by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)
In 2003, Tommy Wiseau crafted what some called the worst movie ever made – The Room. The film quickly became a cult classic, running in midnight showings around the country. While initial reactions to the film broke Wiseau’s heart, over time he learned to embrace his cult status, as well as the film’s fame, even if it was for reasons that he objected to.
Fourteen years later, James Franco’s The Disaster Artist is telling the story of The Room and propelling Wiseau’s star into arenas never thought possible. It turns out the story of how The Room got made is actually more compelling than the film itself. There is Oscar buzz around Franco’s film and at least some chance that Wiseau will be present at the 2018 Academy Awards if the film gets nominated. In the midst of the madness, there are some key lessons that storytellers can take from the situation. Here are three disasters that your own inner artist should embrace.
1. Don’t be afraid to let your story become something else
The narrative that Wiseau constructed around his own life didn’t pan out the way he hoped. It didn’t take the shape he thought it should. And for some time, he could only push against audience reactions to his story. However, as he learned to open himself up to the fame the film gained, a new narrative rose. Sometimes, we have a character or a story that we are certain should be in a specific genre or medium of storytelling. When we open ourselves up to other possibilities, stories sometimes organically find their own way. David Lynch’s Mullholland Drive was originally developed for television. When Lynch recrafted it into a feature film, another cult hit was born. Sometimes, the narrative kernel we have works, but we must open the grip we have around the specifics of the story to see it blossom into something more beautiful.
2. Go with your gut, even when everyone tells you different
One of the most difficult skills a storyteller can develop is the ability to discern when to listen to the wisdom of others and when to stick to their guns. Wiseau stayed with his own vision, which for many years seemed like a terrible idea. However, in the grand scope of things, now looks brilliant. If fame was Wiseau’s ultimate goal, he has accomplished that, even if it was through a circuitous path. One of the most challenging aspects of listening to the opinions of others is that we often don’t know what will turn out to distract us from where we were headed and what will re-align us with where we were going.
Asking for input from others is a necessary part the creative process. It can be invaluable. However, artists and storytellers should also have the confidence to lean into their own instincts, even when they fly in the face of common opinion. Charlie Kauffman’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is another story that might have never been told had he listened to the opinions of others.
3. Knowing structure is important. Breaking it can be a stroke of genius
Anyone that has read my writing for any length of time knows that I am a huge proponent of story structure. I’m also a huge proponent of knowing when and how to break structure. Tommy Wiseau’s path was unconventional to say the least. He didn’t follow the rules that others said he needed to. In the end, it just might have paid off. Many storytellers ignore or break the rules of structure out of rebellion or ignorance. This is rarely effective. However, when a writer fully understands how story and structure works and then decides to transcend that, the results can be magical. Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird works outside the realm of traditional story structure, yet invites us into the depths of a character whose world is immersive, and layers grow with each viewing.
John Bucher is a writer, speaker, and story consultant based out of Los Angeles. He is the author of several books including The Inside Out Story and Master of the Cinematic Universe: The Secret Code to Writing in the New World of Media. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to U.S. Ambassadors. He teaches at The LA Film Studies Center and has conducted story seminars on five continents. He can be reached on Twitter @johnkbucher and through his site, tellingabetterstory.com.