Stranger than Fiction: An Interview with Tom Bissell
October 29, 2013 | by Hope Reese
Ten years ago, Tommy Wiseau produced, wrote, directed, and starred in one of the best worst movies of all time. The Room, a six million dollar endeavor, was conceived as a “Tennessee Williams-like” drama, its insight into human relationships sure to place it in the running for an Oscar. The film, however, was not received as the auteur intended. Instead of winning accolades, its hilariously inexplicable writing, cinematography, and performances have earned it a devoted cult following.
But even stranger than the film itself is the story behind The Room. How did Wiseau, whose age, past, nationality, and financial means are shrouded in mystery, create this spectacular catastrophe? To begin unraveling the mystery, journalist Tom Bissell (who first wrote about the film in a piece for Harper’s) teamed up with Greg Sestero (costar of The Room and close friend of Wiseau) to write The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside The Room, the Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made. Their book pieces together anecdotes from Sestero’s friendship with Wiseau with the story of the production (the entire crew was fired four times over, for example).
With insight, appreciation for the bizarre, and genuine humanity, Bissell has helped create a book almost as hilarious as the film itself. Bissell is best known for his long-form nonfiction on subjects ranging from Chuck Lorre, the creator of popular TV shows, to the video game Grand Theft Auto, to the films of Werner Herzog. He now writes scripts for a video game company and is working on a book on early Christianity. I spoke with him over Skype from his office in Los Angeles.
It’s a bizarre experience watching The Room for the first time. What was it like for you?
I’d just moved to Portland. I was sitting in an empty apartment on an air mattress waiting for my girlfriend and all my stuff to arrive in a U-Haul. I spent the day looking on the Internet for something to occupy myself. I stumbled across clips of The Room and watched them in various states of amazement. It’s unlike any movie I’ve ever seen. Through a stroke of coincidence I’ll never understand, it turned out that the movie was premiering in Portland that night at a theater five blocks from the apartment I’d rented. What’s really funny is that someone was recording an audience-reaction documentary there that night, so on YouTube there’s a clip of me being interviewed before I saw it for the first time. I felt so exhilarated by the movie, by its combination of complete incompetence and utter confidence. It swept me up, and my aesthetic life has never been the same since. I’m obsessed with it. I love it. Whether you want to call it outsider art or bananas art or disaster art, the movie has something that movies made with infinitesimally more precision and expertise will never have. It has a big beating heart.
Whose idea was it to write The Disaster Artist?
Greg e-mailed me, saying he loved the Harper’s piece and that it was the first thing he had read about the movie that he really responded to, which made me feel good. I happened to be going to LA that weekend, and we met up. I wasn’t expecting much—I assumed he was just some poor dude who showed up for a casting call and thought he was getting his big break, and suddenly found himself in this terrible movie. But the minute we sat down, Greg started telling me about how he’d known Tommy for years, how they’d been roommates, and how he viewed himself as Tommy’s translator to the outside world. I said, Dude, you need to write a book about this. And that’s when he first kind of tipped his hand that maybe he was kind of thinking about that, and maybe I could be the person to explore this with him. At the time, I was teaching and working and had zero time. I hooked Greg up with an agent and tried to set him up with a writer. No one Greg met felt right to him—he didn’t think they understood the movie in the right way.
One morning I woke up, seized with the sudden realization that I had to write this book with him. I realized that this story, of these two men and this strange piece of American culture, was as close to a novel as I was ever going to write. I was sitting on an atomic bomb, waiting for it to go off.
The Disaster Artist is Sestero’s story, but the writing sounds like your voice. What was the cowriting process like for you?
Greg interviewed everyone from the cast. He and I watched hours of behind-the-scenes footage. And then I interviewed him. We planned out the chapters ahead of time, story and event-wise, and then we talked through them, recorded them. I turned the transcripts into prose. I wrote up the Tom Bissell–ized version of the interviews, and then Greg rewrote them to make them more in line with his voice. Then I rewrote them, he rewrote them, and we had the book. The funny thing was that we had no time to write this—we wrote 95 percent of it in four months. Because we were so under the gun, we had no time to fuck it up. The book came out the way it was designed to come out—and I’ve never had anything like that happen. I realized that sensei Tommy Wiseau has something to say about the very thing that happened to us in this book: “Do not plan too much, it may not come out right!” [Bissell said to me in his Wiseau voice]. We didn’t plan too much, and it came out right.
You interviewed Wiseau for your Harper’s piece on The Room. Have you had any interactions with him since?
That was the first and only interview. I encountered him one other time, and I was like, Hey Tommy, I’m the guy who interviewed you for two and a half hours a month ago for Harper’s magazine. And he clearly had no idea who I was. I’m not entirely convinced he knows who I am now. He calls me “Tom Bosey” a lot in the media.
Even after all of this time, we still don’t know several key details about Wiseau—where he’s from, how old he is, how he made the six million dollars to fund the film. How has he been able to hide so much of his past?
I have absolutely no idea. I’ve gotten phone calls from journalists who want to investigate more, and I’ve told them that everything I know is in the book. I kind of don’t want to know more—the guy is basically Jay Gatsby, and Jay Gatsby is such a more interesting character than James Gatz. I’d like to keep Wiseau as Gatsby in my head.
Does Wiseau know what makes him so fascinating to so many of us?
Do jellyfish know what make them so remarkable to the rest of us? There are all sorts of strange life forms that go about their business and don’t really understand the gape-mouthed looks other creatures give them, and I think Tommy is one of those. That would be a hard thing to deal with—your most private personal attempt at self-expression is literally a world celebration for laughter. And Tommy has handled this, I think, surprisingly well. I’ve never been able to determine to what extent he’s in on the joke. If the same thing happened to me, I would’ve gone back to my home planet. Whether his attitude indicates he’s completely shameless or weirdly evolved, I’ve never been able to determine.
Sestero and Wiseau have a very close friendship, yet in the book he often paints Wiseau in an unflattering light. You mentioned in a Rumpus interview that there’s a fragile boundary between writer and subject. What do you think about the boundary here?
Greg has every right to tell his side of the story, his experience of Tommy. And everything that’s in the book, Greg discussed with Tommy beforehand. Tommy is the hero of the book. He may exasperate Greg, he may exasperate the reader, but fundamentally he’s the hero, and I think anyone who reads this and doesn’t understand that we tried to humanize him and convey the extraordinary character he is in real life didn’t read it very carefully. Anyone who reads this as Greg’s betrayal of Tommy needs some augmented reading-comprehension skills.
What do you think about the intention behind the art? The success of The Room seems completely accidental. How should we judge it?
This question is a stranger one than our friends in the Academy will admit, and probably more painful than the average writer or creator will admit. Obviously, the intention of a work of art means less and less the further it gets from the death or expiry of its creator. We don’t really give a shit what Shakespeare intended with Hamlet. We don’t really give a shit anymore what Joyce intended with Finnegans Wake. But when a writer’s alive, and you can call him up and ask what he intended, somehow that still means something to the average person. The intent of the author ultimately doesn’t mean shit to the audience, but as a fellow creator you have to listen to the creator and try to figure out what the intent was. Because it does mean something when the creator himself is in any kind of proximity to the work and to you.
And in this case, Wiseau as a character and person are so interwoven. He’s the writer, director, producer and star of the movie. The Room is his life on display.
Yes. So his intent doesn’t mean anything when it comes to how the art succeeds or fails. His intent was crucial to its interesting failure. But when you get obsessed with this movie—and you do—the intent can illuminate so much of it. And only an academic could come up with the so-called death of the author. Deaths of authors may not explain anything in the text, but they may illuminate interesting aspects of texts. The ways books often get read isn’t for interest—they’re like old iron ore mines, cut up for people to investigate. I like reading books with both hands, with my heart pumping, with blood on the page. So I’m interested in people who make stuff and I’m interested in the lives that make the text. To read a book or watch a movie any other way, to me, personally, feels like a waste of time and misapplication of energy. I don’t like things that don’t wrap me up emotionally, and The Room wrapped me up emotionally. I wanted to understand where it came from.
You once said that your ambition was to be a great novelist. Has that changed?
I still do write fiction. I view myself as a fiction writer who just happens to write nonfiction. I think I look at the world through a fiction-writer’s eyes. For better or worse, The Disaster Artist is like a true-life novel. It works like a novel, I hope it has the effect of a novel. I think the book I wrote about me and my dad is another true-life novel. My fiction-writing DNA shows in how I think about prose, how I think about the page, how I think nonfiction stories should work. And every piece of nonfiction I write, I want it to have fictional texture.
In an interview for Bookforum, you talked about how contemporary nonfiction writers are doing something interesting that you don’t see in novels today.
When I read Eula Biss or Geoff Dyer or John Jeremiah Sullivan or a bunch of other nonfiction writers, I am inevitably more gripped, more interested, and more driven to want to read more than I am by 99 percent of the novels I read today. I spent most of my reading life looking down my nose at nonfiction and thinking the novel was where the business of intellectual literary culture got worked out. And increasingly, it’s not the case. This is not to dismiss fiction—I hate the David Shields argument “why write fiction anymore?”—but realizing that you have a particular affinity for one type of literature doesn’t mean you throw the rest of it overboard.
Tommy Wiseau, though, is an almost fictional character.
My girlfriend and I were just talking about this. She said, If you brought this to a publisher, and Wiseau was the character, no one would find him believable. There are things in our world that, if you accurately reproduce them, they are indeed stranger than fiction. The quality of the strange is something fiction struggles so hard to replicate, I think, because the reader enters into a bond with the writer that yes, this is all made up, and I’m going to follow you. But once you surpass my expectation of your reality, I’m going to reject it because you’ve gone too far in this bargain. Once you breach that trust, I’m going to push back. I’m not going to be doubly fooled. With nonfiction, you don’t have that. There isn’t the strange sense of broken trust. Don’t bend my willingness to believe too far. With Tommy, it just keeps bending, and it’s all true. No one on this planet could make him up.
How come you don’t have a Twitter account?
For me personally, Twitter would be a colossal waste of time. Anything I can do other than write, I will do. Anything. I will waste my time in every way available to me before I sigh, open up a Diet Coke, sit down at my computer, defeated, saying Okay, I guess I have to fucking do this now. Twitter, for me, would be a disaster. It feels like people taking a bunch of intellectual selfies and showing them to the world. I’d rather just write.
How do you make a life out of writing?
I don’t have kids. I have an immensely understanding partner who does something creative herself, and we both need a lot of time alone. I structure my life around getting my work done, first and foremost. Everything else is secondary. That’s the only way I’ve been able to do it. I’m happy about that, but it’s also a lonely life, which comes as a shock to precisely no one. Since being with my girlfriend for so long, it’s the first time in my life I feel like I’m in a good place emotionally and also a good place with my work. I don’t write out of a place of anger and desperation that I used to. I write out of a place of much deeper personal contentment. And when you’re writing out of personal contentment, your impulse to rewire the English language with every possible sentence is less important, and what’s more important is just saying things that are true. The older I’ve gotten, the more interested I am in sharing something and being as honest as possible.