Unpacking The Room: How a Flop Made its Maker Famous

It has been called the Citizen Kane of bad movies. Here is everything you never knew you needed to know about Tommy Wiseau and his $6 million dollar non-masterpiece, The Room.
Tommy Wiseau stands next to a poster of The Room.

In 2003, a massive billboard was erected overlooking Highland Avenue in Hollywood. It featured a pale, lumpy, scowling face, a movie title and a phone number. This billboard remained in place for five years at an estimated cost of US$300,000. The billboard was promoting The Room by Tommy Wiseau. Ever since, the movie has gone on to live in notoriety and has made a celebrity out of Wiseau. Dubbed the Citizen Kane of bad movies, what is it about The Room that launched it into infamy?

Going on to become a cult favourite, screenings of the movie take place around the world akin to The Rocky Horror Picture Show evenings. The film has made a lasting impression on popular culture. But, was it the impression the movie maker intended? Here is everything you never knew you needed to know about The Room and its creator, Tommy Wiseau.

The Billboard

The original billboard for The Room in Hollywood.
The original billboard for The Room in Hollywood.

The first anyone heard about The Room was when a mysterious billboard was erected featuring an odd looking, disembodied head staring down over Hollywood. Speaking from the Golden Globes stage in 2018, actor Seth Rogen said of the billboard:

“There was no studio, there was no distributor; there was just like this guy’s head on it and he kind of looked like if a vampire went to a costume party and dressed as Johnny Depp.”

Rogen was at the Golden Globes to introduce a movie he produced alongside the film’s lead, James Franco. That film was The Disaster Artist, a humorous account of the making of Wiseau’s movie, The Room. Franco later told People, “[the billboard] looks like an ad for a cult.”

Along with the strange, hovering head, the billboard featured a phone number – Tommy Wiseau’s own personal line. “If you called the number, it was him; the writer/director/star/producer of the movie answered the phone,” recounted Rogen, which must have made for a very strange conversation indeed. None of this is usual practice for studios in Hollywood. Thus, the billboard became part of local Hollywood lore across the five years it was erected.

Who is Tommy Wiseau?

Tommy Wiseau's IMDb profile photo.
Wiseau’s IMDb profile shot.

His name has gone on to be as synonymous as the movie itself. Tommy Wiseau wrote, directed, produced and starred in The Room. And, like the plot of the film, Wiseau himself is very odd. Usually clad in an array of black, his outfits almost always include wrap-around shades and a strange penchant for multiple belts. His mane-like hair, dyed unnaturally jet black against pale skin, completes the vampire-esque appearance.

There has been much speculation over the years about Wiseau’s background, in particular where he is from. Wiseau speaks with broken English and, if you are familiar with The Room, you will be familiar with his dialogue style – that of an alien trying to mimic a human speaking English. However, Wiseau insisted for years that he was simply an “accented American”, whatever that means.

In 2020, Wiseau lost a lawsuit to block the release of Room Full of Spoons, a documentary about the making of The Room. In the documentary, the mystery behind the origins of Tommy Wiseau was uncovered. This accented American is actually Tomasz Wieczorkiewicz from Poznań, Poland. One mystery solved.

The Disaster Artist

The cover of Greg Sestero's book The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside The Room, the Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made.

For many years, the closest hints to who this enigmatic character was came from a tell-all book written in 2013. In The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside The Room, the Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made, Greg Sestero details his experiences as a 19-year old aspiring actor who met Wiseau in acting class, moved with him to LA and starred alongside him in The Room.

In his memoir, which has since gone on to be made into a movie of the same name, Sestero gives a hilarious and fascinating account of his time with Wiseau and the making of the film. He attempts to fill the reader in on what he knew of the creator’s sketchy background and where he accrued his wealth. Wiseau solely funded the four month project which employed 400 people and cost US$6 million.

Rumours circulated on set about how the mysterious moviemaker self-funded his project. Several theories floated around from a fortune made flipping real estate to being awarded a large settlement after a car accident with a wealthy Hollywood producer. Wiseau, however, attributes his wealth to running a successful clothing import business in the 1990’s.

The Budget of The Room

Unlike most other movies that enter cult status for being “so bad, they’re good”, The Room was not a low-budget offering. Although a whopping $6 million of Wiseau’s own money was spent on his non-masterpiece, the movie still screams “low budget”. Like many other “bad movies” of this nature, the amateur quality of The Room can be felt throughout.

Tommy Wiseau scrimped on several aspects of production. He failed to provide toilet facilities or water, leading to actress Carolyn Minnot’s collapse from heatstroke during filming and requiring hospitalisation. On another occasion, actress Brianna Tate (who was later fired) asked why there was no water provided for the cast. Wiseau threw his own water bottle at her head, yelling, “Nobody in Hollywood will give you water!”

So, where did the money go?

Most of the skyrocketing costs for the movie seemed to come from Wiseau’s poor decision making, unnecessarily inflating the film’s budget. Firstly, most of the budget was spent buying the movie cameras and equipment. For those unfamiliar with Hollywood movie-making practices, even the biggest movie productions only rent the equipment needed. However, Wiseau was insistent on purchasing everything outright.

Not only that, in a money wasting masterstroke, Wiseau decided that The Room would be the first movie shot on both 35mm film and Digital HD formats at the same time. This meant two sets of camera equipment were used simultaneously, costing possibly hundreds of thousands of dollars each. Wiseau used none of the digital footage in the final cut of his film.

Tommy Wiseau with his dual camera rig during the filming of The Room.
Wiseau with his dual camera rig.

No expense was spared on the sets during production either. Rather than film in the alley beside the production lot, Wiseau commissioned the construction of an indoor set of an alley to be used in one scene. In another absurd show of financial wastage, Wiseau insisted that the rooftop scenes be shot against greenscreen. In 2003, greenscreen still cost a pretty penny and there was no logical reason why Wiseau needed to utilise the technology.

The Room Rooftop Scene – Before and After Greenscreen
The Room rooftop scene before greenscreen.
The Room rooftop scene after greenscreen.

The movie grossed US$1,800 in its first week before being unceremoniously pulled from cinemas. After spending so much time and money making and promoting The Room, how could it be so bad? Let’s take a look at the film itself.

The Cast of Characters

The plot of The Room is quite simple – a love triangle – but takes several, mostly pointless, detours along the way. The film’s main players are:

  • The infallible and universally loved Johnny (Tommy Wiseau).
  • His “future wife” Lisa (Juliette Danielle)…this poor actress has our sympathies.
  • The best friend Mark (Greg Sestero), apparently named after Matt Damon. What?
  • Denny (Phillip Haldiman), a young boy of about 30 years old that turns up intermittently throughout.
  • Lisa’s mother Claudette (Carolyn Minnot) with plot threads that are dropped mid-movie.
  • A long list of extra characters that appear for one scene only, never to be seen again.

The Crazy Plot

This movie takes place across a number of locations throughout Hollywood, none of which appear to be the titular room. When asked why the movie was called The Room, Wiseau said it was to represent or conjure up the feeling of a safe place for viewers. Fair enough.

The storyline is a simple one, yet oh so complex. Here goes: Johnny loves Lisa. Lisa loves Mark. Johnny finds out Lisa loves Mark: “You’re tearing me apart, Lisa!” Lisa claims Johnny hit her. Johnny denies it: “I did not hit her. I did not. Oh, hai Mark.” Johnny vows they will all be sorry once he’s gone and, after writhing around on the floor with a red dress he gave Lisa clutched to his groin, shoots himself in the head. The end.

But, in amongst that:

The tuxedo football scene in The Room.
The tuxedo football scene, The Room.
  • A couple break into Johnny’s home to get X-rated on the living room sofa. This couple is not named and they are never seen again.
  • The guys hang out in an alley throwing around an American football….while wearing tuxedos. The tuxedos are never explained.
  • Denny has an early scene with a drug dealer (never seen again) who wants his money. Lisa and her mother later confront Denny for being on drugs. They get no answers from him and this subplot is never mentioned again.
  • Lisa and her mother discuss the mother’s fresh breast cancer diagnosis. This subplot, including the mother’s fate, is never mentioned again.
  • The character of Peter, played by actor Kyle Voyt, is replaced mid-way through the movie by another actor. This is never explained in the film’s universe. Simply, Peter’s storyline – and, thus, dialogue – is taken over by another unnamed person.
  • Lisa and Johnny have several lovemaking scenes that make up a whopping 10 percent of the running time. The only nudity is from Wiseau whose buttocks feature prominently in the movie. He was so proud of these scenes that on one occasion he battled with the editor to keep an entire unedited six-minute lovemaking shot in the movie. The editor got Wiseau down to a continuous three-minute love scene. In movie watching terms, that’s still an eternity.

Finally, Wiseau wanted desperately to include a scene in the movie where Johnny is revealed to be a vampire and flies off into the Los Angeles night skies at the end. The only reason this major sidebar was omitted were the financial limitations when it came to filming the scene.

Tommy Wiseau vs James Dean: “You’re tearing me apart!”
Tommy Wiseau’s “You’re Tearing Me Apart, Lisa!”
James Dean’s “You’re Tearing Me Apart” (1m24s)

Hollywood Called Again

In 2017, James Franco and Seth Rogen made a movie called The Disaster Artist, based on Greg Sestero’s book. Unlike a lot of the back catalogue of the comedy pair, The Disaster Artist is a break from their slapstick norm. The film is made in an uncharacteristically straight way with the nature of the content itself providing the comedy. Tommy Wiseau does not require exaggeration. The reality here is greater than any myth could be.

Great care was given to recreate scenes from The Room on a shot-by-shot basis. And the result was quite impressive. Anyone familiar with Wiseau’s movie should get great joy from the The Disaster Artist and its look behind the scenes during the making of The Room. For those unfamiliar or anyone in doubt, stick around as the credits roll to see shot-for-shot comparisons between the original and the recreations.

The Disaster Artist vs The Room: “I did not hit her!”
“I did not hit her!” scene from The Disaster Artist.
“I did not hit her!” from The Room.

In contrast to its source film, The Disaster Artist went on to receive great critical acclaim including numerous award nominations and wins. The film won the Golden Globe for Best Picture, as well as a prestigious Academy Award nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay. James Franco also won several awards for Best Actor portraying Wiseau, including a Golden Globe, a Critics Choice Movie Award and a Gotham Award (for independent films).

In a funny twist of fate, Tommy Wiseau finally made it to the stage of the big leagues when he was brought onstage by Franco when collecting his Golden Globe. In true Wiseau fashion, he tried to take the microphone from the Best Actor winner during his acceptance speech but was swatted away by a laughing Franco.

The Cult of The Room

Just like screenings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show before it, screenings of The Room have taken on a personality all of their own. Even today, it continues to be shown in cinemas worldwide, so there is a chance it could come to a screen near you. Here is how to survive watching The Room in theatres:

• Dress code

Whilst dressing up is not as much of a tradition as Rocky Horror Picture Show nights, many people attend dressed either as Wiseau himself or in red dresses and ill-fitting tuxedos.

• Spoons
Wiseau and the famous spoons from The Room.
Wiseau and the famous spoons from The Room.

Johnny and Lisa really seem to like spoons. Inside their home there are a number of framed pictures of spoons. These were the original stock photos that came inside the frames. According to Sestero, Wiseau just wanted to “get on with the filming” and didn’t think there’d be time to find new photographs.

Since then, audience members gleefully throw handfuls of plastic spoons at the screen each time they appear on screen. This happens an inordinate number of times.

• Counting

There are at least seven mentions of Johnny and Mark being best friends. Often at screenings of the film, attendees loudly count these mentions.

• “Oh, hai Mark!”

“Oh, hi” is spoken nine times, and “Oh, hey” seven times. All instances are echoed by the audience.

• “Don’t worry!”

There are eight instances of the phrase “Don’t worry about it” plus one “Don’t worry about that”, one “Don’t worry about me” and two “Don’t worry about Johnny”s, one “Don’t worry about those f*ckers,” and two plain old “Don’t worry”s. These are sounded out loudly at screenings.

• “Sestosterone!”

Yelled at the screen each time Mark appears, this wonderful word was created to celebrate the testosterone of Greg Sestero’s character (or perhaps just Sestero himself…who knows?)

• “Denny!” / “Goodbye, Denny!”

The arrival and departure of the supposedly tragic kidult Denny is heralded by these shouts from the crowd.

• “Focus!” / “Unfocus!”

The movie is constantly going out of focus throughout. Each time it does, the crowd yells “Focus!” at the screen. When an out-of-focus shot refocuses during one of Wiseau’s many love scenes, the crowd hilariously yells “Unfocus!”

• “‘Cause you’re a woman!”

The Room is packed full of casual misogyny. This is highlighted by cinema goers by yelling “’cause you’re a woman!” at the screen after pretty much anything that involves a female character.

• “Go! Go! Go! Go!” or “Meanwhile in San Francisco!”

The movie uses many sweeping establishing shots of either the Golden Gate Bridge or San Francisco, using generic stock footage. These shots go on for a long time. Not as long as the love scenes, granted, but long enough for the audience to yell at the screen.

• “Scotchka!”

“Scotchka” is yelled as another example of Wiseau’s lack of understanding of basic human stuff. It symbolises the cocktail Lisa pours for herself and Johnny which is two-parts Scotch and two-parts vodka.

Lisa pours herself and Johnny a "Scotchka" in The Room.
• “Who the f*ck are you?”

The are so many characters that enter and leave the story of The Room without being named or introduced. This colourful phrase is happily yelled at the screen each time this happens, in particular, when an unnamed couple enter Johnny’s home to make love then leave.

• Mimic Wiseau’s “cheep, cheep, cheep”

Tommy Wiseau does not know what a chicken sounds like:

These are some of the main audience participation beats to be aware of in order to enjoy The Room in cinemas. In amongst these primary examples, there are plenty of one-off events to look out for, such as:

Cue: When Lisa is first seducing Mark, Mark says, “I mean, the candles, the music…” [no music is
Yell: "What music?!?"
Cue: During his final rampage, as Johnny grabs the red dress…
Chant: “Hump the dress!” until he does.

If anything, very simply The Room must be seen to be believed. It is great for an evening in with friends and a few drinks, primed for drinking game territory. While audience participation is not required, it is more than likely a guarantee. It won’t be possible to make it through a viewing of The Room without yelling at the screen at least once. We highly recommending this flick, however, don’t say you weren’t warned.