Before Greg Sestero made a horror movie, he lived one.
He's a legend of independent movies now, but once upon a time Sestero was a young actor. And a promising one. He’s smart and thoughtful, and has an interest in screenwriting that goes back to his childhood. He’s also handsome, with the kind of good looks that make you stop when he enters a room. His career started well, with a handful of small roles in “Nash Bridges” and “Gattaca.”
Enter Tommy Wiseau, one of the most truly bizarre people to ever touch American cinema. Wiseau, of unclear age and indistinct origins, wanted more than anything to make a movie, to capture what he thought of as a his distinct genius on the big screen.
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Sestero met Wiseau in an acting class, and the two formed a warm if difficult friendship, strained by Wiseau’s volatile behavior and murky background.
Wiseau finally made his movie, and through a series of misadventures chronicled in Sestero’s excellent 2013 memoir, “The Disaster Artist,” more or less tricked Sestero into co-starring in it. Released in 2003, it’s called “The Room,” and it is truly one of the worst pieces of art ever made, a failure on almost every level. At times it feels alien, as if it were untouched by human hands.
“The Room” opened quietly. What few critics did see it lambasted it. It was destined to fade away, become a footnote in Sestero’s career.
And then something unexpected happened. People started to love it. “The Room” gained steam as a midnight cult classic, and now is recognized as a wholly unique, if wholly disastrous, piece of pop culture.
It’s not a good movie. But there’s something lovable about the whole thing. Its silly melodrama is played so highly, and so poorly, that it becomes a sort of comedy, which is how people treat it. Showings of “The Room” are experiences unto themselves. People yell their favorite lines alongside the movie, throw footballs and plastic spoons at the screen and act out in general merriment. It’s one of the most joyous cinematic experiences you can have.
Sestero wrote “The Disaster Artist” about the whole affair, and the book was adapted into an Oscar nominated movie in 2017, in which Sestero is portrayed by Dave Franco.
And Sestero never stopped working. He wrote and produced the movie “Best F(r)iends” in 2017, again with Wiseau, and the pair have continued to collaborate.
Now, Sestero is stepping out on his own. His new movie “Miracle Valley,” is a horror film about a cult. That might seem like a jump, but as Sestero is quick to point out, “’The Room’ is very much a cult.” He’s been in this since the beginning.
He's bringing both "Miracle Valley" and "The Room" to Billings this weekend. There's a showing of "Miracle Valley" at the Art House Cinema and Pub on Friday, Aug. 5, followed by a Q&A. "The Room" is at the Babcock Theatre the next night on Saturday, Aug. 6.
Sestero sat down with the Gazette to discuss “Miracle Valley,” the legacy of “The Room,” and why the strange and esoteric interest him so. (The interview has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity).
After 20 years, do you ever get tired of still talking about “The Room?”
No. I mean, here’s the thing. You make a movie that you don’t think anybody can ever see, and you just sort of survive and get through it and you’re looking everywhere else but there. And then all of a sudden people discover this movie and they love it. It was around 2010 that it really started to pick up and go to New York and London and all that. So it’s going on 12 years of it being a part of my life. It’s not a movie I really watch. I’ve only seen it a few times. But it’s always great to meet new people who are coming for the first time. People love to show it to their friends, it’s got shock value. I always enjoy the experience of meeting new people and talking.
Have you done an event like this in Billings before?
A few years ago, we did a screening of a movie I’d made called “Best F(r)iends.” We showed that at the Babcock. And I loved it. I had a great experience. It’s really, really fun to get to come back and show my new horror film. When I was last in Billings, I was writing the script.
What made you want to direct?
When I worked on “Best F(r)iends” it was such a process of writing and producing that I thought, after that experience, the next evolution was to try to do writing, directing and starring. When I was writing the script, I was living in the environment that I was writing about. So everyday I’d analyze the scenes and moments and I thought ‘I’m seeing a movie already in my head.’ I’ve visualized it, I’ve scouted it, I know what all the locations should look like. And I thought that’s a perfect chance now to direct it. We shot it all handheld to give it that '70s, grindhouse, horror film look. It was just a process of being so involved from the beginning with scouting, writing the script and knowing what it should look like, I thought if I’m gonna direct a film, and act in it and all that, this would be the place to do it.
How did you get interested in cults?
I’ve always be intrigued by cult stories, like Scientology or “Wild, Wild Country.” How people get roped in, and most times when people who have been in cults are interviewed, they can’t tell you exactly why. It was sort of a passing moment that they latched onto. When I was living in Arizona, on one drive, I was doing research and I came across this old abandoned church in the middle of nowhere. It was just this palace in the middle of the desert. And these two guys approached me when I walked up and told me this used to be a big cult in the ‘60s, and the preacher believed he could bring people back from the dead based on their blood type, and it just got really morbid and weird. And they believed it was gonna come back stronger than ever and they asked me to join. So I did a bunch of research and dived in the script.
You’re writing a movie about UFOs, and on Instagram you recently posted about being in Roswell. Does the esoteric interest you?
When I was living [in Arizona], I got into UFO culture. So I started doing a lot of research. The unknown, what people believe really strongly one way or another, really intrigued me. It’s something that I really find fascinating. The new movie is called “Forbidden Sky,” and it’s about a small town radio host who receives this call randomly late at night. It kind of places him as a mediator between this alien race and earth. It’s about people who really believe and how they deal with the truth in front of the. It’s a lot like cults.
Is horror something you’ve always been interested in?
Yeah, I’d say early on, like the first “Nightmare on Elm Street.” Those feelings of fear, but comedy at the same time. I’ve always wanted to get into it more. I was in the Netflix series “The Haunting of Bly Manor,” and I got to work with Mike Flanagan and that compelled me to want to make my own horror film. Anytime you can see a movie with a crowd, you want that good mix of drama and comedy. We’ve tested “Miracle Valley” with audiences, and there were a lot of laughs and crazy moments that people really get into and you would never know that streaming it at home.
Do you want to keep directing?
I think writing is what I really love to do the most. And I think, if the story really speaks to me and I feel like making a movie, I’d do it again. Making a movie or project takes two years of your life. So if I’m very invested in it, it’s gonna be a lot of fun. I think following the fun is really important. I think I’ll just keep writing and see where that goes.
There’s an actor in “Miracle Valley” named Jesse Brenneman, who is a musician and podcaster who lives in Missoula. How did he wind up being in your movie?
I met him at an event at the Roxy in Missoula, right before we started filming. He was great. He came up on stage and read a few scenes, and he was really funny and I really saw something in him. So I told him that I thought he’d be great for a part in the movie, and asked if he’d read for it. And he sent in a really professional audition tape and just nailed it. And everyone, when they see the movie, they’re like “where did you find that guy?” He’s great, really talented, really smart. It was great to have him in the movie, to have some Montana blood in it.
On these tours, do you get a chance to get out and explore the places you visit?
Traveling is one of my big passions. That’s how I discovered “Miracle Valley.” Just this year, I was able to complete visiting all 50 states. It’s a great way to learn and get inspired for your next project, and you meet a bunch of great people, like Jesse.
Do you have any favorite places you’ve gotten to visit because of this?
Montana is up there. I’ve road-tripped all over Montana. Alaska was great. Iceland was great. And Portugal. I try to find the uniqueness in each city.
Any dream venues for the future?
South Africa is something I’m trying to work on. South America would be great. The Maldives islands. I don’t know how many movie theaters are out there, but you know. I think I’ll just continue to travel and continue to grow.
In “The Disaster Artist,” you make working with Tommy Wiseau sound really difficult. You guys have collaborated since then. Is it easier now?
I’ve learned a lot. And I think it’s always important to play to the actor's strengths. I think it makes everything easier. And when we made “Best F(r)iends,” he plays a vampire mortician character, and he really thrived in and enjoyed playing. We really enjoyed filming. Making Best F(r)iends was a lot more fun.
With “The Room,” is it flattering to be a part of something that people are still very into?
It becomes kind of a fabric of people’s lives. And, to me, that’s really cool. People have gotten married because of it, they’ve themed their wedding after it. It’s gone beyond just being a film, or a cult film or a bad movie. It’s just become a part of cinema, in whatever way people appreciate it. It’s been a great life lesson to see it play out.