Bad movies abound, but few have the staying power of The Room, a head-scratcher of a vanity project originally released to indifferent audiences in 2003. After 10 years of playing to amused and baffled audiences, a cult has grown up around the film. Its story is both simple and mind-boggling, a love triangle in which motives and characters shift from minute to minute, with dialogue that seems to have been written by aliens who forgot to study up on human-speak and had to cram at the last minute.
The inscrutable auteur of this epic cinematic train wreck is Tommy Wiseau, a would-be Orson Welles with mysteriously deep pockets and remarkably shallow talents, possessed of an unplaceable European accent, a Neanderthal profile, and the insistently jet-black mane of an aging heavy metal star. Wiseau's costar in the film is Greg Sestero, then a young, struggling actor whose credits were limited to glorified-extra parts in Patch Adams and an episode of Nash Bridges, plus a starring role in the direct-to-video horror sequel Retro Puppet Master.
Now, after a decade of resigning himself to his dubious place in film history, Sestero has written a book detailing his experiences on the set of The Room and his bizarre friendship with Wiseau. The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside "The Room," the Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made (Simon & Schuster), written with Tom Bissell, is a comical account of just how such an affront to the screen could have come about. "I think the book is the story of an unlikely friendship first," Sestero says, "and about the making of this insane movie second. I felt like there was a really hilarious and inspiring story behind the film that I wanted to tell."
A few of the film's local fans will have the chance to channel their own inner Tommy Wiseau at PhilaMOCA on Friday, when Sestero will participate in a script reading of The Room with audience members. He'll also sign copies of his book and screen some of his own behind-the-scenes footage from the production.
The two men met while both were students in a San Francisco acting class, where Sestero instantly responded to Wiseau's unshakable (if misguided) confidence.
"Watching him perform was very liberating," Sestero says. "As someone who was a little self-aware and nervous in acting class, it was entertaining to watch somebody who didn't follow any rules and was different in every possible way."
Sestero initially served as a catchall assistant on The Room, helping with casting and scheduling. But the night before shooting started, Wiseau made his reluctant friend an offer he financially couldn't refuse: to play the part of the villainous Mark, who disrupts hero Johnny's romantic relationship.
"I thought the movie would just sit on Tommy's shelf and never get seen," Sestero, now 35, says. "When you're young and struggling, you make snap decisions without thinking about how those decisions will affect you. But here we are 10 years later and it's not a world-class, Oscar-winning film, or even close to that, but people get a kick out of it, so I can't really complain."
Sestero realized he had become part of a phenomenon in 2010, when The Room sold out New York's 1,200-seat Ziegfeld Theatre, reportedly the first film to do so since the 1997 rerelease of Star Wars. The actor believes the film has caught on because "it's unlike any other piece of cinema that's out there. Tommy lives and thinks on his own planet and was able to make this project that nobody else would have backed or been a part of. It's a heartfelt attempt at putting your life on the screen, and I think people revel in its failure and its message. It takes this person's psyche and rips it apart in ways that he doesn't even realize, and I think that's fascinating to watch."
Adding to Wiseau's mystique is the fact that the eccentric auteur is strongly resistant to personal questions. His age and origins remain a puzzle, as does the source of his apparent fortune, which allowed him to fund his $6 million pet project. Sestero interviewed his friend of 15 years for the book, but even he remains in the dark about much of Wiseau's past. "No matter how much you know Tommy, you still really don't know him. There's an unknowability about him which is what makes him and the movie so interesting."
Sestero says the director has been supportive of his book, even if he's not happy with its chronicling of the film's shortcomings: "Tommy still believes The Room is the greatest movie ever made."
Author Appearance: Greg Sestero, "The Disaster Artist"
7:30 p.m. Friday at PhilaMOCA, 531 N. 12th St.