How the ‘Citizen Kane of Bad Movies’ Inspired the New James Franco Movie

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The 2003 drama ‘The Room’ is widely regarded as one of the worst films of all time, which is exactly why it’s the subject of the new James Franco movie.

James Franco knows a thing or two about bad movies. On Rotten Tomatoes, several of his many projects have been labeled “rotten” by critical consensus. (As much as I may personally enjoy it, Your Highness sits at a rotten 27%.) But what about the new James Franco movie? The Disaster Artist sits at a fresh 95% as of today. The irony? It’s about one of the worst movies ever made.

I was 10 years old when Tim Burton’s Ed Wood was released in 1994. My mom’s boyfriend at the time took me to see it at the Rio Theater, a single-screen movie theater inside a repurposed Quonset hut, and though I had no idea who Ed Wood was and had never heard of Plan 9 from Outer Space, I was transfixed by Tim Burton’s vision — and Ed Wood’s.

Fast-forward a few years. Like most teenagers in the ’90s, I worked at a video store, which enabled me to take home armloads of bad movies — and the occasional good one — for free. I saw them all: Troll 2, Showgirls, Congo… I could go on, but I’ll spare you the shameful details of my wasted high school nights alone.

I thought I was an expert on bad movies.

Then I saw The Room.

Upon its release in 2003, Tommy Wiseau’s disasterpiece The Room grossed just shy of $2,000, despite having cost six million dollars to film, making it a huge box-office flop. But that didn’t stop the film’s enigmatic writer / director / producer / star, an immigrant with mysteriously bottomless pockets, from paying $5,000 a month to maintain a prominent LA billboard advertising the movie for five years!

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“Why, Johnny, why?” The hotline number — (323) 654-6192 — still works. Call it!

This insane bit of guerrilla marketing eventually led to the film’s cult following in Los Angeles and beyond, making The Room the gold standard of bad movies. It also eventually drew the attention of some of Hollywood’s comedy elite, including Paul Rudd, David Cross, Jonah Hill, Kristen Bell, Edgar Wright and James Franco. Tommy Wiseau managed to transform a flop into a hit in a rare — if not entirely unique — Hollywood success story.

But The Room is no mere movie — it’s an experience. Like an intense psychedelic drug trip, the film invites you to laugh from the depths of not only your belly but your soul at the profound absurdities of life itself. To put it a slightly different way: when you exit The Room, you are no longer the same person you were when you entered.

My obsession — or perhaps infection is the right word — began slowly. It all started with an 11-minute episode of the surreal television show Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! The episode was called “Tommy,” and Tommy Wiseau was the guest director. They featured clips from The Room, which I assumed had to be a fake movie.

Over time, however, my infection progressed to an advanced stage. I discovered that if you buy anything from Tommy Wiseau’s website, a decidedly funky corner of the interwebs that looks like it went live in 1995 and has barely been updated since, Tommy himself will sign it. The exact wording on the website is: “Tommy Wiseau will sign any merchandise FREE OFCHARGE as long as it have bean purchase from this site as per requeet only.” How could I resist?

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“You’re my favorite customer.” Merchandise signed by Tommy Wiseau! Photo courtesy of the author

At first, I ordered a DVD copy of The Room, which Tommy signed, “Love is blind,” and which included a headshot of Tommy with a handwritten admonition: “Be good!” Then I noticed the screenplay for The Room available for $17.99. I thought that was a steep price for “over 112” pages of screenplay printed from a computer and bound with three brads, but then I noticed the script came with a free pair of Tommy Wiseau designer underwear! Where else can you order a screenplay with a side of boxers or briefs designed by the screenwriter?

My only regret is that Tommy refused to write “Anything for my princess” on the boxer shorts.

The various problems with the production of The Room are well documented in The Disaster Artist, an excellent book written by Greg Sestero (who played Mark in the movie) and Tom Bissell. Check out the audiobook version, read by Greg Sestero and featuring his spot-on Tommy impersonation, for the full experience. I won’t go into too many details here to avoid spoiling the James Franco movie, which is adapted from the book, but I have to mention a few favorites.

Among Tommy’s many crimes against cinema:

  • He filmed rooftop scenes using a fake rooftop set with a green screen behind it, even though he had access to a real rooftop.
  • He dropped an entire character, a psychiatrist named Peter who mumbled such platitudes as “People are people.”
  • He mentioned that one of the characters had breast cancer and never resolved the plotline.
  • He went through several complete crews, filming on both conventional equipment and HD cameras (the HD footage has never been edited or released).
  • Instead of making the set camera-ready, he bought some frames with stock photos of spoons in them and left them prominently on one of the tables (prompting fans at special screenings to throw plastic spoons at the screen each time they’re visible).
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“People are very strange these days.” Wiseau and Sestero in front of the green-screen skyline. Wiseau-Films

Despite all these missteps, however, The Room is perhaps the most quotable film of all time, owing partly to its writer’s often bizarre interpretations of the English language. The last time I recall the pure joy of quoting movies with my friends was the Monday after Austin Powers released in 1997. Yeah, baby!

One of the strangest aspects of The Room is the fact that the first half of the movie feels like a bad late-night Cinemax soft-core porno — due to both the caliber of the acting and the overabundance of awkwardly long sex scenes.

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“Denny, two’s great, but three’s a crowd.” Wiseau-Films

But it is a romantic drama about a love triangle and betrayal, after all. Or is it a black comedy, as Tommy Wiseau later claimed? The sex scenes are definitely funnier than they are sexy. Still, be warned if you plan on watching The Room — or the new James Franco movie. Maybe don’t watch with your parents or kids.

One oft-quoted line from The Room is Tommy Wiseau’s declaration: “I did not hit her! It’s not true! It’s bullshit! I did not hit her! I did NOT! Oh, hi, Mark.” Of this line, Greg Sestero writes in The Disaster Artist, “There are 17 words in this sequence. Eleven of them are nonrecurring; only one carries the burden of a second syllable. In other words, these are not terribly difficult lines to learn.” Despite the scene being only seven seconds long, it took Tommy three hours and 32 takes to nail. “And it was only the second day of filming,” Sestero writes.

This happens to be the scene used in the hilarious teaser for the James Franco movie version of The Disaster Artist, in which he plays Tommy Wiseau. “Line? What is line?” Franco shouts, standing in front of the infamous green screen. Then the camera pans to reveal his exasperated crew, including Seth Rogen, all of them eventually reciting the line in unison.

It’s one of many moments in which Tommy Wiseau clashed with his crew for The Room — and with himself. Even though he wrote the script, it was an excruciating process for him to learn his own lines.

Instead of calling The Room a bad movie, maybe we should think of it as outsider art. Who, after all, gets to decide if movies — and works of art, by extension — are good or bad? Where The Room fails objectively, it succeeds subjectively: it’s damn entertaining, it’s infinitely rewatchable, and it draws attention to the artifice of cinema and other fictional representations of life.

The new James Franco movie promises to be an exploration of art, madness, the exclusivity of Hollywood and, ultimately, the American dream. Tim Burton’s Ed Wood demonstrated that it is possible to make a great movie about a terrible movie. Here’s hoping The Disaster Artist will be Ed Wood for a new generation. end


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