‘The Disaster Artist’ and Tommy Wiseau: How the Internet Made a Bad Filmmaker a Star
Tommy Wiseau is compelling to look at. Equipped with the physique of a man who clearly takes a great deal of pride in his appearance, but then a face seemingly molded from the leftover clay in an amateur pottery class, he certainly has an air about him that makes it difficult to look away. This trait has led to him forging a successful career out of being unsuccessful, with his infamous disasterpiece The Room arguably being the archetypal “so bad that it’s good” movie, and the filmmaker continuing to steal a career off the back of it some 14 years following its release. Now The Room has inspired The Disaster Artist, a comedy based upon its development directed by and starring James Franco as Wiseau.
The Disaster Artist is a biographical comedy set during the filming of The Room, with its debut trailer featuring its crew (led by Seth Rogen as script supervisor Sandy Schklair) desperately trying to help Wiseau remember his lines for one of the cult film’s most famous scenes. What’s interesting about the trailer is that, without the context of the scene in question, it doesn’t really explain itself in a way that you’d expect from a Franco/Rogen vehicle backed by Warner Bros. Outside of its following on the internet, it’s unlikely that there are many people who are going to recognize the image of Wiseau bursting onto a rooftop, ambivalently explaining how he did not assault a woman before cheerfully concluding: “Oh hi, Mark!”
So how has The Room and, by extension, Wiseau, managed to attract such a following online that The Disaster Artist has been made a possibility?
The $5,000 billboard and “No Refunds”
The Room was first released in 2003 and inevitably panned by critics. A romantic drama that ostensibly focuses upon a love triangle but eventually devolves into numerous, poorly explained subplots from an attempted murder through to its out-of-nowhere climactic suicide, it’s truly a mess of ideas. Despite its first limited run in two Los Angeles theaters seeing audiences demanding their money back, so much so that the theaters were eventually forced to display “NO REFUNDS” signs outside screenings, Wiseau was determined to make the movie a hit. As a result, he paid $5,000 per month for over five years for a billboard advertising the movie, with him eventually managing to garner a modicum of notoriety in the area as a result.
Though Wiseau’s initial screenings of The Room weren’t exactly successful, they eventually gained some buzz as a result of positive word of mouth from Michael Rousselet and Scott Gairdner, two film students who would go on to help create the comedy web series 5-Second Films and animated show Moonbeam City respectively. After reading an ad for The Room which described watching it as being akin to “getting stabbed in the head,” Rousselet and Gairdner decided to buy a pair of tickets, and were captivated by the shoddy film.
Rousselet and Gairdner quickly began encouraging others to attend screenings of the film alongside them, with viewers joining them in throwing around footballs and plastic cutlery while the film aired; these would become traditions of each showing of the movie, with them persisting to this day. Rousselet and Gairdner eventually helped the film gain popularity as a result of their persistent campaigning for it to be shown in more theaters. The AV Club wrote of the then-film students’ impact on its success:
“The Room mesmerized Rousselet and Gairdner. They rallied others to experience the film and soon enough a cult was born. These young men and women created many of The Room’s now-famous audience participation rituals, and for several years served as the vanguard of an unofficial underground fan club. They simply wouldn’t let the film die, going so far as to camp outside one theater to demand its continuance. The combination of their enthusiasm and Tommy’s hapless guerrilla marketing made the film an L.A. in-joke and an entertainment industry curiosity. Before long, the cream of Hollywood’s comedy community developed a particular affinity for Tommy’s film, hosting private Room parties and parodying it in their work.”
Eventually word of The Room had spread to the point where it was featured on the likes of CNN and FOX News, breaking out of LA and turning Tommy Wiseau into an unlikely cult celebrity. In 2009 he was given his own episode of Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! imaginatively titled ‘Tommy,’ in which he’s featured in a mockumentary describing the creation of the fictional film The Pig Man. Adult Swim also began airing The Room as part of an April Fool’s prank starting from 2009 to 2011.
RiffTrax and the Nostalgia Critic
While The Room had already became something of an underground hit by 2009, the film making its way into the hands of online comedy movie critics over the next two years helped introduce it to new audiences. RiffTrax, a comedy outfit which features Michael J. Nelson, Kevin Murphy, and Bill Corbett providing funny audio commentary over movies, produced an episode based upon The Room which remains one of their more popular offerings. The popularity of this episode led them to produce Kickstarter-funded live events in which they riffed on the film in over 700 theaters, along with another live performance of their commentary during 2015’s Tribeca Film Festival.
However, the next critic to offer their take on The Room would unwittingly find themselves embroiled in a feud with Tommy Wiseau, after Doug Walker’s takedown of the film raised the ire of its director, leading to legal threats in the process.
Walker, most famous for his character The Nostalgia Critic in which he pokes fun at old, mostly bad movies, made an episode on The Room in 2010 which swiftly became one of his more popular videos. However, Wiseau forced Walker to remove the video from his channel, citing its use of footage of The Room as the reason for this action. Wiseau, who had up until this point only been perceived as a strange but harmless oddity by those who had helped The Room become an unlikely cult favorite, now found himself on the wrong side of Walker’s fans and other online video-makers.
As one of the formative YouTube film reviewers, Walker’s review essentially made The Room a meme within the video-sharing site’s inner circle. Pretty soon other notable YouTube reviewers began offering their takes on the movie, including the likes of CinemaSins and Chris Stuckmann. Eventually the dispute between Walker and Wiseau was settled (Wiseau even appeared on Walker’s short-lived YouTube talk show), with Walker’s video being re-uploaded to YouTube and it now sitting at over 1.5 million views.
Though the battle between Walker and Wiseau was eventually resolved, Wiseau’s reaction to it added another layer to an already bizarrely complex man — though he had built an entire career on the shoddy quality of his film, fighting back against The Nostalgia Critic review indicated that he wasn’t altogether comfortable with it being mocked. In another example of his insecurity over the film’s legacy, Wiseau has attempted to retroactively brand The Room a black comedy, suggesting that he was in on the joke all along.
However, the film’s cast disagreed with Wiseau’s belated genre-switch, with Robyn Paris (who played Michelle) describing the filmmaker’s reaction to The Room‘s 2003 premiere, writing: “The theatre was packed with press, crew, friends, and family. I sat behind Tommy which was a bad move because it made stifling laughter difficult. Tommy’s goal was for the audience to be sobbing with grief by the end. We were sobbing, but it was with laughter.”
But while Wiseau may have wished that his film would have become popular as a result of his dramatic storytelling ability, if that was the case he wouldn’t have James Franco portraying him in one of the most highly-anticipated comedies of the year. The Disaster Artist is set for release on December 1, 2017 in the US in a limited release, before opening wide on December 8.