If there's only one good thing to be said about Tommy Wiseau – and there might be – it's that he has a real eye for an admirably clear movie title. His magnum opus of cinematic failure, The Room, features events taking place almost entirely within, well, a room. If he had made Blade Runner, it would probably have been called The Cop Who May Or May Not Be a Robot and his version of Titanic would have gone by the more explicit title of The Big Boat That Sank.
I mention this because Wiseau is making a new movie. It's about a big shark and it's called... Big Shark. He's nothing if not predictable.
A brief teaser for the New Orleans-set film has now appeared online, after debuting at one of the now ubiquitous packed showings of The Room. Wiseau and his long-time collaborator Greg Sestero were in attendance and treated the crowd to the exclusive reveal of the first footage. It features Wiseau and Sestero playing unconvincing friends, being set upon by an unconvincing shark and doing lots of unconvincing screaming. So far, so Wiseau.
It's interesting that Wiseau is taking on a shark movie because that puts him in direct competition with the only real contender for his 'King of Crap' crown. The Sharknado franchise of TV movies, aired on the Syfy channel and produced by renowned shlock factory The Asylum, has dominated the landscape of deliberately terrible filmmaking over the course of six movies. The first one featured its protagonist cutting his way out of a shark from the inside with a chainsaw, the fifth featured the Good Morning Britain team being savaged and the final story was based around globe-trotting time travel. Most unrealistically, they kept giving Tara Reid work.
For more than five years, Sharknado has sat at the top of the rubbish cinema mountain, while Wiseau has been happily trading in the notorious reputation held by The Room. With the release of fictionalised 'making of' story The Disaster Artist in late 2017, however, his profile and that of his film suddenly rose and became an awards season concern. That film, in which James Franco delivered a pitch-perfect impression of Wiseau, legitimised the appeal of The Room beyond the hardcore cult of fans throwing spoons at the screen in independent screening rooms. Liking The Room was now a Hollywood reality.
In that landscape, all eyes were on what Wiseau would do next. He has appeared in a handful of movies over the last few years, including Sestero's deeply unusual two-part tale Best F(r)iends – it says “fiends”, get it? – but hasn't been behind the camera since his idiosyncratic debut. It's strange, given Wiseau's one-of-a-kind appeal, that he's choosing to make a trashy shark movie. His entire reputation is based around carving his own path, regardless of the advice of the entire world, but now he seems to be walking a path that is already covered in chunks of CGI fish and the limbs of ITV daytime presenters.
It's heartening, in a way, for Hollywood to see that the desire to consume, regurgitate and consume again stretches outside the sparkles and spandex of the superhero-obsessed studio machine and right down to the purveyors of low-budget shlock.
Wiseau, by his very nature, has always stood out in the midst of Hollywood's obsession with the same people telling the same stories. The reason for his success, against all odds and standards of quality control, is that he's entirely himself and his vision is completely uncompromising. As Adam Rosen wrote for The Atlantic back in 2008, “Wiseau’s authoritarian approach is what made The Room so bad, but it’s also what made it so special”. By rejecting the collaborative nature and financial imperatives of filmmaking, he produced something utterly unique. The Room is not the work of someone worried about audience – it's the fever dream of a filmmaker who's as mad as a box of frogs full of boxes of frogs. If he forfeits that originality, he's just another guy trying to get rich.
And there's a definite undercurrent of commerce to Big Shark. That might seem an odd argument to make about a deliberately cruddy movie in which a massive fish swims along the streets of New Orleans, and it is. Certainly, the film is not going to be a blockbuster – and it's likely to struggle to find a way into cinemas beyond the baying Wiseau fans who fill screening rooms at the Prince Charles Cinema in London every month. However, this is a film precision-tooled to appeal to those people and the contents of their wallets. The Room was a movie Wiseau made for himself, which subsequently became a career-making commercial success by virtue of an unrepeatable quirk of fate – it was earnestly terrible enough that people came around to liking it. Big Shark seems to be designed to repeat that quirk of fate, hoping the lightning of a just-bad-enough movie will strike the same mane of untidy black hair twice.
The Tommy Wiseau of 2019 is very different to the man who naively embarked on an unfiltered vision almost 20 years ago, building expensive sets when he could've used real locations and filming concurrently on 35mm film and digital, by way of a bespoke camera rig. This is a man who has experienced success against the odds, and now that's where his eye is.
Since his movie acquired its cult popularity, Wiseau has tried to retrospectively assert that The Room is deliberately funny. The DVD box art even declares that viewers should “experience this quirky new black comedy, it’s a riot”. Given the original marketing note that it's “a film with the passion of Tennese Williams” – spelling error theirs, not mine – this is a hard argument to buy. Like any good salesman, Wiseau is simply adapting to the hand he has been dealt, and he deserves credit for that. He produced something terrible, but he has made a career off the back of it.
Big Shark cannot claim to be as organic a creation as its predecessor. It's a grab – and it will almost certainly be a successful grab – for the bank balances of his fans. Much like a studio frantically checking its drawers to see if it has any superhero rights it can adapt for an easy buck, Wiseau is utilising his position as a midnight movie maestro to spin the success of Sharknado into something that can make him a bit of cash.
Wiseau has now spent enough time on real movie sets – he had a post-credits cameo alongside Franco in The Disaster Artist – that there's no way he could be as incompetent behind the camera as he was when he shot The Room in 2002. Thus, when Big Shark inevitably turns out to be as incoherent and poorly made as its predecessor, it will have a ring of artifice to it. Human beings love an underdog, from Rocky to that kid in the viral video who yodelled in a supermarket, and that's what Wiseau was in the days of The Room. Now, he's on top of his own little world, so he can't put the misshapen genie back in the bottle.
In a film world dominated by sequels, remakes, reboots, sidequels, reimaginings and whatever the heck DC is doing with Batman and the Joker right now, people like Wiseau once stood out as something refreshing and different. The appeal of truly, execrable bad cinema to a certain breed of fan is often that it shows someone willing to go their own way, against the advice of just about everyone. They aren't following the money; they're following their own misguided instincts – like a breadcrumb trail laid by a sugar-fuelled toddler.
Now, Wiseau and his brand of cinematic nonsense seems to be playing in a financially-motivated sandbox for the first time.
The greatest showman of trash cinema – a bargain bin PT Barnum – is about to step into the tent again, but instead of defiantly declaring “this is me”, he seems to have strayed from his guiding light of incompetent weirdness. Fans of Wiseau will likely gobble up Big Shark with all of the joyous abandon of a marine predator chowing down on a minor celebrity – watch out, Piers Morgan – but this feels like a step away from what makes him special. The man who plays all of the wrong notes in totally the wrong order, and without any regard for commerce, might be on the verge of becoming a savvy Tinseltown businessman.
To quote his greatest creation, he's tearing us apaaart!