For fans, the most infamous bad movie released in the past couple decades is The Room — an odd, convoluted approximation of a tragic love story written, directed by, and starring Tommy Wiseau. A mysterious figure with seemingly no prior history, Wiseau supposedly funded the $6 million film out of his own pocket. For years, it received no almost attention. But word-of-mouth spread and The Room grew into a bizarro cult hit. Today, it frequently shows in independent movie theatres across the country; viewers arrive with props a la The Rocky Horror Picture Show to mock the film’s inconsistencies, to toy with its torn narrative threads, and to generally enjoy its visceral weirdness in the company of an (often drunken) public.
How did he get millions of dollars to make a movie?
But despite the fanfare, little has been known about the man behind the film. Tommy Wiseau has an unplaceable, vaguely Eastern European accent. He rarely answers questions about his past, or does so with elliptical, hard-to-believe tales, and parries reporters’ attempts to learn more. His hedging has spurred a small group of fans — a cult within a cult — desperately interested in knowing more about Wiseau’s history. Where was he born? Where did he grow up? What’s his professional background? And how did he get millions of dollars to make a movie? And what woman broke his heart so completely to provoke the blatantly autobiographical cri de coeur that is The Room? No one could piece it all together.
A new book out today from Simon & Schuster, however, comes close. Tom Bissell and Greg Sestero, a co-star of The Room, team up to write The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside The Room, the Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made. We learn a lot about Wiseau in The Disaster Artist — about how he met Sestero, how he made on-set decisions while producing The Room, about his favorite films, and about the strife that developed between him and his crew while making the worst movie in recent memory. We also learn that Wiseau tends to make up stories, and to outright lie in uncomfortable situations.
But for those interested in knowing more about Wiseau's history and lineage, the book reveals only enough to inspire more curiosity.
What we find out is that Tommy escaped a Soviet Bloc country, unnamed in the book, to Strasbourg, France, in the 1950s. He worked there for a while in a restaurant, eventually moved to Paris, and then on to the New Orleans area. He ended up in Chalmette, a town just east of New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward, where he worked at a grocery store for an undisclosed period of time. A Greyhound bus brought him to San Francisco, where he supposedly built a successful street vending business, Street Fashions, selling yo-yos and pleather jackets. There’s little information about how he funded this business, let alone a multimillion-dollar film. Sestero and Bissell insinuate that Wiseau may have been affiliated with local mobsters in San Francisco, but there’s little concrete information to support that.
In San Francisco he supposedly built a successful street vending business selling yo-yos and pleather jackets
One can pull together some basic information by looking through public records. Wiseau has owned a multiunit property on San Francisco’s Haight Street since 1992, for example, and he owns a one bedroom condo on Guerrero — a bit of a dump, 1980s architecture, purchased right after the building was built in 1984. He purchased a third San Francisco house, an older lofts building, in 1992. He’s had some civil disputes with neighbors and, on one of his properties, he hosts an “international spy shop” and “Garducci Landscape Architects.” The owner of the latter told a Verge reporter that he understood Wiseau was “the landlord” but had never met him.
When I asked Sestero over the phone last week about why he didn’t divulge more about Wiseau’s past, he paused for what seemed like a long time.
At a guess, I’d imagine the decision to reveal only basic details came down to writing just enough about Wiseau’s backstory to show there’s something self-generative about him: like many Hollywood legends, he seems constantly to remake himself through outlandish tales. Maybe whatever Sestero and Bissell found (or didn’t find) led them to understand that’s the real story — the journey of an Everyman through the realm of Californian self-mythologizing. That he’s a mysterious character of his own making, and that truth subtracts from (rather than adds to) his intrigue.
Sestero offered a slightly simpler analysis.
“At the end of the day, it’s up to him to reveal where he’s from and whatever things he wants to disclose,” Sestero said. “So that falls into his court. In my research, I was being as honest and forthright as I could be to tell the story while also making sure that his privacy wasn’t harmed.”
Lessley Anderson contributed to this report.