Wednesday, December 13, 2017

'The Disaster Artist': The (un)making of a movie

“That is the worst piece of acting that has ever been put on film.”
(Doug Walker, “The Nostalgia Critic”)

“Leave your stupid comments in your pocket!”
(Greg Sestero as Mark, “The Room”)

There have always been movies that have defied easy categorisation, that have baffled, mystified, never given a clue as to their creative origins, ever since the cinema came into existence, but none of them has the charm, the touch of overblown sincerity, that Tommy Wiseau’s The Room has. It’s gloriously funny when it shouldn’t be, and it falls back on its own sincerity so much that your sides don’t ache, they split. You don’t believe that a film like this can exist – or for that matter, that it could have been conceived at all – which is when you turn to look at its actors, production crews, and of course, director. Made for six million dollars, it ran at the box-office and recouped all of 1,800. That’s when the producers decided to change their tactics: by marketing the film as Mystery Science Theatre delicatessen. No American film before it, not even Ed Wood’s incongruous forays into transvestism (Glen or Glenda) and science fiction (Plan 9 From Outer Space), had found audiences this way. Its impact was immediate, which is why it’s not really a cult movie. Cult movies take time to attain their status. Tommy Wiseau didn’t have to wait for long like that. He got what was due just weeks after he released it.

Wiseau belongs to a set of artists whose peculiar careers and creative imaginings can be traced to the poetry of William McGonagall, the novels of Amanda McKittrick Ros, the operas of Florence Forster Jenkins, and the cinematic monstrosities of Ed Wood. They have no real back-story, their origins can’t be determined with any certainty, but in their work we come across (paraphrasing Aldous Huxley) the discovery of art by unsophisticated minds. Their consciousness of their own greatness is at odds with our awareness of their lack of it. So imaginatively resolved they are that they remain oblivious to their reception by critics and general audiences. Tommy Wiseau is a 21st century’s equivalent of McGonagall, Ros, and Ed Wood. His film is what one person described as being designed by an alien. That term describes Wiseau aptly because to this day, no one knows where he came from. And now Greg Sestero tries to address this issue in The Disaster Artist, his account of the making, if not unmaking, of The Room.

It’s a neat little big book, to the point, never off the mark, fleshed out, never in a hurry. Sestero was involved with The Room even before it was planned out. He was, as those who’ve seen the film would know, Mark, the best friend turned betrayer to the protagonist, Johnny, played by Wiseau himself (who, in addition to directing and producing it, wrote it as well). The Room is an intensely personal work of art in a way that Ed Wood’s films and Amanda Ros’s novels were not, which is why Sestero, who has known Wiseau far longer than anyone involved with the movie, is the best person to write on him. The Disaster Artist hence follows two storylines: his involvement with its production, and his biography, right from the point that his decision to become a model and an actor got him to meet the man who (as he informs us candidly) made him realise what a mixed blessing the resolve to become who you wanted to become could be.

The quotes that preface each chapter keep apart and also curiously together these two storylines: quotes from Sunset Blvd for Sestero’s personal encounters, quotes from The Talented Mr Ripley for his experiences with Wiseau and the making of The Room. Both these films were, to be sure, about pretenders and hacks who aspire to be more than who they are, but while Sunset Blvd is about a down-on-his-luck screenwriter who senses opportunity in an ageing star hoping to make a comeback, Ripley is about an ambitious, insecure conman who takes on identities of people who teeter between anger and infatuation (like Dickie Greenleaf, played by Jude Law). It’s a terse, but appropriate, device: the chapters with Sestero’s life experiences reflect our image of him as a desperate artist, while the chapters of his run-ins and encounters aboard The Room reflect our image of him as an accomplice to a disaster artist. He’s the other half to a man he barely knows about; the only friend to someone who might as well be a nobody. But they are connected: Sestero’s own life, his own hankering after a career in the movies, echoes Wiseau’s own aspirations in the industry. The two are, and remain, the same.

Sestero’s story begins when, at the age of 12, he posts a letter to John Hughes over Home Alone; not a congratulatory missive, but a lovingly detailed script for what he hopes will be its sequel, Home Alone 2: Lost in Disney World. Hughes must have read it, because a month later he mails back: “Believe in yourself.” The screenplay isn’t taken up though: it comes back with the reply. (Perhaps the idea of Kevin McCallister being LOST, as opposed to being left alone in his own home, appealed to the man, since Home Alone 2 would have him running around New York.) It’s this letter that starts Sestero’s journey, despite the protestations of his mother (“We get along and have always got alone, save for one key area: my choice of career”) and the insecurities which are fuelled by the various agencies that call him, drop him, call him again, then cut off all contact with him.

The entertainment industry operates on the few who can make it and the many who can’t. Sestero’s first few experiences aboard the industry – from the acting classes at the American Conservatory Theatre to the desperate last minute calls to various agencies – hence don’t fit the bill of the from-rags-to-riches narrative we’re used to when it comes to such actors and stars. Disillusioned by his diminishing prospects, at especially at the Theatre, he then finds himself in San Francisco, where he enrols in acting classes by Jean Shelton, in the Shelton Studios, which had previously tutored Danny Glover. Sestero hopes to find another Glover, another role model to look up to and emulate. Instead he finds a “half comic book character, half hair-metal icon.” Tommy Wiseau’s most distinctive feature is his hair: dishevelled, idiosyncratic, ubiquitous. Together with his heavy accent, it reveals his lack of any proper origin.

And part of the reason, if not the only reason, for that mystery is the fact that Wiseau has always been careful to not reveal his story, to anyone. But beneath his enigmatic personality is a generous spirit, as Sestero makes it clear: not only does Wiseau lavish gift after gift on him, he even takes him in to his (expensive) apartment in Los Angeles, where he hopes to make a comeback in the theatre along with business (in the fashion industry, though how he started there and prospered, heavily, we are never told). And yet this generous spirit comes at a price: he’s so tempestuous, so prone to fits of temper, that at one moment he’s overly friendly and the very next he’s grasping, demanding, angry.

He is Dickie Greenleaf incarnate, a comparison that Sestero and another friend of his make, unnervingly, one night when they watch Ripley. At one crucial juncture it seems as though those fits and tempers are overwhelming enough for Wiseau to consider throwing him out, but if he ever did consider that we are never told why. Sestero openly wonders: is it because he’s jealous, or because he expects his pound of flesh in return for his generosity? It’s a slow moving drama, and it echoes, in many respects, The Room itself.

Most films have a tendency of making you want to see them again because a second or even third viewing helps you spot the weaknesses and the strengths and the mechanics more clearly. You don’t go to watch The Room the second or third time because of that. You go to watch it because its weaknesses, and even relative strengths (the few scenes of conviction), are astoundingly quirky and simply can’t be rationalised. Any attempt at making sense of the film will fail, because no one can get beyond its awful sincerity.

There’s no doubt (and The Disaster Artist makes this clear) that in The Room Tommy Wiseau was attempting at a fusion (of sorts) between Tennessee Williams and James Dean, the two archetypes of American post-war teenage angst. Sestero points out at his love for the American cinema, even when he seemed to get the movies he watched garbled up (at one point he tells Sestero that with his beard he looks like Spartacus, but Kirk Douglas never sports a beard or a moustache in Kubrick’s film). Adolescent angst, the alienation of the individual from his surroundings, the cruelty of the family, the heroism of the defeated: these were the themes that intrigued Wiseau, themes that he tried to transplant, but failed to, with The Room. Perhaps his fascination with the youthful Sestero was rooted in his obsession with Dean. He looked up to the latter heavily, which explains why he borrowed Dean’s line from East of Eden and, in his film’s most memorable scene, cries out to his indifferent girlfriend, “You’re tearing me apart, Lisa!”

And in seeing himself as an original artist, an auteur, if you can put it that way, he aspired for nothing less than the red carpet and the Academy Awards. He consequently spared no expense over its production: He hired, rather than rented (which is what even the most endowed directors do), all his equipment; his purchases included both a 35mm film camera and a high-definition camera, “probably the most wasteful and pointless aspect of The Room’s production,” as Sestero notes; he kept on hiring and firing script supervisors and directors of photography and actors and making it appear as if his overbearing sense of contempt for his cast and crew was his privilege; he used artificial sets when a real alleyway would have done; he oversaw exterior shots across San Francisco without a permit (which ended up with a tense encounter with a police officer); and he mounted a strange but expensive guerrilla marketing campaign which included a poster of himself, a headshot with his face lowered, his lips pursed, and his eyes filled with furious, almost otherworldly emptiness (“I’m not sure whether I’ve seen a movie billboard that did less to communicate what the move it was ostensibly advertising was about”). He promised the people a movie they could enjoy. To his credit, he did well on his promise: The Room was marketed gradually as a self-parody, and it worked. The people didn’t just grow to like it but virtually grew on it: overnight they began organising private screenings, getting dressed up as their favourite characters and getting ready to mock its many idiosyncrasies, including its less-than-sagacious use of framed spoon pictures.

Sestero’s easy prose helps when he’s being witty and sarcastic, but it also helps when he’s portraying a sympathetic, poignant portrait of his friend. There obviously have been people who have befriended out-of-this-world and wacky and self-definable quirks, but Sestero is perhaps the only one who has written about one of them with such restraint. He’s not a Christina Crawford smearing an abusive parental figure, he’s not a disgruntled, alienated worker bemoaning his employer; he’s a fairly well-to-do but very much young actor who looks at life and all its slings and arrows with expectation and equanimity. His friendship with Wiseau, consequently, doesn’t suffer from one-dimensional rants and raves. When he temporarily loses that friendship, when Wiseau makes suggestive remarks about throwing him out of his apartment, he doesn’t get angry with the man, he gets frightened (“I started looking for a new apartment that night”).

In the end, when he provides us with a possible back-story on Wiseau, he indulges in the only fictional section in his narrative. Fictional, that is, in part: the man’s rise in the world of business, before he was discovered by Sestero, is a forever unresolved issue, so much so that what we might need is conjecture: the sort that conjures up the man as an escapee from the Soviet Bloc, who rises up as a waiter and later an immigrant in America before deciding on trying his luck with the most American of all the arts, the movies. Here both the writer and his friend come together: the one as a Joe Gillis (Sunset Blvd) who clings on to hope, to expectation, in the form of a deluded, self-defined artist; the other as a Dickie Greenleaf who is amused at his new friend but wants to control him, to force him to be his sidekick and later throw him away. The only difference here, of course, is that life wouldn’t have been so dramatic for Joe Gillis and Dickie Greenleaf if they were real characters. Life isn’t always so dramatic, period, which is why Sestero’s soliloquies, reflecting pain, worry, a lack of fulfilment, and sometimes a combination of all of them, and Wiseau’s Greenleaf-like, inconsolable rants and raves, are temporary and intermittent: just when you think their relationship will break down, they are reconciled. And when that relationship is about to break for good, our moody friend has a premonition, an apotheosis as one may call it, and decides to direct his own film. It’s here, in Chapter 14, that the two storylines in the book finally come together.

In an article written for The Atlantic (“Should Gloriously Terrible Movies like The Room be considered ‘outside art’?”), Adam Rosen contends that unlike most films considered bad and distasteful (like Caligula or the Friedberg-Seltzer spoofs from Epic Movie to Scary Movie), The Room’s sense of absurdity is centred on the director. It’s a solitary vision that transforms kitsch into enjoyable, campy art, like the vision that went into Ed Wood’s Glen or Glenda and Plan 9 From Outer Space, and unlike the vision that goes into those terrible parody films of today. The difference between a horrendously wacky work like Sharknado (and its sequels) and a merely bad and distasteful product like Scary Movie is films like the latter are always made to evoke responses from a specific audience. Sharknado is gloriously hilarious but we needn’t have come from such an audience to enjoy it; we could have been anybody, hailing from any demographic. But Sharknado was made to be aware of its limitations, because that was an integral part of its fun. The Room transcends even that and becomes its own standard. The director is no longer aware of how unsubtle he and it are. He believes that he is so great, so much an auteur, that whatever he makes inspire can only love or envy. Criticism is inconceivable, spite is not.

This obsession over dichotomies – between love and hate, good and evil, loyalty and treachery – found its way to The Room. There’s little doubt that Wiseau always intended to feature himself as the protagonist, though we aren’t so certain as to whether he wrote the character of Mark with Sestero in mind (after all he never cast his friend right away in that role; it was originally given to another actor called Dan, with Sestero put into the production crew, before he was deliberately fired by forcing him to leave in such a way that it seemed that Wiseau was in the right). “Be very afraid, people,” Doug Walker informs us in his Nostalgia Critic review as he realises that the man is the star, the executive producer, the writer, and the director: because it’s a personal work of art that is rooted in an imaginary personal story. The love triangle never truly existed (Sestero’s portrait of his friend as sexually indifferent attests to that). It was used to project the heroism of an actor who wanted so badly to be a Tennessee Williams, a James Dean.

Directed by James Franco, and starring him (as Wiseau) and his brother Dave (as Sestero) along with Zac Efron (as the only “convincing” actor in The Room, Dan Janjigian, who plays the drug dealer Chris-R who, as with all other secondary characters in that film, disappears inexplicably), an adaptation of The Disaster Artist was released this December. What its merits are will be considered in another review, so for now let me conclude by putting down what I learnt from Wiseau’s movie: that in making an idiosyncratic work of art, he got us to respond to it as one-dimensionally as his story. As Sestero makes it perfectly clear in his moving account, “It wasn’t often that you got to see a man whose dream was literally about to come.

Written for: Ceylon Today ECHO, December 3 and 10 2017