For every inspirational story you hear about that artist who never gave up and made a success out of their lives, you rarely hear about the likely 100 times worth of failures that went back to their normal lives after realizing that they didn't have what it took to make it. Even great artists like Mozart, Vincent Van Gogh, or F. Scott Fitzgerald died either in relative obscurity or in destitute fashion. But by sheer force of will, personal wealth and insanity, Tommy Wiseau managed to make his dreams come true, a dream that nobody else wanted for the reasons that Wiseau envisioned.
Sometimes, artists don't succeed because they are ahead of their time, like the aforementioned Van Gogh, their art isn't appreciated prehumously (perihumously?). While I'm sure Wiseau's work doesn't fit in that category, he didn't have to die for it to be popular, and it will likely stand the test of time ironically, because of his genuine attempt at achieving greatness and belief in his ability to do so.
But upon watching Disaster Artist, a comedy based on the true story of the making of a drama that was unintentionally comedic, I felt as if I was watching a comedy that was unintentionally dramatic. While James Franco's performance is hilarious to watch as he recreates the insanity of Wiseau's personality, and by watching and knowing what the Room is, it's hard to separate what was in the movie from what may have happened in real life; we were watching real life comedy that was mostly writing itself.
WARNING: Some spoilers ahead. But most of Wiseau's story is publicly out there anyway, so ...yeah.
I have always been drawn to people who have tried to achieve the impossible, people who have extended the human experience in some way farther than it had been before their generation, whether it be through technology, art, music or ideas. Even my media consumption gravitates towards figures like Dr. Ford in Westworld, people who believed in a vision far beyond the reaches of the general public. Some may even see my appreciation of LeBron James as mere bandwagoning of the best player in the league, but it is more so that I appreciate his strive for greatness defying and exceeding expectations and his ability to also see outside himself and realize that there is life outside basketball as well.
My mother thinks I am a megalomaniac. My father thinks I am a nihilist. The truth is, I am probably somewhere in between, where I have a strong sense of confidence that my vision and artistry mean something, but combined with all the optimism of a Linkin Park song. My self-awareness probably serves to refine and clarify my voice, but also probably squelches it in times of self-doubt.
Wiseau suffers from no such fear. He is the pinnacle of "fake it til you make it". The Disaster Aritst premise almost starts out exactly like last year's Academy Award
Winning Nominated movie, La La Land (another movie I have issue with in terms of being an industry focused film, but that's for another post), with one exception, Wiseau is portrayed as a strange, no-talent desperate wannabe with no chance at success in the industry, and almost rightfully so, given his total lack of self-awareness and even knowledge about the industry (he names a character in his movie after Matt Damon, "Mark" because he didn't know Damon's actual name).
However, unlike most artists who have the same sort of illusions of grandeur and get bitch slapped in the face by the cold hard hand of the gatekeepers of Hollywood, Wiseau has deep pockets, deep enough to spend millions on a movie from God knows where and market it to bust through the gates and bring his art to the consciousness of the masses. Much like Donald Trump, Wiseau is living proof that sometimes all you need is sheer determination and a lot of money to make your dreams come true.
And this is to say that truly, Wiseau put his essence and blood and sweat and tears into the script he managed to write, which one can only say has the basic structure of what a movie is supposed to be, but that breaks every convention almost for the sake of breaking them. It's a movie that takes "exception to the rule" in every possible way, and not in a coherent fashion.
But what struck me in the movie is his genuine (or at least Franco's portrayal of) unwavering belief in himself and how being rejected by an industry where he so strongly believed he belonged in was something he just could not accept, so much so he was willing to put everything on the line, put an insane amount of money into and convince a cast and crew to come along the ride for his crazy vision for months.
The movie has somewhat a Shakespearean Romance ending, happy yet with somewhat tragic elements. Wiseau's movie is celebrated at its premiere, as audiences start to laugh at how bad it is. The movie itself actually becomes a cult hit and makes back (miraculously) the money spent on it as people still have viewings of the movie to this day as "The Room" viewing events. Wiseau gains fame and recognition, albeit not for the reasons that he intended, being lauded as the director of the "Best Worst Movie Ever Made". People watch it with the same interest as people who witness an accident on the freeway slow down their cars to take in the destruction that just occurred. In a sense, there is art in the "disaster" that he created.
In the movie as well as in real life, Wiseau plays it off as if it was his intent all along, or maybe he genuinely believes that since his work is recognized, it proves his genius all along, a sort of Machiavellian mindset towards his art. And were I him I might do the same, hell, ignorance is bliss.
As a kid, I was an unpopular nerdy quiet kid that was picked on for just being awkward and geeky. Somewhere during my pre-teen adolescence, I used humor to gain popularity with my peers, weaponizing my intellect to stay a step ahead of less creative bullies. My mom saw this change in attitude in me early on and I remember her sitting me down to warn me to not be obsessed with having people like me because as a class clown, they could turn around and laugh at me, not with me.
This is something that I think has stuck with me and that I have always been cognizant of most of my life. I have sometimes used a variety of tools as defense mechanisms (I'm a nerdy insecure kid at my core after all) to disarm and pretend that I'm an idiot to most people to gain an insight into how their mind works. I did this to make sure if they laughed at me, it was because I wanted them to, I wanted to shape exactly what they thought of me and control the narrative in that fashion.
So it was with sadness when I watched the Golden Globes last night when I saw James Franco get up and accept an award and the glory for a movie he based off Wiseau's journey and life, and then hand checking Wiseau when he attempted to finally say something. Wiseau had probably kept something with him for 14 years to say to the audience, and I'm sure it would have been 100 times more interesting than the rather generic thank you speech Franco gave.
Franco gave a great performance in the film, but if he truly believed in the art that HE created instead of merely the accolades for making it, he would have given Wiseau the chance to have his voice heard, to have his voice known. In his 15 seconds of fame, he's just embarrassed in front of millions of people, and directly in front of the people he's tried to get to acknowledge him.
Given that Wiseau is a bit aloof, perhaps he didn't know that he had been slighted. But it's clear that his friend and author of the book, Greg Sestero, saw the way he was dismissed. You can see it on his face, that's the same look my mom probably gave me when she saw me becoming a "clown", worried that society was just seeing me as a big fat joke. It was a look of concern that his friend was probably just being exploited and paraded for money, awards and a cheap laugh.
"So I show them. I don't wait for Hollywood, I make my own movie."
This line in the movie, and the one Franco quotes in his speech, and perhaps it's a real live quote is the one that gives me chills. It was precisely with this sentiment that I made my own TV pilot, with the same determination to have my voice heard, and the same insanity of spending a ridiculous (albeit not quite $6 million) on a project that no one really ever attempted before: trying to will a TV show into existence without a reputable executive producer, showrunner or talent attached to it, because for Asian Americans, no such structure or institutions are in place to foster this kind of project.
This past year, enduring constant "it's good, but I can't sell this as a TV show without x y and z attachments" from various sources has been hard on my psyche. It's the whole chicken and egg problem I'm trying to solve, and thought naively that if I created a good product that the rest would fall into place. It fills me with doubt, that maybe I am just another Tommy Wiseau, with unchecked narcissism that believed that I could actually pull something crazy like this off, that I didn't have to wait for Hollywood after all.
It's even more trying still when I feel that parts of the Asian American community, one that is so fragmented and without a clear vision in entertainment, seems less than enthused about my project, a project that I feel is clearly aligned with much of the storylines of the past year about the invisibility of Asian Americans in media. Much of what I sense from some of the Asian Americans who have clout is a "wait and see" approach with the project, waiting until someone really influential comes on board to call it a "thing", which ironically is just how the industry treats most projects, all it takes is one influential person to say it's a thing and everyone FOMOs into covering it. We as a people spend more time complaining about how we are invisible to America (I have read more than my fair share about Logan Paul articles and "hot takes" on his idiocy this week) than actually doing something about it, because it's easy to get views and likes over a known famous quantity and attack it than it is to support something that doesn't have that Hollywood stamp of approval. More Catch-22s.
But maybe that's my own megalomania talking, maybe what I believe is groundbreaking and cool and heartfelt is just like Wiseau believing that his movie is acclaimed by all of Hollywood. Maybe I'm just insane, since apparently crazy people can't tell that they're crazy. Maybe my show just wasn't inspiring, relevant, relatable, funny enough to really strike a chord. Or maybe Asian Americans are just meant to stay invisible.
If there's one thing I'm taking a page out of Wiseau's book, it's to not give up. 14 years later and he still promotes the movie like it's his Sistine Chapel, and it's gained him international fame and success...to a degree. But I can't help feeling like he did on that pedastal, the laughingstock of the town.