Forget Spielberg, Tommy Wiseau Influences Himself

As 'The Room' celebrates its 20th anniversary, director Tommy Wiseau, brought his new film, 'Big Shark,' to New York. He signed things, he stood behind a glass partition, and he answered questions—sort of.

Tommy Wiseau behind the glass partition at Village East by Angelika signing a fan’s poster. Casey Epstein-Gross

It’s a rainy Thursday night in New York, and I’m stuck in line rounding the corner of Second Avenue, trying to eat dumplings and hold an umbrella at the same time. I’ve been sandwiched between a gaggle of teens and a man with an intimidating number of piercings for almost an hour now, but at least I’m near the front of the queue. I can see the light at the end of the tunnel, and that light is a man wearing a minimum of three belts at all times, speaking in an incomprehensible amalgamation of accents, and, inexplicably, standing inside a glass box like a life-sized doll. 

We’re about to celebrate the man, the myth, the legend: Tommy Wiseau, the director, writer, and star of The Room, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. You might know it as the film widely considered to be “the worst ever made,” but as the guy with the nose ring behind me will learn the hard way once we get inside, if you get the chance to talk to Wiseau himself, it might be best to leave those stupid comments in your pocket. Because tonight, the Village East by Angelika is not only screening Wiseau’s long-awaited follow-up to The Room—a shark thriller ingeniously titled Big Shark—but hosting the enigmatic auteur in person to sign posters and conduct an audience Q&A. 

The Room: Good Bad, Not Lousy

Frequently referred to as “the Citizen Kane of bad movies,” The Room has become a cult film like few others. While it’s hard to make a movie good enough to become a cultural touchstone, it’s even harder to make one bad enough to be. Unlike movies intended to be terrible, true “so-bad-they’re-good” movies require genuine effort, earnest intention, and most of all, a staggering lack of self-awareness—and few movies encapsulate all three quite like The Room

The Room became a fixture in the pantheon of interactive midnight screenings a la Rocky Horror, with those in the know coming out in droves to lob hundreds of plastic spoons at the screen, toss footballs around in tandem with the characters, and heckle any line, moment, or character that deserves it (so, all of them). And as the laughter grew, Wiseau tried to change his tune, vaguely insisting that he’d intended the film to be a dark comedy all along, despite all the evidence to the contrary. The truth was laid bare in The Disaster Artist, the 2013 book accounting the filming of The Room by Wiseau’s best friend, onscreen and off, Greg Sestero (and the source material for James Franco’s film of the same name). Robyn Paris (who played Michelle, a side character primarily memorable because of her seeming inability to stop smiling) perhaps said it best: “Tommy’s goal was for the audience to be sobbing with grief by the end. . . . We were sobbing, but it was with laughter.”

Merchandise at Tommy Wiseau booth on Day One of the 2022 Los Angeles Comic Con at Los Angeles Convention Center on December 02, 2022. Jody Cortes/Getty Images

The Icon: Is Tommy In On the Joke?  

The cult phenomenon of The Room has always been driven, at least in part, by the mysterious nature of its creator himself. Notoriously cagey about his birthplace and age, Wiseau spent years failing to convince fans that he was born around 1968 in New Orleans (or France, depending on the interview), before the 2016 documentary Room Full of Spoons debunked those claims, revealing he was born in 1955 in Poznań, Poland. Wiseau then sued the filmmakers to have the movie squashed, a protracted legal battle he lost in 2020. He’s an American, goddammit! (No, seriously, he gives more patriotic speeches than a candidate on the campaign trail.)

Wiseau seems like he was created in a laboratory specifically to become an internet sensation. His accent is caught somewhere between Eastern Europe, the bayou, 1950s vampire films, and a child’s mocking imitation of a grownup; his syntax is odd; his laugh isn’t a laugh so much as it is a breathing out of the word “ha” multiple times in a row. He never takes off his sunglasses even when indoors (which, according to Sestero in The Disaster Artist, is due to Wiseau feeling insecure about a drooping left eyelid), and his gloves remain on at all times. He wouldn’t be caught dead without multiple belts strapped around his midsection and backside (“It keeps my ass up. Plus it feels good.”) and has been trying to make TWunderwear the new Calvin Klein for over a decade now. He hands out headshots signed with the phrase “love is blind” (a line from The Room that is bafflingly unrelated to the scene it appears in), and his Twitter is filled with regular repostings of a close-up unflattering selfie and his “words of the day” – the end result is part shitpost (a la Dril), part oracle (a la Delphi), and entirely discomforting.

Fans have obsessed over whether or not Wiseau is in on the joke for years—how could he not be? But then again, how could all those idiosyncrasies be fake? As the doors to Village East at Angelika finally swing open, I can’t help but hope I’m about to find out.

The Experience: Nothing Is Revealed

I should tell you I love The Room. I’ve owned a signed copy of the script since I was fifteen. So I went to the Angelika for both the August 10th showing of Big Shark (which was followed by an audience Q&A with Wiseau) and the screening of The Room the next night (which was preceded by a Q&A). 

That first night, the first thing I hear upon entering the building is a distinctive voice yelling “whoop!” The second thing I hear is another “whoop,” and so is the third. I peek around the corner to catch a glimpse of the man of the hour, and—wait, why is he boxed off in a seven-foot-tall three-sided glass partition? Some of us wondered if it was for COVID-19 reasons, but he wasn’t wearing a mask and he left the box every few minutes to lean in close and sign posters and hug fans. So the glass box was a glass box, and maybe the point was that Wiseau is himself an art object for us to gawk at. But another question: how does he look the exact same as he did in 2003? Could the fan theory about him being a vampire possibly be true?

Like all my other questions about Tommy Wiseau, it seems that these too will go unanswered. 

Despite his friendliness and evident love for his fans, years of fielding questions about unwittingly creating the “worst movie ever made” has understandably left Wiseau with a short fuse and endless defensive maneuvers, turning every Q&A into a conversational minefield. Wiseau treated every question as a personal attack or a ploy to humiliate him (to be fair, some were). When a fan asked his favorite breakfast food, Wiseau paused before biting back, “It’s none of your business. Next question.” Another fan lobbed a softball (“What’s your favorite city in the U.S.?”), and Wiseau spent the next ten minutes patriotically whaling on them: “Please stop. As you know, United States the best country in the world, for God’s sake! Are you crazy?! . . . Stop this nonsense, my god!” 

One fan asked Wiseau about his influences as a director – a rookie mistake. “It’s completely nonsense. Let me tell you this: you already lost your conversation and you lost your question.” 

Why was he so incensed? Because Tommy Wiseau is his own inspiration. 

“As I always say, I influence myself”—and it’s true, he does always say that—“But if you talk about Leonardo da Vinci for example . . . Orson Welles . . . we do have influences directly or indirectly. But if you create something, it is very difficult to say, ‘Okay, I borrow something.’ . . . You know? We wanna be original.”

Say what you will about Tommy Wiseau (for instance, that he should not put himself in the same category as Leonardo da Vinci and Orson Welles), but he is original. And so is his latest film, Big Shark, which he maintains has no relation to Spielberg’s Jaws or any other famous shark thriller. 

Big Shark: Not Good Bad, Just Bad

If you’re a Wiseau fan, the burning question is: can Big Shark recapture the magic of The Room?

I’ll keep it short and sweet: no. 

Three local firefighters are called on by the government to, well, kill a 35-foot shark. Said shark is terrorizing the streets of New Orleans, which are flooded with small amounts of jaw-droppingly fake CGI water at seemingly random intervals, and the only people on Earth capable of stopping it are these three guys, who must track the shark down in the Mississippi River so they can feed it a pig stuffed with dynamite and blow it to high hell. You might wonder why the firefighters spend days looking for the shark underwater when it is very clearly busy eating people on the city streets. There’s no “but” here; I’m just letting you know you might wonder that. 

Compared to Big Shark, The Room isn’t the Citizen Kane of bad movies. It’s straight-up Citizen Kane

I exited Village East by Angelika more confused than ever. Big Shark’s oscillations between insufferable ham-handed attempts to turn itself into a cult hit and moments of genuine, magnificent weirdness left me dizzy. It almost felt like it was playing tug-of-war with itself but the rope kept disappearing. If there’s anything Big Shark succeeds at, it’s proving just how inimitable The Room is and why. If the devotion The Room has inspired was solely due to its badness, then Big Shark would have felt like the second coming of Christ. Yet despite being even more incoherent and baffling than its predecessor, it seems obvious that Big Shark has no reach beyond Wiseau’s already devoted fanbase. It lacks the very thing that made The Room resonate: Wiseau’s sincere belief in himself and his intentions.

And there’s the rub: to create another “masterpiece,” Wiseau would need to wholeheartedly surrender himself to the same oblivious self-seriousness and delusional passion that turned him into the butt of a 20-year long joke. Would that even be possible? For most people, I’d say no. But the occasional, unmistakable glimmers of unintentional Wiseau oddity littered throughout Big Shark make me wonder. After all, if there’s one thing that hasn’t changed over the past two decades, it’s that Tommy Wiseau is not, and will never be, most people. 

Forget Spielberg, Tommy Wiseau Influences Himself