The Disaster Artist: Money Is the Answer to (Vague Artistic) Success

As far as directors/actors/writers/producers go, perhaps the only person in the history of filmmaking ever to be as lambasted as Tommy Wiseau is Ed Wood–and the latter had far more work to condemn (hence a biopic directed lovingly by Tim Burton). Wiseau, on the other hand has but one filmic masterpiece of badness: The Room. Released with the use of Wiseau’s finances (it’s been said that the estimated expenditure on the movie was six million dollars–it made $1,800 during its opening run) in 2003, the movie has become a fixture on the midnight screening scene to sustain its cult status.

But perhaps more mysterious and intriguing than how such a movie could be made (the answer, obviously, being: money can achieve anything) is the man behind it, and his motives. Wiseau’s unclear European descent, age and source of deep pocketry don’t initially present themselves as red flags to nineteen-year-old Greg Sestero (Dave Franco). Upon first encountering Wiseau at an acting class in the San Francisco of 1998 (oh, to a imagine a pre-tech world in that city), Greg is smitten with the bizarre rawness of Wiseau’s “technique,” ultimately a lot of strange modulations of the name “Stella” as an homage to one of his favorites in cinema influencing, Tennessee Williams (still influencing other “bad” movies to this day).

With the source material, Greg Sestero’s The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside The Room, the Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made, screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber–best known for the co-writing on (500) Days of Summer and The Spectacular Now–have an ample well of Wiseau’s psychology from which to draw. And it’s a tale older than Beauty and the Beast’s (which Wiseau name checks in the movie, joking, “I’m Beauty, obviously”) time: wealthy man has and/or can buy everything, but doesn’t have a meaningful connection to speak of. Feeling a sense of camaraderie he’s never known with Greg, he suggests the two leave San Francisco for Los Angeles, where all the golden opportunity awaits. Greg is reluctant at first, insisting he doesn’t have the funds for such an erratic move, whereupon Tommy informs him he just so happens to have an apartment there as well–all the while reminding Greg, “Don’t talk about me–what I drive, where I live.”

With the unshakeable memory of how Home Alone spurred and awakened his desire to become an actor–no, there is no irony in this–Greg can’t resist catching Tommy’s enthusiasm and belief in their joint dream. In many respects, Tommy’s spirit is so pure–so firm in its faith in being able to achieve anything–precisely because of a limitless bank account. And that confidence is infectious in Greg at first, who almost immediately signs with the Iris Burton Agency. Still 1998, Tommy urges Greg to celebrate at a nightclub playing even then outdated tracks like Corona’s “Rhythm of the Night.” Greg isn’t so quick to take this small step as an immediate sign of success, but does feel comforted by the attention of the bartender, Amber (Alison Brie, a.k.a. Trudy from Mad Men). Tommy, from his vantage point on the dance floor, automatically becomes jealous of their interaction, the first indication to Greg that this relationship might be more oppressive than mutually beneficial. And to be sure, one wonders how Sestero’s career might have turned out had it not been for his loyalty to Wiseau, at one point turning down a promising guest role on Malcolm in the Middle after running into Bryan Cranston with Amber at Canter’s Deli. But to appease Tommy and assure them of their friendship–that he’s not just another “betrayer”–he shaves his beard off as scheduled for the shoot, in spite of the fact that he needed it for his “lumberjack” part on Malcolm.

Wiseau’s possessiveness over the one person who has ever taken him seriously begins to take a toll on the friendship, particularly when Greg moves out to live with Amber. At this point 2002, production on The Room is in full effect, and Wiseau has already blown hundreds of thousands of dollars on camera equipment alone. As Greg remembered in his book, “Tommy’s purchases included two Panasonic HD cameras, a 35mm film camera, a dozen extremely expensive lenses and a moving truck full of Arriflex lighting equipment. With one careless gesture Tommy threw a century of prevailing film-production wisdom to the wind.” But there was no stopping Tommy’s “vision.” Because there was no stopping his bank account. In every respect, The Disaster Artist is a film that challenges the trite platitude: if you can dream it, you can achieve it. Because, as Sestero puts it in his memoir, the story of Wiseau is “as much about the power of believing in oneself as it is about the perils that can arise in conquering self-imposed limitations.” In short, maybe some people’s dreams shouldn’t be realized just because they have the money (e.g. Donald Trump becoming the president).

As for Wiseau, well, in character form, he is a tragic figure in several regards, and James Franco renders him with a sensitivity we’ve never seen him give to any other role (not counting Daniel from Freaks and Geeks). Wanting so desperately to be perceived by others in a manner that he never can be, Wiseau sees himself as a hero–though one of his acting teachers tells him he could easily take a shortcut by only auditioning for villain roles. But Wiseau will never be convinced of something he doesn’t want to believe, and again, having money furnishes his delusions.

The Room is perhaps one of the most shining examples of what a delusion can produce. And though it has a devoted audience and is, of course, not without its entertainment value, the film’s very existence is something of saddening concrete proof that with a pile of cash to make something, market it and continue to pay for it to stay in the public eye (Tommy paid for it to stay in the same movie theater for two weeks so that it could qualify for an Academy Award nomination), there’s nothing that can’t be done. In essence, it is never about persistence or talent, least of all in America. It’s always about the dough.