Interview with Tommy Wiseau, actor/writer/director/producer of The Room
Actor/writer/director/producer Tommy Wiseau’s independent film The Room has been famously dubbed “the Citizen Kane of bad movies.” In an interview, Wiseau's responses were lengthy, waffling and borderline incomprehensible.
Actor/writer/director/producer Tommy Wiseau’s independent film The Room has been famously dubbed “the Citizen Kane of bad movies.” Essentially a melodrama about a sordid love triangle between nice guy protagonist Johnny (Wiseau), his best friend and his two-timing girlfriend, The Room has generated substantial notoriety on the indie circuit since its original release in America in 2003. A devoted fan base has embraced the film’s undisguisable awfulness, attending late night U.S. screenings and engaging in bizarre in-cinema activities such as hurling plastic spoons in the air every time a particular picture appears on the screen. Nobody knows much about Wiseau – where he comes from, who he really is and how he was capable of making a film so cataclysmically bad. In the wake of the film’s Australian release (it is now playing at Melbourne’s Cinema Nova) Wiseau phoned Cinetology from his office in LA. He speaks broken English in a thick, apparently Eastern European accent (though he won’t confirm this) and was good enough to candidly discuss the film’s innumerable flaws. Note that chunks of our 45 minute interview have been removed; some of Wiseau's responses were lengthy, waffling and borderline incomprehensible.
As you know Tommy The Room has been famously described as the Citizen Kane of bad movies. When you first read that description were you happy? Sad? Indifferent? How did it make you feel?
Well my response to your question will be you can laugh, you can cry, you can express yourself but please don’t hurt each other. My comment is, you know, it is what it is. I am pro freedom. So if that is what you want to call it, that is fine by me. I speak pretty well so I don’t have to worry about it.
Sure. But having invested so much work in this film – so much time and effort and resources – when somebody then calls it the Citizen Kane of bad movies, how do you react emotionally? Does that upset you?
No, to upset me it takes two, three years! The Room originally was designed for the audience for people to enjoy it. So you see in America - I’m American - it just doesn’t affect me like people think. You know what I’m saying? We have lot of fans and I know in Australia we have great support in your country, you probably heard about it. So I’m happy to say actually The Room connects all the people in the entire world. We did seek release also in Canada, don’t know if you know about it. Also in UK and London. So it doesn’t affect me in response to your question. It is what it is. Of course it would be nice if people say much more positive things but you see we in America, we are a little crazy sometimes with statement. Also The Room as you probably know, we have been screening it for entire six years. A lot of people is talking about it. And I am thrilled by them. I love all the public, let’s put it this way. OK?
You said Tommy that the film is designed for people to enjoy it but if you look at the script and you look at some of the themes of the film it’s actually very serious, at least on paper. It’s a melodrama, it’s about a love triangle, it’s violent, it’s ultimately a tragedy. This isn’t the sort of film you would design for people to enjoy, is it?
Actually contrary to your statement, you are partially right, partially not. It all depends on the angle you take. You see The Room – by the way, your question is very creative. You have a lot of symbolism in The Room. I, as a writer myself, I question who is behind the words? How people can react? And you see by design The Room is not for me, it is for people to see it, for people to learn about relationships and you see if you create great environment...Here in America, have you ever visited United States?
Yes I have.
Yeah so you know dilemma what we have right now, about expression. Young person cannot express like you see on the street. People think you are crazy, whatever. I travel a lot right now back and forth in the States due to popularity of The Room, but the fact is, let me see...by the way let me correct you if I may. It is not a melodrama. It’s a black comedy, which leads to the melodrama. So if you’ve seen the Room – by the way, did you have a chance to see it?
Yes I’ve seen it. Of course.
OK cool. So you see the idea behind it is that by design I wanted people to react. Of course I did not predict everything what happened with The Room. You ask me, I am a very honest guy. At the same time I am thrilled to say as I responded already to your question that the reaction and I would say happiness indirectly from fans that we get right now, it is fantastic. And we are getting all the numbers. We are almost number one on the movie cult following whatever they call it, whatever category they give us. I don’t go by category, I really don’t. I just wanted people to enjoy it. Have fun with it. And you’re right, I agree with you Luke, it is big issues, what I am dealing with.
You said that the film is not a melodrama, it’s a black comedy. It’s my understanding that The Room was initially marketed as a drama but it was later marketed as a black comedy simply because audiences started laughing at everything. But moving on, there is quite a lot of mystery that surrounds The Room and as you said it has a very large and significant cult following. I’ve read a few stories on the internet that say it is unclear where you go the money from to make the film, and on a more personal level that it’s unclear where you’re from and who you really are. So could you confirm for my readers today: a) where did you get the money, b) where are you from and c) in your own words, who are you?
Well first of all I am an America. Number two, to respond to your question about the budget, you see it’s like this, there is a plan (that) you have to work very hard to accomplish. If you’re not thinking about 100% you have 20%. You have to work very hard in your profession, marketing etcetera to save the money. I had several producers who actually put into the project and that is where the money comes from. To respond to your third question, I’m basically an American slash citizen in America. So basically I did travel several countries but I am America. My backgrounds are you know as follows – acting, school, production, film etcetera etcetera. You could write a book about it. So sometimes what you read on the internet is incorrect statement.
Undoubtedly that must be true. I did read that you were an American but I also noticed that you have what sounds like an Eastern European accent. Whereabouts were you born?
Well I am New Orleans, but I don’t have a strange accent, I don’t have Middle Eastern accent, my accent is relate to education if you ask me. That is the story. Some of them what they print is incorrect...They try to correct my age already - I am 41, I am not 100 years old! You see again this is the thing what we have in America, this free amendment, pro-choice, people express themselves, and some of the establishment is if you ask me is off the wall – completely incorrect. So that’s the story.
Sure, but as you would know Tommy, you don’t sound like a stereotypical American. How would you describe your accent?
You know I will tell you one thing, one day I will lose (my accent) but I also speak several different languages and what’s where the accent comes from. You know, my accent varies. It depends you know where I am, who I am talking to. I don’t see any problem with my accent. You see in America you probably know this, people come from New York, they have accents. And they come from New Orleans, Louisiana, they have accents. California it is slightly different. I am here now, I am calling you from Los Angeles. So wherever in a certain environment, we say, oh you are from New York! What’s happening man! Hahaha!
Yes I understand that. I love an interesting accent but you’re not actually telling me where your accent comes from and you’re being a bit secretive about it. But that’s OK, we’ll move onto the next question. The Room all-up cost around six million dollars, which is cheap for a feature film but not for a film that looks as low-key as yours. The Room looks like a low budget daytime TV soap opera. Looking at the film, I can’t see where all the money went, so I’ve decided that you must have either been involved in some sort of tax fraud or money laundering operation.
That is completely nonsense. Are you kidding me? To answer simple question I will tell you this way – you have to realise that, er, are you familiar with 35mm film?
Then let me tell you it’s extremely expensive! Keep in mind we had two crews! We had 300, 400 people!
Why not just shoot it on digital?
How come you didn’t just shoot the film on digital?
Well let me correct your statement here.
I know that you shot The Room on digital as well as 35mm, but surely...
Let me correct this because the assumption is completely incorrect. Firstly we shot The Room at the same time on both formats – HD and 35. Keep in mind for each camera you need double crew! When I say double crew, because you see sometimes we are shooting let’s say eight hours, some of the people, relate to the crew they are in union, so you have to change the people while shooting. So you have double cost there...This an incorrect assumption, completely false! Let me tell you that several times we have over 300 people on the lot! We use the green screen and not two but seven different locations...We had two different units – one San Francisco, one Los Angeles. Plus keep in mind that The Room has been shot at the same time on the same place with both cameras...The Room is the only one, the only feature movie shot on both formats at the same time in the entire world! That’s a fact! You can say whatever you want but again the assumption is incorrect because the reason I wanted to shoot in both formats – 35 as well as HD – was because I think it would be cool to have a book relate to it. There was tremendous interest about HD and I was right too because right now I have not hundreds but thousands of emails. I am working currently, speaking of HD and 35, to finish my book, what is different... People don’t realise. You can chop it down the way you want it! You may say this is like soap opera but guess what? I have a surprise for you! There’s no way in the world you can produce this very cheaply! Again, people try to tamper. I don’t know if you read about this too. They try to tamper with my project so we change, I changed, the crew four times.
Sure Tommy, thank you, I understand it’s very expensive to make a feature film so I’ll move on to the next question. Watching the performances in this film...
No, wait a minute, I didn’t finish. Let me give you another example because I am very good at this, you know I studied this for many years prior (to) shooting The Room. By the way, your question is great question. You challenge me. You know, I like that. There is nothing wrong with that Luke. At all. So let me just two more minutes if you don’t mind. Because also you have to look at the cost by ratio. We have a ratio of one to five. What this means, every shot we shoot five times. OK? Then we have a process of, that we are directly recording with the digital and I can see the daily almost instantly but we still have a daily from 35, because we want to see what the lighting is, you see. And then you have a process of editing it etcetera etcetera. So I rest my case. That is the story with that.
Thank you for that, Tommy.
No problem. If I am you I will probably ask similar questions because this is very interesting. Good questions.
Thank you. I found, Tommy, that watching the performances in The Room is like watching a train crash at an excruciatingly slow pace. Did you direct the actors to act bad, or are they just bad actors?
Well let me tell you, I will also add to your statement if I may, it’s a roller coaster ride. (Tommy laughs)
Are you sure it’s not a train crash?
Well you can name it that, I don’t know. The way you said it, I think there is nothing wrong with that. If you ask me, there is nothing wrong whatsoever. I’m just like whatever, you know? I have nothing to say except I will say it is a roller coaster ride. I am glad you say that because it is a good comment as far as I am concerned.
So back to the question: did you direct the actors to act bad or are they just bad actors?
No no no. Well, you see, it’s your statement. Bad, good, whatever. If you feel the acting is bad, whatever. You see we have a process of rehearsal. Let me also straighten out something here, I don’t know if I said already. This is 12 years of my life, for your information. This does not happen in one minute. And hopefully you can write this. It’s 12 years work prior to (the) shoot. It’s not like I wrote this in one second, OK? Now to respond to your question, we had a process of rehearsing. We had – and I am not exaggerating with numbers – we had probably over 5000 head shots to choose from. Different characters. All the characters were based on the play because originally it was supposed to be a play, if you ask me. Long story short, the actors, some of them decided not to give me certain colours. So for me it doesn’t matter if the actor play bad or good, whatever your definition. To me it’s more important (to have) chemistry between actors as well as what the actor can give you. If you look at somebody, somebody act, let’s say in this case you say badly – which is OK to say that if that is what you want, if that is your statement. My statement would be the actors did an excellent job, if you ask me. But even if you define what is good, what is bad, you still have reaction and chemistry. And for me that is much more important than to create a certain story. Because you do have a plot with The Room, but sometimes maybe it is difficult to follow. That’s why, I say, you need to see it a few times because there is no way you can grasp all of it. That is my point.
The sex scenes in The Room are very strange. And they’re strange because they’re bizarrely off-putting. Watching the characters’ bodies connect is like watching clumps of dead flesh press against each other. When you were looking at the footage in the editing room, did you realise this? Or did you think it looked sexy?
Well by the way great observation, I like that. In the editing room we decided to reshoot some of it, believe it or not, because it was too polished. I said wait a minute we don’t want it too polished! Let me say to your statement, you know, we are part animals, part vampires. You see, human behaviour in certain situations – I say to myself, Tommy be nice – in certain situations we like to act in a certain way, OK? And this is why I like your statement. Except some of your assumptions are incorrect. But great observation because you see we act what we are.
I must say Tommy there is a part of me that really enjoyed watching you on the screen because your presence is very, um, ah, let’s say anti-Hollywood. But when you are on the screen you look and sound most of the time like you’ve been drinking heavily. What were you drinking when you were filming The Room?
In documentary made behind the scenes you can see very clearly that I was drinking Red Bull, for your information.
Are you sure it wasn’t whiskey?
On the set we didn’t actually have any whiskey, any vodka, whatever people say. It’s nonsense. You see, we actors in Hollywood, of course we drink! But not on the set, you know?
What were you smoking then?
It’s the same thing, you don’t smoke anything. (Laughing) You just act. I think Johnny, in this case me, is very well drawn but you see I don’t want to pat myself on the shoulder. You audience, you media, decide to do whatever you decide to do. (Laughing)
So you promise me you were sober?
100 percent sober.
The Room has generated a lot of strange reactions from audiences, like people jogging up and down the aisles, hurling footballs, even throwing plastic spoons in the air. What’s the strangest reaction you’ve seen someone have to the film?
Well sometimes when I have a Q and A people ask me, can you marry me? That’s pretty strange to me, when you don’t know the person and they say can you marry me, of course in this case a girl. We have had a lot of different reactions. Yes, people jogging. I was surprised but whatever people want to do, I always say – you can laugh, you can cry, you can express yourself but please don’t hurt each other. So it’s OK with me.
Have people ever hurt each other while watching the movie?
Well no I’m just saying to keep in mind, don’t hurt each other. What is behind the words in this case would be I want you to, if you can, be respectful to the other person. That’s the message, indirectly.
Your screen presence is bizarrely magnetic. It’s a little bit like the sun in that you can’t look but you can’t look away. How have women reacted? Have you become a sort of independent film sex symbol?
Let me tell you that women do like it for some reason. (Laughing) Yes they do like it. I leave it that way. It’s so bizarre for me, let me tell you. It’s bizarre beyond comprehension. I do not understand it, but they do like it for some reason.
What do you think it is about you that attracts women? Is it the long hair? Is it the accent?
I have no idea to be honest with you. Actually I have more women now, more than ever, and more girls for some reason. I am just laughing, I am sorry Luke, this is the thing – you were right on the money, for some reason we have more girls now than guys in the theatre! I just don’t understand.
Well, you’re a sex symbol Tommy.
Well thank you. The last screening we had on Monday, there was close to 900 people. And there were a lot of girls. It was just, wow! I rest my case.
You’re a very unconventional actor. So, what with all this attention from women, have you ever contemplated starring in a porno movie?
Actually people have asked me that. No, I am not for that. I am Catholic for your information, so that is my background. So I want to say absolutely not.
The story as you know is about a back-stabbing woman - a liar and a cheat who goes out of her way to create a love triangle and jumps from one man to the next. Is the script based partly on your own experiences with women?
Hmmm, well you see my take is slightly different. I would say two is better than three (and) three is crowd. We learn about relationships and back stabbing is bad. For example, somebody loves, there is nothing wrong to love somebody. When the character of Denny, he say I love Lisa, and he is very surprised when Johnny say “well that’s OK! No problem.” You see that’s what we have, a process of learning. There is nothing wrong if you say to somebody, you say to your friend or girlfriend or wife, or whoever you have. It is still OK for human beings to love another human being for just to say it to a person and to feel good about it. You see there is nothing wrong with that. If a lot of people love each other the world will be a better place to live. As you know those words are from The Room. And you know, it is what it is. It is a process of learning. It doesn’t matter where you look. Even in Australia, we have positive reviews from you guys, so I am happy to say that The Room actually connects all the people in the world.
Tommy I have a crazy theory about The Room. Do you want to hear my crazy theory?
Absolutely. I give you extra time. For one more question I give you extra five minutes. Go for it.
Thanks very much, I appreciate it. My theory is that you guys deliberately made a really bad movie with the intention of marketing it as one of the worst movies of all time. That’s what you did, isn’t it?
Actually no, that is incorrect, if you ask me my opinion about it. This is your statement?
Well it’s my theory. You’re Catholic, so you can pretend you’re at church now. I’m a priest and you are at the confessional. My theory is that you deliberately made this a bad movie so that people could enjoy it – as a bad movie.
No, that is not where The Room comes from if you ask me. That is a wrong statement. I will 100 percent disagree with you because again The Room is based on my work. 12 years of work. Very intensive research. I studied psychology. My background is partially psychology, partially film production. There is certain symbolism and without the symbolism within The Room you would not have The Room. We cannot just say OK we will make a bad movie because we feel like it. And we decided to market it as a bad movie – no. Some of the attention The Room got from big stars, as you know, who make over 20 million, 30 million dollars. This is not just a coincidence, because these stars want to be part of the history, they promote The Room indirectly on TV shows in America. These are the facts. I don’t want to give you the names, you probably know all about it. Let me also stress something else here, since we talk about The Room. I submitted The Room to distribution to big studios. A big studio starting with “P” – I will not give you the name but you can discover what the studio is, there is only one in Hollywood starting with P – and they say “thank you very much Mr Wiseau, maybe next time.” I say thank you very much, no problem. I submitted the film to the Academy Awards. These are the facts. I designed The Room very meticulously. Again as I mentioned to you it is 12 years work. So I disagree with your statement, but I appreciate your theory. The production took me almost eight months to shoot The Room and that does not include the editing. Everybody has different opinions about it. But we have a history with The Room and we go based on the facts. And based on the facts I cannot agree with your statements.
Are you disappointed that The Room didn’t get nominated for any Oscars?
Yes I am disappointed. But you have to understand that my background is also business so I have great respect for studio system in America as well as the process of submitting to Academy Awards. I have nothing to hide. These are the facts. I am disappointed. We also submitted it to Golden Globe awards. We got good reaction from the people. We didn’t win anything but at the same time we are proud of it.
The Room is currently playing every Saturday night at 11pm at Melbourne's Cinema Nova.