My extended evening with The Room's Tommy Wiseau
There's this running joke among my friends about my obsession with the film The Room—that little ol' gem from confusingly accented writer/director/producer/star Tommy Wiseau. What can I say: I love its inconsistencies, its sincerity, its party dresses and abundance of sensual candles. (I've often described the film as just like a Skinemax movie, but with all the non-sex parts stretched out.) So, naturally, when I heard one of my favorite local theaters the Music Box was flying Wiseau out for a series of screenings in Chicago, I immediately called them up and asked if I could be a part of the evening. I've interviewed Tommy before, and it resulted in a trippy 90 minutes in which he admitted, bald-faced, many of the things the movie's fans had speculated on for years, like his sad view of women and why the hell there's a dash in the character name Chris-R. I could only imagine interviewing him live in front of a packed house of devoted followers would be equally insightful and ridiculous. My five-or-so minutes on stage with Tommy were just that, but those other eight hours of the whole experience? I got the results of the test back: I definitely had my mind blown.
There were two screenings scheduled, at 8 and 11:30 p.m. Tommy would arrive at the theater around 7 p.m. to sign some DVDs and greet fans. At 8, Steve "Capone" Prokopy from Ain't It Cool News would say a few words before bringing out Tommy, who'd answer a few questions from Steve, a few from the audience, and then kick off the movie; after it was finished, Steve and Tommy would come back out for more Q&A with the audience before and the whole process would start all over again under my watch. With plenty of time to kill during each screening, I'd ideally get to know Mr. "They already put my ideas into practice" quite well.
There was a nice crowd gathered outside the theater at 6:30; by 7:45pm, they were excited to the point of being on edge. Most had their eyes glued to the street, a few tossed the football lazily, The Room style; a group of teenage kids had even rolled up in a limo. A few volunteers, dressed as Tommy and Chris-R, were taking tickets (they apparently do this at every screening). Wiseau was still en route—The A.V. Club's own Kyle Ryan had volunteered to pick him up from the hotel, and Tommy was running late. (Hopefully Kyle will have a few Wiseau gems to contribute.) Tommy was not fazed; in fact, Kyle's wife Sally, also in the car, had called me earlier to ask how many people were there, as Tommy wanted to prepare himself mentally. Finally, when the Ryan-mobile pulled up, Sally beckoned me over to the car as people looked on with raised eyebrows. She handed me a heavy leather motorcycle jacket and a half-finished Red Bull, explaining that Tommy didn't want to be encumbered by these loose items. I backed away, the door opened, and out popped Tommy Wiseau. Deafening cheers erupted.
StephenographySetting eyes for the first time on my favorite customer, a thought crossed my mind that's admittedly a little mean. He was clad in a black suit with a red tie, and had his hair down in the familiar Room way. The big difference, though, was his face. It was caked with make-up, and his eyes seemed droopier and sadder than in the film. It was almost like he was wearing a Halloween mask of himself. Nevertheless, the people went nuts, shouting at the top of their lungs as Tommy ran through the line and gave everyone a hi-five, slowly making his way inside. At which point, every single person in the theater stopped what they were doing, grabbed their phones, called a friend or switched to camera mode, and surrounded Wiseau. Flashes went nuts as the crowd clamored for photos and, you know, just to say "Oh, hai"; I overheard numerous people on the phone saying things like, "He's right next to me… yes, right here… I can reach out and touch him… wow, just… wow." I've never seen people as excited about seeing anybody than I saw in that moment.
But the show had to go on, so after much wrangling, a few of us pulled Tommy away from the masses and ushered him to the backstage room. (It proved especially difficult, as when we hesitated even for just one second, Tommy would turn to us and say, "I have to take advantage" before jumping back into the horde for more photos.) The crowd filed in as the other Steve, myself, and two Music Box employees talked Tommy through what was going to happen next. And even though we all had a united front as to our intro-host Q&A-movie-audience Q&A progression, Tommy kept dismissing what any of us said and turning to Brian, who runs the Music Box, and saying, "Where's Brian? It's up to you. You are the boss." Then Brian would just tell him the same thing, and he'd nod his head, sip his Red Bull, and peek out the curtain to the audience. They were all talking amongst themselves, mostly shouting quotes from The Room. Only about half were even in their seats. "Do you get nervous?" I asked. His response: "Never." He put his hand on my arm and gripped my bicep, like my grandpa asking if I work out.
StephenographyA Music Box employee stepped up on stage, and the audience went nuts—yelling "Tommy!" as often as possible. First, though, the Music Box guy had to deliver a fairly standard, quick intro to the theater, stuff like "We have these such-and-such movies here, thanks to our sponsor The Onion, blah blah blah." No big deal. But the whole time backstage, Tommy was pacing around, obviously frustrated. "He's killing the energy!" he barked over at me, now the only other person around. "What is he doing?" I tried to explain that he was almost done, but this did little to soothe the man with the passion of Tennessee Williams. He just kept walking around, shifting his weight, and moaning "c'mon!" I think there was a "You've got to be kidding!" in there. Once the Music Box guy introduced Steve P. to say a few words, Tommy's anxious agony continued. It should be noted this all went down in the span of only two or three minutes.
Suddenly: "Please welcome, Tommy Wiseau!" Instant standing ovation. Raucous applause. A few stray spoons. Tommy sauntered up to the stage, took a microphone from Steve, and said, "Okay, people, I am going to change things. I am going to take control and do what I want to do. I will take your questions now about The Room. Ask me anything, who has a question?" At least one-third the house started yelling as the Music Box employees scrambled to round up some microphones for the audience. Girls hopped out of their seats to run up to the stage and hand Tommy roses. It was chaotic. So much for listening to Brian.
StephenographyFirst question: "Have you had any work done?" No one was interested in any softballs. Tommy's response: "Work, what do you mean by that? The hair is natural, it is not a wig, I'm not Michael Jackson, thank you very much." Weirdly non-insightful, just like the remainder of the questions that simply elicited something to the effect of, "Thank you for your question. Thank you all for coming to The Room! The Room is about life! The Room is The Room, and I hope you enjoy The Room! Next question!" (Though there was definitely a point where he made mention of the many belts he was wearing, insinuating that he had one on none of us could see… a chastity belt?) The cheering rarely subsided. This included when Steve P. finally got to ask a question, and casually mentioned that today more people were going to see The Room in a single day than ever before—700 at the early show, 700 at the late one. This fact was told to him earlier in the day by notable cheesecake enthusiast Tommy Wiseau. Tommy's response? "You have to know your facts, that is not right, you must learn to be correct."
It was all very strange, but we made it through, and the movie had started. Time for dinner: my suggestion, and one I was excited to embark on. Brian from the Music Box mentioned a tapas restaurant near the theater, so off six of us went. Even though the place was just a block away, Tommy kept asking where we were going; he looked just as taken aback when we arrived and took our seats. The people at this Wrigleyville restaurant barely batted an eyelash over in Tommy's direction, they didn't know who he was or care very much. Our waiter came over, and without even looking at the menu, Tommy ordered. Here's what he asked for, in order, including the thoroughly confused waiter's responses:
"Do you have a quesadilla?"
"Um… no" (Remember: tapas.)
"Okay. Do you have a Caesar salad?"
"Okay, bring me, if you have beef. Beef?"
"Well, we have, um, beef dishes on the menu, right here."
"Okay. Do you have a quesadilla?"
[No response as we all encourage Tommy to eat the ensuing selection of tapas being brought to us by the chef.]
"I see. Okay. You have salad, right? Bring me some lettuce, and put a few eggs on it."
I wish I could tell you more about the meal itself. It's not that I don't remember it: The conversation was certainly forced, and was usually the result of me asking Tommy a random question to break the tension, and him giving some vague response. At one point I said, "Since you're from New Orleans, and you obviously like football, how do you feel about the Saints winning the Super Bowl?" to which he replied, "I do not watch sports, for your information," only in about four times as many sentences. He also was marginally offended by my request to ask him a question or two before he took any from the audience—the way the first screening was supposed to go down—but that's not why I can't talk much about dinner. No, it's just that every few minutes, Tommy would be in the middle of making some point, he'd look over at me and say, "Don't write this," then add something that really wasn't all that shocking or controversial. It was the equivalent of, "Don't write this, but I bought this suit from Macy's." (I had mentioned earlier that I was going to write a little something about my experience, but it was strange to me just how sensitive his filters were.) He did at one point give the Music Box's projectionist a hard time for the volume level of the movie, which he felt was too soft. The guy responded that he was showing The Room at a 7 out of 10, and most movies play at 3.5 or 4. Tommy wouldn't have it. "You have to turn it very loud. You know the scene with Chris-R? It has to be at the maximum loud. If people complain… you can get a permit, and then you play it loud as you want, you know?" Oh yeah, we had to explain to him about seven times what a bacon-wrapped date was.
The second Q&A after the film was a little more calm because at least the Music Box was ready this time with microphones. That didn't stop Tommy from bringing people onstage whenever possible, like this kid who asked Tommy to wish him a happy birthday. What follows ain't like any other birthday I've ever seen:
The DVD and poster signings after both screenings were revelatory. Tommy will apparently only take photos with people while wearing his sunglasses and giving people a fist-bump. He'll also take everyone's name to personalize the signing, and inevitably ask them to spell their name, however simple. Joe, Tim, Mary, whatever—he needed every letter, and when the name was too challenging (think Nancy), he'd write just the first letter, put a few dots after it, and say, "You can fill it in later." At one point, someone asked him to write, "I would do anything for my princess," and Tommy asked how you spell "anything—is it with an 'a' or an 'e'?" In the middle of the first signing—with a huge line waiting and a growing crowd anxious to enter from the cold for screening two—Tommy walked off, mumbled, "I have to relax," and went outside to play short-range football with some fans. He even ran some of the "drills" he and Mark do in the movie!
But I could hardly focus. In just a matter of minutes, I would be onstage introducing Tommy Wiseau to a crowd of 700 screaming fans. This man was responsible for countless hours of entertainment in my life. To be right up there beside him? To quote the (pretty silly, once you actually listen to them) lyrics from the first sex-scene music, it was my fantasy dream come true.
Backstage before the second screening, Tommy was even more agitated than he was the first go-round. He kept calling me over as the Music Box guy gave his spiel to the audience, telling me that I had to get this guy off the stage, and now, before he killed all the energy. As seconds dragged on, he got more desperate, finally demanding that unless I could get him offstage in the next five seconds, Tommy would rush the stage—he didn't care. So I gave the Music Box guy some vague hand motion, which he luckily picked up on, and I was brought up on stage.
Finally, it was here: The moment I had thought about nonstop for the last three weeks had arrived. A thousand prescient quotes from The Room swirled around my head as I turned on my microphone. "This is it," I thought as I took a quick moment to breathe it all in.
"Hi guys. First of all, I'm sure you hear this at every screening of every movie you attend, but if you're going to throw spoons, please don't hit the screen. I know, you probably hear that a lot," I said, a bit of business the Music Box had asked me to attend to. I nervously unfolded the piece of paper that contained my opening remarks. My whole pop culture-loving life came down to this moment.
Here we go.
"In just a few minutes," I started, "I'm going to bring out Tommy Wis—" then Tommy ran onstage and that was the end of that. I stared on, visibly sunken, as Tommy greeted the audience to uproarious applause, crumpled up my speech and threw it off to the side.
Then to make matters worse, he didn't really answer any of my questions; "Since Valentine's Day is around the corner, and The Room is obviously about love, what advice do you have about love for the audience?" merely elicited "Thank you for your question. Thank you all for coming to The Room! The Room is about life! The Room is The Room, and I hope you enjoy The Room! Next question!"—nor did my follow-up of "Tommy, you didn't answer my question" garner anything interesting. I guess as Tommy would say, "Denny, don't plan too much, it may not come out right."
Dejected, I took my seat by some friends to watch the movie. Live screenings are the kind of thing you have to experience for yourself, but I'll simply say it's a ton of fun to boo along with everyone whenever Mark and Lisa kiss, to hear the shushing before the flower-shop scene, to see people get out of their seats and jog around the theater during the running scenes, and to witness the explosion of plastic spoons when out-of-nowhere character Stephen says, "I feel like I'm sitting on an atomic bomb that's about to go off." Plus, fellow A.V. Clubbers Kyle Ryan, Genevieve Koski, and Nathan Rabin were in attendance, so that was nice. I was still annoyed with the whole situation when it came time for the final Q&A, so I simply introduced him and let him take the stage alone. It had been a long day, and I was tired ("I'm wasted, I love you darling").
StephenographyWatching Tommy Wiseau sign more merchandise at what was now becoming the wee hours of the morning, I realized a few things. He must live for these moments where everyone wants to see him, talk to him, get their photo taken with him, hang on his every word—I can hardly imagine it happens all that often outside of screenings, at least not even close to this degree. But the same people who adore him have shown up largely to mock him and his work. Tommy may say now that he intended for The Room to be this sort of light-hearted romp, but he spent too many years working on it—made too many deliberate decisions about plot and character—for me to buy that in the slightest. Most of the people at the Music Box that night watched the film from a healthy ironic distance, and as much as Tommy might try to be okay with that, I can understand why he'd love being the center of attention or occasionally come off as a diva. This is something he's got going for him, and he wants to take advantage. It was more than a little tragic to see that in person, and it's a feeling I'm going to have a hard time shaking during future The Room viewings.
Cooled off, I stuck around until everyone had left—3 a.m.—to thank Tommy and let him know I'd like to stay in touch. He offered up a hearty handshake and offered up some surprising words. "Steve, you were good up there. You have a good energy. You should want to express yourself. Have you ever thought about being in a movie?" I smiled. How could I stay mad at this guy? You know what they say: Love is blind.
Then Tommy walked over to a chair where a rose had been discarded and dismantled. He picked up each individual petal and put the handful in his pocket. He has a collection, he said, of roses. You know, flowers that die. Such is the maddening puzzle known as Tommy Wiseau.
More photos available on this great Flickr stream, courtesy of Stephenography.