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‘The Disaster Artist’ Primer

Everything you need to watch, read, and know about ‘The Room’ and Tommy Wiseau before seeing James Franco’s highly referential film

Wiseau Films/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Over Thanksgiving weekend, I made a list of movies for my mom to check out over the next few weeks. That list included James Franco’s The Disaster Artist.

I tried fruitlessly to explain the movie to her; how it’s based on The Room, arguably the worst movie ever made, and how it depicts one of the most transfixing people ever, Tommy Wiseau. I eventually resigned to showing her a trailer for the movie, but after seeing Wiseau (played by Franco) gyrate on a stage floor reenacting the “Stella!” scene from A Streetcar Named Desire, she said “Oh, god” and immediately lost interest—which, fair.

However, The Disaster Artist is one of the best films of the year, a must-see dramedy that is gut-bustingly funny, sentimental, and compelling. Fans of Wiseau’s disasterpiece The Room will revel in Franco’s attention to detail, from the imitation of Wiseau’s bizarro cadences to the many meticulously recreated scenes. People unfamiliar with The Room will enjoy the movie, too—but the experience of watching The Disaster Artist will be undeniably better if you’re hyper aware of the source material, Wiseau, and all the chaos that’s surrounded the movie since the confounding auteur first released it in two Los Angeles theaters in 2003. So for those not yet indoctrinated into the cult of The Room, here’s a primer on the most important things to check out before The Disaster Artist hits theaters.

To Read: The Disaster Artist

Franco’s movie is based on the book of the same name written by Greg Sestero—Wiseau’s friend, an aspiring actor who plays Mark in The Room—and journalist Tom Bissell. In the book (full title: The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside ‘The Room,’ the Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made), Sestero recounts Wiseau’s ridiculous antics during production, of which there are way too many to list, so let’s just pick the best one.

One of the most infamous scenes from The Room is Johnny (Wiseau) incoherently refuting the claim that he hit his girlfriend, Lisa (Juliette Danielle), and then noticing his best friend, Mark, midsentence. (“Oh, hi, Mark!” Johnny says, the film’s most iconic line.) Even if you’ve never watched The Room, you’ve probably seen this one particular scene memed to death on YouTube because of its horrifically stilted segue.

It’s a brief scene, but according to Sestero, it took Wiseau roughly three hours to shoot. They added the water bottle Wiseau holds—and tosses—to help him remember the line, but that only made things worse: Wiseau injured himself on the first take that involved the water bottle. Per the book:

“The door flew open and there was Tommy holding his water bottle and stepping out of the outhouse and hitting his head on the doorjamb so hard that it took twenty minutes to ice the bump and conceal it with makeup. I heard one of the cameramen say, desperately, ‘How are we ever going to get this? It’s impossible. We’ll be here forever’ … If you can, I implore you to watch this scene. It’s seven seconds long. Three hours. Thirty-two takes. And it was only the second day of filming.”

To Watch: The Room

The Disaster Artist will still be funny and enjoyable if you haven’t seen The Room, but seriously: GO WATCH THE ROOM. For one, The Disaster Artist’s attention to detail can only be fully appreciated with knowledge of the references; it feels like a spiritual sequel to The Room, only with more coherent dialogue. But also, seeing The Room is an unforgettable experience—it comes off like the product of an extraterrestrial taking a crash course in scriptwriting; also it basically has a bunch of softcore porn in it.

The Room is a movie that works best as a communal viewing experience; getting together to watch with some friends (and some drinks) is particularly great if at least one person in the group has never seen the movie before, which guarantees half a dozen, “Wait, what the fuck?” and “How is this real?” moments. However, you can take the extra step and go to a screening of The Room, where fans typically bring footballs (Johnny loves a good toss) and plastic spoons to toss at the screen. Some screenings are even blessed with an appearance from Wiseau himself. All screenings of the movie—and the ones that Wiseau plans to attend—are listed on the movie’s website.

To Know (or Try to Know): How Tommy Wiseau Financed The Room by Himself

Wiseau spent $6 million of his own money to make The Room (though it could’ve cost less if he wasn’t insistent on shooting in both 35mm and HD). How exactly was he able to fund this project? It’s not entirely clear. Wiseau has claimed, vaguely, that he made his fortune importing jackets from Korea to the U.S.—which, yes, is a highly dubious assertion. Wiseau’s answers regarding his financials are ambiguous enough that conspiracy theories have emerged, including one that posits that Wiseau is the infamous 1970s plane hijacker D.B. Cooper. Sadly, Wiseau has denied this.

It’s not necessarily important to know where Wiseau’s money for The Room came from, but the fact he’s kept this under wraps, in addition to his actual age and where he’s really from, just adds to the wackiness of Wiseau and the confounding quality of his notoriously awful movie.

To Read: Tommy Wiseau’s Interviews

Checking out Wiseau’s interviews is like opening a Pandora’s box. He insists he always intended The Room to be a black comedy—an idea Sestero rejects in his book. He claims to have been the same age as Sestero when they met—though Sestero was in his early 20s, and Wiseau looked at least 40. His interviews are contradictory and confusing, but always entertaining. It’s worth reading them all in full, but here are some of the strangest excerpts.

On handling criticism for The Room (via The A.V. Club):

“I don’t care, to be honest with you. I just don’t care. I’m very strong in who I am, I’m very happy where I am. And wherever—again, as you know some people go overboard with criticism, but you know what? I would say look in your mirror, and see who you are, and what did you do. What we do, The Room right now is pop culture, as far as I’m concerned, and some of the networks, ABC or CBS, if they don’t see that, I’m sorry for them. You know people don’t like to play football in London, for example, or Australia, whatever. They don’t know our culture. We have such a unique culture.”

On how the character Lisa represents Elizabeth Taylor (or “Eleezabeth Taylor”) and … American society (via a Reddit AMA):

“First of all, you can compare Lisa to Eleezabeth Taylor, to when she did CLEOPATRA. The ladies, they don't have to wear jeans, they can wear dresses to be very powerful. So Lisa's character is very powerful. She represents American society.”

On his upcoming vampire movie, that may or may not exist (via Creative Loafing):

“My vampire's a good vampire. He does good things for the world. But if you see my vampire movie you will probably not sleep for couple weeks. It will be positive and negative, but at the same time, you won't be sleeping. You never see something like it.”

On why Lisa’s mom in The Room, Claudette, has cancer—a plot point that is addressed offhand and never resolved in the film—and how it also relates … to American society (via the same Reddit AMA, which is a treasure trove of Wiseau weirdness):

“We have many Claudettes in the country, with cancer … Many Claudettes in America relate to cancer … Many Dennys, many Johnnys, many Marks, because everything is coming from life, real life. THE ROOM is a red flag for society, for people to do better, to be better to each other basically. I've been doing this for 12 years, saying that.”

On why seeing Franco’s critically panned 2002 film, Sonny, made Wiseau realize that Franco was the perfect fit to adapt The Disaster Artist (via the Los Angeles Times):

“Because [Sonny], you have everything there. Drama, you have comedy, you have sexuality, you have relationships, you have all kinds of different detailed stuff. Detail, detail, detail. The Room, people laughing this, laughing that … we also have detail, detail, detail. That’s why your movie, I knew that—I said, ‘You’ll be doing a good job.'”

To Know: Tommy Wiseau’s IP Battle

That The Disaster Artist exists as a movie is a bit of a miracle, because in the past, Wiseau hasn’t been eager to let filmmakers expand on his source material. In 2011, after being fascinated by The Room, Canadian filmmaker Rick Harper asked Wiseau if he could make a documentary about the making of the film. Wiseau initially agreed, but he quickly soured on Harper when the filmmaker began prodding into Wiseau’s mysterious past.

Undeterred, Harper moved forward with the doc—titled Room Full of Spoons, in honor of the many framed photos of spoons that appear at various points in The Room—interviewing other members of the cast and unearthing some facts about the enigmatic Wiseau. (According to Harper’s research, Wiseau is originally from Poland; Wiseau has said he grew up in New Orleans and describes his accent as “cajun.” It’s not.) But the documentary’s release was suspended after Wiseau was granted a temporary injunction in June of this year. Wiseau also organized an online smear campaign, posting videos on YouTube bashing the doc—including one where the Room Full of Spoons poster is blown up—and threatening film festivals and theaters that considered showing it.

The injunction, however, was lifted earlier this month by a Canadian judge, who in his ruling also made sure to pan Wiseau’s film. “Although Mr. Wiseau complained in his affidavit that the documentary mocks, derides and disparages him and The Room, he did not disclose that The Room’s fame rests on its apparently abysmal quality as a movie,” Judge Markus Koehnen wrote. “People flock to see The Room because it is so bad. People see the movie for the very purpose of mocking it; a phenomenon that has won the movie its cult status.”

Room Full of Spoons doesn’t have a release date, but Harper’s website says they’re planning to release the doc as soon as possible.

To Know: James Franco’s Obsession

Franco first professed his love for Wiseau’s film—and Sestero’s book—in a 2013 column for Vice, and optioned the rights to the film a year later. He was fascinated by Wiseau so quickly accepting that his vision for the film—a serious character drama in the vein of Tennessee Williams (no, seriously)—was turned into a joke. Franco’s a bit of an enigma himself—a creator who sees himself as somewhat misunderstood—and the meta aspect of making a movie about a bad movie enticed him.

“[Wiseau] didn't really get a chance to learn his lesson,” he told The Hollywood Reporter on Monday. “One of the things you get from hitting a wall, or from painful experiences, is that you get to learn. If you are smart, you get to learn from those lessons. He went and did this thing. It didn't turn out like he wanted, but then, he doesn't get to quite understand. I love Tommy, but he's stuck in a Room vortex. Because he made this thing that's still playing 14 years later.”

While Franco was shooting the film, he apparently went full Method as Wiseau. That included Franco eating “salads for a year” to keep to Wiseau’s strangely muscular physique for the film’s sex scenes and trying to shoot scenes in Romania because that’s where he believes Wiseau is originally from. Understandably, this freaked people out. “I couldn't deal with it, straight up, for the first two days,” costar Seth Rogen said. “People would come up and ask me, ‘Where's James?’ And I was always like, ‘He’s right fucking there!’ … My grandmother came out and she just did not get what the fuck was happening.”

The Room might be the best bad movie ever made. The Disaster Artist is certainly the best good movie based on a bad movie, based on a book about the bad movie being made, ever made. Once you’ve learned about The Room, and have gone to see The Disaster Artist, I’m sure you’ll agree. Bye, doggy.