The Popdose Interview: Tommy Wiseau
Tommy Wiseau’s mega cult hit The Room is the new Rocky Horror Picture Show. The film enjoys sold-out midnight screenings across the globe, with audience members reciting lines, throwing spoons at the screen, playing football in the theater and dressing up in costume. Unlike The Rocky Horror Picture Show, however, The Room gained its cult status because of its utter badness. Green screen roof scenes are laughable, scenes are out of focus, much of the audio is dubbed, entire scenes repeat themselves, and characters drop in and out of the film with no explanation due to cast turnover. The Washington Post called it “A train wreck of almost incomprehensible proportions.”
The mastermind behind it all is Tommy Wiseau, the writer, director, producer and star of The Room. Tommy’s persona has helped fuel the popularity of the film — just for starters, he has a vaguely Eastern European accent, but will only say he is American. His laugh is undeniably infectious, and the way he handles themes like cancer, infidelity and drug use in The Room is quite bizarre. Tommy has gained notable fans like David Cross, who has even come to events as Tommy Wiseau, wig and accent in tow.
Tommy was kind enough to give me an hour of his time. With The Room’s massive cult following, he is on a whirlwind tour, appearing at screenings while working on his own upcoming projects. Check out this in-depth interview with Tommy to find out how his theater background affected him, what mistakes he thinks he made in The Room, what he is working on next, where he came up with the idea for The Room, the symbolism behind the spoons and football, and much more — including an improvised scene to prove he can add emotion to anything.
I’m a big fan of the film. I went to the screening in Washington, DC. It played during Thanksgiving weekend, but both nights still sold out and the theater was packed. The crowd was so excited and involved. What about The Room makes audiences want to participate and interact with the film?
Definitely about DC you are right. We don’t understand because we got such a great response. Everybody was surprised, if you ask me, including myself. You know, it is funny, because we are screening in other states and some of the stuff takes a little time. But for some reason in DC, I guess people like it or we have a lot of fans there, I don’t know what the answer is. To respond to your question, The Room is The Room. You see, first of all, the movie I created is my 12-year work, people don’t realize that. Your question is?
What about the film makes people want to participate and express themselves in the way that they have been doing at screenings?
One of the things that I find out is that people like to be connected because of the certain symbolism within The Room. Openly, you see, right now a lot of people know where I come from about this take. I’m not hiding. I’m very open about it and I always say, you can laugh, you can cry, you can express yourself, but please don’t hurt each other.
Apparently what happened in DC, as well as all over the states, we have a lot of fans all over and I did not realize that. So people attend screenings in Los Angeles or wherever, we travel. To respond to your question I think one of the aspects of my project is to explore different entertainment and that was my goal too. You have to understand Rachel, that by design, I’m talking as a director; my job was to provoke the audience. Again, people are blogging about The Room, as you probably know. Some of the stuff that has been written, to be completely honest, let’s be nice, I say to myself. We’re not on the same page with media, let’s put it this way. They don’t understand the new concept, number one.
Number two, they don’t understand my background. My background is actually acting; I am a professional stage actor. I’ve been doing this for a while. The history of The Room is long story short, it was supposed to be play… Actually, first it was a book, then a play, then I changed it to script and then I said, wait a minute, I don’t want to do a play because it’s not for people showing at a play theater. It is for the cinema. So I switched to make a movie and nobody would produce my movie. I just knew I never approached any studio except for distribution.
So that’s basically what we have and to respond to your question, I think people are connected because it’s true life. If you really think about it, two is better than three, it is easy to quote number two; as well people want to enjoy themselves, that is my sincere statement. I say to all the audiences, you may not like my movie, I am actually very open. I can tell you one thing, The Room opens certain doors that either you are comfortable or you’ll be very much connected. Why I say you have to see it two or three times is because there is no way you can grasp this. I don’t care if you are from Oxford University or Stanford whatever; it would be the same thing. By the way, I attend a lot of screenings at the universities and my first question to the public usually is how many lawyers are here? We always have lawyers, all kinds of people, not just filmmakers or the general public. I always see at universities we have a lot of hands, oh yeah we are lawyers or we will be lawyers.
Yes, there were probably a lot of lawyers at the DC screening.
Thank you, thank you Rachel. You make my day because I think you are right on the money because you see again, what the irony is. Maybe I’ll go the extra mile, let me think. I don’t know yet until I‘ll actually be at the screening. Another thing I see in the newspaper is that the lawyers study psychology and they are interesting about the aspect of reaction of the public. This is my little statement about that. We do have lawyers who are also fans of The Room, for your information. They are nice people but lawyers are lawyers, let’s put it this way. I’m just laughing because I think you’re probably right too.
People really enjoy themselves at the screenings, but The Room has a lot of upsetting themes, like betrayal, infidelity, and drugs. How did you accomplish presenting such depressing subject matter, but at the same time filling your audience with so much joy?
I always ask myself the time where I should, what is behind the words? I always say that simplicity is a virtue of success, which just means that as simple as you present it, it’s much difficult is. I’m not here to criticize anyone, but at the same time I notice that some people don’t grasp this. They say good is bad but at the same time, good is bad because in America bad actually is good if you really think about it, it’s slang. This is the thing that makes me happy and at the same time, I am laughing at it because I think it’s funny. Some people really don’t grasp this. They think it is so bad but it’s not because first of all, The Room was shot on 35 millimeter film, which is a very expensive process and we used both cameras, et cetera et cetera. I like what’s happening — people are actually connected, and we notice that a lot of people actually come into the theater a few times to see it.
Speaking of the camera technique, you used a 35millimeter and an HD camera side-by-side. I am not aware of that being done before. Can you tell me a little about this revolutionary technique and if you are indeed going to be writing a book or making a documentary about that process?
Actually, I am in the process now, I have been doing this for at least two or three years but it has been hard because of my schedule. I just completed a vampire movie. Long story short, yes. Seven years ago, we did not have the resources that we have now with HD. Not a lot of people know the history of HD. I do, because I was the first one who actually owned the camera F27 Panasonic. It was the first commercial camera in the world.
Long story short, the reason I used the two cameras side by side was that I was confused. I am not afraid to say that. At the same time, there was not enough research. Panasonic promised me to do the DVD but they never printed anything about it, which they are now regretting because now everybody knows that The Room is actually the only one… you can put in your article if you can, if you want, it’s up to you, I’m not here to bossing you around, Rachel … the fact is The Room is the only feature movie shot at the same time with both cameras. It is also the only movie with both cameras shot on the same plank.
Yes, any studio can give you some sample, five minutes or ten minutes, but not the feature movie, I am proud to say that. That’s why you see we have a lot data relate to it. You see the HD tape relate to a stack of film. Today in technology we are so advanced after seven years because so much evolution because of the HD. Let me stress something to your readers as well to you, that HD was not embraced at that time by Hollywood because everyone was afraid, and this is the fact that they will lose a lot of money because 35, whatever the story is today that we should watch on the right cameras. We transfer to 35 because, you know what? Film is the film, that’s the bottom line.
I didn’t realize that seven years ago HD cameras were not common to film on.
Absolutely, well you see, people don’t give me credit for that. Maybe you can give me, but never mind, I’m not here for credit. You are absolutely right, I know what I’m talking about because I’ve been there and we’ve done it. Actually, I’ve done it. I remember, like today, one of the big directors, I talked to them and I said what do you think about this trailer? We did the trailer for The Room. He said, “Oh, this trailer’s great on 35 millimeter.” I said, wait a minute. You are actually wrong, this is not 35, this is HD format.
Now, we have much more optimistic and we have people who don’t butcher The Room so much because they understand some of the stylistic complexity nonsense. It’s funny because they don’t do research and they say I did this by accident. Oh wait a minute, it’s not going to happen by accident, the camera cannot roll by itself. By the way. One more thing I want to stress is sometimes people say, “Oh, when you shoot in HD, you don’t need the lighting.” Wait a minute, no, this is absolutely wrong statement. You need the lighting. The people don’t understand, including filmmakers.
How did your background as a theater actor affect you as you were making the film? What did you do differently because of your experience in theater that other directors might not have done?
I love stage. I would rather take the theater. It did help me tremendously. You have to be like I say, detail oriented, in theater. So you have a limitation with the stage. Imagine you have a stage and you’re planning San Francisco scene, for example. You are also planning Golden Gate scene in San Francisco and you say, how can you combine and visualize? Yes, it is workable. By the way, the irony of the story today is that I am actually doing the Broadway show will actually be The Room Broadway. I want it on Broadway, let me emphasize that. When you have actors or directors from the theater that transition to the film, it is much easier than visa-versa. In the theater you are thinking much more deeper, if I may say that.
I also dragged my camera to all my workshops. I have dozens of footage of my own. I work with the teachers, I got into trouble so many times because of the camera. Some of my classmates said, “Why did you bring the camera? We don’t want it.” I said, let me ask the teacher if I can have a camera and they would say yes to me. Then people complain and I say, you will be using it eventually if you want to be an actor. My biggest teacher from acting to directing was Jean Shelton from San Francisco. Jean studied with Stella Adler. She was the first teacher in the world. My teacher still lives and is over 80 years old. I also studied acting at A.C.T. which did help me tremendously but any school has a different approach to acting.
I’ve also heard that all of your actors learned multiple roles, because of your theater background.
This is the thing. I love theater, to be honest with you. Each time you play in the theater, it is slightly different than when you actually present it in a film. All forms of art are very exciting. When you work for theater, you are not as popular as in the film because you don’t reach a lot of people. I also know a lot of actors that work in the theater and love it, even with certain limitations.
Can you tell me about some upcoming projects, like your vampire movie or The Neighbors?
The vampire movie I completed for Comedy Central/MTV. It will be aired I believe in October. We completed it a few weeks ago. My project vampire will be ready tentative next year. I will be releasing another project which will be related to economy soon. Speaking about The Neighbors, one of the networks approved one. If you know somebody let me know. You may write this in your article: Tommy’s still shopping for networks. They approve one episode but I’m against it because if I have to create one episode it is the same like I work on ten. TV is much different approach.
Whenever I watch The Room, I get the “You are my Rose” song stuck in my head. Who came up with the catchy music for this film?
I worked very closely with Miladin. He created the musical score with my direction, so we worked together. Also, the lyrics is all original thing. Everything is original. Let me stress something, everything which you see in The Room, the footage. It’s not like second, like some people thought. Some people say, “Oh no, he borrowed from someone.” No. You have two units, one in Los Angeles, one in San Francisco, music is original, everything is original. We do everything from scratch. You see, that’s what the cost is, people don’t realize that.
During some of the emotional scenes, like the “You’re tearing me apart” scene, how did you work with the actors or with yourself to draw on these emotions? There was so much emotion in a lot of the scenes.
One of the things is I’m very pro this rehearsal process. You see, the emotion you draw from your experiences but also I believe it does help me because of my background in the theater. You can draw emotion, you can fake emotion, but I don’t believe in be fake, to be honest with you. I can do the scene with you right now if you want me to. Give me the words I will present it to you. You want to test me, it’s fine with me, Rachel. By the way, we have several people who have test me and guess what? They lost.
But never mind about that, it’s up to you. The fact is that’s the grey area, a lot of actors they call industry colors. The more colors you have, the better. This is the grey area where even a good actor who is good is bad. I never consider bad or good actor, I always say that actors are actors. You will never hear from me that this actor is better from the other. I would say the performance might be much more touching and connect to people because you see even the flat actors can fake emotion.
The irony of the story, the fact is you can feel it in a sincere way if the emotion is real or if it is not real. That is why what lead me to my statement to the symbolism of The Room and that is why I say maybe… I don’t want to say maybe. I think people are connected to The Room because you have a lot of emotion within The Room throughout betrayal, two is better than three, etc, etc. This is just the simple thing of the simple thing we do every day.
The irony of the story also is that people don’t realize that long time ago which affect me too, long time ago Egyptians, Catholic Church, other organization long long time ago presented theater long long time ago. People don’t realize that and that is also inter reaction between what you see and what is your reaction. How interest it could be and what is your goal, how do you want to present it. There is so many different obstacle and that is what I am talking about The Room, there is so many symbolism within The Room and it is very difficult to grasp the first time. It is the process of discover as well.
There is a sex scene at the start of the film. That is definitely something that could throw audiences off. Were you worried about that? Was it intentional to have that bold of a statement right at the beginning of the film?
Absolutely, I did this intentionally because I say now: I want to do my stuff my way. You have to understand that, yes; it is a little too long. I agree with that, but that was done intentional. The same with Golden Gate Bridge. We have ten seconds, it was supposed to be five seconds but we just say no, leave it alone. Certain scene you see the pace, as you know the middle of the movie is much more better pace. Everything go much more rapid way, if I may say that. Some people are very uncomfortable to see the love scene. I call love scene, some people call differently, but never mind about that. Some people say that is the time to go to bathroom. Somebody came up with this idea, for your information, so I say, okay great idea. We had a groovy screening in Los Angeles and before I forget we have a seventh anniversary screening on June 25 and 27.
When you were done editing, did you think The Room would be a cult classic and so popular?
The answer is no. Keep in mind The Room was by design for American people and I’m happy to report to you as well others that we release just recently in U.K., Australia and we will be releasing in New Zealand as well in Canada and we have the same reaction, don’t ask me why. We have universal screenings in September it will be almost one year. We had the biggest screening in New York City.
I am a very stubborn guy and I want people see my movie. You see symbolism of culture like football, etc. The Room is The Room, that’s basically it. People compare to other projects and some of the stuff butchers The Room. I say, stay away from me, because I have nothing to compare.
There is nothing like The Room, there is no doubt about it. Speaking of football, people often toss footballs during screenings and there are many scenes throughout the film with people playing football, even in tuxedos. What was the purpose of featuring football so prominently throughout The Room?
You see, I grew up in the Bay Area as well as New Orleans. My accent is that accent, I don’t care what people think about it. The long story short, I personally believe that football… American football is what we talk about, not soccer but the football … is as symbolism as America if you ask me. It is also a symbol of freedom as well, expression. Look at the last 200 years, well maybe 100 years, I may say that very openly and you see we like that. That is something unique and American and we create the football. They don’t know in Europe for example what we mean American football. They’re playing in France, I used to live in France a long time ago. But now, we are crazy about football as well basketball as you know. Yes, people on the set were laughing, no question about it. They were saying, “Why you play football in tuxedo?” I said, because I say so, that’s why.
Another thing I want to say, I don’t know if you know that we changed the crew four times. Either they fired or quit or whatever but after seven years they come to me and say, “Can we have a credit for The Room because I worked two hours on the movie?” I say, are you kidding me? This is the story that you may put in your article. What you do if your ship is sinking and the captain will always be on the ship. I will never abandon my ship. I don’t know, Rachel, this is a sad story for me. A lot of people abandoned The Room. We didn’t have the support the way we have now. Now those people come back and want it and I say, you must be kidding me.
Again, this is the thing what people don’t realize that hard work pay off. I’m a very simple guy and this is my twelve year of work. It’s not happen by accident. It’s not happen coincidence. Yes, certain environment applies. I started off study psychology, I still do. I want to be connect to entertainment and it seems to me I connect now and I like what I do. I would say two is better than three and The Room is red flag for some people not to do certain stuff, I openly say that. I actually will be releasing the Blu-ray before Christmas and we will be doing the 3-D probably next year, we try and work on it. I am working the same time on other stuff as well.
Another thing people bring to the screenings are spoons. They throw them around because of the spoons framed throughout the house in The Room. What is the symbolism behind the spoons?
Symbolism is that plastic is a chemical. Which spoon did you have first, plastic or wood? There is a simple answer. The simple answer is wood. Then we come out with plastic. Plastic is harmless is what we were thinking twenty years ago. In today’s society, they say, well you cannot have plastic because it is harm. I will say, wait a minute, we can change that and we can have a similar to plastic. When you go to a party, typical American way, we don’t have time to clean up. We don’t like to clean up. I don’t care how rich you are or how poor you are, it’s the same principle. Let’s just wrap up the plastic because we have party today, we need forks, we need plastic spoons and have a groovy party. That’s where the idea come from. People ask, why is that, like you are. They actually pick up on the plastic spoon and the issue is big (laughs).
You said you lived for a long time in the Bay Area. Why did you choose to use San Francisco as the location of The Room? There are a lot of scenes on the roof and San Francisco is great architecturally. Were there other reasons you felt this city would be appropriate for the film?
Oh absolutely. I don’t know if you know, I used to live in San Francisco. Sometimes I visit San Francisco, now I live in Los Angeles. So you know, you can walk from Port of San Francisco to Sea Cliffs. I know San Francisco like I know my pants. We have a lot diversity in the city. We have a couple shots of Pacific Heights because it’s much more different than when you go to Castro. By the way they did a screening of The Room at The Red Vic on Haight Street, which they have better numbers than the big exclusive theater in Moscone Center. I rest my case. (laughs) I am laughing because someone start this rumor is laughable. I like this city San Francisco but let me tell you straightforward, I do not like politics at this time in San Francisco. Let me stress that, but let’s just put politics on the side. This city I really enjoy it and I think people are very respectful. I notice all over the country right now the stigma change.
I used to live in New Orleans and you have, I will say you had more rednecks than you have now. I will say straightforward and express myself. I have a groovy time too, Rachel. You don’t have to print that (laughs). I think San Francisco is one of the unique cities where you can find anything you want — different diversity, different food, different relationships, whatever you want. You can be rich, you can be poor. You have a problem with homelessness but you have a problem with rich people as well. We have such a diversity city.
I lived there at the time of earthquake and that’s why I put the two bridges. Golden Gate Bridge is the symbol of survival. Most people don’t know this, a little history; one person got killed when they built the Golden Gate Bridge, for your information. If you compare to Bay Bridge, I have a surprise for you, Golden Gate Bridge is better than Bay Bridge. Golden Gate Bridge was first so they did lousy job on Bay Bridge. They say it is steel but I say, wait a minute, you did not calculate the correct vibration, et cetera. There is a lot data in San Francisco about earthquake so they should anticipate the load is not there, let’s put it this way. As you know they are now rebuilding the Bay Bridge and I believe it will be done in two years. They want to use the same bridge but it is not usable because of foundation.
This is another thing I want to point out to you when people don’t pick up on this. How you can build something without the foundation? You can have a window but if you don’t have foundation, you don’t have a house. I have information for all the smart people from Oxford or whatever University of Berkeley. The Room is very strong foundation based on the relationships and how not to do it. Like I say, two is better than three.
Do you have fans that write to you saying that they saw The Room and it made them change their relationship? Perhaps people who say they were about to cheat and didn’t because of the film?
You know what? I have thousands. Yes, the answer is absolutely yes. I have so many emails that when we release the Blu-ray, I have my entire file that I will be putting on camera. I say, these are my correspondence from fans of The Room. If you see the stack, I could probably actually bury myself with it because there is so much mail. E-mail as well as personal letters because they know how to contact, we are very open about it. I have a great support from my fans. Since New York they are very enthusiastic about it too. Very positive response, though at the beginning we had roller coaster ride.
What gave you the idea for The Room? Where did this come from?
Like I say, I studied psychology as well The Room come from real life and relationships. I have a tendency to always jot down a statement. I like this writing process, I always ask myself, what about this, what about that? The idea come from real life. I see a lot stuff through me as well but we have many different Johnnys, many different Lisas in entire world right now. We’ve been there. It doesn’t matter who you are. Sometimes media is not so kind, but right now they are changing their minds slightly but it is what it is (laughs).
What is your favorite scene in The Room and why?
I like Chris-R’s scene because it is very emotional and the reaction between Claudette, Lisa and the main characters. This is the scene that took us a while to film it. Also, “You are tearing me apart, Lisa.”
Why name the character Chris-R, and not Chris?
I wanted first thing, gangsters, and I come up with this idea also with the name. I say, he has to be different and I named him “dash r” and people pick up on this. People say, “Why you put the dash there?” Why? You will not ask. All gangsters have a certain symbolism within the name or nickname or as they have. Originally it is supposed to be Chris and I say, no it doesn’t sounds good. So I say, Chris-R and it’s worked out pretty well.
Why does Claudette pressure Lisa to marry Johnny? What in the background of her character makes her push Lisa towards an unhappy relationship?
Insecurity, because she sees Johnny secure her life. He has a good solid bank, et cetera, she already knows that she doesn’t want her daughter to go through the road she was on before with her husband. She didn’t want to marry him. It is the aspect of manipulation. By the way, Rachel, I don’t know what is happening but we have more ladies on the screenings than ever. I don’t know what you guys doing but I love it, more girls than ever. You have good taste! People ask why Juliette (who plays Lisa) not at screenings and I say why we need her when we have all these beautiful ladies in the screening? So to respond to your question, it is also manipulation but at the same time, a wake up calls for ladies. This is a red flag and that was my intention.
I met many ladies who are bankers and very successful. I don’t say this to you just because I feel like saying it, I say it publicly and always will do – you guys, ladies, have something to offer. Some ladies don’t understand they have more power than we men. This is my take on that. Ladies have magic touch, what you do is better than what we do. That’s the fact, I rest my case. Look at Cleopatra, for example. Long time ago, some ladies already knew about the power within the ladies. Today’s society you have a lot of powerful women. You have to be comfortable what you want to do because you don’t have to prove to us guys. I want to present good stuff but everything goes down the tubes at the end.
Coincidentally, this just came up in my mind right now, I don’t want to say it but I will tell you. There is a big scandal going on with a producer of Survivor. The guy apparently killed his wife is a producer, you see, everything is going down the tubes. This is similar to The Room, the cause and effect of a wrongdoing and not to be honest. In The Room, if Lisa left Johnny and Mark, she would have had chance to find happiness, also for Denny, which is orphan. When Denny on the screen, some people are yelling. Some people are very emotional. I’m just so thrilled to see the audience in Washington, DC because I heard they had so good reaction.
You are such a great sport, what is the final question?
I am going to take you up on your offer to test you on your ability to add emotion to a scene. Let’s say I stood you up for drinks.
Are you talking to Tommy or the character Johnny?
Okay, Johnny, sure no problem. So Rachel, why didn’t you show up for the… we’re supposed to drink, right?
We were, I’m sorry I didn’t come, I met someone else.
(Screaming) Why are you doing this to me, you know? I spent my time. Why you did this, right? You supposed to show up 2:00, I was waiting for you.
I met someone else, I’m sorry.
Sorry doesn’t cut it, I’m sorry! Sorry doesn’t cut it, what do you think?
I think that I can make my own decisions, Johnny.
I’m sorry Rachel, but this is not how it works, you know? I left Lisa for you and I thought we had going on something together and now what?
Maybe you should go back to Lisa then.
Yeah, yeah, I almost got into an accident for your information. You know that, don’t you? Did Mark tell you about it? You confuse me with another boyfriend, my name is Johnny.
Can I make it up to you and cook you dinner?
Are you promise?
Okay, I will try. What time?
Okay, I will be there. Scene! So who lost?
Thank you, I didn’t say you lost. That was good sport.