acting class, and struck up a turbulent but genuine friendship with the mysterious, lumpen, strangely-accented, middle-aged man who wanted to become the next great thespian. That friendship, and the making of the greatest cult movie of our generation, is recounted in The Disaster Artist, co-written with Tom Bissell.

The chapters in The Disaster Artist alternate between explaining how Sestero met and became close to Wiseau, and describing the chaotic making of his dream project. And no matter how crazy you think it was on the set of The Room, you have no idea until you read this book. At least three Directors of Photography took turns shooting the film. Cast members came and went almost on a daily basis. And the simplest scenes took hours and even days to film, largely because of Wiseau’s inability to remember the dialogue he wrote. Fittingly, the book includes a behind-the-scenes photo of Zsolt, the Hungarian-born sound man, sitting at his equipment with his head in his hands.

The Disaster Artist at least provides some clues as to how The Room could possibly have cost $6 million to produce — not 47 Ronin money, of course, but a staggering amount considering what ended up on screen. For one thing, Wiseau inexplicably decided to buy 35mm and HD cameras — equipment that is usually leased even by the major studios, because of its staggering cost and impending obsolescence — on which the movie was shot simultaneously. This required two different crews, but the equipment supplier was at least grateful enough to let Wiseau shoot much of his movie — including the famed “rooftop” scenes — in its parking lot. (As production dragged on for months, alas, even they came to regret their generosity.)

Later, Sestero would find out that his friend owned prime real estate in San Francisco, where the rooftop scenes could have been filmed for far less money, and would have looked much more convincing. But such common sense was in short supply on the set of The Room. For one of the few scenes that didn’t make it into the movie, the crew were forced to construct an unconvincing “alley” set in the parking lot, even though a real alley was just a few feet away.

The chapters about the making of The Room are shocking and hilarious. But the rest of the book, while also very funny, is strangely touching.

Sestero isn’t really sure why he was drawn to Wiseau, but there’s no doubt about what attracted this strange, foreign, odd-looking aspiring star to his young friend. Sestero worked as a model in Italy before trying his hand at acting, and Wiseau undoubtedly saw in his friend everything he wanted to be — young, handsome, vibrant and social. When Sestero was taken on by a prominent agent and started earning some small roles, Wiseau’s longing for stardom got greater at every step.

In The Disaster Artist, Wiseau comes across as socially inept and just plain weird at every turn. (Early in the book, when Sestero and his friend seem to be hitting it off with some attractive young women, Wiseau inexplicably asks, “so, what do you do besides drink?”) But he was also capable of tremendous generosity, such as letting Sestero stay in his Los Angeles apartment while trying to get his acting career going, and taking him on memorable adventures such as a trip to the spot where James Dean was killed.

Late in production of The Room, Sestero has an epiphany about what his friend was looking for:

A few nights later we filmed Johnny’s birthday party scene on the new rooftop. Tommy’s line in this scene was to say, “Hey, everybody! I have an announcement to make. We’re expecting!” After this everyone was supposed to file up to him and shake his hand. …


I thought about how sad this party scene really was. Having all of Johnny’s closest friends and future wife gather together to celebrate his birthday – with a child on the way, no less – was Tommy’s dream life. But it was a dream life in line with what he thought an American would want. After all, Johnny’s life in The Room doesn’t quite resemble anyone’s idea of a perfect life: working in a bank, not getting your promotion, living in a crappy condo, having a future mother-in-law all up in your business. Johnny’s life was everything Tommy had no chance of having, on the one hand, but it was also what few people would actually want for themselves, were they lucky enough to design their lives. Tommy didn’t know what he didn’t know about the dreams of others.

The reason The Room has become such a cult phenomenon is because of its sincerity. Tommy Wiseau really thought he was making a masterpiece, and its story of betrayal and heartbreak obviously comes from his own experience. Anyone can make a bad movie, but the truly great bad movies — Plan 9 From Outer Space, Birdemic, The Room — are the ones their filmmakers didn’t realize were so bad. And even today, as audiences around the world laugh at the most serious scenes, it’s not quite clear whether Wiseau knows they’re laughing at him.

Apparently, however, Wiseau signed off on his friend writing The Disaster Artist, despite the book’s often unflattering portrait of him. Maybe, after all these years, he’s in on the joke more than we thought.

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