“You can laugh, you can cry,you can express yourself, but please don’t hurt each other. ”
– Tommy Wiseau’s advice about enjoying his movie The Room
The Room‘s auteur Tommy Wiseau is an American. That’s the first thing he’d probably want you to know about him. And he’s right, he is American, and like most Americans and their ancestors, Tommy is an immigrant, but he doesn’t like to talk about that. He’d prefer that fans of his magical film experience believe he’s from Louisiana, where he spent some time with his aunt and uncle before settling down in San Francisco in the 1970s, but his broken English and tangled accent are embarrassingly obvious tells. It’s been tracked down that Tommy was probably born in Poland and he has often said he spent a good part of his younger days in France, which accounts for his mixed accent. Most people would think nothing of mentioning their native country even if they want to keep some details private. For Tommy Wiseau, all details are private and the truth is something that you construct for yourself. Tommy isn’t interested in the wonderful mixing of cultures in the United States, instead he’s locked on with a vice-grip to an important American trope: The Self-Made Man. This dude is vampiric absurdist Don Draper who everyone knows is really Dick Whitman.
Tommy Wiseau’s real name last name is probably Wieczor, according to this Reddit post. In his memoir The Disaster Artist*, Wiseau’s The Room co-star and longtime Greg Sestero (Mark) outlines a pieced-together version of Wiseau’s backstory, but Sestero’s still not clear exactly what’s fiction and what’s reality. What does seem to be true is that Tommy came from a big, impoverished family in an Eastern Bloc country ravaged by WWII. He fell in love with the promise of America as a child while watching 101 Dalmations, and has been chasing the hopes of America’s opportunities for happiness ever since. He couldn’t immigrate directly to America, so he spent some time in France where he underwent his first identity shift, calling himself Pierre. When he finally made it to America, after a good degree of turmoil in France, he worked selling toys at Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco, throwing toy birds up into the air that would boomerang back to him. Around this time he started calling himself Thomas P. Wiseau. P. was for Pierre, and Wisseau was a mixture of his possible real last name Wieczor and “oiseau,” the French name for bird.
According to the lore, eventually Tommy grew this business into selling leather jackets and irregular Levis in a stall. This thriving retail business, named Street Fashions USA, expanded into multiple locations, and made Tommy Wiseau a wealthy man. It made him so wealthy that coughing up $6 million to finance The Room‘s production made him scarcely bat an eye. It has been hinted that Tommy may have had some help in his business success from a friend named Drew Caffey who died in 1999 before The Room was even conceived of, but Tommy still credited as an executive producer and San Francisco casting agent for The Room. It was Drew Caffey who gave Tommy the best piece of advice he said he’s ever received: “Make sure you put yourself front and center. Be the star. Make yourself the star. Don’t think about anybody else.”
Like Don Draper, Tommy Wiseau fought his way to his interpretation of the American Dream while running from his past like a haunted man. In America, we are told, it doesn’t matter who you are or where you’re from, you can carve out your place in the world with enough work and determination. You past is practically irrelevant, the Mythos chants inspiringly. It’s a bit of an illusion, both the possibility of the Dream, and how much of a salvation it really is. But it’s still a beautiful thing. In many places of the world just the possibility of such a thing is a glimmer on the horizon. For Americans, though, we are so close to it sometimes we can barely even see it shine, or we have caught a taste of it and feel disillusioned because it just leaves us hungry for more. And of course, although in America your past can be of no consequence in business dealings, it will always be a consequence for the individual. We can remake ourselves all we want, but there is still a mysterious and murky self coded in DNA and stained and scarred by our individual accumulation of days. Tommy Wiseau took his past, the ghosts of his stained accumulation of days, out for a wrestle to write The Room, and according to Greg Sestero, it took him to a pretty bleak, lonely, possibly suicidal place. There was a woman who was unfaithful to him, and there was his fear of betrayal with friendships. As The Disaster Artist points out, The Room is more about friendship than romantic love.
I first saw The Room several years ago, and it was a delightful experience. It takes “so bad it’s good” to a whole new level. We all see powerful movies with stunning cinematography, masterful storytelling and acting, and depth that rattles us at our emotional core and forces us to, if just for a moment, see life in a whole new, invigorating way. That’s the type of movie that Tommy Wiseau tried to make, but maybe he made something better, in a way. How many times really can you watch some of those practically perfect earth-shattering movies? Even if the payback is just as sweet, you kind of have to be ready for it. You have to absorb it. You have to give something of yourself to get something back from it. Though worth it, it can be taxing. With The Room, you just have to show up with your miasma of unchecked neurosis and enjoy it. It’s best when watched with friends, and I assume it’s even better at the Rocky Horror Picture Show-style screenings that still take place. Tommy himself attends many screenings, and, ever the entrepreneur, he has a wide array of merchandise to satisfy his giddy horde of fans, including some padded underwear for men (which is a bit ironic and pretty creepy considering the excruciatingly long shot of his bare ass.)
The beauty of The Room is that it is basking in absurdity: instead of relying something stable like a plot, the plot holes are what give the film it’s true shape. It is a castle built on air, and still it stands. It’s the stuff of dreams. And much like dreams, big things are randomly introduced that disappear like vapor, characters come and go for no reason, the dialogue is repetitive and makes little sense, Tommy’s acting is wooden, and all the characters have a strange emotional dissonance that is hilarious, off-putting, and intriguing all at once. Furthermore, there are spoons in the picture frames, and at one point a group of guys who are inexplicably wearing tuxedos throw a football around. If you were actively trying to write something this absurd, you could not do it. Comedies work their whole lives hoping to get as intense and unrestrained laughter as The Room gets every single time. This all had to genuinely come from the brain of Tommy Wiseau, an ego-ridden, tortured man who not only has a childlike wonder about the world, but also a childlike understanding of human emotion and motives. It’s seems illogical to think of a man like Tommy Wiseau, who seems more at home in the world of outlandish lies than uttering something simple and true, as genuine, but it’s an apt term. There is a strange sincerity in his unrelenting reflex to conceal, in his constantly misread social cues, and in his blind belief in himself no matter what.
And, he is sticking to his guns like a madman to the end. Tommy is embracing the fame and the love fans have for the film, even if he sort of still stands by his belief that it’s artistry is on par with the writing of Tennessee Williams and the acting of Marlon Brando and James Dean. He’s still hanging on the comfort of ignoring the truth even as it stares him in the face.
That’s another way we connect with him though, with his self-denial. One of the complex things about being human is that even if you get your facts straight, you can still find plenty to conceal, plenty to hide from. Most of the things we’re all hiding from are personal emotional wounds that even long intimate talks, years of therapy, reams of journals and sketches can’t ever really capture. They are monsters in secret vaults of the mind that turn to mist when we try to touch them. Once we tell other people about them, once they see the light, they are often regarded as mundane creatures and dismissed. “Oh everyone has those,” we hear. and that’s kind of a mixed feeling because we thought are monsters were special. We feel less alone, relieved, and given a chance to be happy and live a healthier life with our tamed monsters out in the open, but there is a slight disappointment that our monsters are not so unique, that they did not shake the other people we revealed them to to the core.
Tommy Wiseau hoped he would shock us with The Room, that we would see ourselves and the drama of human existence in a way that had never been done before. He thought it would change our lives. And it did.
*James Franco, Seth Rogen, and Evan Goldberg have signed on to direct and produce an adaptation of Sestero’s captivating book. Can’t wait for that!