There are few bad movies worse than Tommy Wiseau’s 2003 film The Room, a “so bad it’s good” modern cult classic with its own Rocky Horror Picture Show-style screenings. It’s also the inspiration for James Franco’s highly anticipated The Disaster Artist, a behind-the-scenes biopic starring Franco as Wiseau that opens this weekend in theaters.
Just as cinema’s greatest films can impart a lot of wisdom about how to make a good movie, bad movies can be equally instructive in offering lessons on what not to do. While pointing to what’s wrong with The Room is about as easy as breathing, there are many useful takeaways worth extracting in the process. After all, just because there aren’t many people who could have made The Room, that’s not to say its mistakes can’t be repeated. Here are six things Wiseau’s infamous “disasterpiece” can teach anyone planning to helm their own film.
1. Don’t Neglect Continuity
There are enough screenwriting gaffs in The Room to give Robert McKee conniptions for a lifetime, but one of them has developed a particular notoriety: In an early scene, the mother of Lisa, the fiancé of Johnny (Wiseau’s character), abruptly announces that she has breast cancer — and then her illness is never mentioned again for the remainder of the film, despite several more onscreen appearances. It begs the question, “What was the purpose of that moment?”
That’s never a question you want an audience left wondering, and it underscores the importance of ensuring that you never fail to return to something you’ve set up. Payoff should always follow setup. The scene is also a good example of the need for a good script supervisor or trusted proofreader to ensure basic mistakes like this aren’t overlooked and leaving audiences confused. Yes, most continuity issues won’t be as major as this one, but they can always happen if you’re not sufficiently focused on the details.
2. Use Green Screens Appropriately
Green screens are invaluable tools for filmmakers looking to realize their visions or overcome production challenges in convenient ways. But to paraphrase Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park, just because you can use green screens more easily now doesn’t mean you shouldn’t think about whether you should.
The Room sets several scenes on an apartment rooftop, and, for some reason, it’s not an actual location, but a constructed set augmented with a green-screen background that recalls the hazy VHS look of a bad karaoke video. The decision to unnecessarily use a green screen here creates a cheap, distracting look that instantly removes an audience from the moment.
3. Keep the Pacing Seamless
If you have any doubt about the importance of pacing in a film, consider how we often use terms like “slow-paced” and “fast-paced” not just to describe a movie, but to assess its quality. Fumble the pace of a scene, or a whole film, and it will stand out – much like the scene in The Room where Johnny buys a bouquet at a local flower shop. Putting aside everything else that’s questionable about the scene (What’s with the dog? Why does the owner not recognize her alleged favorite customer?), it’s the pacing that’s most perplexing.
Here, a mundane moment is given an inexplicable fast-forward speed that renders it slapstick, leaving the viewer with whiplash. Aside from illustrating the importance of choosing a pace that’s appropriate to the scene you’re shooting, that whiplash is a reminder that pace needs to connect every scene in a film seamlessly. One scene with out-of-sync pacing — like the one above — can throw off the entire momentum of a film.
4. Pick Angles for Meaning, Not Pizzazz
Meaningful shot composition is the mark of a thoughtful filmmaker, and needless to say, there’s not a lot of that in The Room. But the film does make a common error: choosing distinct angles and composition solely for the purpose of doing so. Take, for example, a painful sex scene between Lisa and another character, Mark, shot through the bars of a spiral staircase; or an extreme low-angle shot of Peter, Johnny’s psychologist friend, falling as he misses a football pass. Both offer unique shot composition, but the result of their empty “Wouldn’t this be a cool shot?” ambition is shots that are cluttered, poorly framed, and just plain ugly. It emphasizes a lesson we’ve mentioned before: determine what you want your shot to accomplish, then shoot to realize your goal.
5. Be a Master of Lighting
Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto once told us, “Lighting is like notes: you place it at a certain place, at a certain height, at a certain quality, and it gives a feeling.” The feeling you get watching scenes in The Room is a bad one. That’s especially the case when Johnny is visited by Peter. Shadows look uncontrolled, light appears in strange places, and the whole mood is gloomy and artificial looking in a way that draws attention to the low-budget (and quality) nature of the production. No filmmaker or videographer would undervalue lighting, but nonetheless, The Room underscores how bad lighting can quickly sabotage the professional look of a film.
6. Don’t Repeat Yourself
An audience’s attention span is too precarious to risk frivolous repetition in a film. Audiences wants to see new things, not the same thing over and over again. It’s why “It was so cliché” is one of the most damning criticisms one can fling at a film. The Room, naturally, offers several examples of this mistake. There’s the endless repetition of the same lines of dialogue. There’s the way the film’s second (painful) sex scene between Lisa and Johnny recycles footage from the first one. And there’s the dumbfounding moment where another character, Mike, tells Johnny in step-by-step detail about the events of a scene we’ve seen already.
Each of these repetitions produce a “this again?” response that may yield laughably enjoyable moments in The Room, but it’s not something you want for your own work. Which, incidentally, ties together all of the lessons above: You don’t want to suffer the mistakes of The Room. So don’t repeat them, and you’ll do great.
Top image: Tommy Wiseau as Johnny in The Room