Grab your spoons and footballs, because you know we are talking about The Room.
We love behind-the-scenes stories. In 2017, The Disaster Artist took us through the wild ride that was the production process behind the greatest worst movie ever made—The Room. But is that the whole story?
Released in 2003 in small theaters in Los Angeles and immediately receiving marks as the worst movie ever made, The Room still somehow managed to find its way into pop culture history.
Perhaps it was Tommy Wiseau’s unorthodox approach to filmmaking and his enthusiasm that allowed the audience to enjoy the film for what it is despite the bad acting, clunky screenwriting, and lackluster cinematography. The truth is, the movie is enjoyable for how bad it is.
If you want to enjoy the chaos that The Room has to offer, then you might be interested to learn about the questionable decisions and lack of self-awareness that made this cult classic.
The Meeting of Two Unlikely Friends
It is a simple start to the story: Greg Sestero, who had loved films from a young age, wanted to be an actor. He attended an acting class in San Francisco where he would eventually meet an eccentric aspiring actor and filmmaker, Tommy Wiseau.
There is little known about Tommy Wiseau, and he seems to prefer to keep his past hidden. Tommy won’t reveal his age, tends to dismiss questions about where his wealth came from and claims to be from New Orleans despite his heavy Eastern European accent. There are some conspiracy theories out there that claim Tommy is actually the infamous D. B. Cooper, but the truth is that Wiseau’s past will never be uncovered.
Greg and Tommy would partner up to perform scenes, and struck up a friendship, bonding over their shared love of James Dean.
Tommy wanted to be an actor and filmmaker desperately, creating the first short film that he shot on 8mm, Robbery Doesn’t Pay. In hopes to achieve their dreams, Tommy and Greg moved to LA to an apartment that Tommy had already been renting.
After moving to LA, Greg’s acting career started to progress and Tommy, unfortunately, found no success. Tired of waiting for the phone to ring, Tommy decided he would take action and create a film by writing a reportedly autobiographical script, titled The Room.
Of course, Greg offered his opinions on the script once Tommy finished, saying that “the script didn’t make any sense. Characters’ motivations changed from scene to scene, important plot points were raised and then dropped, and all of the dialogue sounded the same. Which is to say, it sounded exactly like Tommy’s unique understanding of the English language. But nothing I said would ever change his view of The Room, so what did it matter?”
The Pre-Production Process
Tommy, sure of himself and his talent, decided that the funding for his project would come from him after failing to find anyone who wanted to back his film.
Tommy created his own production company, Wiseau-Films, where he did everything from acting as the administrative assistant under the pseudonym of John to being the legal department.
Although the credits include two other executive producers, one was Tommy’s much older English teacher who had never had any involvement in film prior or since, and the other had been dead for years prior to the film’s production.
Tommy gave himself the leading role and asked Greg to be the line producer (despite not knowing what a line producer’s role was) and the casting director. While holding auditions, Tommy and Greg had to reassure actors that the film they were auditioning for wasn’t a porn film.
As pre-production started to wrap up, Tommy managed to convince Greg to play the role of Mark, a role already accepted by another actor, by offering Greg a large acting fee and a brand-new car.
An Unorthodox Production
The first day of filming started four hours past schedule due to Tommy arriving very late to the set, a trend that would become common.
Rather than shoot on location, Tommy made the unusual decision to shoot everything in a studio. The exterior shots were filmed in the studio parking lot with the help of three walls made from Styrofoam and backed with cheap plywood that was haphazardly set up. The three walls were moved to create the illusion of four walls while achieving multiple camera angles.
Since Tommy was normally late, filming took place midday or afternoon when the sun cast unflattering shadows on faces. The cinematographer used lots of overhead diffusion with textiles on frames to combat the harsh light, which took quite a bit of time to set up and ultimately ate up shooting time.
The studio that they shot in was the small Highland Avenue lot of Birns & Sawyer—a Hollywood rental house. This offer was extended by the owners due to the unheard decision made by Tommy to purchase the film production gear rather than rent. This $1 million investment made no logical sense, but Tommy was determined not to rent.
Because Tommy wanted to shoot on 35mm and HD digital (another reason that didn’t make sense), his investment included two Panasonic HDX-900 digital cameras, one Arriflex BL4 camera, and a dozen cinema lenses, including multiple Cooke zooms.
Despite the crew’s insistence that he would either use the 35mm or the HD digital footage for the final cut, Tommy went ahead with this bizarre decision.
The first cinematographer for The Room was Raphael Smadja, an experienced French-born DP who mainly worked in reality TV. He would light scenes with a strong source of hard, undiffused light that made it easy for viewers to see where the light source was coming from.
Smardja would retreat from the camera to the director's monitor, which was away from the set, while Tommy performed his scenes because the DP couldn’t hold in his laughter from Tommy’s tragic performance.
The truth is, Wiseau is not a great actor. He was notorious for forgetting the lines that he wrote. It became so painful at times that it took the cast and crew three hours, multiple rehearsals, and 32 takes to get one seven-second line. Tommy also appeared to lack any awareness of the correct emotional tone while performing, making for a bizarre and uncanny performance.
While Sandy Schklair, the script supervisor, tried to make sense of the script and make it more intelligible, the narrative was a complete mess full of subplots that were left open-ended and unresolved.
The weeks of shooting were a nightmare. Smardja quit after Tommy refused to hire a proper line producer, and the DP’s crew walked out in protest of Tommy’s poor decision-making. The second DP was hired, a young cinematographer straight out of film school, and quickly believed that the production must have been a money-laundering scheme.
The second DP didn’t last long due to Tommy refusing to buy a $200 generator to power lights which would have saved hours every day. One of the few camera operators who didn’t walk off the set, Todd Barron, stepped up at the last minute and is the credited cinematographer.
The Reason for the Strange Editing
As soon as post-production started, Wiseau decided to dismiss all of the HD footage in favor of the 35mm.
Then, a problem was soon presented that would affect the entire editing process.
Much of the sound was unusable due to the inexperienced sound recordist, an inability to sync up some of the dialogue sounds to the footage, and Tommy’s struggles with saying his lines. Although they turned to ADR to replace much of the location sound, the way the sound was added to the footage wasn’t masterfully done.
Rather than carefully controlling the edit through deliberate cutting, the decision on when and what to cut had to be decided by the parts of the footage that were usable. This is the reason that the pacing makes the film feel so odd. Certain scenes without much substance, like the numerous sex scenes, take up about 10% of the total run time.
The music choices, the geographically incorrect skyline of San Francisco, and the lack of technical skill on the entire project resulted in a film that broke the rules of filmmaking.
The estimated final budget for the film was around $6 or 7 million from Tommy’s pocket. He marketed the film by renting a large billboard with his face on it for $5,000 a week and had the billboard up for five years after the movie's release to promote the DVD sales. When asked how he was able to pay for the sign, Tommy said, “We feel like people should see The Room… we are selling DVDs, which are selling okay.”
When the film was released in theaters, much to the cast’s surprise, the film made a total of $1,900 in two weeks.
Like most cult films, the talk about The Room was spread from a friend telling a friend about the unironic humor found in the dialogue and performances of the film. Many of the same people would come from repeat viewings of the film during its two-week run and would email Tommy after the film left theaters to tell him how much they enjoyed the film.
This positive reception led to Tommy booking a single midnight showing of the film that was incredibly successful. This led to the traditional midnight showings of The Room which still happen today. At many of these showings, Tommy is there to take photos with his fans and relish his achieved celebrity in the cult film community.
Over time, the badly made movie made back its budget and is still talked about and watched today. We all know it's a bad film, but we secretly love badly made movies that at least tried to bring the director’s vision to life. We can respect the efforts made by Tommy, no matter how wild his decisions were, and can see a bit of ourselves in him and his work.
I guess what we can learn from The Room is that you should go and make whatever you want to make. Someone out there will appreciate your film if you put your heart and soul into making something that matters deeply to you. Even if it doesn’t take off in the way you expect it to, be proud that you were able to accomplish your goal of making your first film.
Just, please, make smart and functionally sound decisions.
Have you watched The Room recently? Let us know why you love to watch this bad movie in the comments below!