Disaster Artist – Insanity is No Shortcut to Inspiration

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I read Disaster Artist on a whim when the movie came out. I’ve since gone through the audiobook 3.5 times and can confidently say it’s one of my favorite books of all time. I expected just to hear funny anecdotes about the making of a famously awful movie and the man behind it, but I found so much more depth. In my eyes, Disaster Artist is an examination of insanity (which I am defining as “the inability to perceive reality to the degree of low or non-functionality in regular life”). The book is a pushback against a subtle cultural norm that sees crazy people as having some sort of gift or potential or insight that everyone else doesn’t.

This message hit me especially hard because I had my first real experience with a crazy person only a few months before I read Disaster Artist. I don’t want to give too many details about my personal life, but in brief:

I used to work in an education business. We hired an employee whose credentials seemed too good to be true. He was older, an industry veteran with an incredible track record. He claimed to have countless connections which would make him invaluable to our customers. In person, he was fast-talking, enthusiastic, a little disorganized, but highly affable – a born salesman. I checked a few of his references, though not as deeply as I should have, and it all seemed fine. We quickly hired him, not wanting to let this opportunity pass.

We fired him 25 days later.

First it was little things – he would go off on weird tangents in conversations, he talked about himself a bit too much, and he seemed to lack focus. Then at the end of the first week, he was clearly drunk on a call with a client. I blame my inexperience for not firing him right then, but he profusely apologized, and we gave him a second chance.

Then things got weirder. He always wanted to talk to me. It didn’t matter what time of day, he would text or call me to chat, but it was always him talking and me listening. He would complain that there were constantly so many thoughts running through his mind. He absolutely needed to discuss quantum physics or the Byzantine Empire or the flaws in the new iPhone, but there was no one there to listen to him, so he had to call me. I was still under the illusion that he was an asset to the company, so I placated him and hoped that this weirdness would abide. It didn’t.

Skip forward to day 23. Part of this man’s job was to help edit essays written by high school students. I looked at an essay he had just edited. It was full of sentence fragments, weird tangents, and grammatical errors. Looking at that paper, I couldn’t be sure if this guy was illiterate or if he literally couldn’t recognize these basic errors. I called him up and asked him to explain himself. He made excuses and promised to fix it.

Two days later, the father of that high school student was threatening to sue us. He said that the employee had wasted their time and done a horrible job, which was all true. Worse yet, we found out that over the previous weeks, the employee had called up the client (again, a high schooler) periodically to talk to her about weird random bullshit. He wanted to tell her about his struggles with his ex-wife, how much he missed his son, how unhappy he was with his life, etc.

We fired the employee. We offered a small severance, about ¼ of his monthly salary, just to smooth things over. The employee demanded a full month’s salary, which he said he needed to provide for his wife and child. Then he threatened to personally kill me if we didn’t pay him.

That thirty minute phone call was terrifying. I wasn’t actually scared of being murdered, and we never gave in to his demands, but it wasn’t until that call that I understood what it meant to be crazy. It unnerved me in a sort of staring into the abyss way. This man was truly detached from reality. He either didn’t know or could not understand the facts before him. When presented with reality, he would lash out in pain and anguish and fury at phantom targets. I would make calm, reasonable arguments about how he had violated his work contract, hurt our business, hurt our clients, and lied to us, and he would respond with nonsensical excuses, random tangents, blaming his personal life, and never ever coming close to acknowledging his own culpability.

I came away from the conversation with a mixture of pity, revulsion, and dread. I don’t know if this guy was bipolar, drug-addled, schizophrenic, or what, but I was 100% sure that this man lived in a nightmare. Everything was confusing and nonsensical to him. The world was dark, malevolent, and couldn’t stop hurting him even as he tried his best. I had an image of him sitting alone in his tiny apartment listening to that one student’s song over-and-over again on repeat while his mind blurred between random scientific and historical topics until he could no longer fight the urge to pick up the phone and call me or someone like me who took enough pity on him to politely listen for a few minutes until we made excuses and left him back alone in silence.

I see Tommy Wiseau, the creator of The Room and the subject of Disaster Artist, in the same category as the ex-employee. The form of their insanity is somewhat different, but both men live tortured, miserable lives, and constantly lash out at bystanders because of it. However, unlike the ex-employee, Wiseau is beloved by the masses precisely for his insanity. This is a dangerous, inaccurate, unfair reality, and in my opinion, is precisely what the Disaster Artist book argues against.

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The Room

By this point, I think most people have at least heard of Tommy Wiseau or The Room, but just in case:

The Room is a 2003 indie drama movie starring/directed/written/produced/executive produced/funded by Tommy Wiseau. It is widely considered to be one of the worst movies ever made. The reason people still watch and talk about The Room today rather than any one of the thousands of other horrible movies made throughout history, is because The Room is bad in a uniquely fascinating way. It’s not just that the acting, writing, directing, costuming, etc. is terrible (though it all is), rather The Room is bad in completely bizarre ways that only a crazy person could conceive of.

I can’t really explain The Room. I could mention details in the movie, like how the main character’s apartment has framed pictures of spoons everywhere, or how all the men in the film think a slightly-attractive character is the most beautiful creature on earth, but that doesn’t sell it. The Room is so weird that you can only get it by watching it. Here’s a pretty good breakdown of one scene. You can find most of the rest of the movie on Youtube, and if you haven’t already, I recommend watching one of the “best moments” videos.

The ironic success of The Room can only be attributed to Tommy Wiseau. The movie is undoubtedly a product of his severely bizarre and incompetent artistic vision. Tommy meant for The Room to be a serious drama about the nature of love, friendship, and relationships with a climax so emotionally draining that audience members “wouldn’t be able to sleep for two weeks.” Since The Room’s release, its creator has been a subject of intense fascination not just because of his creation, but because of… basically everything about him. For instance, Tommy’s appearance, which has been described as a “caveman vampire bodybuilder,” or his vaguely-European yet unplaceable accent.

But that’s just the beginning – Tommy Wiseau might be the most secretive public figure of the modern age. No one knows where he was born (he claimed New Orleans), how old he is (he claimed in his early 30s), or how he made his fortune (he refused to say). This guy just arrived out of nowhere in Los Angeles in the early 2000s, spent over $6 million making his own movie, and refused to tell anyone anything else about himself. Speculations on his income source vary from mafia connections, to arms dealing, to a lawsuit from a car accident, to being D.B. Cooper.

(Granted, through fan investigations and minor concessions from Tommy, parts of Tommy’s true origins have been revealed. He was probably born in Poland, he’s probably in his 60s now, and his fortune is at least partially derived from successful San Francisco real estate investments.)

Thus The Room was a perfect anomaly of modern weirdness that brought a random, obscure movie to cult fame. 15 years after its release, people still watch, talk, and write about The Room. Across America, movie theaters hold midnight screenings of the film in the style of Rocky Horror Picture Show, complete with audience rituals like throwing spoons at the screen and yelling at characters. In 2013, Greg Sestero, who co-starred in The Room, teamed up with author Tom Bissel to write Disaster Artist, a memoir on the former’s experiences with Tommy Wiseau before and during the making of The Room. Four years later, Disaster Artist was turned into a movie starring and directed by James Franco.

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The Disaster Artist Movie

The Disaster Artist movie (I’ll call it DAM) is the culmination of The Room/Tommy Wiseau fandom. It even opens with a series of testimonials from real Hollywood stars, including Kristen Bell, Adam Scott, and Kevin Smith, praising Tommy for his ambition and vision. DAM is giddy, reverential, and celebratory, and with James Franco bringing Tommy on stage at the Golden Globes for his Best Actor acceptance, it signals the ultimate victory for Tommy. His own movie may have been a disaster, but he has been immortalized by millions of fans who fell in love with his unstoppable bravado, vision, and passion, to the point of honoring him at one of the most prestigious film award ceremonies in the world.

DAM loosely tells the real story of Tommy Wiseau and Greg Sestero, two aspiring actors, who move to Los Angeles to pursue their dream. Tommy is presented as a quirky eccentric who just doesn’t fit in with the shallow, stuffy Hollywood elites. He faces nothing but rejection from agents and casting directors who can’t see past his odd appearance and mannerisms, and won’t even give him a chance. So against all odds, Tommy makes his own movie, The Room, which is an unexpected triumph that delivers the stardom he always sought.

In my opinion, DAM is as bad thematically, as The Room is cinematically. DAM doesn’t just misunderstand the core thematic thrust of the Disaster Artist book (I’ll call it DAB), it inverts it.

Above all, DAM is a celebration of Tommy Wiseau and what he supposedly represents: the inherent goodness of artistic ambition. In a sense, Tommy is meant to be a champion for a small part of every person’s brain that cries out for artistic creation, but is rarely given license to create.

We have all had that thought at one point or another – I should make my own novel/movie/song/painting/other artistic venture. We imagine what would happen in the story, how the camera would move around the scenes, what the chorus would sound like, its tone, its energy, etc. Maybe we’d sketch out the entire project in our minds, but when it comes to making it a reality…

We realize that this venture would be too time-consuming/expensive/difficult/tedious/etc. Worst of all, we realize that even if we did go through all the effort and bring our artistic vision to life…

Nobody would care. There are probably hundreds of thousands of novels sitting in people’s computers all over the world which have never been read. Same with movies in the dark recesses of Netflix, or songs on Soundcloud, etc. So we tell ourselves that our little creative project was a nice dream, but it will never be more than that – a figment of our imaginations.

Tommy Wiseau is that little part of your brain if it took over an entire body, but even more so. Not only did Tommy realize his artistic vision at enormous personal expense ($6 million), but he did so despite possessing absolutely no artistic talent. He had no talent as an actor, writer, director, or producer, yet he acted in, wrote, directed, and produced his own movie. He didn’t let the dour realities of “financial and temporal cost,” or “chances of success” cloud his judgement. Tommy wanted to express his vision, so he did, against all reason.

Of course, the result was a terrible movie. But DAM says that’s ok. It doesn’t matter that Tommy failed at his real goal – making a serious, Oscar-worthy artistic examination of life – because he succeeded in entertaining millions of people and inspiring so many to follow their dreams.

This theme is crystallized at the end of DAM when Tommy and Greg go to the premiere of The Room in front of a live audience who riotously scream and laugh at Tommy’s creation. At first, Tommy is humiliated and runs out of the theater, but Greg follows him outside, tells him what an amazing job (“look how much fun they’re having… they fucking love it, man. How often do you think Hitchcock got a response like this?”), and praises Tommy for courageously following his dream. Then Tommy runs back into the theater to chants of his name, gets a standing ovation from the audience, and the epilogue shows real-life footage of Tommy being adored by crowds.

(In real life, most of the audience left before the movie was over, the rest cringed and sniggered throughout the duration, and Tommy felt thoroughly humiliated. The movie’s cult status wouldn’t start to grow until months later.)

This thematic thrust – of Tommy being a hero of artistic ambition – exists in the Disaster Artist book as well… in the first few chapters. This is how Greg Sestero feels about Tommy when he first meets him. The rest of the book consists of Greg coming to understand that this is an inaccurate and dangerous view of a mentally ill man. Not only is Tommy not the lovable goofball that most people think he is, but what virtues he does have come from being an insane person who is detached from reality. In other words, his goodness is more accidental than virtuous.

Basically, DAM whitewashes Tommy. It ignores or downplays his madness and unpleasantness, while shifting the framing of his good qualities to artificially prop them up. If we can trust Greg Sestero, DAB presents the real story of Tommy Wiseau.

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The Disaster Artist Book

Although Tommy Wiseau was the impetus for the DAB and the name most identified with The RoomDAB is just as much about its co-author, Greg Sestero, as Tommy.

Greg was born in a suburb of San Francisco in 1978. When he was 12, he wrote a screenplay for a sequel to Home Alone, and sent it to legendary filmmaker, John Hughes, who did not buy the script, but returned it with a friendly note addressed to Greg. This inspired Greg to dream of one day becoming a Hollywood star.

At the end of high school, Greg began to seriously pursue an acting career against the wishes of his parents. As a super handsome all-American California dude, he got some modelling work as a teenager, even flying all the way to Milan to perform. But acting was always his real passion, so he took some tentative steps into the acting world. He lost out on a part in The Virgin Suicides to Josh Hartnett, did an episode of Nash Bridges, and managed to get a part as a “featured extra” in Patch Adams.

But Greg hit a wall. He was still living with his parents, both of whom explicitly thought his acting dream was a foolish waste of potential. Greg’s mother was especially hard on him, and chastised him daily for not going to college to follow a traditional career path.

This is one of the points DAB really drives home – trying to be an actor is terrifying. Greg was painfully aware of the long odds he faced of even achieving a modicum of success. He walked into countless auditions, knowing full-well that face-to-face rejection awaited him. With no real prospects Greg’s morale wavered, but he began taking acting classes at the famed Shelton Studios. This is where Greg met Tommy Wiseau.

Tommy was a horrible actor. Most classes, he would go on stage in front of the teacher and audience and give an utterly tone-deaf, bizarre, Tommy-esque performance while everyone tried and failed to stifle their laughter. Each time, the tough-as-nails teacher would try to show Tommy what he was doing wrong, but Tommy would publicly rebuke her and admit no wrongdoing. For reasons Greg didn’t entirely understand at the time, he felt drawn to Tommy, and soon enough, they were acting partners in the class.

The whole “Tommy is a hero of artistic ambition” theme of the DAM is in full effect at this point in the story. Greg would come to realize that Tommy was a beacon of hope for his own still-born acting ambitions.

Greg thought that if someone as untalented as Tommy could try to be a Hollywood star, then so could he. But it was more than that… this is something the movie actually gets right. It wasn’t just that Tommy had the same ambition as Greg, it was that Tommy was fearless. He would go on stage every night to give a full-throttle 100% Tommy performance, usually filled with shouting and crying, and despite everyone laughing at him, he would walk away from the stage with unshaken confidence. Greg desperately wanted to feel Tommy’s confidence both on and off the stage.

Of course, Greg also ran into Tommy’s weirdness. Tommy blatantly lied about his age and where he was from, and refused to say what his job was beyond “marketing stuff” and references to a company called “Street Fashion USA.” Tommy also vehemently insisted that Greg “not talk about me” with anyone else, for any reason. Tommy was seemingly nocturnal, often falling asleep around 10AM and staying up all night. And Greg couldn’t help but notice a million other strange ticks – Tommy claims to love sports yet didn’t appear to know how to hold a football, Tommy’s apartment makes him seem like a hoarder, Tommy can’t remember the password “1 2 3 4,” Tommy spoke French but wouldn’t admit it, Tommy often tried to bargain prices down in stores, etc.

Less amusingly, Greg realized that Tommy had no one else in his life. No romantic partner, no family, no friends. Tommy lived alone, never seemed to work, and spent every free second he could with Greg. The sole exception was an older, wheelchair-bound woman named Chloe Lietzke, whom Tommy occasional spoke with on the phone, but refused to tell Greg anything about.

Nevertheless, Greg and Tommy’s dreams fueled each other. Within a few weeks of meeting, Tommy, who normally lived in San Francisco, offered to let Greg live in his Los Angeles apartment for only $200 per month. This would allow Greg to launch his acting career in earnest. Greg’s parents were understandably flabbergasted by the prospect of this extremely bizarre-looking, strangely-accented, much older man, taking such an interest in their 20-year-old son. When Tommy dropped by Greg’s house to pick him up, Greg’s mom had a quick chat with Tommy in which she made him promise not to have sex with Greg.

For about the next six months, everything was good for Greg and Tommy. Greg got off to a surprisingly strong start when he landed a well-known agent who (had) represented Josh Hartnett, Drew Barrymore, River Phoenix, and Joaquin Phoenix (whom Greg bumped into once). He lost the lead role in Hart’s War to Colin Ferrell, but got his first somewhat-meaty role as the lead in the direct-to-video movie, Retro Puppet Master. Greg later learned that he beat out James Franco for the role.

That’s when the trouble began. Tommy’s interactions with Greg became increasingly erratic. Tommy would call Greg multiple times every day, and leave long, pointless messages where Tommy talked about random thoughts popping into his mind. Tommy would get angry at Greg for no reason, tell Greg that his agents and the other “Hollywood people” would screw him over, and that only he, Tommy, was his true friend. When Tommy learned that Greg had a SAG card, Tommy produced, directed, and starred in his own commercial which shamelessly ripped off scenes Greg had filmed in his previous roles, and Tommy got his own card.

Greg slowly realized that Tommy was jealous of him. Tommy thought that Greg was becoming a successful movie star and was pulling away into a glamorous Hollywood lifestyle (in reality, Greg’s career had already peaked). Greg also realized that he was probably the closest relationship Tommy had recently, if not ever. And because Tommy perceived Greg was abandoning him, Tommy vacillated between trying to pull him closer and lashing out.

For the first six months Greg had been living in Tommy’s apartment, Tommy didn’t even cash Greg’s rent checks. Then he suddenly cashed them all at once and raised the rent on Greg. Shortly thereafter, Tommy visited Greg, and without telling Greg, Tommy brought along what could only be described as “another Greg.” Tommy showed up with a handsome, 20-something, blonde surfer bro from acting class. Greg and other Greg both immediately figured out what was going on. Tommy was trying to prove to Greg that he didn’t need him.

The tension came to a head soon after. While Tommy was visiting, Greg’s neighbor rang the apartment’s doorbell while Tommy was there. Tommy flipped out, thinking that Greg had somehow exposed Tommy. Then, while Greg was out of the apartment, Tommy had answered a phone call and briefly talked to a friend of Greg’s who had always been suspicious of this mysterious older man who paid most of Greg’s rent. Despite Greg always defending Tommy to the friend, the friend asked Tommy the “forbidden questions” about his age, origin, and wealth. Tommy felt this was a grand betrayal.

While out on a drive, Tommy started questioning Greg about who he has been talking to about Tommy. Greg pled ignorance at first, and then admitted that he had innocently mentioned basic information about Tommy to his friends. Tommy, who ordinarily drove 10 mph under the speed limit, became enraged and gunned the car while erratically weaving in and out of traffic. Legitimately fearing for his life, Greg broke down in tears and begged Tommy to stop the car, which he eventually did. Tommy announced that their friendship was over, that he was moving to LA to pursue his own acting career, and that Greg had to leave the apartment at once.

But once Tommy saw how hurt Greg was, he apologized, told him he could still stay in the apartment, and that he still wanted to be friends.

It’s at this point both in the book and real life, that Greg comes to terms with the fact that Tommy was acting like an abusive spouse in a dysfunctional relationship. Tommy expected Greg to bend over backwards for every petty demand, while essentially holding Greg hostage with the previously generous apartment offer. But it was more than that – Tommy was purposefully hurting Greg as a means of controlling him. From the book directly:

“That’s what all this ridiculous tirade had been about. Tommy was still capable of hurting and affecting and controlling me. And knowing that he could do all these things was to him, the very stuff of relief. Now that Tommy had this dark assurance, all between us was, in his mind, completely fine. But it wasn’t fine.”

Tommy used to inspire Greg, but by then, Greg constantly felt nervous around Tommy. He dreaded his phone calls and felt uneasy being in the same room with him. I’m as sick of the phrase “gaslighting” as everyone else, but it really does apply in this situation – Greg found himself feeling guilty for doing completely innocuous things that offended Tommy, like having a neighbor knock on his door, or even mentioning the existence of Tommy to a friend. In Greg’s words:

“Tommy had walked me into a minefield of paranoia and left me there all alone.”

Greg concludes the chapter with:

“I now knew that everything my mom and friend had said about Tommy was right. There was something twisted and poisonous inside him. Something potentially dangerous even. It was just a matter of time.”

Though Tommy and Greg would reconcile, their relationship would never fully repair. Tommy moved into the apartment where he set up a curtain to create his own makeshift room where he slept on a spring mattress balanced on top of a half-inflated air mattress. He would stay up every single night while Greg tried to sleep, often loudly working out or doing speech practices in a fruitless attempt to eliminate his accent (Greg recalls often listening to Tommy say the same English phrase 100+ times in a row). Soon enough, Tommy raised the rent on Greg again, claiming that the building had raised it on him. Tommy also claimed that he was still doing his “marketing” work in LA, but Greg never once saw Tommy do any work during the months they lived together.

While Greg’s acting career continued to falter, Tommy’s career never got started. He sent his headshots and resume to every agency in town and received nothing but rejections. He went to more acting classes and faced more mocking laughter. Tommy fell into a depression.

Greg had another major revelation about his relationship with Tommy a few months later when he saw the movie, Talented Mr. Ripley. The relationship between Matt Damon’s and Jude Law’s characters perfectly reflected Greg and Tommy. Tommy didn’t just like or love Greg as a friend; in a sense, Tommy wanted to be Greg. He wanted Greg’s look, personality, and life. Greg represented everything that Tommy didn’t have and hated about himself. Greg was young, handsome, and supposedly an acting star, while Tommy was old, ugly, and a failed actor. Seeing this dynamic played out on screen, and especially seeing the surrogate Tommy murder the surrogate Greg, greatly unnerved the real-life Greg.

Without buildup, Greg showed Tommy Talented Mr. Ripley just to see how he would react. Tommy was indeed captured by the movie… but not how Greg expected. Tommy saw himself as a mixture of the two characters… like Damon, Tommy considered himself to be an honest, good person just looking for his chance with the “important people,” like Hollywood stars. But like Law’s character, Tommy saw himself as someone constantly betrayed by those around him.

From this interpretation, Tommy first came up with the concept of The Room. He named the antagonist of The Room, who betrays the character played by Tommy, after Matt Damon. Except Tommy mistakenly thought “Matt Damon” was named “Mark Damon.”

At the same time, Tommy’s depression grew worse. He began to withdraw and spend less time with Greg. Eventually Tommy said that he had to go to London for a few weeks for work, but he disappeared for months. During this period, Greg only spoke to Tommy a few times over the phone, and found that he was probably in his San Francisco apartment. Tommy sounded so bad in the final message to Greg, that he worried Tommy would commit suicide.

Eight months after Tommy had left LA, he suddenly reappeared and looked refreshed. He presented the completed screenplay for The Room and asked Greg to star as “Mark,” the film’s antagonist. Greg initially refused, only agreeing to work on the production side, but eventually he was cajoled into the role by a hefty salary which Greg hasn’t revealed to this day.

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Tommy Wiseau

As you might imagine, I was struck by the similarities between Tommy Wiseau and the ex-employee. I believe both are crazy people. I believe both have tricked other people into thinking they were good by inadvertently leveraging their craziness to create a façade. I believe Tommy is still doing this.

In both cases, I’m not sure if I would call these men bad people. Their main defense against being morally bad is that they are so detached from reality that they don’t have the ability to recognize their own badness. At the very least, they are both men who generally cause harm to those around them.

This is something that I don’t think I can adequately convey about DAB through a summary – Tommy Wiseau is an extremely unpleasant person to be around.

We see this in the very first scene in the book, where Tommy takes Greg to a fancy restaurant in LA to ask Greg to star in The Room. First, Tommy is rude to the valet because Tommy is worried he will fart in his Mercedes. Then Tommy intimidates the hostess until she seats him without a reservation. Then Tommy refuses the table because he only sits in booths. Tommy proceeds to “lie, grandstand, and bully” his way to a booth. Then Tommy hassles the waiter as he demands a hot glass of water (which he never consumes) and then tries to bargain down the price of drinks. Later, two young women approach their booth, and Tommy casually insults them until they flee. Then when Tommy pays the bill by check, the waiter asks for Tommy’s ID (in case the check bounced), so Tommy throws a fit and gets into a shouting match with the staff until they reluctantly agree to look at, but not hold, his driver’s license through a foggy cover in his wallet. The whole time, poor Greg is left to cringe and apologize at every interaction.

The movie mostly portrays filming The Room as a bunch of fun shenanigans where clueless Tommy bumbles around and the rest of the cast snickers. In reality, filming was hell on the cast and crew.

Tommy demanded the whole crew show up at 8AM each day, while Tommy would never arrive before noon, and nothing could be done on set before then. Tommy refused to buy water or air conditioning for the crew despite sweltering LA heat, claiming that “real actors don’t need this,” eventually prompting an elderly actress to pass out on set due to heat stroke. Tommy publicly insulted another female castmate for having pimples and forced everyone to observe their grueling sex scenes. Tommy even hired a guy to film the production every day, ostensibly for a “Making of The Room” documentary, but really so he could watch the tape at the end of each day to spy on the crew. The entire crew revolted against Tommy twice and refused to work without reforms – in the first case, they were appeased, in the second, most of the crew walked off. By the end of production, only two of the dozens of crew members who started filming with Tommy remained. Everyone else had quit or been fired.

There are a million more anecdotes like this in DAB. Both while making The Room and in his normal, everyday life, Tommy was rude, manipulative, habitually dishonest, casually cruel, pathologically self-aggrandizing, and just generally unpleasant.

Tommy was also legendarily incompetent. Forget about the cinematic knowledge and skill required to make a good movie – Tommy lacked competence in the most basic aspects of behavior.

Tommy consistently could not remember the lines he had written in his own script for his own movie. I don’t just mean he forgot them before filming, I mean that someone would tell him his lines, and he would forget them ten seconds later. Over-and-over again. The crew eventually had to resort to holding up cards with the lines on them for Tommy to read while filming. In DAB, Greg describes surreal scenes of Tommy taking hours to master the task of moving, saying a short line of dialogue, and acting. Tommy would forget his lines, say the wrong lines, look directly into the camera, move to the wrong spot, speak in an unemotive deadpan, or make some other random mistake so consistently that it literally took (IIRC) three hours to film the first seven seconds of this scene.

This basic non-functionality extended to every part of Tommy’s life. Greg describes Tommy as the most disorganized person in existence. Tommy somehow got an Associate’s Degree in psychology from a community college, but didn’t know the difference between a psychologist and a psychiatrist. While filming this scene, Tommy literally didn’t know if the dog was “real” and asked the store owner. It took dozens of tries for Tommy to catch a softly-lobbed football. There are countless examples in DAB of Tommy talking to people that gave me flashbacks to my conversations with the ex-employee – there was simply a detachment from reality.

This utter incompetence opens what is arguably the biggest mystery of Tommy Wiseau – how is he rich? Tommy drives multiple Mercedes, owns numerous big apartments in major cities, owns a large building in a prime location in San Francisco, and he spent $6 million of his own money on The Room. How could someone so incapable possibly accumulate so much money?

We don’t know. Nobody does. I guess it’s possible that Tommy has some sort of Donald Trump-esque savant business sense that lets him succeed in spite of himself. When pressed by Greg, Tommy claimed his money comes from building his own company, Street Fashion USA. But as far as Greg can tell, Street Fashion only sells low-quality Levi knock offs.

My personal opinion is that the anecdotes from DAB preclude Tommy from ever being capable of real work (which multiple real people in the book explicitly say). My best guess is that Tommy received a large inheritance or gift, probably from Chloe Lietzke or oft-mentioned “father figure,” Drew Caffrey.

Tommy is also, by all accounts, miserable.

For one, he is certainly paranoid. He paradoxically craves fame and has a deathly fear of anyone learning the most basic facts about him. His secrecy seems to stem from a whole host of self-esteem issues concerning his appearance and older age. Greg speculates that the only reason they were friends is because Greg was trusting enough not to ask the “forbidden questions.” Once while filming The Room, Tommy offered Greg a sandwich and Greg refused, offering it to Tommy instead. Tommy then seriously accused Greg of trying to make Tommy gain weight to sabotage his appearance so Greg could appear more attractive in the movie. This plays in with Tommy’s obsession over his weight and physique. In DAB, he is both envious of Greg’s youthful good looks, but also deluded enough to seriously consider starting his own modeling career.

By Greg’s analysis, The Room is essentially Tommy’s fantasy. Tommy’s character lives what real-life Tommy sees as the ideal life – he’s successful, has a beautiful future wife, has many friends, has a picturesque American home, and for some reason, he hangs out solely with distinctly younger people. But then in an angsty, self-indulgent twist, Tommy’s character is betrayed by his future wife and best friend who have an affair, driving the character to such despair that he commits suicide, causing everyone who wronged him to huddle by his corpse and lament their own treachery.

In other words… Tommy Wiseau is a profoundly dysfunctional individual. He’s socially inept, utterly incompetent, mean to those he doesn’t know well, cruel to those he does know well, and according to DAB, Tommy is generally a lonely and miserable person.

Either way, I am struck by how the popular perception of Tommy is so far the reality presented in DAB. And I find it lamentable that the DAM has pushed so hard to inflate the fantasy and crush the reality.

Something Greg says in the book gets to the heart of the matter, both for how people view Tommy, and what I went through with the ex-employee:

“Why was he always so secretive about everything? Why did he get so angry that Cliff rang my doorbell? Maybe, I thought, we weren’t friends. Maybe Tommy had somehow conned me this whole time. That’s the thing with con artists, they never tell you their story. They give you pieces of it, and let you fill in the rest. They let you work out the contradictions and discrepancies. They let you believe that the things that don’t add up are what makes them interesting or special. They let you believe that in those gaps are the things that hurt and wounded them… but maybe there’s nothing in those gaps. Nothing but your own stupid willingness to assume the best of someone.”

Tommy made The Room because he was too detached from reality to accurately gauge a cost-benefit analysis on the value return to himself for making The Room. Sane people recognize the folly of that little part of their brain that wants to make their own novel/movie/song/etc. They recognize that the costs of such an endeavor will almost certainly outweigh the benefits of success multiplied by the microscopic chance of success. Tommy couldn’t make that calculation because Tommy is crazy.

Of course, not everyone should abandon their dream artistic project. Some should do it because they are genuinely good enough to succeed. Some should do it for the joy of creation, regardless of success. But Tommy clearly wasn’t the former, nor was he motivated by the latter. Tommy wanted to make an Oscar-caliber drama (he paid to keep the movie in theaters for 2 weeks to qualify for the Oscars), and he wildly misjudged his ability to do so. He incurred enormous costs in his attempt, and he spectacularly failed, except for the extreme fluke that his particular brand of madness created a movie so weird that two random film students in LA couldn’t stop watching his creation, and started a whole fandom around it.

That’s what I find most disturbing about the celebration of Tommy Wiseau. Tommy’s decision to make The Room was a bad decision by any rational calculus. Yet today, he is celebrated for his bad decision.

I think that would be ok if Tommy was a sane individual who made this weird, horrible movie just for the inherent joy of creation… but Tommy isn’t a sane individual. He is an insane person who made an insane decision at massive personal cost and then got phenomenally lucky.

As Greg says about Tommy: “They let you believe that the things that don’t add up are what makes them interesting or special.” It seems like the whole Tommy Wiseau fandom has fallen for this trap. The “things that don’t add up” are mental illness. The “what makes them special” is having the blindness to reality to make horrible decisions.

7 thoughts on “Disaster Artist – Insanity is No Shortcut to Inspiration

  1. I actually listened to the audiobook on the basis of this blog post and I have to say I don’t totally agree. Although Tommy is bizarre and manipulative I think if you make the same assumptions as he does, most of what he does makes sense; he isn’t actually that disconnected with reality and I don’t think he is particularly delusional or dangerous. For instance, a lot of his manipulativeness seems to come from insecurity and loneliness. He lies a lot about his background because he sees Americans as superior, and he puts Greg on a pedestal because he’s young, handsome, an “all-American guy.” Most of the rest of the weirdness to me reads as either whimsy (him saying he’s a vampire), entitlement (him doing pull-ups in Greg’s doorway at 4 am), attempting to make jokes in his third language, or latent autism/ADD (not remembering the password 1234, not remembering script lines seconds after being told them… I actually related to that a lot). Though I’m not sure about the thing with the dog in the flower shop.

    That being said, I do agree that Tommy’s life, at least until later when The Room achieved cult status, was quite depressing and his friendship with Greg is extremely dysfunctional. I find abusive friendships to be a really interesting dynamic to explore, especially with two people so bizarrely mismatched. It’s almost like a Portrait of Dorian Grey situation.


    1. Note: by delusional I mean like, mental illness-level psychosis or paranoia. Obviously he’s not a James Dean level actor like he thinks he is, but that seems like more just low EQ and self awareness, probably partly tied to English being his third language, and the autism/ADD traits.


    2. I think if you take any single (or double) instance you wrote (ex. pull-ups at 4am, obsession with Greg, the entire making of the Room), then Tommy could be described as an eccentric, but all of them combined indicate a delusional complex.

      This isn’t to say that some manifestations of his insanity didn’t have a logic to them. I can see how Greg was a magnetic figure, or even aspirational for Tommy, but clearly Tommy’s obsession with him went far beyond the bounds of a normal or even abnormal relationship (IIRC, Greg even implies that Tommy tried to have sex with him despite ostensibly being straight). Likewise, the idea of a creative wanting to finance their own passion project isn’t crazy, but being so utterly detached from the reality of the project’s quality is.

      I wouldn’t be surprised if autism, ADHD, or brain damage from a car accident (as some have speculated) played a role in these delusions, but the insanity seems so multifaceted and aberrant that I don’t think one abnormality can explain it all. I guess it comes down to a matter of judgement for the reader, but I can’t see Tommy as anything other than insane. Albeit, an unusually form of insanity where he maintains the absolute bare minimum of day-to-day functionality while simultaneously displaying ambition.


      1. Yeah, Tommy’s particular brand of weirdness definitely can’t be pinned down to any one cause. He just doesn’t really remind me much of people I’ve known with psychosis or delusions. I’d describe him as “crazy” in a broad way, but to me his behaviors mostly make sense if I take the viewpoint of “Tommy’s Planet”. I also think during the period when TDA was written, his isolation and depression during him and Greg’s early friendship, and then later his position of power over Greg + the cast of the Room, brought out the worst in him. He’s seemed a lot more stable in recent years and he and Greg have a fairly good rapport, in public anyways.
        That might also explain why Tommy was able to amass such a large amount of money in the 80s and 90s – there’s some happy, ambitious business savant version of him that Greg never met. Younger Tommy suffered an emotional breakdown after the people closest to him in his life went away – Drew Caffrey dying, his fiance leaving him for another man (which obviously inspired The Room). That, plus the car accident that led him to get back into acting, are probably why someone who seems so bizarre and antisocial now was once able to run a successful business and make so much money.
        So overall, my own take on Tommy was that he’s not actually psychotic, but he is extremely divorced, somewhat autistic/ADD, terminally foreign and super insecure about it, and maybe an undercurrent of repressed homoeroticism – a royal flush of outsider traits. But not literally insane.


  2. I don’t know, but who really is the insane one here? I read your posts, they all seem like there’s some tension between you not really fitting into society, craving some change that’d put you on a path to greatness… but you’re not doing it! I think you’re drawn to this book/film because it’s giving you an excuse to not go for it, it’s great to have Tommy to point at, we can laugh at his delusion — ha ha ha — and keep working that 9-5 job in the middle of America. What an idiot Tommy is!

    And hey, the dog looks fake! Did you actually take a look at it?


    1. ‘Sane people recognize the folly of that little part of their brain that wants to make their own novel/movie/song/etc. They recognize that the costs of such an endeavor will almost certainly outweigh the benefits of success multiplied by the microscopic chance of success. Tommy couldn’t make that calculation because Tommy is crazy.’

      Have you actually calculated the ‘probability’ of writing a successful novel/movie/song? You haven’t, right? You just assume it is low but you never bothered to do the calculation, for the thing that would be your preferred life path. Do you think successful directors just luck into it every time?! I think you might have avoidant personality disorder, potentially Schizoid or something like that. I think Tommy is sane.


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