Photos and article: Steph Lauren Bramson
At the age of twenty-four, Greg Sestero had no idea that the film he was making was destined to be a hit. In fact, all but one of the team behind The Room expected that no one would ever see it. Only Tommy Wiseau, the film’s writer, director, executive producer, and lead actor, expected it to be a success. And in many ways, it has been, albeit not in the way that Wiseau intended.
The Room, released in 2003, is what Entertainment Weekly once called “The Citizen Caine of Bad Movies.” The dialogue is repetitive and nonsensical, the footage goes in and out of focus along with unnecessary and atrocious green screen effects, and the acting runs the gamut between cheesy and, in Wiseau’s case, incomprehensibly bad. Most independent films never get a theatrical release, and most bad films come and go and are forgotten until they wind up getting ignored on Netflix instant. The Room, on the other hand, doesn’t only pass over the bad film line into “so bad it’s good.” It takes that line, rips it off of the ground, beats it to a pulp, and throws it off a ledge ten times as high as the fake rooftop used in three of the film’s scenes.
Naturally, as one of the most interestingly bad movies of all time, The Room has attracted a cult following. Film classes have added it to their curriculum, celebrities such as Kristen Bell and Paul Rudd have called themselves fans, and the film even spawned a surprisingly faithful video game adaptation on Newgrounds, designed as an homage to the 16 bit era of video games. Most notably, for years, fans of The Room have been airing midnight screenings around the country similar to The Rocky Horror Picture Show, albeit with less drag and equal amounts of sex.
At the most recent quarterly screening in the Tampa Bay area, organized by Gene May and Erika Flaskamp, a packed room of fans at Snappers Bar and Grill in Palm Harbor pelted the front of the room with plastic spoons (a nod to the random framed photographs of spoons featured in The Room’s living room scenes) and tossed around balloons shaped like footballs (thanks to the film’s numerous scenes where the characters awkwardly pass around a football, at one instance in tuxedos). The crowd sang every line of each R&B song played in full during each of the film’s four long sex scenes and appropriately shouted “unfocus” and “focus” when Wiseau and Sestero were on screen, respectively. When a new character, Steve, appeared for the first time in the second to last scene and began commenting on the characters’ relationships, they shouted, “Who are you?” every time he spoke. Few lines went unrecited, and the fans laughed incessantly while eating Snappers’ giant plates of sushi rolls and drinking “scotchka,” a nod to a scene in which Lisa, the female lead, pours male protagonist Johnny a drink strong enough to peel the paint off the set, make Johnny proclaim, “I’m tired, I’m wasted, I love you, baby” and either hit or not hit Lisa (depending on which character is talking and in which scene).
While the majority of the film’s cast and crew have distanced themselves from the beautifully lingering cinematic KT event, Tommy Wiseau and Greg Sestero, the film’s line producer and supporting male lead, frequent these screenings around the country. Wiseau does this because he still believes the film has been embraced as a masterpiece, but Sestero is very much in on the joke. At this screening in Tampa, Sestero smiled sheepishly as he read deleted scenes from the script with costumed volunteers from the audience and answered questions so specific that they wouldn’t have been out of place at a Star Trek convention. When one audience member asked him about his sex life (a nod to a moment in The Room where Johnny suddenly asks Mark, Sestero’s character, the same question), once the crowd had stopped cheering, he joked that he now avoids staircases, a reference to one of his character’s early sex scenes. But as much as Sestero is willing to joke about the film, it’s clear he still very much cares about the film’s creator.
In 2013, Greg Sestero and cowriter Tom Bissell released the book The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside The Room, The Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made, soon to be made into a film retitled The Masterpiece, starring Seth Rogan, James and Dave Franco, Josh Hutcherson, and Zac Efron, among others. Simply put, the book is a behind the scenes view of film’s production, but beyond that, it is a retrospective on the oddest friendship in California history.
On the surface, Sestero and Wiseau have nothing in common. Sestero grew up in San Francisco, played on his high school baseball team, and worked toward a career in acting while working at various clothing stores. Wiseau’s origins are a mystery, and it’s easy to believe he crash-landed onto the earth’s surface with only a vague understanding of human behavior. Wiseau resembles a slightly melted candle shaped like Anne Rice’s vampire Lestat, whereas Sestero, at the age of 38, is one of the most stunningly gorgeous people I have ever met in person. Tall with waves of golden hair, green-blue eyes you don’t want to stare at for too long lest you get lost, and a kind smile that would win his dentist academy awards, it’s easy to see why his fans call him “Sestosterone.” When they met in an acting workshop in the late 90s, Sestero was diligently following his agent’s advice to get acting training and Wiseau was ignoring the acting teacher’s training in favor of his own take on Shakespeare’s sonnets and A Streetcar Named Desire. When Sestero approached Wiseau as a potential scene partner, he had no idea it would lead him on a journey that would take him to James Dean’s death site in the middle of the night, to the oddest possible roommate situation in the middle of LA, and, yes, through the bizarre and hilarious process behind The Room.
But in spite and because of all of the ridiculousness of their relationship, it’s clear that Sestero and Wiseau truly care about each other. In The Room, Sestero’s character Mark constantly insists that Wiseau’s character Johnny is his best friend, all while sleeping with Johnny’s fiancé behind his back. In real life, however, Greg Sestero and Tommy Wiseau really are best friends. At a Q&A at The Oxford Exchange in Tampa, Sestero said of Wiseau, “He was the one guy who told me to pursue acting when everyone was trying to get me to give up.” In interviews, he is extremely protective of his friend, even when poking good natured fun at his idiosyncrasies. Tommy Wiseau may seem like the world’s creepy living wax figure with no sense of reality, but he’s Greg Sestero’s Manic Pixie Dream Guy.
Before the screening in Palm Harbor, Greg Sestero was kind enough to speak with me about The Room, The Masterpiece, and The Disaster Artist. The transcript of this interview is below, but for a more detailed insight into Greg Sestero’s life, pick up a copy of The Disaster Artist, find a copy of The Room’s DVD on Amazon (it won’t be on Netflix anytime soon, thanks to Wiseau’s fear of people stealing it, despite everyone telling him it’s easier to steal from a DVD than a streaming site), and visit The Room Tampa Bay’s Facebook page for information on the next screening. https://www.facebook.com/theroomtampabay/?fref=ts S: So, The Masterpiece. First off, why the name change? G: I think The Masterpiece is probably a safer title than The Disaster Artist. It probably fits more in line with the message of the film.
S: You beat James Franco for your role in Retro Puppet Master. G: Which is really an honor.
S: So, how was it, finally meeting him when you found out he was doing the movie of your book? G: I think James is very easy to talk to. You can tell he’s got a good sense of humor.
S: So he doesn’t begrudge you beating him for that role? G: I don’t think so. *laughs* He’s probably thankful.
S: I don’t know how much you can spoil about the film, but the thing is with Disaster Artist— it’s brilliant; I adore it, but it’s so heavily detailed and goes to so many different places. I’m wondering how that’s going to work, adapting it for a film. G: They got Scott Neustadter and Michael Weber to write the script, who are terrific, and they did a great job of balancing the personal story with the making of the movie. The buildup is really good. I loved it; I thought it was a really great experience, and it’s tested really well [in front of test audiences], so I think it’s gonna make people happy who love The Room, and I think it’s gonna be a lot of fun for people who don’t know anything about The Room. I think it stands on its own as a character and friendship story.
S: It’s kind of like Ed Wood. G: It is. Yeah, it’s got a lot of Ed Wood, a little bit of Big Lebowski but ultimately finds a rhythm all its own. Really, it’s a fun film, not mocking in any way. It’s got a nice, touching tribute to the fanbase. They did a really great job with it.
S: I’m so excited to see it. Do you know when it’s coming out? G: It’s gonna come out next year, possibly in the spring but I don’t know exactly [what the release date is].
S: Off topic from The Masterpiece, briefly. I don’t remember if I read it in the book, or if I saw [your reaction to it] online, but—the flash game of The Room. G: Tremendous. Isn’t that the greatest? If you talk about making a video game based on The Room, as someone who plays video games, I wouldn’t even know where to begin. And the guys at Newgrounds made something that was so creative, cool, and different. The Room as a video game works.
S: What do you think of their portrayal of you? G: Mark is the kind of character you can really go anywhere with, since he doesn’t really have a head or a tail. He’s just there. But I loved [how] the hot tub environment worked.
S: If Tommy made another movie, would you be in it? G: Over the years, I’ve come to appreciate Tommy as a performer, and I think it would be interesting to work him again down the line.
S: It’s hard to both act and direct. G: It’s a lot, and I’m noticing now what he went through.
S: He took on four roles [writer, producer, actor, and director]. G: And it was his first production.
S: And it was just a really weird production, from the sounds of it. G: And the movie that emerged just fits the mold really well. S: I know that everyone always says that he didn’t know what type of movie he was making or what he was doing. It’s clear everyone else did. Given how deliberate he was with everything, and about how [he insisted] it had to be done this way, do you think he knew? G: No. I think he was very genuine in what he was trying to make, and honestly, I think that’s where the appeal is, that he was so genuine and it just leaps off the screen, and people are befuddled by it, whether they think it’s bad, or entertaining, or anything—it’s just because it’s sincere. S: He almost has the same appeal as Ed Wood, not just in the “so bad it’s good” deal. G: Kind of like that childlike innocence? S: That, and [how] he went out, he wanted to make this movie, and went out and made it, and didn’t wait for the major studios or anything. G: Yeah, and that’s something that I actually learned for myself, that if you just wait for people to come give you a job, you’ll never [get one]. You know what you have to offer; it’s up to you to try to show it.
S: As I playwright, there’s that whole self doubt every time I write a play and produce it, there’s the whole “is this actually good?” G: Or what’s it saying. S: Yeah, and I’ve got to wonder. Since I feel like every writer probably has in the back of their heads, “what if I’m accidentally writing The Room?” What type of advice would you give to people like that? G: I think it’s really important to have a team, to have a gang that you work with, that you trust, and that challenges you, and can give you perspective, because it’s very easy to get locked into something that works for you but confuses other people. It’s great to own your material and know where it’s going, but if it’s confusing your reader or they’re not getting it, you need to construct it in a way that satisfies both. I think it’s just aligning yourself with a team—you can’t be an island. You can’t always do it on your own. Like, when I’m working on this thing, I have a lot of people helping. A lot of ideas that I push for work, and a lot of [them] don’t. Sometimes it takes me a while to see it, and other times I see it right away. Creating something is a group effort.
S: You’ve got to listen to your team. G: Yeah, and have a balance. That’s why I feel like test screenings are so important, to see what scenes are working and what scenes aren’t. The most important thing is to write. To get something done. And then you can always tweak it. It’s like growing your hair out. You can always cut it, but if you don’t [grow it out], you have nothing to work with.
S: That’s brilliant. Speaking of writing, by the way, Disaster Artist is fantastically written. You read it at first for the story, but then you get to pick up on the description, and it’s just so well written. How much was you and how much was Tom Bissell? G: That’s like what I was saying earlier; I wanted to do something great, and because it was my first book, I wanted to do it with somebody who had done it before and was great at what he did. And that was Tom. So, that was huge, because when you work with somebody who’s has the skills, it’s gonna raise your level, too, and that’s exactly what it did. It was a great challenge. We did some recordings, and then I sat down and figured it was effective for me to just tell the whole story, and just write it out from beginning to end. And then we sat down together, and I read and talked [about] my version, and he asked me questions, and we kind of formed this new story, and then he took that and wrote it himself, and then we kind of went back and forth and adjusted it for my voice. We spent a lot of time on details. Out editors at Simon and Schuster were huge in helping us cut out excessive stories.
S: So, what was cut? G: Something like 70 pages. What happens is that you fall in love with certain scenes, but you’re saying the same thing like three different times when you can get it across in one scene. S: Any good stories that should have made it in? G: I think it was just more wackiness. More funny quotes about Tommy giving me advice. But everything that needed to be in there was.
S: Honestly, when I was reading the book the first time, I didn’t realize at first it had been co-written. And I thought, “Ok, you spent your entire life working at being an actor. When did you learn to write like that?” G: I actually wanted to be a writer first. When I was in seventh grade, I was writing papers about random subjects like JFK’s assassination. I then became obsessed with Home Alone and wrote a screenplay for a sequel based in Disney World, and writing became my passion. But as I grew up, I thought, “Oh, I’d like to act, too.” So right now, I’m writing a script and then acting in it, and that’s kind of trying to put it all together.
S: Throughout the book, you bring up a lot about how obsessed [Tommy] is with his own privacy. Just the fact that you so much as mentioned the words “Guerrero Street” in one of the takes freaked him out. So, how did he feel about the book being written? G: Well, that was back in like ’98, ’99, and he’s definitely loosened up a little bit with some of those jokes. But really, the book was all stuff that I interviewed him on. I know he’s not happy with certain things that I said about the making of the film, and I know he has his own viewpoints on that, understandably, but the whole point of the book was to share the roller coaster ride that was kind of a heroic effort that the film made it to the screen. It wasn’t my intention to make him look like anything other than what he really is—this kind of lovable, different guy who had a dream and made it happen. So there’s nothing else behind that that’s malicious in any way.
S: I think that one of my favorite moments in the book as far as your and Tommy’s relationship goes would have been when you were talking about going to find James Dean’s crash site. G: Yeah, that’s one of my favorite moments, too.
S: It’s just, up until that point, I was reading this and was like, “Why are you guys friends?” G: I think we were just two people who were lost in our own way, you know? We both wanted to be actors, which is a lonely profession in its own way, so it’s like, hey, how are we going to keep this thing alive?
S: The relationship between you guys over the course of the book is just fascinating, because there are moments where it’s almost—forgive me for saying so, but it’s almost borderline abusive on his part a couple of times. But at the same time, it’s very clear that you guys care about each other a lot. G: Yeah, you know, everyone works in different ways, and I know that he was at a different point in his life than I was, and I think as I get older, I kind of understand him a little more. The stakes change, and you see things differently. So I can’t judge fully until I’m in his shoes, but we all have flaws, and that kind of just makes us who we are.
S: So, back to The Room. I know that you go to the screenings a lot, and I actually met Tommy at one in New York at one point. I think you were actually supposed to be at that one and couldn’t make it. G: Oh yeah! That was a few years ago.
S: Like four years ago, or something like that. G: Yeah.
S: So, what about the rest of the cast? How do you think everyone’s dealt with the way that film was received? G: I think everyone’s got a sense of humor about it. It’s so hard to be in something that gets seen anyway, and even if it’s something that people consider the worst movie, if they still like it, I guess it’s still some sort of triumph.
S: I just feel really bad for Juliette [Danielle]. G: Yeah, she got a raw deal. But everyone’s embraced it, and I think they’re cool with it.
S: You just have to own it. G: Right. S: And you still created something great. G: And it was a while ago, and everyone’s just kind of moved on with their lives. S: But you’re still here. G: I think Tommy and I are the ones that were really there through the experience prior to the film and have lived through it.
S: So, did Johnny actually hit Lisa? G: I think he pushed her, but I don’t think he hit her. I think it was an accident, and she exaggerated it.
S: It’s hard to tell how much of it is supposed to be her being a sociopath. G: I think it’s from a different perspective, too. I mean, clearly this guy got screwed over by a girl, and it’s him getting a chance to tell his story.
S: On another note, your fans call you “Sestosterone.” G: Yeah. *laughs* Which was my nickname on my baseball team in high school as well. So it just keeps staying alive.
S: You just can’t get rid of it. G: Yeah.
S: How do you feel about that one, though? G: I think it’s cool. It could be worse, right?
S: Yeah, there are worse names out there. It just means they like you. ☺ So, here’s another one from FB. Someone wanted to know if you were ever going to do The Room: The Musical. G: Well, I’m hoping to one day have my book turned into a Broadway musical.
S: Really? G: I think it would be a fun next chapter in this saga
S: Another one from Facebook: On the topic of deleted scenes, if The Room were going to get a sequel, what would it be about? G: I think I would like to see Johnny survive the gun shot. Have him wake up in an ambulance, survive, and about six months later pick it up from there.
S: I mean, she did ask if he’s dead, so it was kind of unclear, apparently. G: With his brain all over the floor. *laughs* So anyway, that would be my choice. That the karma comes back, and now everyone else has problems, and he’s a ladies’ man, gets his promotion, and everything else.
S: So, one of my Facebook friends was asking what you were in, and I said you were Mark in The Room, and one of my other friends added that you played a frat guy in Accepted. G: Really? S: And I didn’t know that. G: I don’t think I made the cut.
S: It’s on IMDB. G: I was an extra. Just like a frat dude. I never even saw Accepted. *laughs*
S: Really? G: I don’t think so.
S: I saw it so long ago—I think I saw it before I saw The Room. G: Yeah, I was in a scene with Jonah Hill. He was getting spanked with a paddle, and I’m sitting there, looking at him. That was it. 2005.
S: If you go on YouTube and watch, say, the funeral scene from Patch Adams or the trailer from Retro Puppet Master, nearly half the comments are things like, “Oh hai, Mark.” Do you get tired of people quoting The Room at you? G: I mean, it is what it is. I’d probably be doing the same thing. So, it just means they like it, and it had an impact. It just gives me a chance to keep being creative, and have an audience to show stuff to. You’ve got to roll with it. I think the worst thing is to not have any audience, and no one wants to see where you’re going. I think that would be, for me, the worst thing. Because you’d have no outlet, and no opportunity. So I think I’m just someone who can adapt and do all of it.
S: Yeah, you seem pretty laid back. I think you just kind of have to be, with this film. G: Yeah, and I think with anything, really. Each movie’s different. You can make a complete hit, and then you think that everything after that is going to be great, and then you’re back to square one.
S: I still haven’t watched Retro Puppet Master. I watched the trailer, though. G: Yeah, it’s not very good. S: I mean, it’s a direct to video horror sequel. You seemed to be doing a good job with it, though, from the trailer. G: Yeah, it was my first film.
S: Do you think the early scenes in Disaster Artist were like a how-to on what not to do as an actor? Like handing out your headshot to everyone with your agent’s name on it? G: Well, things have changed so much now. You just do an email blast. But, no. I mean, it works. It just goes to show that there’s really no one right way to do things. There’s a different way for everybody. Some people do the traditional route, and it works really well, and some people experiment.
S: It did get you into people’s casting offices. G: Yeah, so I think that whatever method that you choose, you’ve just got to commit to it and give it your all. And that’s really the most important thing.
S: It’s even like that with books these days. Traditional publishing is still a thing, absolutely, but people are self-publishing so much more. G: Yeah, and you’ve just got to get your work out there. That’s what it comes down to. That’s the most important thing, to get your work out there. However way you can do that is the way to do it. That’s thing with entertainment—no one really knows anything.
S: Ok, I know this question isn’t going to have an answer, but where is Tommy actually from? G: Mars, or Transylvania. Or somewhere in between.
S: When The Masterpiece comes out, do you think there are going to be any double features of that and The Room? G: Probably. I would assume [they would]. It would be a great double feature. S: It really would. I would go see it. G: The ending of [The Masterpiece], and then starting The Room would be great. Thanks so much for reading the book and enjoying it.
S: No, it was wonderful. I don’t read [new books] as often as I should—like, I’ll have a million books, and I’ll just go reread Harry Potter. G: Yeah, I do the same thing. It’s just easy and fun to read.
S: Yeah, so the fact that I’ve actually read your book multiple times is saying something. G: What was your favorite section?
S: I really love the part where you guys were going to see James Dean. And I like the speculation as to [Tommy’s] past. I mean, the whole thing is just funny, and touching, and the description is fantastic—and I suck at writing description. G: And what’s good about the character, since it’s a character driven story, there’s a lot there to work with.
S: Basically, it’s the story of a Manic Pixie Dream Guy and his Boy Next Door friend. G: *laughs* Yeah, like [something out of] Monty Python. S: Yeah, I guess you could look at it that way. It’s just so good—I can’t get over it.