A Tommy Wiseau interview: “The Room,” RiffTrax & chickens

When I finally saw Tommy Wiseau’s cult hit “The Room” recently at the Landmark Regent Theater in Westwood, it was like a cross between a circus, a vaudeville act, a soap opera, and being at gladiatorial match in ancient Rome.

It was also the most fun I’ve had in a long time.  The film has developed a devoted following where fans, like the early days of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” have turned each screening into an interactive experience, yelling out lines, responding to the characters, pointing out absurdities, and making it, as Wiseau says, an “event.”

The next day, I went to the Arena Cinema in Hollywood, aided and abetted by Meniscus Magazine’s Wade-Hahn Chan, and met up with Wiseau to talk about this and many other things, including his comedy series The Neighbors, whose episodes are now available on Hulu.

In person, Tommy is affable, friendly, and funny.  He seems both aware and okay with the fact that his film is the object of ridicule while still clinging to a belief that because it has a lot of fans there must be something good about it. But I shouldn’t try and explain Tommy too much.  More than most people, you really need to hear him speak for himself.

Jim Higgins: Hi, I’m Jim Higgins from Meniscus Magazine, and we’re here in the Arena Theater in Hollywood, a small indie theater that shows great films.  And we’re here with the incredible Tommy Wiseau.

Tommy Wiseau:  Hi. How are you doing?

How are you doing? A writer, director, star of “The Room,” and also of the new Hulu show The Neighbors.

Correct.

So let’s get started. We’ll ask you some questions.  Tommy, tell us a little bit about where are you from, and tell us about how you came to the US.

I mean, I grew up in New Orleans, Louisiana, long story short, traveled between Europe and the States basically…

So you were born here?

My life is mixed up, let’s put it this way. Still, I actually say I’m American. Let’s put it this way. Long story short, it’s a very complex life but I enjoy what I’m doing.

Okay.  And how did you become so financially successful? I understand you had some financial success that helped you fund “The Room.”

Yeah. I guess you did your homework.

A little bit.

So your question is?

So how did, where did that, how did that come about?  Any kind of financial…it’s a very American story.

Yeah. You know, as you know, Greg Sestero did that book [The Disaster Artist] which I support 40 percent, if you read it or not. But James Franco actually will make a movie about it. Soon.

That’s right.

So we see which direction we are spinning but, yes you’re right it is sort of, if you look at objectively, or subjectively, this time I can say objectively, that it is a good story, a success in America, whatever you call it. But I always believed in the hard work, you know. We’ve screened The Room the past 12 years. Actual anniversary will be this June. Next month. End of May, right?

It’s May already. It just happened.

May already. There you go. Just happened, time flies, huh? So again this is the story. I would say, you know, you work hard, you believe in the original material, you can be successful. Sometimes you make mistake, you learn though.  You know, it’s nothing wrong.  Like I always say: you can criticize my project. I always say: you can laugh, you can cry, you can express yourself. But please don’t hurt each other. So, what I mean, what’s the worries behind the words, you see? So it’s again, I want people to have fun with it, you know? In the past five, 10 years people didn’t get me, you know?

Right.

Now they’re actually getting [me].  They say, “Oh yeah, actually he, it’s okay to say they got their stuff?” Yes, it is okay. That’s the concept, you know? It’s a new entertainment, and as you know we’ll be screening “The Room” on 700 theaters across the country. USA as well in Canada. May 6 and May 12. Through the RiffTrax.

That is with RiffTrax.

And again, not the fan of the RiffTrax, let’s [be] straight on this way, okay?

Okay, that’s what I want to ask you.

However. Oh, ask your question.

So that’s interesting. So, you’re not their biggest fan. But however, yeah, give us the “however.”

However, I support them because I think this reminds me like “The Room” is different cookie cutter from Hollywood, the same like RiffTrax. They’re making fun of movies, you know, it’s good and bad whatever. I think they have very dedicated people and I think that “The Room” for some reason [is[ going to different level.

Is it a way for you to get it out to new people and then to get it to a different audience?

Yeah, absolutely. Yeah and then we probably would generate—I was very skeptical in the beginning, to be honest with you. But the same token I say wait, you know what, they are so dedicated to the ideas, and they have good like sort of, audiences already. And so I think it does help maybe generating more audiences. And looks like “The Room” doesn’t go anywhere, meaning that we’ll be staying for a while.

It’ll be around. Okay.

[laughs] It’ll be around.  So that’s where everything  started.

You must have mixed feeling sabout the reception of “The Room,” or you must have in the past. Can you tell us a little bit about that? You made this movie and you had a certain idea of how it would be received, and then it got received very differently. First it was bad reviews or whatever and now it’s this cult success, so tell us about your feelings about that.

That’s a good question. So again, Jim, right?

Yeah. You remembered well.

See, I remember.  [chuckles] So this is good question because you see again, I believe my original material. And I’ve been preaching for almost 12 years, I say you can laugh, you can say whatever you want, and people did not get it. They thought, sometimes people you can hear…they’re laughing at you, they don’t laugh with you. That’s completely ridiculous because you know we – part of entertainment, you reporters, media, whatever – we always wanted people to actually talk about it.  You know an article or whatever you do in your own life, when you create something, and I believe in original material.

So a long story short, it’s funny that “The Room” I think is different level right now. And I’m very happy what happened but I’m not so keen about some of the reporters, you know? Like mainstream media, I think they prefer to talk about Africa.  They [should] talk about Tommy Wiseau of “The Room,” you know?

And I think we have a unique American culture, and we’re promoting American – I’m sure you see the football, you see? This is yours now.

Yes, thank you. Well tell us about that—

So this is a good playing, you know. London and Australia, we screened “The Room” in the past – sorry to interrupt your question.

That’s okay. So tell us about that. It seems like you appreciate the audience response to it, whatever their response has been.

Absolutely, I love them, I love them.

You say whatever the audience brings is, in terms of their feelings, that you feel like that’s legitimate?

Absolutely. That’s number one, and number two, I don’t think audiences should have a restriction not to do a certain behavior. However, you know some of the movies, of course.

If you go see, I want to say, “The Room” is not “The Room”, it’s THE event.  So you see you go to event, and you expect to maybe react certain way. Other movies when people, you go to see it, may be slightly different because people are, ‘Oh, why is this person yelling?’  Whatever, you know, dressed up as the Johnny character whatever from “The Room.” But at the same token, we don’t have [this] in America in the past, I would say, 10 years.

I graduated from Laney College from [the] Bay Area and I noticed that we don’t have the places to actually express themselves. We as a young people or even older, whatever you are, let’s say you’re singing on Wilshire Boulevard or whatever here in Los Angeles, people will look at you in a funny way.  “What a crazy guy you are.”  Or, you see something and people don’t realize young people, they have to [do] drugs, drinking problems, etc., it’s a big level of disappointment I would say from life.

Your philosophy [is] that people should be able to express themselves without being told how to feel about a movie.

Absolutely. Absolutely. That’s important, because you see…

One thing you did say a couple of minutes ago: You said that it was the media’s reception sometimes that you had some issues with. Tell us about that.

I do have a huge issue because let me give you an example. We released Blu-ray. Let’s see if I brought it. Shit. No. Never mind.

That’s okay.

But anyway, Blu-ray, “The Room” on Blu-ray DVD, and you see nobody’s talking about it. Because it’s positive thing.  For example, Blu-ray, I don’t know if you guys know, it’s a CL – it’s a combo languages – I’m proud of it. We have five different languages, and you can actually see the English and the subtitles with Spanish for example. I always say you can learn Spanish by watching “The Room.”

Watching “The Room”.

Here you go, you know?

So your point is that this is a film that has international appeal.

Absolutely, yes.

You mentioned earlier you’ve gone abroad a bunch of times.  You’ve gone to screenings in all different countries?

Yeah, we screen right now, London is very big, the UK is very big for us, I’ve just come back from London. I go once a year. Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Europe. So, we, like, I say are promoting football.  Directly or indirectly, it’s just happened, you know?  And people are actually playing pretty well now in London, especially in London.

Well ‘cause there’s not a lot of movies that came out 12 years ago that are still playing in the theater.

No. Yeah and people are talking about and people talking.

And we’re talking about it right now.

So about media, I’ll say again, I think they don’t give us, I don’t need the credit, you know, from media. But I think it’s a funny story and a same sad story that they focus on certain dilemma of our life and let’s say, big movies, whatever. But [now] they are like, okay, it’s there. Okay. It’s there, now we can talk [about] it. So the past, I would say, two or three years, we have better result with media because they’re actually getting this, you know?

You feel like they’re getting the phenomena.

Correct. That’s number one. Number two, I like some audiences, what I enjoy the most,  actually, people [who] analyze characters. See, that’s what we directors or producers, we love that…

So instead of just, in other words instead of just saying, “It’s a bad movie, it’s this thing, blah-blah-blah.” You want to see people actually look at the content.

Absolutely! So I’m very actually surprised to sit down, very happy that people say, “Oh, who’s Denny character? What is the drugs of Chris-R, you know?”

And remember, “The Room” is based on an 800-page book. I condensed, and also I concluded, here in Hollywood…I don’t know if you know the story of “The Room,” I’ll tell you very quickly if you want to hear.

Yeah, actually that was going to be one of my questions, was to give us a little bit of the back story for “The Room.”

Okay. So back story, long story short. You know, some people want to get a credit for something they did not deserve it. Let’s just, don’t bash anybody, let’s just be optimistic.

Right.

So long story short, we actually screened here in Los Angeles [for] two weeks. At the time 12 years ago, we had qualified for the Academy Awards, which you can see in the database.

Right. So you had your first screening.

Correct. And then after two weeks, contract was over. You see and people misleading all this, you know, crazy stuff and they say, “Oh, he didn’t know what he was doing, blah-blah-blah.” So long story short, while we were under contract, I couldn’t actually go back to the theater. So what we did, what I did, I received many emails, people want to see my movie. I’m saying, “What’s going on here?” I say, “Let’s make one movie, let’s move on to the next. It didn’t come out right, maybe a bit better [next time], right?” So again, long story short, you know…

And that would have been very typical of a filmmaker’s career­­—

Absolutely. Absolutely.

—would be to say, “Right, I learned from this, let me do the next one.” But that’s not what happened so…

Correct. That’s not what happened.

So, I got all this email and say, okay,. I call the theater.  They cannot accommodate us, I discovered.  You know about Wilshire Screening Room? Here in Los Angeles next to Academy Awards, it still exists I believe. They called Wilshire Screening Room. So we screened “The Room” there.  A long story again, so many people show up…we have problem parking, we got the fire marshal—

Oh, they came because there were too many people?

Yes. And then we got actually almost ticket like $500.

Wow.

The guy, he said, ‘Hey, you cannot do this.’ So I’m calling the theater and I say, “Can you accommodate, can we work it?”  And they were very supportive, I give them credit for that. So we’ve been screening at Sunset, right here.

Right, and that was for years, it was at the old theater on Sunset.  It’s Sundance now but it was previously the Sunset 5.

Correct, Sunset 5 and we’ve been screening there for seven, eight years. And they went out of business and now in the Westwood as you know.

Right. And how often would it screen?

Once a month.

Once a month, so a once a month thing.

Yeah but we continued with screening after they go out of business in the Westwood, so now it’s 12 years already.  Such an interesting story, you know.

Well, I remember going to see a movie at the Sunset 5.

You’ve probably seen the poster.

No. I got out at 11:30 [p.m.], and there were so many people ringing the balcony there and I was like, “Is there somebody giving away free beer?” And they said, ‘No, “The Room” is playing! “The Room” is playing at 12.’

Well, that’s a great observation because actually we started from one screening.  And then we come out with: we take everything. So they have night screenings [and] the Q&A. it was very exciting. It was very challenging, too. So that’s where everything started and then spread out all over the world actually.  And now we’re screening, as you know, once a month. I always say, we screen “The Room” once a day somewhere.

Somewhere. Okay.

Somewhere around the world. [chuckles]

So your latest project is called The Neighbors.

Correct.

And it is a series that’s appearing on Hulu.

Correct. Correct, yes.

It is available on Hulu now. And tell us a little bit about how that started, because from what I understand you started years ago, with the planning and you had shot a pilot?

Correct. Yeah, well, we were planning—

But you re-shot the pilot. Tell us about that.

Yeah, we did because long story short, because of the concept, I wanted it just on the sort of pop culture. And I wanted to have everybody there. From a chicken, from a vegan person to black person to Chinese, whatever we have in this country.

So you have a multiracial cast.

Everything. Absolutely. So I think we accomplish that.

And I should say yes, people should know that there is a chicken that’s very involved in this as a character in the story.

Yeah so, we’re very happy.  The four episode were a big success actually.  We did premiere The Neighbors together with “The Room” in London. And also UK, different country, and Liverpool for example. Liverpool is very big for us as well. And the people respond – I was actually, to be honest with you, very, very surprised.  Because they [were] really happy and we have a certain tune of the music – it’s an original thing in The Neighbors – they’re actually dancing a little bit.  So I was just, actually, I was very surprised.  And I was surprised actually [that] we struck the deal with through my agent to work with Hulu and I’m very happy with [it]. They actually, they help us. And people can see it.

And now it’s out there.

Correct.

So tell us about the original version. So you started that in 2007?

Yeah. You know, one of the network, I don’t know if I should name it, well one of the networks was supposed to air it.  It didn’t come out right, let’s put it this way. So, I was so busy with traveling, I say, “Oh, let’s go back to The Neighbors” and that’s the story.

So you went back to do a new version of it.

Correct.

Right, so you recast it.

Yeah, we recast and a couple actors are the same actors.

A couple, the same.

Three.

Tommy Wiseau is also in it, I bet.

Yeah. And well I’m playing two characters.  Charlie and—

Ricky Rick?

That’s the jacket.  [smiles and points to red high school letter jacket that he is wearing with the initials “RR”]

Yes, I recognized. Explain a little bit, I’ve seen the pilot for The Neighbors and it’s—

Oh, the first one?

The first one, the first one.

Oh yeah, that was a little, you know—

No, I’m sorry, I’ve seen the recent one in Hulu, the revised version.

Oh the recent one. Oh, okay.

Explain to us a little bit about the process. Because it seems to me that there were scenes that were improvised, and that maybe you had outlines for what was going happen.  So do you work with scripts entirely or is there some improvisation?

We work with the script but sometimes I do like crazy situation. And I’m the guy that, I don’t like to talk to empty wall. However, just recently I did the project like animation. So I was talking partially to the wall.

You had to talk to an empty wall.

Yeah, exactly but I make—

But in general, you try not to.

In general I try not to, if I can. But you save money, you know the Hollywood typical…

So tell us about that, you said sometimes you insert crazy stuff, funny stuff.

Well, I go by situation. You know, we have process of rehearsal, and then I draw the situation. For example, if Chicken was – I filmed Chicken for the first time. And let me tell you, it’s not easy.

Well I hear they’re not great actors always. There’s not a lot of training in the chicken community.

They are not. Even if you train but it’s still, you know, a chicken is a chicken.

A chicken is a chicken, Tommy. That will be the quote of the interview here.

Okay, thank you.  So to respond to your question, you know, we go by the script, but sometimes actors I notice that they want to put their own spin. But 90 percent does not work. The reason I say that, because I already have vision, I know what I want from them. So we did have a roller coaster ride to actually shooting The Neighbors but the same token, I think my actors did a very good job because I actually adjusted my perspective, what I want and what kind of vision I have. So to respond to your question, we go usually, I would say 90 percent script.

And 10 percent a little bit of improv.

Yeah, but that again, you see, it all depends on situation. Because some of the actors it’s funny, when you shoot somebody, on the rehearsal process it’s perfect, right? But then you start doing it for real and say, “What’s going on here?” A little slightly different.

So you have to deal with what you get.

So that’s correct, and that’s happened to everybody.

Explain the premise of “The Room” to the audience, to our readers, our listeners.

I would say, you know, “The Room” is a special place, you can, we all have it.

Not “The Room,” The Neighbors. Sorry, did I say “The Room?”

Oh, you said “The Room.”

My apologies. Tell us about The Neighbors. Give us the basic description of the story.

Well, basically it’s about relationship between tenants and Charlie and all this commotion going between all the tenants, different ethnicity and, you know, you have a chicken, that crazy thing, crazy that. And I think I take some of this aspect from life. From our life, you know? For example, chicken represent my aunt a little bit, you know, and directly because she has the live chicken. You see.

Explain that again. Yes.

She has a live chicken in the house, and then see, this is again this is the thing we sometimes we forget about you know, where we come from you know? So I think it’s very [important].

Did you grow up in a situation where there were chickens and there was a farm?

Yeah, yeah, something like that. So it’s, you know…

What was it?

My aunt actually has the chicken.  She didn’t want to kill the chicken, and she bought the chicken, supposed to be for soup, whatever, and she—

And who is this we’re talking about now?

My aunt.

Your aunt, yeah.

And then she, she just kept it, you know…

She couldn’t bring herself to do it.

No, she couldn’t. You see my mom is different, you know, but it’s again, this is the thing where I think people relate to it. And we have this big deal with vegan, you know. Vegetarian, you know. And then that was a part of it, I say, “Let me figure out how I can put the chicken” and that’s the character what we have in The Neighbors’ place.

Cici, well, she’s crazy about the chicken.

Right. She’s kind of crazy about everything. She’s just crazy.

Yeah, that’s another thing. She- yeah. Yeah yeah.

Speaking of her character, now I read a little bit and there’s some reviewers and some writers who’ve talked about some of the characters they think are very stereotypical.  Stereotypes of the race that they are. And Cici is definitely one of the characters that they point to. So, why do you think people are seeing it like that?

You know, again they can say what they want. I created this character Cici, or “Philadelphia bikini girl,” we call it, and others because I think I grab from life.  You know, we have characters.

It’s the same like accents.  People say, “Oh yeah, Tommy has an accent, poor guy.”   Well, I’m not a poor guy, okay? But the story is you go to New Orleans, the people speak funny way. I had this reporter, this guy from New York, he said, “Oh, I just got back from New Orleans, they don’t talk like that from New Orleans.” I say, “You know what, where have you been, you know?” When you go to French Quarter it’s different than you live in Chalmette. You know what I’m saying?

Right, so he had not gone all around.

It’s just completely nonsense. It’s the same like here in California, go to San Francisco, south it’s a little different. And again, people where I’m just talking about. Indiana for example. The way people, you know it’s different dialogue.  But the good news is that, you know, we provoke the audience and I think people enjoy it and that’s the bottom line.

So tell us about what’s next for you. Now you had mentioned that you have a feature film coming up.

I’m working on “Foreclosure.” Maybe I can use at this theater someday. Who knows? Ha ha ha ha. But, “Foreclosure” is just…I don’t know if you remember five years ago, seven years ago, a lot of controversy about foreclosed homes and the banks and all this stuff.

Oh sure, sure, a lot of homes were being…

So. I wrote the script at the time based on some of the people who…you know, to me it’s just like there’s like a credit card, you have a credit card, look at the statement and/or agreement, you sign. And then you cannot even read it. You can read it but it’s a tiny little, you know.

All the things you agree to that “are not there,” that nobody reads—

Yeah. Yeah. And I did the research, I say— always like some friends of mine, some of them say, “Yeah, you know what, we’re gonna sue the credit card.” I say, “You know what, let me tell you something. You’re wasting your time. First of all, you cannot win, 99 percent you lose…”

Right, because they signed.

First of all, he signed for it, but you know the rules are so vague…

But then another thing, you can look at also positive way, they actually give you money. You know, they give you credit. So they are sort of entitled. But I think sometimes consumers should be informed about that.

So you did some research, you did research into foreclosures and people who had been in those circumstances.

Yeah, and then sometimes it’s a sad story, to be honest with you. I interviewed a couple people.  One of them for example…say, “Hey, I did have money. They closed my house.” And then you want to go backwards because you have some scheme come out with selling to somebody else, whatever, you know. So it’s a—

Is this a person you’re talking about or the bank?

No, I talked to bank as well. And then I discovered some of the stuff, the way that [they’re trained.  So again, I’m not bashing banks. But what I’m saying [is], “Wait a minute, you know, maybe because of my movie…maybe should I change a little bit?”

Because you’re going to examine that whole situation.

Exactly. And it goes both ways. Sometime the consumer is at fault, too.  If somebody let’s say, put wrong info, like okay, I have this, I don’t have it, I cannot pay, whatever. Vice versa, bank, sometimes they approve stuff and say okay, just take it and I don’t want to hear.

Do you want to hear my situation when I bought my first car? Balloon payment.

Tell us.

Hey, I signed the contract, right? Happy camper.  I got the loan, wow! What great stuff. You know what I mean, right? Like the first house? First car. And I say, okay, I can’t afford—

And tell us again, what was the car? What was the name?

It was a BMW but long story short, I was very happy at the time. Suddenly I get a notice, right, two or three years, it say you have to pay entire amount, right? I say, “What’s going on here?” I call bank, long story short again, they say, “You have balloon payment.” I say, “Wait a minute, do you know that nobody explained to me this.”

So you didn’t realize that you had this huge lump sum.

I didn’t realize this huge lump sum you had to pay.

That you had to pay at once.

Well I was lucky that actually I could do it, you know, but this is another example of that through my eye I was not explained.

Right, so you knew that situation with the financials that you could fall into that easily.

Yeah but they also use.  That’s how they do [it to] many people like, you know, that people don’t understand what they sign.  But the same token, responsible financial institutions should be, “Hey, this is what will transpire.”

Right, now tell us a little more about “Foreclosure.” Is it shot?

Pardon me?

Is it shot yet?

No, no, no, we’re working on it. So I’m releasing in September. The script is done.

When are you going to start shooting? Do you know?

We’ll be shooting probably in less than two months. But I’m still working on The Neighbors.

Okay, and you’re hoping for a September release.

Yes, a September release.

And a distributor yet or are you going to distribute it yourself?

Well, we’ll see what happens.  I like this idea of what we did with The Neighbors. Like a combo. And then we can pitch in, but I don’t want to be disappointed.

What do you mean a combo, explain that?

Well combo is like we release—

You mean you screen it online and you…

No, no, no. I am against online, to be honest with you, because I prefer…but eventually everything end up online, you know. Yeah.

Ends up there but you’re talking about theatrical release is what you want.

Yeah, a combo what I mean, you know, see “The Room” and see “Foreclosure.”

Oh, I see.

Or see “The Room” and see The Neighbors. That’s what we’ve been doing for a while.

Right, right. When I saw “The Room,” I saw The Neighbors. I watched the first episode with it.

So you see, this is again, think what.

Maybe that’s a plan.

It works.  I don’t know yet, you see, I’m open about it.

Yeah, so you’ll find out. All right.

Yeah, I should.

So I guess that’s it, Tommy, thank you so much for this.

So you know the big screening right, on May 6?

May 6.

May 6 and May 12.

This is with RiffTrax. Upcoming screening. This is one of the reasons Tommy is going around promoting and we’re talking to him today.

With RiffTrax. Correct. So hopefully, everybody enjoy it. Have a groovy time, and we see you at the screening of “The Room.”

The RiffTrax crew, who were the stars of Mystery Science Theater 3000, are doing a live broadcast of The Room on May 6, complete with their signature shout-outs and sideline sarcasm, to hundreds of movie theaters across the U.S. and Canada.  An encore screening will follow on May 12.  For ticket information, go to RiffTraxLive.com.  (The world premiere of this event took place at the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival.)

Special thanks to Wade-Hahn Chan and Renie Rivas for assisting with this interview.

Video: Tommy Wiseau interview – Los Angeles, May 2015

interview by Jim Higgins / Meniscus Magazine
video by Wade-Hahn Chan / Meniscus Magazine