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Greg Sestero’s “The Disaster Artist”: A Great Book About A Bad Film

Greetings and salutations, fellow Fridge Nukers! Rob Bradfield here, reporting from the hospital on Guererro Street in beautiful, scenic downtown San Francisco!

Expecting a crowd too large for Book Soup’s floorspace, the event was moved to cinephile Mecca, The New Beverly Cinema [PHOTO: ROB BRADFIELD]
Signings at Los Angeles literature retailer, Book Soup, are hardly unusual – nor is booking top shelf talent for such events. So when they have to take a book signing off site to accommodate a larger crowd, that means something. Such was the case last Tuesday, when Book Soup took over the New Beverly Cinema to celebrate the release of Greg Sestero‘s tell-all [well, “tell most”] book, The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside The Room, The Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made. Sestero and co-author, Tom Bissell, were joined by his cast-mates/fellow survivors of “Hurricane Tommy”: Juliette Danielle (the “Beautiful Lisa”); Carolyn Minnott (Claudette, known to fans as “Cancer Lady”); Kyle Vogt (Peter, the world’s worst psychologist, and Thomas Dolby impersonator); and Robyn Paris (who as Michelle, was one of several random and unexplainable roles in the film).

Naturally, such a venue lends itself to something more than just the ability to seat more people, as well as the traditional structure of a reading followed by a Q&A. Though the cinematic anomaly at the center of the action wasn’t shown, Sestero cut together a 45 minute mini-documentary – essentially a teaser for what lies between the pages of The Disaster Artist. At this point in the bizarre cult film’s equally strange success curve, the cast is considered, by lovers of bad film, to be cinematic “royalty.” And of course, where there are opportunities for self promotion, and to bask in a little adulation, there goeth director/writer/producer/star, the enigmatic Tommy Wiseau. It is not particularly rare to see Tommy, and even Greg, at one of the monthly midnight screenings of The Room, having that many people from the cast in one place at time is truly special. Yet there they were, to congratulate their comrade in arms, and reliving painful memories that, in the rearview mirror, have turned into hysterical anecdotes.

“This film is like being stabbed in the head. No refunds.” [The Room 101]

For those who haven’t heard of The Room, an easy two word, umbrella under which to put it would be, “Rocky Horror.” It’s a movie that mainstream audiences couldn’t quite decipher that found its home in the world of cult film via monthly midnight screenings; and until relatively recently, at its former home of the Laemmle at Sunset and Fairfax, consistently sold out all five theaters. [Which I’m not sure whether Rocky Horror Picture Show ever accomplished. It usually competed with The Wall, The Song Remains the Same, and Heavy Metal where I regularly saw it.]

“You’re taking me apart, Lisa!!!” [ARTWORK: “TOMMY WARHOL” BY ROB BRADFIELD]
People often dress up as characters from the film, and like its distant cousin, the audience rituals are a “show” in and of themselves. For example, the audience shouts at the screen, hurls bric-a-brac (primarily footballs and plastic spoons) around the theater, and interacts with the people on screen – and that’s being extremely general. No spoilers here. It was rescued from absolute obscurity and anonymity by a trio of film students, who as its brief theatrical run was drawing to a close, camped out in front of the lone theater in which it was showing – both a bid to keep it in the theater, and a back-handed tribute to what, under normal circumstances, is just, well, a really bad film, the likes of which only comes around in a generation or so.

However, dressing up, audience participation, and rituals are where the similarities between the two films end. For one, RHPS is a well done film. It’s the subject matter that makes it a “cult” film. The Room is not a scifi musical about a transvestite from outer space who comes to Earth to play God in an attempt to build a perfect lover. The logline for the film is much simpler to get across; the stuff Lifetime Network keeps on file as a template for their movies of the week. It’s a melodrama about love, friendship and betrayal.

The charm is in the execution. Like staircases in the Winchester Mystery House, plot lines are introduced that go absolutely nowhere. A supporting lead becomes an entirely different character, played by an entirely different actor, in the third act. An actor playing a teenager looks older than half the cast, and uncomfortably proposes a threeway to the leads. The leading actress is a girl next door type, but cast to play a supervixen. The solution? Bleach her hair, but leave the eyebrows, so it looks like two caterpillars having a showdown on her forehead. Casting himself as the romantic lead, Mr. Wiseau is visibly and uncomfortably older than everybody in the cast, except the mother-in-law and the guy playing a teenager. Trust me, the above description is why the expression “That’s just the tip of the iceberg,” was invented. Oh! And the dialog! Where RHPS  is cheese, The Room is fromage.

“…I have many jobs in my life – so many you could write book about them all.” — Tommy Wiseau

A “feel good book” about a very, very bad movie

Fortunately, the book makes more sense than the inspiration for it.

The Disaster Artist isn’t the average “Hollywood Tell-All,” and it only starts with the subject matter. Obviously, a movie as insane as The Room was produced under similarly insane circumstances. So fans of the film looking for anecdotes of “Tommy Gone Wild” will not be disappointed, though according to Sestero, some stories were withheld for concerned that he’d be taking potshots at a man who is ultimately his friend. Making The Room was apparently as bizarre and confusing as the finished product itself. And just when you think you’ve read the absolute craziest s*** you’ve ever heard in your life, you will look up at the corner of the page, and realize that you’re less than half way through. A treasure trove of Tommy tumult and tirades.

However, Mr. Wiseau’s on-set shenanigans, as bad as they are, would be inexcusable, were it not for …Artist‘s B-plot, a touching portrait of the friendship between a young actor, just learning the ropes, “going through The Mill,” and a guy who wanted the American Dream, and the Hollywood dream of “fortune and glory,” so badly that, by virtue of sheer grit and determination (talent had nothing to do with it…) achieved both – even if the latter is somewhat dubious. Certainly, Tommy was, and probably still is, as mercurial and weird in life as he was during the production of his opus magnus. Tommy Wiseau is simply a unique person – and a personality not meant to get along with a lot of other people. Yet underneath the eccentricities, beyond the “movie star” posturing, is a truly lovable individual, a dreamer with unparalleled willpower to make those dreams come true – even if the appreciation of such rugged individualism requires letting a lot of things slide, and you have headaches from rolling your eyes so much.

Sure, it’s a cliche, but Greg Sestero, “not just another pretty face.” [PHOTO COURTESY OF SIMON AND SCHUSTER]
Part memoir, part tell-all – two “great tastes” that don’t always “taste great together.” In a nutshell, it’s probably difficult for anybody to talk about themselves and their lives, especially when it’s a literary genre so full of puffery. Sestero manages to sidestep this issue altogether with a clever parallel structure, alternating between an anecdotal history of the production of The Room and his early days as an actor, starting in San Francisco with the author approaching a “crazy pirate” to do a scene with him.

Sestero is completely aware of why his audience is there, and hits the ground running, giving the audience what they want, right off the bat, starting with the night before the first day of principal photography, when Greg found out he’d be playing the second male lead, but that, as “line producer,” he was going to have to fire the actor who’d been cast. The pace is established in the second chapter, when he talks about his first impressions of Tommy Wiseau, a bizarre, even bad, actor with unique passion and presence. It’s almost as if you recognized the author in a pub, and asked him to tell you a story about the making of your favorite bad movie. After the first pint, and a story about the movie, he flags the waitress over and orders another round. “That reminds me of the first time I laid eyes on Tommy Wiseau.”

The Disaster Artist is available online and in bookstores, NOW!