While attending an acting class in Los Angeles at the age of 19, Greg Sestero had a fateful encounter with a bizarre, emboldened dreamer named Tommy Wiseau. The two became unlikely friends, and four years later Sestero found himself starring in the film that, for better or worse, would be a defining moment in his career: The Room, Wiseau’s plot hole-ridden passion project. In his new book, The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside The Room, the Greatest Bad Move Ever Made, Sestero sheds light on the film’s production and the years leading up to it. Sestero chatted with CultureMass on the eve of the book’s release to discuss writing, filmmaking, and, of course, Tommy.
CultureMass: I’m sure you’re excited about the book’s release.
Greg Sestero: Yeah. I’m a little exhausted, but I think it’ll be fun. It’s been quite the ride, as you can probably imagine. It was a long process of getting it done and getting to what I wanted it to be. I didn’t want it to just be a book about a bad movie or a book about filmmaking, I wanted it to portray the vision of what Tommy really wanted to make of it. There were genuine human emotions behind it. Despite its badness, I think that’s what people are responding to. They can feel that someone is trying to tell them something. It was just executed in a way that wasn’t comprehensible.
CM: I’ve shown it to a number of people, and a lot of them have been internationals, from France and Austria and Australia and Ireland. We got done with the movie and they started arguing about where Tommy was from. Nobody could pinpoint it. Everybody sort of made the same cases that come up in your book. Maybe he’s from France, maybe he’s from Eastern Europe, who knows?
GS: When I was writing the book, I ended up actually going to where he was from, his hometown, just to get a feel for where he came from and what his life might have been like. But I just felt like for the book, and for the culture of this movie, that number one, his privacy in that regard belongs to him and if he wants to reveal it at some point, he can. And I also think that it’s kind of fun for it to be a mystery, to keep that aspect going.
GS: Yeah, I definitely think that was a big goal of mine. I had a lot of fans read it to make sure they were getting what they wanted, and I wanted to share the story but also make the movie a richer, deeper experience.
CM: As weird as Tommy is, I was really kind of surprised to find out how sympathetic he was in the book. And I think that a lot of it has to do with the perspective, in that we sympathize with him because you kind of convey that. Was that something you really tried to capture in the book? Was it something deliberate, or did it sort of naturally find its way into the story?
GS: It’s pretty natural, I think. Initially, people might be put off by Tommy’s exterior. It’s a little extreme, but I was taken back when I first got to know him that there was just this really genuine, kind of innocent side to him. Most people never get to know it because they wouldn’t expect it. And I think, over the years, while it’s been very difficult and it’s been trying in a lot of ways, I never lost sight of those qualities that were unique in Tommy. And it’s very endearing.
CM: And the vampire thing…is that something he talks about a lot?
GS: Yeah, yeah, he’s big into that whole vampire thing. It’s always been something I’ve enjoyed because it’s always amusing and funny how seriously he takes it. It’s pretty great.
CM: I thought some of the most interestingly structured chapters were the ones that bounced back and forth between the on-set recollections during the making of the film and the possible origin story for Tommy. I’d be laughing one second and then completely horrified the next. Was that story a composite of different accounts or was it one specific narrative he told about his life?
GS: I was on tour with the film with him while I was writing the book, and he would open up about different aspects of his life. I just found them really interesting and really fascinating, and they were compiled over a long period of time. Combined with that, I did quite a bit of research and went to all of those places. I really wanted to understand Tommy’s life and where he was coming from. I’ve known him quite a while and I felt like, if was going to write this book, I wanted to do the story justice.
CM: And, I’m sure, do him justice as a person, too.
GS: Yeah exactly, because I think a lot of people see Tommy as kind of extraterrestrial. He does see the world in his own way, and we love him for it, but at the same time he’s very human and very sensitive, and had a life before all this happened. I think it’s a really interesting study on what drives people to pursue a creative endeavor. I think a lot of those come out of our life experiences. At some point he was hurt, at some point he was put down, and he chose to deal with those things by making this movie, and I thought that was really an interesting thing to tackle and get behind. It’s his life put onscreen, mixed with his interpretation of the human experience.
GS: There are always things Tommy has said over the years that are very funny, and I think I pretty much squeeze in most of them. There were a lot of pages that were cut out of this book. Something around 90 pages of stuff that I had, just because it started becoming less about The Room and more like a nonfiction novel, and if you’re telling two alternate stories you need to condense. So I did lose quite a bit, but I think most of the richness of the story is there. I think through the whole story you get a very clear sense of Tommy.
CM: You also mention that you personally have had a few run-ins with celebrities—Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan stick out in my head. Were there any others you’ve had or any favorites that you didn’t share in the book?
GS: I think those are probably my favorites. There was a moment, I think it was way back in the day, where Tommy was kind of causing a scene at a restaurant and Liev Schreiber walked by and kind of gave me a look like, “Man…I don’t know what’s up with that.” That always stood out to me because he made direct eye contact and just kind of shook his head like, “I don’t know what that deal’s about,” but we both understood that it was all pretty funny.
CM: I think the ending of the book, with the lights going down at the premiere, was absolutely perfect. You always want to leave the audience wanting a little bit more, and I definitely felt that way with this book. Part of me was dying to hear details about the atmosphere at the screening and how the audience responded. And, more importantly, how Tommy responded to the audience’s response.
GS: Tommy took his project very seriously. It was to be the next great American drama, on the lines of Tennessee Williams. I can’t really speak for him, but my feeling was that he was kind of taken aback and shocked at the laughter. But he’s a craftsman and he’s got a great sense of humor, he’s very, very funny, and I think at the end of the day he decided that if people show up and they enjoy the film then that’s enough for me and I’ll let them enjoy it the way they want to enjoy it. And that’s why I think he has that signature line at screenings. He says, “You can laugh, you can cry, you can express yourself, but please don’t hurt each other.” He’s kind of saying, “Basically, I wanted you guys to cry, but you’re laughing, so go for it. Just be respectful to each other.” And I think he just rolls with it. For him, the most important part is that people show up and they have a good time.
CM: It’s interesting to me that he’s sort of embraced the idea that it’s a “dark comedy” and run with it given how seriously he seemed to take the actual production.
GS: Yeah. For me, The Room was always kind of a joke. I never took it really seriously, so seeing people laugh, I just kind of accepted it. I was like, “Oh, I laughed at it too. Let’s let it be what it’s going to be.” But if I had put my heart into it and it was my project, I don’t know how I would take it. I don’t know if I’d show up and roll with it. I think I might try to move on and do something different, make a new project. I think some people like fame and want the attention and I think other people go this route because they love the work and they just want to do creative work. And I think that’s how I am, I just I enjoy doing something creative, whether it’s movies, writing a book. The challenge of it is really stimulating. I think Tommy’s figuring, “Hey, at whatever cost people will show up and watch this work, I’m okay with it.” But if you were to ask Tommy, I believe he would say he still believes The Room is the greatest movie ever made.
CM: You know, it’s kind of hard to argue with that at this point. I’ve probably seen it more in the last two years than I have any single other movie. You don’t get that kind of repeat value out of just anything. He struck something. I don’t know what it was, but…
GS: Yeah, he definitely struck a chord and I think that’s what movies are meant to do, but I think he continues to stand that it was the way he intended. Maybe the joke’s on us.
CM: I have one friend who suggested that maybe he’s playing a character. Maybe he’s not really this guy he’s putting out there, maybe he’s just a perfectly normal guy who sort of invented this role, and then became Tommy, who then became Johnny.
GS: Yeah, no, that’s what’s great about Tommy—he is exactly who he is. He is who he is in the movie, and he is who he is off-screen.
CM: When I was reading, I’d constantly be recounting certain sections of the book to my wife, and almost every time she would ask me one of two questions: “Are they still friends?” or “Why were they friends to begin with?” Given the story in the book I think I can answer the second question, but I was kind of at a loss for the first one.
GS: I think when you’re at a certain age, especially in your late teens, early twenties, you’re open to experiences you wouldn’t normally be when you’re older. I met Tommy at a point in my life where I was very open and was lost but knew what I wanted to do, but didn’t know how to get there. He was sort of the perfect person to meet at that point in my life, and vice versa. The experience we shared was, I think, deep for both of us. Any time you go through that with somebody you never really stop being friends. And a lot difficult times I talk about in the book with him and for him, that was obviously a long time ago and what happened with the film is something that I think is really unique and special. He invited me to travel with him while I wrote the book, and go on tour with the film. It’s not like I get to see him frequently, but he’ll always be a friend to a certain capacity, for sure. I don’t have any really negative feelings towards him, because at the end of the day he was a big motor behind this experience and I wouldn’t have had it without him. That being said, at this point in my life I want different things, so going on a crazy adventure and going through all those things again is not something that I’m exactly seeking. But I can reflect on it and appreciate it for what it was, and I feel like I grew a lot and learned a lot from it so I’m thankful for Tommy in that way.
CM: So I suppose it evolved like a natural friendship typically evolves.
GS: Not many people make a lot of friends at 19 or 20 and are still friends with them 15 years later or are still in each other’s lives. Usually you move on. With the movie, a lot of what I was doing was to help him make it happen because I knew he wouldn’t be able to if I didn’t show up and support him. I figured the movie would be gone and everyone would move on. And it didn’t, it just kept taking off. So you stay in each other’s life maybe longer than you would have and don’t just disappear but, like I said, I’ve embraced it for what it is and I really feel appreciative of the whole thing.
CM: Okay, so I’ve got a couple hypothetical questions for you (the first from our friends at Bad Movie Drinking Game). You mention that Tommy’s end goal was always the Academy Awards. If The Room was to have won an Oscar, what specific category would have had to exist for that to happen?
GS: I’d have to say Most Unusual Film. I think that would be the most realistic category that the Oscars would make.
CM: I couldn’t picture it going to anything else.
GS: Yeah, exactly. There’s nothing else that you could pinpoint and say, “No, that’s weirder.” This is a slam-dunk.
CM: If you could have played any role in The Room other than Mark, which one would you have wanted to play and why?
GS: I would have played Chris-R because he’s only in it for 90 seconds.
CM: If you could write a follow-up movie about Mark, what sort of adventures do you picture him having?
GS: I think the roles get reversed and he turns into Johnny. He doesn’t get his promotion, he doesn’t move into his bigger place, his girlfriend cheats on him, and he kind of suffers the fate of what Johnny went through.
CM: And finally, what advice would you give to someone sitting down to watch The Room for the very first time?
GS: You’re about to witness something you have never seen or will ever see again.
CM: I’ll tell my mother that. Although I don’t think my mom is ever going to watch this movie.
GS: Yeah, I don’t think so either. I think moms…if they do, they don’t last that long.
The Disaster Artist is now available from Simon & Schuster.