Entertainment

How the World’s Worst Movie Inspired an Oscar Contender

James Franco's latest project could win some Academy Awards — all thanks to the inspiring journey of those who made a bad film

In 2003 a film was released that would redefine artistic success.

Written, directed, financed by, and starring an eccentric and mysterious millionaire, “The Room” today has become one of the best-known and most successful independent movies in history. It did this not by being a particularly good movie, but by being a rather bad one.

“The Room” tells of a love triangle between a San Francisco banker named Johnny (played by Tommy Wiseau, the previously mentioned eccentric financier); his fiancée, Lisa (Juliette Danielle); and his best friend Mark (Greg Sestero).

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This seemingly simple love story has been seen and studied more by some lovers of film than such classics as “Citizen Kane” and “The Godfather.” Theaters around the country play it on a monthly basis. And Wiseau has been touring with it around the world for over a decade — even managing to launch a successful line of merchandise based on the film.

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The movie is as eccentric and hard to comprehend as its creator. Some subplots go nowhere, there’s strange language used by everyone in the cast (“fiancée” is often switched out for “future wife” in dialogue) — and the acting is … Well, it’s something.

At screenings of the film, audiences often yell out some of the most famous and inexplicable lines of dialogue, such as, “You are tearing me apart, Lisa!” and “Oh, hi, Mark.” If this all sounds strange, that’s because it most definitely is.

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The film has become so worshipped by those looking for something different, whether bad or good, in their cinema that one of the stars, Sestero, wrote a best-selling book, titled “The Disaster Artist,” about the making of the film. The behind-the-scenes story is somehow even more bizarre than the near-incomprehensible but completely unforgettable mess that ended up on screen.

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That book has now been turned into a film of the same name, directed by and starring James Franco — and it’s getting serious Oscar buzz. That’s right: What is widely considered to be the worst movie ever made has had such a long and strange journey that it’s inspired a potentially Oscar-winning film.

“It’s a Hollywood story, but it’s unusual and unlike any other,” Franco told NPR about the new movie, which enters wide release today. “Some people have described this movie [‘The Room’] as if an alien came from another planet, came down and tried to recreate normal human life, and just sort of [misses] everything.”

Franco fell in love with Sestero’s book about the journey behind “The Room” and quickly bought the film rights and the rights to Wiseau’s life, opting to play the filmmaker himself.

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The reason “The Room” has gained such a cult following and the reason “The Disaster Artist” has been wowing critics and audiences alike really has very little to do with how bad Wiseau’s film is. That said, the film is bad. It’s a strange attempt at cinema that would make just about anyone feel like an expert in the field after noticing glaring mistakes and unexplainable oddities in the first five minutes.

However, at the core of “The Room” is a dream — a dream shared by two men, one of whom was unwilling to take no for an answer.

Sestero and Wiseau met in an acting class and later lived together in Los Angeles. The young actor, Sestero, and the mysteriously wealthy oddball, Wiseau, seemed opposites, but they shared a dream that linked them: They both wanted to be famous actors. Sestero was inspired by Wiseau’s fearlessness in his performing (despite being terrible) and Wiseau was glad to have found someone who appreciated at least part of his craft.

They both struggled for years: Sestero landed a few small parts and a lead role in an independent B-movie, while Wiseau self-financed a commercial to star in himself. Finally Wiseau had a thought: Why not make a movie themselves?

It’s something that’s been done before to great success by filmmakers. Kevin Smith self-financed 1994’s “Clerks” by selling his comic book collection and maxing out his credit cards, while Sam Raimi got the cameras rolling on 1981’s “The Evil Dead” by getting investments from various dentists with extra money to spend.

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Wiseau was able to raise a little more dough than those two. He reportedly put $6 million of his own money behind his movie. Though he’s never fully disclosed how he earned his money, he claims to have had a successful fashion store for some time.

To know $6 million was spent on “The Room” is instantly baffling. The movie is lit poorly, makes use of awful green-screen, and generally looks like a project a college kid put together with a few hundred bucks and some friends over a weekend.

“The Disaster Artist” book accounted for some of that out-of-control spending; for example, Wiseau chose to buy film equipment instead of renting it (considered taboo in an industry in which technology updates so quickly).

Still, the decision came from an identifiable and empathetic place in the heart. After rejections and the pain of being told he had no talent or future in the industry, Wiseau made an unimaginable gamble — on himself. He took all the risk because he was determined, and he believed in himself and his vision.

That determination ultimately paid off for both Wiseau and Sestero. They didn’t make a traditionally good movie, but they made an entertaining one. Wiseau wisely embraced the “bad movie” appeal of his film and quickly showed his heft as a marketer and capitalist. New audiences are still discovering “The Room” — which is selling out theaters and pushing loads of merchandise.

Try to think of an Oscar-winning movie with that kind of success 14 years after its initial release.

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Now, there’s even a film from a legitimate movie star chronicling the filmmaker’s life with “The Disaster Artist,” a film that does more than poke fun at a bad movie. It, like the book, dives into the odd friendship between Sestero and Wiseau and the idea that perseverance, a willingness to take risks, and hard work will ultimately earn success — even if it’s not the type of success a person anticipated.

“The Room” has become well-known and touched so many people not just because it’s a silly and bad movie, but because it’s a pure example of American art — and multiple people poured their hearts and souls into it.

Said Franco of the movie: “Even though ‘The Room’ was such a wacky, conventionally bad thing, we’re showing that the passion behind it is no different than the passion of Francis Ford Coppola, or of James Dean or of me, James Franco. Everybody has the same level of passion.”

It all paid off in the end. “The Room” is a story of capitalist success that will never be forgotten in Hollywood. “The Disaster Artist” will help ensure that.

Where are Sestero and Wiseau now? Both still tour with “The Room” and are starring in a new movie together, called “Best F(r)iends,” set for release next year. It was directed by a fan who saw “The Room” when he was only 16. Wiseau only acted in this one, while Sestero wisely took on scripting duties. Those who have seen it have sung its praises — suggesting two of the key players behind the world’s worst movie may have made something legitimately good.

Perhaps that film and Franco’s “The Disaster Artist” are the final proof that the American Dream is alive and well. As “The Room” shows, all you need to find success is heart, perseverance, and a willingness to work hard and take risks.

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