“The Disaster Artist” by Greg Sestero and Tom Bissell

The 2003 film “The Room” has become something of a modern “Rocky Horror Picture Show,” with fans acting out rituals during midnight screenings.  That film was written and directed by a mysterious man named Tommy Wiseau.  His main acting and production partner, Greg Sestero, participated in screening Q&A sessions as the film gained fame during the 2000s for being a ridiculously bad film.  In 2013, Sestero wrote a behind-the-scenes book entitled “The Disaster Artist” that catalogued the story of the film’s production while also trying to sort out the strange past of Tommy Wiseau.

Wiseau reportedly spent $6 million on the production and marketing of “The Room.”  Skeptics have questioned that figure since the film was little more than a character drama set in San Francisco that involved no big name talent.  In theory, that kind of independent film could have been produced for $1 million.

So, where did the money go?  Sestero’s writing in “The Disaster Artist” pointed out a number of odd decisions that Wiseau made before, during, and after production of “The Room” that helped to offer some clues.

  • Much of the equipment used on the film was purchased rather than rented, including the cameras and their lenses. Compounding this decision, Wiseau shot each take simultaneously on separate High-definition and 35mm film cameras rather than simply performing a post-production transfer between formats.
  • Wiseau had sets built for situations, such as shooting on a San Francisco rooftop, when it would have been cheaper to simply shoot on the locations depicted by the sets.
  • Wiseau rented a billboard in Hollywood to market the film for what ended up being a five-year period of time.

While Tommy was obviously the book’s whipping boy – and rightfully so – there was an air of desperation about everyone else involved in “The Room.”  To quote Obi-Wan Kenobi:  “Who’s the more foolish; the fool or the fool who follows him?”

Sestero, became increasingly involved in “The Room” out of simple financial desperation.  Despite knowing in advance that the script was incoherent and that the film would surely be an epic disaster, “The Room” was portrayed as Sestero’s last shot at making enough money to stay in Hollywood or else he would have to head back home to San Francisco as a failure.  Further, Tommy did things to continue to sweeten his offers – such as buying Sestero a car – which Sestero simply couldn’t decline.

The same could be said for much of the cast and presumably some of the crew.  Many had opportunities to leave the project and everyone could quickly see at various times that the film would be a disaster, but people chose to stay because either ‘it was a job’ and they were working as craftsmen under contract or they were desperate for the paycheck.

“The Disaster Artist” often told the story of a guy (Tommy) who had the financial means to lead the creation of a movie using legitimate staff/talent, yet had absolutely no idea how a film should be made.  It was as if someone created a strange social experiment where a clueless, arrogant guy was put in charge of a professional or otherwise-functioning situation.  Most problematic of all, Tommy thought that he knew how to make all of the decisions and didn’t listen to the opinions of the experienced people whom he was paying to be on his crew.  All along the way, experienced professionals questioned every aspect of the film (the script, the camera work, etc.) and their opinions were disregarded by Tommy.

The earlier point about Tommy insisting on shooting in both High-definition video and 35mm film formats might not seem significant but one had to understand how ridiculous it seemed to the professionals working on Tommy’s set.  When Tommy purchased his cameras in 2002, high-definition cameras were very expensive and experienced operators were not plentiful.  Along with those cameras came separate sets of lenses and full lighting kits for both types of cameras.  Tommy also had to use full crews for both types of cameras and lighting systems.  To haul all of that equipment around, he also bought a commercial grade equipment truck.  As a result, Tommy easily doubled his already-high equipment and labor costs.

The equipment vendor that sold everything to Tommy made an interesting ethical decision that appeared to be aimed at keeping Tommy’s money.  The vendor apparently had a 30 day return policy, so it was in their interest for Tommy’s movie to have a successful shoot during that period so that he would be stuck with the purchased equipment.  As a result, the vendor helped to line up experience/expensive technical staff who could support Tommy.

That technical staff thought that they were working on a low budget film until the first day of shooting when they became resentful after learning that Tommy was not a starving artist.  They arrived at the studio facility and found that Tommy had constructed his own bathroom.  The bathroom was built in a luxury style near the studio’s bathroom facilities but had the quirk of missing a door.  Instead, it only had a hanging curtain and was off-limits to anyone except Tommy.

Further complicating life on the set, Tommy only drank hot water and he didn’t provide water to the cast/crew, an issue that nearly caused the cast to walk off of the film during the rehearsals.  One claimed quote occurred when Tommy threw a bottle of water at his lead actress while shouting “Nobody in Hollywood will give you water!”

Perpetually slowing the production, Tommy was multiple hours late to the set on a daily basis.  This led to people being paid to sit around and a general feeling of resentment.  The full cast was obligated to be on-set at all times, regardless of whether or not a scene involving them was shooting.  This request was due to scenes often being re-written on the fly.

These examples gave an idea of how uncomfortable, awkward, or wasteful the production of “The Room” had become before it had barely begun.  Tommy would only compound his bad decisions as the production drug on with re-shoots never seeming to end.  In some cases, sets were struck and had to be rebuilt during re-shoots.  The insistence that sets be built rather than locations be used kept costs piling up.

In front of the camera, the actors were no better off than the crew members.  Arguably, they were in worse situations since their images would be forever associated with the film.

A bizarre problem occurred early in the production involving an actor named Dan who Tommy insisted on calling ‘Dawn.’  Sestero was initially only serving as the film’s producer and Tommy eventually convinced Sestero to take on Dan/Dawn’s role with Dan/Dawn being passive-aggressively fired by Tommy.  Rather than being direct and firing Dan/Dawn, Tommy was concerned about losing his lead actress since she was secretly dating Dan/Dawn.  As a result, Tommy concocted a scheme to film every scene involving Dan/Dawn’s character twice.  First he would film with Dan/Dawn and then with Sestero.  Tommy insisted that the arrangement was to satisfy ‘executive producer’ interest in Sestero but it didn’t take long before Dan/Dawn figured out that something shady was occurring and an ugly confrontation ensued.

These examples were really the tip of the iceberg, but they were significant decisions that would only compound later problems in the production of “The Room.”  Once completed, the film didn’t find any distribution but Tommy paid to have it playing at theatres where people eventually became interested in the film’s many quirks.

Besides chronicling the production of “The Room,” Sestero also tried to offer theories as to how Tommy had accumulated his wealth.  His sketch of Tommy’s biographical history suggested that Tommy was much older than he claimed and that he had come to San Francisco after a series of misadventures that started as a youth in Eastern Europe.  So far as Sestero gathered, Tommy’s wealth came about after opening trinket shops in the touristy Fisherman’s Wharf area of San Francisco.  While Tommy was obviously not a great filmmaker, he was presumably a passable businessman who benefited from starting a business in a then-up-and-coming location.

The symbiotic relationship between Sestero and Tommy was the thing that kept sticking in my head throughout the entire book.  Again and again, both men seemed to need one another for “The Room” to move forward or to simply survive.

At one point, Sestero’s mother expressed her fears that Tommy was clearly a child molester and she was portrayed as being overprotective.  In fairness though, an objective reader who stepped back from the narrative couldn’t help but think that Tommy acting as a sugar daddy to a then-barely-20 year old guy seemed very fishy.  As interesting of a mystery as Tommy might be to the reader, the author’s naive struggles while trying to become an actor in Hollywood were also very compelling to read.

One might assume that Sestero writing “The Disaster Artist” was a final attempt on his part to cash in on Tommy and his experience on “The Room.”  Despite Tommy not being portrayed very sympathetically or even coming across as being sane in the book by Sestero, Tommy claimed after the release of the book that he and Sestero were still friends.  Even more interesting, or surprising, was that Tommy claimed to be a part of the planning for an upcoming Hollywood adaptation of “The Disaster Artist.”  Because, why not?

“I don’t support Greg Sestero’s book one hundred percent,” Tommy stated in 2015 to the entertainment website Decider, “but Greg did a good job and people really embraced it. Some media that says we’re not talking is complete nonsense.”

Ultimately, Tommy and Sestero both seem desperate for fame/fortune and willing to tolerate one another to keep whatever ride they were on rolling.


Note:  The audio version of “The Disaster Artist” featured Sestero performing an incredible impersonation of Tommy during the speaking of his lines and should be considered the preferable format for experiencing the book.


D.S. Christensen
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