Tommy Wiseau’s The Room: The Citizen Kane of bad movies

Every now and again a film comes along that is so badly made, so terribly put together that it actually becomes impressive.

Instead of attempting to follow the plot or performances you just sit back and watch as it continually trips over itself. Now to fall into this category it can’t just be any Uwe Boll drivel or Jean Claude Van Damme tomfoolery. To qualify it must hold that magical combination of accident, ignorance and often arrogance that means its appeal transcends anything the filmmakers envisioned. The result is a chimera; a crudely fashioned mutant of half-ideas, ridiculous plots and acting that makes Segal look like the next Olivier. Ed Wood’s Plan Nine from Outer Space is such a film, as is Guy Ritchie’s Revolver and Demian Lichtenstein’s 3000 Miles to Graceland. But in 2003 a film was made that surpassed all its predecessors. Here was a film that revolutionized the thinking on just how terrible a movie can be and set the benchmark for every motion picture to come. So the next time your watching a shallow Hollywood explosion fest, just remember that it couldn’t possibly be as bad as Tommy Wiseau’s The Room.

At this point you may be wondering why you haven’t heard of The Room. Well its lack of fame can mostly be explained by its genesis. This was not a studio picture with an extravagant budget and starry cast. Instead its director, the enigmatic Tommy Wiseau, scraped the seven million dollar budget together by, in his own words, “importing leather jackets from Korea and selling them”. Wiseau had written The Room as a play before adapting it into a novel and then screenplay to shop around to major Hollywood studios. While some might feel disheartened when no studio showed any interest in their screenplay, Wiseau was of a steelier mettle and decided to make the film entirely himself. Not only would he write, direct and star but would also serve as executive producer, director of photography, principle-casting director and would be responsible for the “making of”. Orson Welles, eat you heart out.

After five long years of fundraising, which Wiseau has been highly secretive about, the film began principal photography in Los Angeles. In a typically mysterious move, Wiseau decided that to truly capture his vision he needed not one, but two cameras. But as Wiseau had absolutely no experience making films, he wasn’t aware of the existence of two different methods of filming: digital and 35mm. According to Greg Ellery, an actor in The Room, Wiseau was suddenly faced with an decision that would effect the whole look of his film and confused about the differences between the two formats decided to best way forward was to buy a new 35mm film camera and a $30,000 digital camera. Now this decision could be explained by presuming Wiseau was going to shoot the film in one format and the promised “making of” with another. But such conformity doesn’t apply to Tommy Wiseau. He instead decided to shoot the entire film concurrently in both formats by rigging up a special double camera mount. To those who don’t really know much about the technical side of making films, what Wiseau had affectively done was buy a new Mercedes and an old Cadillac, bond them together with duct tape, sit atop and attempt to commandeer them through a crowded intersection. This two-camera gamble was probably the reason why principal photography on a film set mostly indoors and only 99 minutes long lasted eight months. That’s roughly the same as a year of college. Additionally Wiseau’s audacious camera system almost certainly led him to firing and replacing his whole camera(s) crew not once, but twice during filming.

Casting also proved problematic. Wiseau has claimed that he selected his cast from “thousands” of headshots, but nearly all of his eventual players had never been in a film before. Greg Sestero, a longtime friend of Wiseau, was cast in a central role only 72 hours before filming began. Julliete Danielle (18) was fresh off the bus from Texas when she was cast as Wiseau’s (40) love interest, Lisa. Greg Ellery, who plays a minor role, revealed recently that on the first day of shooting the whole cast “watched in horror” as Wiseau jumped on Danielle and immediately began filming their first (of four) extended love scenes. This may have been one of the reasons actor Kyle Vogt quit halfway through the shoot. While other directors when faced with a central actor departing might have cut the character altogether or cast Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell in his stead, Wiseau decided to transfer Vogt’s remaining lines to Ellery, whose character is never introduced, explained or addressed by name. He simply shows up halfway through the film and plays a crucial role from then on.

But that’s really enough about the production, because to truly understand what makes The Room so very special you have to witness some cold hard footage. Enjoy.

Those quotes at the end of the above trailer really indicate what kind of film we’re dealing with. Originally the marketing solemnly proclaimed the film had the passion of “Tennesee Williams” (an apparent misspelling of Tennessee Williams) but when the film began to gain notoriety, the line about it being a “quirky new black comedy” was added. “The “best film of the year” tag however has no explanation; presumably Wiseau just wanted everyone to know what he thought about it.

The plot of The Room centers around what can be best described as a love triangle between Johnny (Wiseau), Lisa (Danielle) and Mark (Sestero), but that’s really beside the point given the multiple inconsistencies, bizarre sub-plot’s and constant continuity errors. One of the best examples occurs early in the film when Lisa’s mother arrives to announce that she “definitely has breast cancer”. Despite the character appearing throughout the film, the deadly cancer is never again mentioned. It’s as if it just vanished. Here’s the scene in full:

Denny is another confusing character. Although he appears first as a friendly neighbor, it is soon revealed he is really a surrogate son for Johnny. Though evidently attending College (inexplicably funded entirely by Johnny) there’s an awful lot of evidence that Denny is a mental defective.  Whether he’s jumping into (and then around on) a bed with Johnny and Lisa, demanding that people play football with him (whether it be during a tuxedo fitting or on a cramped balcony) or just simply running up massive drug debts, you just get the feeling that Denny isn’t all there. Wiseau stated that this interpretation was mainly due to Philip Haldiman’s performance, an actor Wiseau has described as “a little bit retarded”. Mind you, on the evidence of this scene, it doesn’t appear as it Haldiman is alone:

The real standout aspect to The Room has to be the dialogue. If you’ve watched the above clips it will become apparent that English clearly isn’t Wiseau’s first language. He claims to have lived in France “a long time ago” and having spent most of his life in America now prefers to be called “American”. However, American or not his grasp of English leaves a lot to be desired. But rather than making the film incomprehensible, Wiseau’s jumbled language means the script is full of endlessly quotable dialogue most notably in the scene when one character yells “keep your stupid comments in your pocket”. Furthermore despite the two main characters being engaged, the word “fiancé” is never used. Instead it’s replaced with the infinitely better “future husband” and “future wife”. There’s also a small discrepancy over the character of Lisa. Although described in the script as an considerably beautiful woman and despite several characters constantly remarking on her beauty, the actress herself really isn’t stunning. Now that’s not to say she’s ugly, but when your whole script centers around numerous men being drawn to a character due her good looks, you really should take that into consideration when casting:

But my personal favorite idiosyncrasy has to be that whenever anyone is accused of being a chicken (which happens a lot), everyone else starts making chicken noises similar to those made by the Bluth family on Arrested Development. This occurs no matter what the context, even if in the middle of the film’s sole dramatic confrontation:

But dialogue as unintentionally hilarious as this is really nothing without an actor to express it. To say the cast turns in bad performances is an enormous understatement. The performances in The Room are unbelievably appalling, a wonderful combination of passive recitals, outlandish delivery and cringe-inducing earnestness. But not all the credit for their sublimely ridiculous acting can go to the cast, as most of the dialogue was not recorded while shooting (probably to do with Wiseau being his own sound editor). This meant nearly all the dialogue had to be rerecorded and then crudely pasted back onto the footage. Unfortunately given Wiseau’s passion for improvising combined with his faulty memory this meant that he often couldn’t remember what was actually said on the day, and ended up just guessing during dubbing:

Of course none of the cast really can compete with Wiseau himself in terms of acting. He sounds like Christopher Walken doing an impression of Arnold Schwarzenegger and looks like Lou Diamond Philips cast as The Crow. His performance is really beyond words, so I’ll let these two scenes do the talking:

Finally I’d like to mention the production values. If you’ve watched all clips so far you’ll probably have noticed how badly made the film looks. But given the film cost seven million dollars to make, you really have to wonder where all that money went. Sure Wiseau bought two cameras, went through multiple actors/crew members and an expensive redubbing session, but that still can’t account for the whole budget. To give some perspective on what seven million dollars can get you in today’s film market, take the following comparisons: Juno cost $500,000 less than The Room. You could make 18 Napoleon Dynamite’s for what Wiseau spent. Or 260 Clerks. Or 318 Blair Witch Projects. With seven million you could account for half of Slumdog Millionaire or Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. And if you really want to compare production values here’s the trailer to Franklyn, a film that cost a million dollars less than The Room, yet somehow manages to be slightly more visually impressive:

When The Room was released it only earned a paltry $2000 during its initial run. Immediately derided by critics, it looked as if it was going to pass into cinematic obscurity. But then Wiseau started receiving hundreds of emails from people thanking him for creating the film. Invigorated by his new fan base Wiseau decided to hold monthly screenings in Hollywood. They were a resounding success and have been expanded to cities like London, Chicago and New York. The Room now rivals the Rocky Horror Picture Show for dedication, as fans regularly show up to screenings dressed as characters to reenact scenes. The Room also has a host of celebrity fans such as Jonah Hill, Paul Rudd and Alec Baldwin. The media have also picked up on The Room’s success story, and Wiseau’s film has been covered by Entertainment Weekly, ABC News and NBC to name but a few. Here’s such an example:

However throughout all The Room’s success Wiseau has acted uncomfortably reticent. He said recently “I’m happy, because I prepared all this stuff, and I wanted people to have a good time. When you see the Room, you can yell, you can scream, you can express yourself-that’s the idea”. Wiseau has always insisted that the film was meant to be a comedy. Personally I’m not convinced, as I just don’t think anyone is talented enough to consciously make a comedy of this scale.

In fact last year a cast member addressed the issue when Entertainment Weekly asked about working with Wiseau he said, “He’s a nice guy. But he’s full of shit. He was trying to put together a drama. It was basically his stage to show off his acting ability”. While he may have failed in creating a film with the passion of Tennessee Williams, Wiseau has accomplished so much more. Domestic dramas are ten-a-penny these days and I don’t think there’s anyone who could watch The Room and not come away the better for it. It’s a film that makes you appreciate just how badly made something can be. If you think Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen was bad, watch The Room. If you think Grey’s Anatomy is terrible, watch The Room. If you can’t take Lost’s nonsensical plot anymore, watch The Room. Just watch The Room, it’ll tear you apart.

A region 1 DVD of The Room is available from Amazon but unfortunately there are future no plans to release a region 2 version.