‘The Room’ Before ‘The Room’: Inside an Early, Even More Insane Draft of Tommy Wiseau’s Cult Classic
One of the many fascinating revelations of The Disaster Artist (soon to be a major motion picture from New Line starring James and Dave Franco!), Greg Sestero and Tom Bissell’s wildly entertaining, utterly essential 2013 behind-the-scenes look at the making of the unintentionally hilarious cult classic The Room is that earlier drafts of the script were infinitely crazier and less feasible than what ended up onscreen, and that without the work of a heroic script supervisor, The Room somehow could have been even more nonsensical and surreal.
That’s a bold claim to make as the finished product, as fans of the film will attest, is a staggering work of incompetence, but Sestero has backed up his assertion by selling copies of an earlier draft of the script during live appearances of The Room. I was fortunate enough to attend one of these appearances recently, and this embryonic script for The Room is everything I hoped and dreamed it would be.
The script, which has a copyright notice of 2001, begins with the following glorious explosion of scrambled syntax:
This play can be played without any age restriction. It will work if the chemistry between all the characters makes sense. Human behavior and betrayal applies to all of us. It exists within ourselves. You love somebody. Do you? What is love? You think you have everything, but you don’t have anything. You have to have hope and spirit. Be an optimist. But can you handle all your human behavior or other’s behavior (sic). You don’t want to be good, but great.
It’s hard to know where to start with a piece of writing that raises so many unanswerable question in such a short amount of space. Does the “no age restriction” line mean that 90 year olds and toddlers alike can star in this nascent version of The Room? Does it mean, alternately, that a toddler (in the role of tragic romantic hero Johnny) can co-star with an octogenarian in the role of Lisa, his evil femme fatale of a girlfriend? That would be only one of the ways this original conception ofThe Room could have been stranger and less palatable than the finished product.
It’s also rare and remarkable that a project predicts its own failure in its second sentence, but the script’s contention that “(the film) will work if the chemistry between all the characters makes sense” is notable, considering that it’d be hard to imagine a project anywhere, and that includes erotic fan fiction where Alf is She-Ra’s emasculated sex slave, where the chemistry between all the characters makes less sense.
Does Wiseau think he’s written a play or a script? The first sentence refers to it as a play but further down the page it looks more like a small child’s conception of a screenplay. Who is this opening directed towards? The crew? Society as a whole? Is it directed to the actors or to Wiseau himself? Like so much else in this strange document, Wiseau gives us no satisfactory answers.
Why does Wiseau make statements, then angrily question whether that statement is, in fact, true? Who thinks they have everything, yet doesn’t have anything? Is this opening advice for actors and filmmakers or some manner of strange philosophical interrogation? Is this creative counsel or some bizarre pep talk?
This crazy word salad alone justifies the price of the original draft of The Room script, but the insanity only mounts from there.
The script opens with Lisa and Johnny, played with marble mouthed panache by Wiseau himself, in a state of partial undress, and one of the key differences between the film and the earlier draft of the script is that Lisa spends much of the earlier draft preparing food for Johnny, who is much more mercurial and demanding than the faultless martyr to female evil he is in the movie.
Business also figures far more prominently in this version. The fabled promotion appears almost immediately, with Lisa preparing Johnny breakfast and, in a wonderfully characteristic turn of phrase, angrily yelling at Johnny, “Promotion! Promotion! That’s all I hear about! Here is your coffee and English muffin and burn your mouth.”
Remarkably, the next line of dialogue makes “Burn your mouth!” look positively Shakespearean in its eloquence. After sitting down at the table and eating, Johnny says “Old Man Donkey lets me know today. I have to think about our future.”
Who is Old Man Donkey? Why isn’t there a Marvel Cinematic Universe style series of films about him? The copyright information at the bottom of each page lists its copyright as 1999, 2000, and 2001, so I like to think there’s an even earlier draft of the script where there’s a whole act devoted to Old Man Donkey, and his ugly refusal to give Johnny the promotion he so richly deserves.
While this version introduces one bizarre character, albeit only verbally, it wholly does away with others: There’s no Denny, the ambiguously mentally challenged young man so intent on watching Johnny and Lisa have sex, and also doing sex stuff with Lisa himself. Chris R., the drug dealer menacing Denny is similarly missing (perhaps because without Denny as his client his role would be reduced to wandering around in the background of scenes asking, “Anybody in the market for drugs? Cause I got a whole lot of drugs just lying around”), as is the comic relief goofball who sneaks into Johnny and Lisa’s apartment for a rendezvous with Lisa’s sole friend and leaves behind his “underwears.”
You would imagine that cutting out the craziest part of a story would make it, you know, less crazy, but in this case the absence of these weird, nonsensical distractions highlight and underlines the film’s frothing misogyny. Without Denny as a distraction, we can focus monomaniacally on the evil of women, as embodied by Lisa and Claudette, her cancer-having, man-hating, possibly dying mother.
In this draft, Claudette is forever nagging Johnny about helping a friend out at the bank he works at (for Old Man Donkey, presumably), even during his own goddamn birthday surprise party, and hectoring Lisa about the necessity of getting whatever you can out of this sick, sad world by any means necessary.
Despite the jarring nonsense of its opening, this version of the script is more professional and manageable in certain ways. It does not include an abundance of nonsensical subplots that made it into the film, which does streamline the narrative. However, the script’s glowering emphasis on the love triangle between Johnny, Lisa and, Johnny’s best friend Mark, played by Greg Sestero, renders its atmosphere claustrophobic and oppressive. With no goofy, fornicating friend or guileless protege to alleviate the tension, Wiseau’s distaste for and fear of women become even more evident.
In this draft, Lisa works in “computers” (a gig that involves sitting by a phone waiting for clients, or calling people and begging them to be computer business clients) but her real business is infidelity and man-eating, something she accomplishes by cooing to her conquest Mark (whom, it should be noted, is Johnny’s best friend), “I like you very much, Lover Boy.” A little later, she furthers the seduction the honeyed words, “I like how you put (sic) our sexy hands around my body. You excite me so, and I love you.”
In this draft, breast cancer also comes up regularly, always with the caveat that these days cancer is no big deal and everyone is beating it. It has a perversely similar attitude towards domestic violence. Here, Lisa accuses Johnny of hitting her while he was in a drunken blackout. When Johnny expresses disbelief and denies her accusations, Lisa counters, “I’m strong. Don’t worry about it. I need some money. I have to buy a new dress.” So: Breast cancer and domestic abuse? In The Room, a narrative that culminates with a man so sad about his fiancee’s infidelity that he shoots himself in the head, these are no big deal.
There are moments in the script that would become instantly iconic if they made it into the finished movie, like Michelle (Lisa’s friend and confidante) warning her duplicitous comrade, “Look, this is not right. You are living with (sic) a one guy and doing sex with another.”
Certain aspects of The Room’s plot are handled in a more coherent and sane, if not necessarily artful or convincing, way in this version. Before the script is half over, for example, Johnny accidentally ends up hearing Lisa confess her infidelity with Mark to her mother, which spurs him to record every phone conversation in a Nixonian frenzy of paranoia.
Johnny knows Lisa is cheating on him much earlier in this draft, and that knowledge informs the second half of the script, as it clumsily staggers to its way to an inevitable conclusion. There are other changes as well, some minor, some major, most hilarious. In this version, Mark doesn’t just angrily physically confront psychiatrist Peter after he plunges too deep into his private life; he knocks him unconscious with his fists, then awakes him by pouring a bucket of water over his head.
Mark is immediately remorseful, however, and tells Peter, “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean it. You’re my best friend. Are you OK?” This is fascinating to me, because if there’s one thing all us The Room obsessives know, it’s that Lisa looks great in a sexy red dress and is very attractive. But beyond that, they know that Mark is Johnny’s best friend, as is established in damn near every single line of dialogue.
Reading a draft of The Room where Peter is posited as Mark’s best friend, even briefly, is like uncovering an early draft of Empire Strikes Back where Darth Vader climactically tells Luke Skywalker that Chewbacca is actually his father. This change falls somewhere between off-brand and heretical. Peter must be good friends with Mark, because after Mark hits him so hard that it renders him unconscious, Peter simply brushes it off, dismissing the brutal physical attack he’d just endured with a casual, “Don’t worry about it. Let’s talk about your problem.”
In this draft, being punched unconscious by your best friend in a marijuana-fueled rage is no bigger a deal than breast cancer or being hit in a drunken frenzy by your fiance, although it should also be noted that on the same page where Mark tells Peter that he is his best friend, Mark also reiterates, “Johnny is my best friend.” (Phew! I was a little worried, there.)
It’s easy to see why Mark treasures his friendship with Peter. Peter gives amazing advice, like when he says of Lisa and her feminine evil, “My advice to you is that you should stop thinking about her and never do sex with her.”
In The Disaster Artist, Sestero makes clear how much work the film’s script supervisor did to transform Wiseau’s nonsensical, unfilmable script into something vaguely coherent. This draft is full of moments that make no sense on their own and for good measure, violently contradict what immediately came before.
When Lisa’s best friend catches Lisa and Mark in the aftermath of some loving, Lisa defends him, arguing, “Leave him alone. He’s a nice guy.” Then, literally, in her next line of dialogue, Lisa claims, “He tried to rape me, but I didn’t let him.” So apparently, in Lisa’s mind at least, you can be an attempted rapist and still be a nice guy. She’d love Bill Cosby.
Because this draft only runs 74 pages, it gets to the climax a whole lot earlier. In this version, there are no sex scenes between Johnny and Lisa. Every time it appears that they’ll have sex, there’s either a fade out or Johnny falls asleep. This means that his sole sexual activity is not with Lisa, but with her fabled sexy dress.
Here’s how the sequence plays out in the script:
(SUDDENLY HE STARES INTO THE CLOSET. HE REACHES IN AND PULLS OUT A SEXY NIGHTGOWN. HE HOLDS IT AT ARM’S LENGTH.)
You tramp! You tramp!
(HE THROWS IT DOWN ON THE FLOOR. HE REACHES IN AND PULLS OUT MORE OF LISA’S CLOTHES AND THROWS THEM ON THE FLOOR. HE LIES ON THE CLOTHES, UNZIPPING HIS ZIPPER. HE IS BREATHING HARD AND WRITHING WITH PELVIC THRUSTS)
Seldom has the concept of a film’s “climax” been so perversely literal, or literally perverse.
Even for The Room obsessives like myself who’ve seen the film countless times, this fascinating oddity is revelatory and fascinating, and provides compelling insight into the mind of the man who made one of the most irresistibly awful pop culture landmarks of all time.
This early draft of The Room captures a bona fide pop culture phenomenon before it was realized, but The Room juggernaut shows no sign of slowing down. Next month James Franco and company will begin work on The Disaster Artist, the film adaptation of Sestero and Bissell’s book.
And though I have not seen the script, I imagine that the filmmakers would be wise to revisit this early draft of The Room as a sturdy blueprint for what not to do. The Room’s script is unforgettable in its own right (both the shooting version and this fascinating mutant), but I suspect the filmmakers behind The Disaster Artist would prefer for their film to be remembered and treasured for the right reasons, and not because it is a morbidly fascinating shit show of historic proportions.
Nathan Rabin is the former head writer of The A.V. Club and the author of four books, including Weird Al: The Book (with “Weird Al” Yankovic) and, most recently, You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me.