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Saturday, October 12, 2013

Seven Things Every San Franciscan Should Know About "The Room"

Posted By on Sat, Oct 12, 2013 at 3:57 PM


If you're reading this, odds are you're already keen on the Clay Theatre's monthly screenings of Tommy Wiseau's The Room. Good times! What you really should be reading, though, is Greg Sestero and Tom Bissell's new book, The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside The Room, the Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made

Sestero, of course, produced and co-starred in the movie ("Oh, hi Mark!"), and Bissell wrote the definitive Harper's essay about it. As for the occasionally "hilarious, fun-loving, easygoing San Francisco weirdo" known as Tommy Wiseau, he will always be the maestro.

The Disaster Artist deftly combines Sestero's lively anecdotes with Bissell's great gift for elucidating the magical mysteries of The Room without spoiling the joy they bring. Among those mysteries is the film's intimate association with San Francisco -- a few choice details of which are excerpted below.

1. It all began, or some of it did, with yo-yos and toy birds on Fisherman's Wharf.

At the Wharf coffee shop, an older man with a clean-shaven head walks in and sits down across from Thomas, who is by now quite scared. The deal the man proposes is this: Thomas will sell the yo-yos for him to tourists at an ambitious markup and receive a small percentage of the profits. Thomas agrees to middleman the yo-yos. He later claims to have done so well for himself that he eventually began to wonder, Why don't I sell my own yo-yos? And so Thomas, through means unknown, buys a gross of yo-yos and toy birds directly from the supplier, severing his business arrangement with the bald man. The toy birds Thomas sells are popular in Europe--particularly at the Eiffel Tower--but they are not commonly seen in America. Day after day, night after night, Thomas throws his toy birds into the seaside air; they sail up, circle around, and dutifully return to him. Thomas becomes so skilled at throwing these little avian boomerangs that tourists routinely applaud. He's making money, so much money that he moves to his own apartment in the Tenderloin. At night he sometimes hears gunshots, but so what? In what other country could he have come so far, so fast? He's grateful to America; his love for the place grows. Thomas earns a Wharf nickname: the Birdman. He changes his legal name to Thomas Pierre Wiseau, taking the French word for "bird," oiseau, and swapping out the O for the W of his birth name. Thomas Wiseau. Thomas Bird. Thomas the Birdman.

2. Then, from the ashes of tragedy, a new dream emerged.

Street Fashions is so successful that Thomas buys more properties. One building is on Sutter, another on Dore. The self-described 'King of Levi's' sells jeans with missing belt loops and botched stitching. Even so, Street Fashions opens up more stores, one of them on Haight Street, registered to something called TPW Corporation. Years later, Thomas will sell the Sutter Street building for $2.9 million. A fortune--an empire--founded on yo-yos and toy birds. Tragically, in 1995, one of Thomas's buildings--the one on Dore Street--burns down in a fire that spreads to nearby buildings, and in this blaze, a man gruesomely dies. Thomas submits a video to his insurance company detailing his damages. This video is tastelessly scored to classical music, includes local-news footage of the burned man's death announcement, and contains testimony from a material witness who affirms Thomas's damages and good character. When this witness stops praising Thomas, the cameraman eggs him on to continue: 'Anything else you can say good things about Thomas?' Thomas, of course, is the cameraman.

3. You may direct your gratitude directly to Jean Shelton, in whose hallowed Union Square acting workshop began the fateful partnership of Wiseau and Sestero.

The pirate's scene partner valiantly tried to bring him around with the smelling salts of actual lines from the script, but he kept yelling over her, 'Stella! Stella!' until he went to his knees, covered his face with his hands, cried for a moment, and finished with a final and piercingly wrong 'Stella!' Most bad performances are met with silence. This was something else. There were murmurs. There were giggles. Everyone in that basement studio knew they had just witnessed one of the most beautifully, chaotically wrong performances they would ever see. As for me, I felt resuscitated. I'd never been so happy to be in a classroom. Jean Shelton did not wait to address the lunatic who lay prostrate before her. 'Thomas, or Tommy--I'm sorry--I must ask you--again--what you are trying to accomplish?' He was rising from the floor now. His face was flushed, his eyes intense little blurs of exhaustion. 'I am performing the Tennessee Williams scene,' he said. At this, his scene partner--an older woman--shook her head hopelessly. 'No, Tommy,' Shelton said. 'I don't think that's what you were doing.'

4. The hospital wasn't supposed to be on Guerrero Street.

Then it was time to do the coverage shots of our individual closeups. In an attempt to loosen Tommy up a bit, I changed the line that had been provoking his laughter. Instead of 'He beat her up so bad, she ended up in a hospital,' I ad-libbed, "He beat her up so bad, she ended up in a hospital on Guerrero Street.' Of course, there is no hospital on Guerrero Street, but Tommy's San Francisco condo was located there. I knew full well that anything having to do with Tommy's personal life was a matter of national security, but the reference was so obscure that I couldn't imagine him being worried about it. No one involved in The Room even knew that Tommy had lived in San Francisco, let alone that he had a condo there. This was going to be a ridiculous scene no matter what, and I guess I was trying to remind Tommy to approach it more playfully. Attempting to mine Tommy's scenes for authentic or plausible emotion was never going to work. You couldn't make these scenes realistic, I figured, so why not have fun? Tommy laughed again, more ghoulishly than before. When the cameras stopped, Tommy dragooned me into a quiet place, away from the crew. 'Are you insane completely?' he said.

5. At least one of The Room's many continuity errors is attributable to the local sea breeze.

The next stop was Golden Gate Park, where we began shooting Tommy's and my jogging and football-throwing scenes. In the finished film I begin this sequence wearing my ugly visor but it disappears by the second shot. That's because, almost immediately after we started filming, the wind tore the visor off my head. I was about to chase after it but Tommy stopped me. 'Forget this primitive hat,' he said. 'You look like parking lot man.' I let the visor go, and, with it, any last lingering chance at maintaining continuity.

6. Tommy gets super-competitive about Bay to Breakers.

'Prepare yourself physically and mentally for this crazy stuff,' Tommy said. 'I see you at Golden Gate Park. Good luck!' The signal shot fired and everyone took off, Tommy included. I went to find a bathroom as several naked runners hurled past me. Tommy looked back and yelled, 'I'm not waiting for you!' I'd pretty much already figured that out. Tommy took Bay to Breakers very seriously, having run it several times before. For my first Bay to Breakers, I walked. In sandals. It was actually a very pleasant stroll. I even made a pit stop at a race-side house party. Tommy was waiting for me at the finish line. He greeted me with: 'You know I beat your ass, I'm sorry to tell you. I made top ten thousand. I will be in newspaper tomorrow. You will not.'

7. Authenticity matters at lot to him, too.

Tommy was determined, much to everyone's puzzlement, to film every extra placing an order. 'You,' he said, pointing to a brunette, 'get a large peanut butter cup with extra whip cream.' He acted as though he'd conceived some masterstroke of cinema verité. 'You need to say your orders with enunciation. Proclamation! And remember: Be yourself.' Even the normally unflappable [cinematographer] Todd Barron was baffled by this. 'You don't need to hear everyone's order, Tommy,' he said. 'Let's just get one.' 'No,' Tommy said. 'You don't know San Francisco, my friend. We need impression of very busy coffee shop.' Joe stepped forward and pointed out that sitting through thirty seconds of complete strangers ordering food did nothing for the scene. Tommy wouldn't hear any of this. 'This is real life,' he explained. 'What do you expect? You want to be fake? Not me. I hate fake stuff.'


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About The Author

Jonathan Kiefer

SF Weekly movie critic Jonathan Kiefer is on Twitter: @kieferama and of course @sfweeklyfilm.


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