It’s not just bad – it’s intoxicatingly awful. But The Room has developed a cult following – and so has its mysterious creator, writes Nicholas Barber.

How does it feel to pour your heart and soul into a film, only for it to be ridiculed as history’s most atrocious crime against cinema? How does it feel to hear your dialogue being greeted by gales of laughter? Isn’t it hurtful to have people all over the world queuing to see your film, just so that they can jeer, heckle and throw things at the screen?

“It doesn’t matter,” says Tommy Wiseau, the star, writer, director and producer of The Room. “You see, in my family you can say what you want and it doesn’t matter. But the kick is – you know what the kick is? The kick is you have to be respectful. So I encourage it, I encourage people to express themselves. People are astonished, but I encourage it.”

Not since Plan 9 from Outer Space has a film been so revered for being so rubbish

Wiseau and I are talking in the Prince Charles Cinema in London, where The Room was recently booked for a run of sold-out screenings. Before the film starts, he is there in the lobby, signing autographs, posing for photographs, selling T-shirts and branded Tommy Wiseau underwear (or “Twunderwear”). He may have the indeterminate European drawl of a Bond villain, but he looks like an ageing heavy-metal star: long black hair, dark glasses, waistcoat, jeans festooned with chains. And he is treated like a heavy-metal star, too, by people who can’t quite believe that he is there in, well, the room.

London isn’t the only place where Wiseau gets this treatment, either. When The Room was released in 2003, it barely made enough money to qualify as a flop, but it has since built a cult following, thanks to such celebrity ‘fans’ as Paul Rudd and Kristen Bell. They held viewing parties for their friends, the word spread, and The Room became a bona fide ‘midnight movie’, with rowdy monthly showings in cities across the US and Europe. For the faithful, The Room isn’t just bad, it’s intoxicatingly awful. Not since Ed Wood’s Plan 9 from Outer Space, a legendary turkey from 1959, has a film been so revered for being so rubbish.

But Room-mania is only just warming up. James Franco is currently directing and starring in The Disaster Artist, a behind-the-scenes comedy about the making of the film. Also in the cast are three of Franco’s fellow Oscar nominees, Bryan Cranston, Sharon Stone and Jacki Weaver. What this means is that some of the best actors in the movie industry are currently pretending to be its worst. It’s a bizarre phenomenon. Considering how many appalling films are released every month, why has this particular one caught on as a must-see?

Recipe for disaster

There are three factors. The first is the film itself, a painfully earnest melodrama which, make no mistake, is a car crash of incompetence and catastrophic misjudgement. Set almost entirely in one bland apartment – but not, confusingly, in one room – it revolves around Lisa (Juliette Danielle), a frowning young blonde who is engaged to a muscle-bound banker, Johnny (Wiseau), but who seduces his best friend, Mark (Greg Sestero). And that’s about it. An insanely repetitive 99 minutes, The Room has Lisa complaining again and again to her friends and her mother that she doesn’t want to marry Johnny, and the rest of the running time is taken up with punishingly long sex scenes involving red roses and diaphanous drapes, and various subplots which are introduced and then instantly forgotten. In one scene, a drug dealer points a gun at one of Johnny’s friends. In another, Lisa’s mother drops her breast cancer into the conversation. Neither of these bombshells is mentioned afterwards. Lisa is too busy saying that she doesn’t want to be with Johnny any more.

Wisseau has the luxuriant mane of Kiss’ Jean Simmons and the heavily-accented slur of a drunk Count Dracula

Structure aside, the film’s production values are those of an unusually inept soft-porn movie, the George Lucas-worthy dialogue could have been translated by computer from another language, and the acting – all grimaces, pauses, and random sniggers – is of the kind parodied by Matt LeBlanc when Joey was on a daytime soap in Friends. None of the other actors, though, is as hypnotically hammy as Wiseau. With the luxuriant, suspiciously black mane of Kiss’s Gene Simmons and the heavily-accented slur of a drunk Count Dracula, Johnny has to be cinema’s least convincing banker, but he would be passable as a washed-up stripper in a Magic Mike sequel.

Still, the film’s awfulness wouldn’t be quite so intriguing without the second reason for its cult status: the story of how it was made. If you had to guess how much The Room cost, you might stab at any figure between 50 cents and $14.85, but in fact it had a budget of $6 million. Despite looking as if it was thrown together one weekend in a friend’s flat, it was actually shot over six months on a Los Angeles soundstage, and the tales of how Wiseau burnt through all that cash are essential to its mythos. Believe it not, he adapted The Room from a 500-page novel; he shot it on film and on digital video simultaneously; he replaced the crew four times and the cast three times (“It was my way or the highway,” he says); and he spent a fortune on a monumentally ugly billboard to advertise the film. However The Room had turned out, reports of its production would have been riveting, which is why Wiseau’s co-star, Sestero, wrote the memoir which is being made into Franco’s The Disaster Artist.

“I’m a stage actor, so I’m very familiar with A Streetcar Named Desire” – Tommy Wiseau

The third secret of the film’s ‘success’ is Wiseau himself, who has a mystique which is rare in the all-access celebrity era. He tells me that he is “fortysomething” (he clearly isn’t), that he “was born in Europe a long time ago”, that he grew up in New Orleans, and that his parents are from “France-slash-Germany, Poland, whatever”. He worked in fashion and real estate before following his showbiz dreams, he claims. And, he explains helpfully: “I’m a stage actor, so I’m very familiar with A Streetcar Named Desire.”

Midnight madness

A captivatingly odd screen presence, Wiseau is almost as eccentric in person. Somehow, he simply doesn’t see anything wrong with The Room, as much as he enjoys participating in its mockery. “Long story short,” he says, using one of his favourite expressions, “I never called The Room the worst movie ever. That’s number one. Number two, I never called it a cult. But when people call it a cult I think it’s complimentary.”

Well, maybe. But what distinguishes the cult of The Room from that of other midnight movies is its cruelty. Fans of The Rocky Horror Picture Show unironically adore its sparkling cocktail of sex, sci-fi and rock’n’roll; fans of El Topo are awed by Alejandro Jodorowsky’s visionary trippiness; and even Plan 9 from Outer Space is cherished not just for its wobbly-gravestoned amateurishness, but for its evocation of 1950s America. But the appeal of The Room begins and ends with how dreadful it is. And if the derision it provokes isn’t exactly undeserved, it isn’t exactly charitable, either. After all, we’re not laughing at a cynical Hollywood potboiler, but an immigrant film-maker’s misbegotten passion project.

Wiseau was hailed as a conquering hero

And yet, and yet... on a recent Saturday at the Prince Charles, Wiseau was hailed as a conquering hero. And when I speak to him the next morning, he is relaxed, positive, and courteous company. Not even the prospect of The Disaster Artist film bothers him, never mind that he deems Sestero’s memoir to be only “40% true”. He and Franco “have a connection as actors,” he says. “We are going to develop certain projects together, so that’s the direction I’m going now in Hollywood.”

So The Disaster Artist could be a new beginning? “Yes, yes,” says Wiseau. “The Room has been fun for 13 years, and hopefully we’ll have 13 more, but bottom line is I want to do other projects with other people. A lot of people in Hollywood – the cream of Hollywood, we call it, as you know – they have respect for Tommy Wiseau.”

You can’t blame them. The way in which Wiseau has turned an abject failure into a life-changing triumph is weirdly admirable. “If you sacrifice and believe in your creation, then eventually it will pay off,” he says. But wouldn’t it be preferable if people loved The Room because they thought it was great, and not because they thought it was terrible? “The first one is ideal,” he chuckles. “But by the same token, do you want to make a movie that’s shown for one year or a movie that’s shown for 13 years? It is what it is, so you live with it. It’s a very unique situation.”

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