'The Room' Doc Maker on Falling Out With Tommy Wiseau: "The Most Interesting Person After Michael Jackson"
In 'Room Full of Spoons' Rick Harper delves behind the scenes of the cult film widely regarded as "the 'Citizen Kane' of bad movies" and subject of the upcoming James Franco-starrer ‘The Disaster Artist.' Sadly, 'The Room's enigmatic creator Tommy Wiseau is now preventing anyone from seeing it.
For any fan of cult classic The Room, which last week celebrated its 14th birthday, the film’s star/writer/producer/director Tommy Wiseau is unquestionably one of the most fascinating people in the entertainment industry. And this fascination is only set to grow in December with A24's release of The Disaster Artist, the buzzy Sundance hit dramatizing the car-crash story of how this baddest of all the bad films was made, with James Franco playing the mysterious long-haired multi-hyphenate.
At its bizarre heart, The Room is essentially a (very) basic melodrama set around a love triangle involving a man (Wiseau), his girlfriend and his best friend. The film closed after a two-week run in two L.A. theaters, earning just $1,800, but so began a growing clamoring of demand to bring it back. Those who hadn't instantly dismissed it as simply a terrible production began to appreciate the excruciatingly awkward dialog and bizarre script ("leave your stupid comments in your pocket"), characters who enter scenes without any form of introduction, conflicts that are forgotten almost as soon as they are brought up (one woman says she "definitely" has breast cancer only for it to never be mentioned again), and some of the most painful-to-watch sex scenes ever put on celluloid.
Slowly, with the appreciation spreading and The Room being picked up by cinemas across North America, and later the world, a legend was born, with its creator — whose curious personality only serves to add to the amusement — going along for the ride.
Among many, many peculiarities, Wiseau is a man who has claimed to be a Cajun from New Orleans, despite a thick Eastern European accent; who has repeatedly asserted that The Room — commonly regarded as the Citizen Kane of bad movies — is a serious drama worthy of a place alongside cinematic masterpieces; and who has a sideline business selling unisex underwear (once telling The Hollywood Reporter that his items “improve your sexuality by 40 percent”).
Wiseau is also not someone to get on the wrong side of, as Canadian documentary maker and The Room superfan Rick Harper found out.
Despite initially having Wiseau’s blessing and cooperation to make a documentary about The Room, which still sells out cinemas internationally, things soon went awry, with the subject pulling out over creative differences. But Harper plowed on regardless, interviewing most of the cast and crew about undoubtedly the most notorious title on their resumes, deconstructing several of the film’s more widely-ridiculed scenes and even investigating the director’s secrecy-shrouded heritage (he’s actually Polish, and Wiseau isn't his original name).
But as Harper nears completion on the documentary, given the title Room Full of Spoons (pictures of spoons crop up an ordinate number of times in the film, with fans taking plastic spoons to throw at special screenings), Wiseau’s opposition to it stepped up several notches.
Harper claims he was issued with a growing list of impossible and crazy demands (“make the film 60 percent more positive”) from his former collaborator, who then went after any festival or theater who agreed to have it in their schedule, forcing them to remove it. He even went so far as to post a trio of amateurish, angry and explosion-filled videos on YouTube entitled ‘Shame on You’ aimed at discrediting the doc, the third ending with a Room Full of Spoons poster being blown up (the first, naturally, ended with a minute long advert for Tommy Wiseau underwear).
With Wiseau having recently put the film under a court ordered injunction, Harper now can’t distribute, exhibit or even promote Room Full of Spoons, and has had to suspend digital pre-orders for the time being.
Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter (before the injunction), Harper discussed making a passion project he is effectively being forced to deny the existence of, spending time with a man he says is “the most interesting person after Michael Jackson,” and the time Wiseau claimed he could call Donald Trump and have him buy a building in Toronto.
How did your relationship with The Room begin? Was it love at first sight?
I like to refer to myself as a bit of a late bloomer when it comes to The Room. There was a theater in Ottawa called The Mayfair and they’d been screening it every month for some time when I first went. Everything in the opening credits seemed quite normal and competent until Tommy walks into the room and says, “Oh hai, babe.” And that was it for me. Definitely love at first sight.
Do you have a favorite scene?
It’s actually not one of the most popular ones. Of course there’s, "Oh hai, doggy" and "You’re tearing me apart Lisa," but there’s this one scene where Tommy is in some kind of alleyway, and he’s walking and gets interrupted. And he turns around. But if you look at that scene, Tommy has no destination whatsoever. Had he not been interrupted and turned around, he was walking directly into a brick wall.
When did you decide to make a doc?
I had seen Best Worst Movie, a doc about one of the other films that is considered the worst movie of all time, Troll 2. It was so well done and a bit of an inspiration. I first met Tommy about a year after I started going to the screenings. He came for a Q&A that my company had sponsored. We got along and I thought this guy was really interesting and that people really need to know what’s going on in these theaters. I told him I was a filmmaker and that I’d love to do something with him, whether it be a reality show or short film. And we settled on the idea of a doc.
And was he keen?
He loved it, but I remember him clearly saying that he didn’t want it to be anything like Best Worst Movie.
Wiseau doesn’t appear in Room Full of Spoons. When did he drop out?
He was on board for about a month, and after that we had a difference of opinions. He basically wanted me to make a two-hour promotional video for The Room, which it essentially is. But I didn’t want to just do that. So he immediately dropped out.
What ideas did he have for the film?
I think he just wanted me to go from theater to theater and interview fans and talk about their experiences and why it’s so amazing and what an awesome guy Tommy is. So once he found out that I was coming to L.A. for more than a screening — that I’d started scheduling in interviews — he started to get scared. Before my first trip to L.A. he called me and told me who not to interview.
What could possibly be said that would further tarnish the reputation of The Room?
I think that Tommy understands, but doesn’t accept why his movie is as popular as it is. So when people say it’s the worst movie etc, they’re spending money, they’re going month after month, they’re buying DVDs and merchandise. So there’s a bit of a conflict in his understanding — if it’s so bad why are people turning me into a celebrity? Someone once said that a reporter in Europe had interviewed Tommy and asked him about being celebrated for making this bad movie. And he said, "Well, in America, bad means good." So I don’t think he has fully accepted why the world has embraced him so much. So to see someone who was once his friend talk about the film as a piece of trash… that could be hurtful.
But it’s fair to say he’s made a legitimate business out of The Room, right?
Oh absolutely. Say what you will about Tommy Wiseau, but he’s an excellent marketer. He was able to turn a really horrible movie into a movie that makes so many people happy and they open up their wallets and buy anything — Wiseau shirts and wallets and underwear. He’s made himself a celebrity. In part that’s because of The Room, but also because he’s one of the most interesting people you’ll ever meet. I remember saying to someone that he’s probably the most interesting person after Michael Jackson. There’s no understanding this person and there’s always a thirst to know more about him.
How much do you think he’s made from The Room?
I did some quick math, and according to his website, he screens in about 70 theaters. So he might be making $20-$25,000 a month like that. I don’t think he’ll recoup the $6 million [cost of making and marketing the movie] from flying around and selling underwear and doing Q&As. But it was a $6 million investment that carried him for the rest of his life, so you can look at it that way. And it made him really famous, which for him, I think, is how he defines his success.
Do you think he’s simply playing off his peculiarity, effectively baiting the hipsters?
I think he’s a smart businessman, there’s no question about it. For a very short period of time, I was his Canadian merchandise distributor. The way he would tell me to sell things and talk about retail and profit margins, things I don’t even understand, he knew with ease. There’s some real business smarts there. But the other part is that he’s, for example, a fashion designer. When he makes his underwear, it’s not just a gimmick, it says "Designed by Tommy Wiseau."
Do you own any Tommy Wiseau underwear?
I do not. But I think one of my partners ordered a The Room script and he shipped a free pair with them.
So in the film you reveal that Wiseau is actually Polish. Why do you think he’s so afraid of discussing his roots?
It’s a tough one. I think it’s that he’s just so obsessed with America and just doesn’t want to think about his past. Once he came to America, that was his rebirth. But he’s also known to lie about his age. He said he was born in 1968 when he was actually born in 1955, and that’s right around the time that he came to America. So that’s another indication that it was really a rebirth for him.
Yes. But he always did die his hair regularly and was always clean-shaven, wore sunglasses and dresses very loud, so it’s hard to pinpoint how old he is. On his IMDB profile at one point it said he was born in '68 and was in his 20s when he did The Room, which is all bullshit.
Why do you think your relationship with Wiseau deteriorated?
When he does these screenings, I think a lot of young filmmakers pitch these different ideas to him, and maybe he just says yes to everybody and hopes that they don’t follow through. I think what turned him off was my persistence. We were making the doc for a number of years and just doing a very soft promotion. I remember meeting him in Toronto later and he was pleased to see us. We went for dinner, and he asked about the doc and showed no indication that there was any conflict. Fast forward a year and a half and the movie is ready to be released. So we put up a trailer, and he goes on a huge slanderous rant on Twitter and Facebook, calling me a liar and a fraud.
What were the YouTube videos he made all about?
He did this series of videos called "Shame on You," just trying to discredit me. And the third one actually has a mock-up of our poster that he shoots and then blows up at the end. While most people may think that’s funny, it came out of nowhere. I didn’t expect it. He’d been emailing me incessantly, like four times a day for about six months.
What was he demanding?
His main concern was that he claimed we infringed on his copyright. Here in Canada there is a thing called fair deal for any type of doc or review – you can use certain copyrighted materials in certain contexts. In one of our conversations, he said he would license The Room to us for $500. So I was like, ok. And I told him that I knew that as soon as I’d hang up, he’d send an email asking for more money. And literally the next day he asked for $995. And I was like, that’s fine, I can do that, send me an invoice. He absolutely refused to send me an invoice, instead telling me to go on the website and click ‘donate’ and donate $995. I can’t bring that to court. There’s no receipt or invoice. And now we’re at a point where he’s asking for $150,000 for licensing. And he’s been asking for numerous changes done to the movie. He saw the movie well over a year ago and had a small list of demands, so we negotiated, saying we’d do five of the eight. Then he came back with another 20 changes and another 27 changes. It was never ending.
What were the most ridiculous edits he wanted?
At one point, he asked us to make the movie “60 percent more positive.” He also asked that every one of the producers at the end of the movie say something positive about Tommy.
What happened when you approached festivals with the film?
We’ve taken it to many different festivals. A lot of them weren’t able to screen it because he’d send them cease and desist letters. While there were no grounds for him to do that, sometimes festivals just don’t want to have that controversy on their hands. There was an entire Canadian tour planned and he sent out a memo to every theater that screens The Room saying that if they screen my film, they won’t be able to screen The Room anymore. And that’s a big threat to a lot of these small art house theaters. This is guaranteed income.
Wiseau must love that James Franco is playing him in The Disaster Artist, right?
Totally. And there are a couple of parallels as well. Tommy is obsessed with James Dean, and James Franco played James Dean. It’s just really funny how his whole world has come together. His whole goal in making The Room was to win an Academy Award, and the buzz over The Disaster Artist is crazy, and I bet it’ll be nominated for something and he’ll be right there at the Academy Awards.
Despite everything, what’s your favorite Tommy story from your time with him?
There was this one time in Toronto where he was setting up a merchandise booth and the owner of the venue came and said, “Ok, how are we splitting this?” And Tommy said, “You’re not getting a penny.” And the guy was like, listen, you can’t come into my house, set up a booth, use my employees to sell it and not give me a percentage. That’s not how it works." And Tommy completely lost it. He started screaming at him, calling him a jerk, an asshole, saying that he was American and we should respect him because America helps Canada. His jaw was shaking, his eyes went all watery, he was losing his mind. So he goes to the green room, and I asked him if he was ok. And he told me that it was all an act. But I saw him, and he was almost crying. And I’ve seen him acting and he’s not that good an actor. But he says, “No no, that’s all an act.” And he says, “Do you think I care about money? I do this for the fans. I have millions of dollars in my bank account.” And he points out of the window and says, “I can call Donald Trump right now on my cell phone and have him buy that building for me.” So that was definitely one of my funniest Tommy stories.