I can’t remember the last time I was as enthused about a non-fiction book as I am about Greg Sestero and Tom Bissel’s The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside The Room, the Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made. It’s really something special.
For those of you unfamiliar with cult classic The Room, I urge you to watch these videos before proceeding. No isolated clips can really do the film justice, but hopefully those will whet your appetite for its unique brand of lunacy. (The entire movie is available on YouTube as well.)
Filmed in a parking lot in 2003 at a budget of $6 million dollars, The Room is director-producer-star Tommy Wiseau’s singular vision, a vanity project that transcends mere vanity, a so-bad-it’s-glorious omnibus of every wrong impulse, artistic misapprehension, and petty hubristic idiocy known to man. It is often pegged, along with Plan 9 From Outer Space and Troll 2, as the worst movie ever made. But while Plan 9 and Troll 2 are aggressive outlandish in their particulars, The Room is a different animal. It’s not science fiction. It’s not fantasy. It’s a domestic drama that somehow manages to be stranger than any fever vision of speculative fiction. It’s like an alien visited Earth and later tried to recreate for his countrymen what he saw there. In his grasp of how human beings feel, speak, and act, Tommy Wiseau is on par with the Martians.
In the introduction to The Disaster Artist, actor Greg Sestero (who played the character of Mark in the film) calls The Room “the most casually surreal film ever made.” Ostensibly, it’s about a man named Johnny (played by Wiseau) whose fiancee, Lisa, cheats on him with his best friend, Mark. Crushed by the betrayal of his loved ones, Johnny ends his life by shooting himself in the head. It’s a grand, Shakespearean climax. Unfortunately, its force is undermined by the all the weird side-stops the film makes along the way. First there’s Johnny’s neighbor/young ward, Denny, who seems to hint that he wants a threesome with Johnny and Lisa. Then there’s Chris-R, a drug-dealing gangster who threatens to shoot Denny in the head if he doesn’t get his money. There’s also Claudette, Lisa’s mother, who casually announces that she has breast cancer and then never mentions it again. Throw in Tommy’s undefinable accent, a handful of super-gratuitous sex scenes, and several men playing football in tuxes for no readily apparent reason, and you have an experience so weird as to be almost indescribable.
Sestero uses The Disaster Artist both to chronicle the making of the room and to recount his friendship with Wiseau, who is by turns charismatic, childish, grandiose, suicidal, and borderline insane. It’s a seductive portrait, and a strangely sympathetic one. Tommy Wiseau sounds like a pain in the ass, but one that you’d gladly suffer for the stories you’d later be able to tell.
The book is endlessly fascinating. It’s also, in my opinion, an excellent primer on what to avoid in your writing. Wiseau’s attempt at storytelling includes a host of things writers should never, ever do. Things like:
“Oh, hi Mark.”
“Oh, hi Lisa.”
“Oh, hi Mike.”
Wiseau’s insistence on “realism” leads him to make all kinds of misguided decisions, one of which is keeping in all the dull, pedestrian exchanges that characterize everyday conversation. The Room has enough weird charm to make this an endearing quirk–most works of fiction do not. One thing many amateur stories have in common is too much commonplace dialogue. The last time I pointed this out to a friend whose work I was editing, she fought me on it. “This is a realistic,” she said. “It gives the story character.”
Well, yeah, except that character is “boring.” Seriously. There’s no faster way to make a reader start skimming than to lob big chunks of conversation at them in which nothing original is said and nothing new is revealed. “Realistic” doesn’t mean “better.” Whether it’s two characters discussing what they had for breakfast that morning or Johnny telling the long-winded, painfully uninteresting tale of how he and Lisa met (it involves an out-of-state check and a bank that refused to cash it and OH MY GOD WHO CARES), you’re better off dispensing with the small talk.
Giving Every Character the Same Voice
I don’t know how we got to this point–part of me blames Joss Whedon, though God knows he makes it work for him–but somewhere along the line, aspiring writers internalized the message that every character needs to sound like a sassy smart aleck who don’t take crap from nobody. Writers who manage to avoid that pitfall nonetheless end up creating characters who all sound grumpy, or all sound quirky, or all sound like secret agents in a Cold War-era spy movie. Often, every character sounds like the author–or at least like the person the author wishes she could be.
In The Room, Wiseau takes this to extremes. Not only is every character a mouth piece for his views on life in general and women in particular, but they also share his idiosyncratic grasp of English.
Everyone in the script sounded like Tommy, Sestero writes. “You have too much competition in the computer field.” “You are not drinking your cognac, dear. It will taste good with pizza.” “I heard that, Lisa. Get your pretty little buns in here and help.” That last line is almost certainly something Johnny or Mark says to Lisa, right? Wrong. This is something Lisa’s mother says to Lisa. It was all 100 percent Tommy.”
Don’t be like Tommy. There’s only room for one The Room in this world.
Some writers get along perfectly fine with shallow characters–Michael Crichton wasn’t one for rich character studies, and neither is Dan Brown (the latter seems to try, but repeatedly informing us that Robert Langdon fell down a well as a kid doesn’t quite cut it). But their works are plot-driven in a way that few stories are. Most of the time, you need your readers to give a damn about your characters. This means giving those characters inner lives–dreams, fears, virtues, and vices of their own.
Wiseau does not do this. The women of The Room are little more than conniving straw men set up to convince the viewer that the fairer sex is evil by nature. When they do talk to each other, it’s always about one of three things: 1) shopping, 2) drinking wine, 3) what a great guy Johnny is/how much fun it is to dick Johnny over. Mark’s line in one of the rooftop scenes sums up Wiseau’s treatment of female characters nicely:
“Oh man, I just can’t figure women out. Sometimes they’re just too smart. Sometimes they’re flat-out stupid. Other times they’re just evil.”
“WHY IS THIS HAPPENING?”
That’s the question Johnny asks, shortly before he blows his brains out on a pile of Lisa’s clothes. The viewer might well ask the same question: “Why is this happening? Why is any of this happening??”
If there’s one thing The Room is good at, it’s having stuff happen for no reason whatsoever. Johnny is parenting an 18-year-old man-child who has a crush on his fiancee and asks to watch them when they have sex? Okay! Two characters break in to Johnny and Lisa’s apartment and start to have sex on the couch only so one of them can later tell Johnny a pointless story about almost leaving his underwear at the apartment? Sure! Johnny uses his last few minutes of life to pleasure himself with one of Lisa’s dresses? Why the heck not! It’s all good on Tommy’s Planet.
Needless to say, this isn’t an M.O. you want to emulate. Anything that happens in your story should be germane to the plot in some way. A scene can be good–even great–without being necessary. In that case, you have to cut it. I struggle with this myself. We all do. But the alternative is pre-suicide dress wanking, and nobody wants that.