Reading THE DISASTER ARTIST: Enter The World Of Tommy Wiseau

Tom Bissell and Greg Sestero’s book is far more than just a funny recounting of The Room’s production.

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It would have been very easy for Greg Sestero to write a wacky piece of fluff about his time working on The Room, 2003’s most famous cinematic whatsit. In its finished form, Tommy Wiseau’s passion project and ego monument is a truly baffling film. It’s filled to the brim with overcooked melodrama. It’s rife with unexpected moments of happenstance that seem to be completely isolated from the rest of the film’s world. Its characters are simultaneously abstract and flat. And its dialogue reads more like it was written by a repurposed Russian chess computer than a human being. It’s a miracle that The Room was finished at all, let alone in the semi-coherent form that has made it an object of adoration and scorn the world over. Surely, there would be at least a book alone in Sestero recounting his experiences on the set. And there is.

The Disaster Artist, which Sestero co-wrote with journalist Tom Bissell, is a revealing, funny, and at times infuriating read. And there’s more to it than just Sestero’s tales of the set laughing tent (where crew members went to keep themselves sane away from the prying eyes of Wiseau and his on-set documentarian/spy) and the afternoon it took to shoot the “…I did naht… oh hai Mark.” scene. The Disaster Artist is also the story of Sestero’s long, complicated friendship with Wiseau. And it is an attempt to understand the man himself, beyond the public persona he’s created of “TOMMY WISEAU, CENTER OF THE ROOM.” Sestero and Bissell aren’t out to deify or belittle Wiseau. Their goal is to re-center Wiseau the person in a story that has often been sold, including by the man himself, as Wiseau the improbable enigma. In pursuing that goal, Sestero and Bissell thoughtfully tell a genuinely affecting story, and elevate The Disaster Artist from a funny, diverting curio to a truly vital piece of pop film writing.

I’d like to share an excerpt from The Disaster Artist. It’s one of my favorite passages in the book, funny, insightful and clear-eyed. For context, early on in his friendship with Wiseau, Sestero won the lead part in the horror prequel Retro Puppet Master. Wiseau was both glad for his friend and intensely envious.

Maybe he felt he was losing me to something. Worse, he was losing me to something he wanted to lose himself in… He didn’t want me to outgrow him. He wanted to feel like he was still needed. I didn’t know what to say or how to comfort him. After the movie, he dropped me off at Virgin Records and we said good-bye quickly… We finished production on Christmas Eve… I remember sitting there, on the edge of my bed, taking in the moment and welcoming in the tears filling up my eyes. I replayed the last few months, the last few years. Tomorrow it would be Christmas, and I was going to be alone. That was okay, because I felt like I had been given such an amazing gift.

I fell asleep, only to be woken up by someone forcefully knocking on my door and a Romanian voice saying, “Telegram!” A telegram? I opened it: Merry Christmas. You are a special person. May all your dreams come true. TW

I still don’t know how Tommy found me.

Over the course of The Disaster Artist, Sestero and Wiseau’s relationship moves through peaks and valleys. Wiseau is capable of great affection and kindness. He’s also envious, possessive, astoundingly egomaniacal and more than a little bit of a manchild. Sestero acknowledges and takes responsibility for his own crummy moments. But the vast majority of the tension in his friendship with Wiseau has been caused by Wiseau himself. He’s sullen and uncomfortable when Sestero lands Retro Puppet Master. His Christmastime telegram is sincere, even sweet, and it represents an alarming breach of Sestero’s privacy, one motivated as much by Wiseau’s desire to remain present in Sestero’s life as it is his genuine affection for his friend.

Sestero and Bissell take note of Wiseau at his best and worst, because they overlap frequently and feed directly into each other. Wiseau wrote the part of Mark specifically for Sestero. What Wiseau meant by writing a role for his best friend that could be boiled down to “treacherous, ultimately rotten best friend” is debatable (Sestero himself isn’t sure how he feels about the fact), but he went out of his way to include Sestero in a project that meant a lot to him. When Sestero initially turned the part down and helped cast another actor as Mark, Wiseau schemed to sack the other man. He ultimately did so in a callous, cruel and thoroughly transparent fashion. And, even though he’d harangued, begged and even all but bribed Sestero to take the part, Wiseau refused to allow Sestero to develop Mark beyond his featherweight characterization. That Wiseau desperately wanted Sestero involved in The Room, and kept him in the loop from the earliest day of the project is just as important to understanding the man as his abominable behavior towards Dan/Don, the first Mark, and to Sestero himself.

The Room was and is clearly very important and very dear to Wiseau. He wrote the initial version in the wake of what Sestero believes was a major depressive episode. And, if Sestero and Bissell’s educated guess about Wiseau’s pre-San Francisco past is accurate, at least some of the script was drawn from Wiseau’s own life. That he finished it despite every obstacle he tossed in his own path is impressive, even admirable. That he did so while bullying, ignoring and generally abusing the cast and crew who stepped up to get the movie made is inexcusable. The Disaster Artist never loses sight of either fact, or of Sestero’s affection and care for a friend with whom his relationship is both fraught and complicated. It’s an impressively empathetic work, and one that convincingly argues that the history of the people who made The Room and the man who conceived of it are as important to the movie as the movie is itself.

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