Scott Foundas of Variety was one of the very few critics to pay attention to The Room when it rolled into Hollywood in 2003. At the time, Foundas saw no future for the film. “Given audience reaction at screening attended, pic may be something of a first: A movie that prompts most of its viewers to ask for their money back – before even 30 minutes have passed,” he wrote.
Little did Foundas imagine that this obscure indie production would become a cult movie phenomenon, albeit for reasons that were never anticipated by the individuals associated with its creation – especially its one-in-a-million director/producer/writer/star, Tommy Wiseau.
Wiseau is probably the closest thing that contemporary cinema has to a man of mystery. Even his date and place of birth are unclear. In interviews, Wiseau has claimed a 1968 birth in New Orleans – but in The Room (which was shot in 2002) he appears far beyond 34 years old, while his peculiar accented voice (which carries a distinctive Eastern European cadence) does not sound like it originated around Bourbon Street.
Wiseau’s arrival in show business came in 2001, with an early version of The Room as a would-be theatrical play. Unable to get his work staged by a professional theater group, he then attempted to turn it into a novel. When publishers rejected the work, Wiseau raised $6 million to create a film version. How he raised this impressive sum is also somewhat mysterious, with Wiseau vaguely mentioning profits from the import of Korean-made leather jackets.
As a neophyte filmmaker, Wiseau ran up extraordinary expenses on bizarre decisions, including the insistence on shooting The Room in both 35mm and HD. The production dragged on for six months, with significant turnover in cast and crew.
Lacking any professional guidance or oversight on his labors, Wiseau brought forth an incoherent screenplay that suggested he was afflicted with Attention Deficit Disorder. Characters abruptly appeared and disappeared, bizarre pronouncements percolated without warning and were promptly ignored, and inane behavior (including a football game played in the street by the tuxedo-clad male leads) occurred without any explanation. The dialogue frequently degenerated into a skein of outlandish non-sequiturs, and after a while it became difficult to imagine that the people sharing the scenes were are actually in the same conversation.
Ah, but what is on screen is utterly astonishing. Wiseau plays the San Francisco banker Johnny, although he looks and sounds like Dracula’s grandfather, and Juliette Danielle is his unfaithful girlfriend Lisa. Circling this couple are Claudette, Lisa’s busybody mother – she casually announces that she has breast cancer in a single brief sentence and never raised the point again – and somewhat odd young man named Denny, whom Johnny has supported financially. Denny might have developmental disabilities or he might be a drug addict – both hints are raised and neither is fully explored.
Lisa has become bored with Johnny, but Claudette urges her to stay in the relationship because of Johnny’s wealth. Lisa starts hitting on Johnny’s hunky best friend Mark, and she then begins making false claims of abusive behavior by Johnny. Complicating matters are problems at Johnny’s job. It all ends very badly – but, then again, how could anyone spin a happy ending from this soap opera?
Fortunately for Wiseau, fate gave The Room a very happy ending. His 2003 Los Angeles release seemed destined to be was a dismal failure, despite an expensive marketing campaign that included an enigmatic billboard advertisement and promises of a modern-day Tennessee Williams-worthy story. As luck would have it, one of the very few people who saw The Room during its original run was screenwriter Michael Rousselet, who turned up at one screening to find he was the only person in the theater.
”It was like our own private Mystery Science Theater,” he later recalled in an Entertainment Weekly interview. ”I was calling friends during the end and saying, ‘You have to come to this movie.’ We saw it four times in three days, and on the last day I had over 100 people there.”
Wiseau would later grandly claim that his initial exhibition received enough positive feedback for him to arrange for monthly Los Angeles-based midnight movie screenings. Wiseau and several cast members would occasionally show up at these screenings, which began to take on Rocky Horror Picture Show-style dimensions with audience members dressed like characters from the film and objects tossed at the screen. (In this case, spoons – Johnny’s apartment had a spoon in a picture frame hanging on the wall, hence the cutlery obsession.)
Although Wiseau would self-release The Room on DVD in 2005, the production remained a midnight movie favorite in Los Angeles, with high-profile fans including Paul Rudd, Jonah Hill and Will Arnett. Over time, the film’s popularity as a midnight movie anti-classic spread to other cities, then to other countries. Bobblehead figurines of the film’s characters turned up in retail channels, along with a video game. Many of the film’s fans have lifted sections of the more ridiculous dialogue exchanges and grafted them onto unlikely videos, including clips from Sesame Street and a President Obama State of the Union speech.
As for Wiseau, he observed the film’s unlikely cult success in a characteristically opaque manner. “I don’t ask you to like my movie, as long as you enjoyed yourself,” he said. Really, who can argue with that?