LAist Interviews Tommy Wiseau, The Face Behind The Billboard
If you've passed through Hollywood enough times, you can’t have failed to notice the bizarre billboard on the West side of Highland just North of Fountain. And if you're like me, every time you pass by, you idly wonder about the man whose leonine countenance gazes benignly on weary travellers. What is that guy staring at so intently? Why have I never heard of his movie? And how the hell can he afford to keep that billboard up so freaking long?
The man is Tommy Wiseau, the self-taught auteur who wrote, directed, produced and starred in The Room, a movie that pitches itself as "an electrifying American black comedy about love, passion, betrayal and lies," but is more aptly described as an unholy fusion of melodrama, softcore and unintentional comedy. And those are the movie's good points.
In The Room Wiseau plays Johnny, a naïve banker who's inexplicably intent on marrying his whiny turd of a fiancée, Lisa (Juliette Danielle). Between visits from Lisa's meddling mom, Claudette (Carolyn Minnott), marathon sex sessions set to cringeworthy R&B and pillow fights with earnest teenager Denny (Philip Haldiman), Lisa starts a steamy affair with Johnny's best friend, Mark (Greg Sestero, who also served as line producer on the film).
Despite savage reviews — Variety described it as, "A movie that prompts most of its viewers to ask for their money back — before even 30 minutes have passed," NPR called it a "cinematic train wreck," and one Amazon reviewer wrote, "SO awful, I scream-laughed through the entire movie" — The Room has steadily built a loyal cult audience. Every month since the film premiered in the summer of 2003, Wiseau has held a midnight screening of The Room at Laemmle's Sunset 5, where he is usually on hand to answer questions and greet fans.
As word of mouth spread about the self-distributed movie, audiences flocked to the screenings with a Rocky Horror Picture Show-like gusto. Fueled by a passion for movies that are so bad they're good and (I'm guessing) plenty of booze, The Room acolytes dress up as characters from the scene, bring props, act out scenes and shout out their favorite lines during the screenings. The hands-down winner: Wiseau's anguished delivery of "YOU ARE TEARING ME APART, LISA!!!"
Wiseau for his part approaches these monthly events (held at midnight on the last Saturday of each month) with relentless good humor and a DIY spirit that belie the seriousness of his message. As he likes to say in his Eastern European accent of unknown provenance (Wiseau won’t reveal where he's from, but I'm guessing Austria): "You can laugh, you can cry, you can express yourself, but please don’t hurt each other!"
Many things have been written about Tommy Wiseau, so I thought it would be best to let him speak for himself. Back in October I interviewed him on the phone, and (shamefully) I am only getting around to posting it now.
Interview after the jump.
What inspired you to make The Room?
Well, first I wrote the script. And then I did a lot of intensive research… I hope that you will put this in your article... It seems to me you have nice poise. How long have you been doing this as a reporter?
About six years now.
Oh, okay. So don’t misquote me, because a lot of people have a tendency to misquote me for some reason. I don’t know why. But let me respond to your question.
I always like to make movies. That’s the bottom line. But as you know, and as a lot of people know, it’s extremely difficult because of the complexity of the movie business. So I wrote this script [for The Room] and I said to myself, even if we approach the studio, which I did not do, because of my intensive research, the rejection that people have in the script… So I decided to produce the movie that I wrote.
The story is dealing with relationships that affect people. I created all these characters. Some relate to real life, some are fictional. I believe that everyone can relate to it. And then I decided to approach some producers, people who want to invest some money. And that’s when everything starts.
Yes, that's often how the moviemaking process works. Was The Room based on events in your life, or was it a story you invented?
No. I took a lot of stuff from real life, but the characters are fictional. And I did research. For example, drug problems. What are the drugs in society? When a person is born, how does this happen? What is the cause and effect? Within a relationship where is the third party?
In [The Room], you have the characters Lisa, Johnny and Mark. Is it okay for somebody to love somebody else? So, it’s all this complexity in life that helped create The Room. And there was a lot of research before that.
I always say that simplicity is a virtue of success. So the simpler something is, the much more difficult it is to present it. But, eventually you get a success.
What was the budget for the film and how did you fund it? Was it self-funded, or did you have outside investors?
Yeah, I had a couple producers. $6 million, that’s the budget. The reason it cost $6 million was because we used two formats [high-definition and 35mm]. This was not just coincidence, it was no accident.
Who produced the film?
Well, you know, I don’t want to talk about money at this time. Because the movie, it’s done for the public to see it. The money is secondary.
$6 million is a lot of money for a first time filmmaker who has only made one short film. I'm curious how you managed to rustle up that much money.
Well, let’s put it this way. I have certain resources. Some people do, some people don’t.
Um… okay. How did you cast the roles of Lisa, Claudette and Denny?
Well, we have very good casting. [I had] over 5,000 headshots to choose from. And [actress] Juliette [Danielle] was actually the back-up for the role. And the other person did not work out well, so Juliette got the part… This is [something] I'd like to stress for your article. Before we shot, we did a lot of rehearsal with the actors. There was preparation for at least six months.
Was it hard directing yourself?
Oh, absolutely. Good question, by the way. See, I give you compliment from time to time. [Laughs]. Directing yourself is extremely difficult. However, I did have a certain system. The system that I had was to record on VHS so I have instant dailies… Say that immediately after a scene I check the tape, and if I don’t like something, we could do again. It happened several times, actually. And again, we did a lot of rehearsals, [where] I recorded myself. So I was prepared for the scene. I know what I want to accomplish. But it was extremely difficult.
The character that you played, Johnny, how close was that to your real life persona?
I don’t know if it’s that close. I believe that people relate to Johnny [because] you have many Johnnies in America. Naive guys who go with the flow in love and relationships. And they don’t see the tunnel, you know.
That’s an interesting way to look at it. Because I think you can make the argument that the movie presents a really jaded portrait of love and of romantic relationships. Is this ultimately a story about a trusting, innocent guy who gets screwed over by a horrible, manipulative woman?
Well, that’s somewhat correct, because he’s blind. You see, love is blind. Johnny doesn’t see what’s happening. He is in a stage of denial. And then [many of us here] are in a situation like that… So I think it’s a lesson, for people to open their eyes and be nice to each other.
W hat I always say, maybe you can put this in the article, is: you can laugh, you can cry, you can express yourself, but please don’t hurt each other. And that’s basically the theme of the movie. It’s a lesson to do better. Because we are better. We are much more intelligent.
Some people just don’t grasp The Room. They’re not smart enough to grasp it, if I may say that. So if people are deeply unalive, subliminally as well, in realism of everyday life, they... [his cell phone rings; he briefly answers it and returns to the conversation]… So, basically, that’s The Room… And some people are not ready to see the movie, or they have to see it several times. I always encourage people to see it several times, so they can grasp, maybe, what is behind it.
You seem very open and willing to talk about this film with anyone. Yet it also sounds like you feel you have been treated unfairly by the press. You seem very concerned about being quoted accurately and having the film portrayed properly. How do you feel you've been treated in the press?
Let me ask you this. How you can criticize something, if you don’t see the product? You cannot do that!
Do you feel critics or writers have unfairly criticized the film without seeing it?
I believe that, yes. Like the first article from Variety. Not the second one, the first one. I believe it came out in 2003. I have forgotten [the writer's] name, but I don’t believe the guy even saw the [movie]. There’s no way he saw the movie! To me, it’s completely absurd!
I don’t mind when people say to me, and this has happened, “You know what? I don’t get this.” That’s okay! I don’t mind when people say, “I guess you worked hard, but I don’t like your movie.” It’s okay with me. But you know what? I do not like when people quote me something, and I know it’s not true! That person does not even see the movie.
Or like the guy from the LA Times, for example. He was so nice to me, and he recorded what I said. For example, we also did the movie Homeless in America. Nobody wants to talk about that! Not one single [person in] Hollywood wants to talk about it. They bury themselves with the roller coaster ride… I don’t know if you’re familiar with the movie.
No, I haven't heard of it. Is Homeless in America a movie that you directed?
I produced it as well. This is a movie dealing with homelessness in Los Angeles. But these are two different topics.
This is the thing that people don’t grasp. If they don’t see something, and then they criticize… They don’t understand The Room was done intentionally to provoke the audience. I spent hours, 24/7, not just this year, but even before I started production. They don’t realize that, because they did not do their homework. It’s nonsense as far as I’m concerned. But what is your next question?
I went to the midnight screening of The Room at the Laemmle Sunset 5, and the theater was nearly full. The film has acquired quite a cult following with people dressing up as characters from the movie and acting out scenes while the movie is playing à la The Rocky Horror Picture Show. How do you feel about this? Do you see this as homage? Parody? Something else?
I think it’s great. I feel ecstatic. I feel rejuvenated. I think it’s great that people have feelings for The Room. And hopefully The Room will become an American cult classic. People can relate to it because it’s real life. If the critics cannot give me credit, so be it. But they don’t realize human behavior. If they don’t want to do that, so be it. I’m doing my projects, and I’m thrilled [about] that.
What’s next for you?
I’m working on The Neighbors. It’s a sitcom, a funny thing. Right now I’m shooting the pilot… [It deals] with relationships in an apartment building, the struggles between the manager and the tenants. We have several different characters. There's a Web site, and in a few weeks there will be a synopsis.
Have you ever considered making a sequel to The Room?
I always hope. [People always ask me] this question. Yeah, someday, maybe. I don’t know what will happen. [Laughs].
The way I first heard about The Room, was the billboard I saw on Highland near Fountain. That billboard has been up for a long time.
Right now is the fourth year.
How do you afford to keep a billboard like that in such a prominent location?
Well, we like the location, and we like the billboard. So we feel that people should see The Room. That’s why we put the billboard there. If we didn’t have that billboard, you would not ask that question. Right?
That's true. If I hadn’t seen the billboard, I probably would never have heard of the movie.
[Laughs]. You know. In response to the second part of your question, we are selling DVDs, which are selling okay. And we have an audience. So it’s much easier than at the beginning.
I’m curious about some of the choices within the film itself. There are so many long, sometimes incongruous shots of Alcatraz, the Golden Gate Bridge and random buildings. Why did you decide to put those in there?
Well, if I don’t keep that way, you know what? You would not ask this question... If we have [a ten-second shot], and we only [include] three seconds, the audience will not have the opportunity to react. And this way [people] can relax and react. So it was done on purpose, you know?
You've made it clear that all the choices in the film were deliberate.
One thing that struck me was the way Lisa’s mother, Claudette, reveals that she has breast cancer. She announces it in a very matter-of-fact way, Lisa dismisses it and we never hear about it again. Lisa doesn’t seem to have any reaction to it. No one ever talks about it, yet it’s a life-threatening disease. Why did you decide to downplay that storyline so much?
I did some research of patients and family members. Usually patients do not like to be asked many questions or to be pitied. With Claudette, I created a character with a disease who wouldn't want to be pitied. Like having someone ask her every five minutes, “Oh, how are you doing? Are you okay? Do you think you will die tomorrow?”
We have [received] a lot of emails relating to that. If you study patients, and if the patient is honest, you would [find that they] do not like to be pitied… I did the research, and I said, “Wait a minute, I myself did not realize that.” The patient actually doesn’t want to be reminded that they are sick. They want to be treated equally. So in the movie we treat Claudette like a normal person.
Tell me about the character of Claudette. I sort of see her as this voice of flawed moral authority. What’s your take on her?
Well, she’s somewhat manipulative, because she realizes that you can marry a man without loving him. This is another thing that should not happen, but does happen in real life. We have relationships with people and we marry because of money. We think that we gain something. But guess what? We don’t gain anything. We may get money, but then later on we regret it, because it’s not “it.” The “it” is love.
Then is The Room ultimately a warning to men about manipulative gold diggers?
Yeah, but it could be both ways. It doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the fault of women. It could be the opposite. Let’s assume for a moment that Lisa is doing what she is doing, and Johnny is doing what he's doing, which is very typical, as you know, because people don’t realize that actually girls do more harm than guys. By my take, of course. But you can reverse everything, and it still works same way. I don’t discriminate and say, “The women are bad, and the guys are better.” I don’t care what relationship you are dealing with. Any relationship will apply to The Room.
Another thing I was wondering about were the sex scenes. There are a lot of them. There were three long, extended sex scenes in the first 30 minutes, and five in the entire movie. Why did you decide to do that?
Actually it's not a sex scene, it’s a love scene. That’s what I call it.
Okay, love scenes.
The reason for it is because it's a part of life. We all enjoy it one way or the other. Let’s assume you take away the stud, you would not have The Room… We don’t live 1920. We live 2006. Actually, at the time when I was writing this, it was 2001. It’s this liberalism to express yourself. But the reason [the long love scenes are] there, are because otherwise, what would you do? [Show only] ten seconds and then cut it?
In the film do Johnny and Lisa actually end up getting married? I'm unclear because there's a scene where Johnny and his friends are dressed up in tuxedoes playing football. And it seems like it takes place before he's about to get married. But later, the film refers to the fact that he hasn’t gotten married yet.
No, [Johnny and Lisa] didn’t get married yet. [Johnny and his friends] just try on tuxedos.
The recorder that Denny uses looks like a standard audio cassette recorder. But it seems to run all the time. Does Johnny constantly change the tape? Or does it just run all the time? How does that work?
You can buy a recorder that records 24/7, and the tape can rewind by itself.
So it’s just re-recording over on the same loop of tape?
And in the scene where Johnny and Lisa are getting drunk, they’re drinking Scotch, and she comes in with a bottle of vodka, so they add vodka to the Scotch. I heard a lot of people in the audience shudder. Is that a new drink, “Scotchka”? Or is that because they’re drunk?
Yeah, they were drunk. They don’t know what they're doing.
One final question. Is hot chocolate your signature drink?
Yeah, I like hot chocolate. How do you know that?
Because in the film, you go into the café and you order it. I think somebody at the midnight screening said they had spotted you in a coffee shop ordering coffee. And you said, “Oh, no. Hot chocolate.” I thought perhaps hot chocolate was your signature drink.
You're right on the money. I don’t know if it's my signature drink, because I have other drinks, but I like hot chocolate. I used to drink a lot of coffee, but not anymore.
I think that's about it. Thank you for your time.
No problem. Don’t misspell the words, because they blame me. [Laughs].
No problem. My computer is a great speller.