Two Cults, One Night: RiffTrax Lampoons ‘The Room’

L to R: Bill Corbett, Michael J. Nelson and Kevin Murphy riff  “Manos The Hands of Fate” at a 2012 RiffTrax Live in 2012.   Courtesy of RiffTrax
L to R: Bill Corbett, Michael J. Nelson and Kevin Murphy riff “Manos The Hands of Fate” at a 2012 RiffTrax Live in 2012. Courtesy of RiffTrax.

BY SEAN EGAN |  Mike Nelson and Tommy Wiseau are men intimately familiar with devoted cult followings — the former for aiming his wry comedic voice at cinematic detritus, and the latter for being the multi-hyphenate behind one of the most notorious “bad movies” of all time. On April 17, their sensibilities will collide at the Tribeca Film Festival, for a one-night-only event: “RiffTrax Live: The Room.”

For fans of both entities (of which there is undoubtedly overlap), the pairing is a natural fit. Written, directed, produced by and starring Wiseau, “The Room” drew attention for its strange stylistic decisions, bizarre plotting and stilted acting — making the 2003 film an instant contender for the worst movie ever.

Naturally, a cult sprang up around it and Wiseau, with the film becoming a midnight-movie staple boasting “Rocky Horror” levels of audience interaction — fans present in either ironic or sincere appreciation (or a mixture of both).

Nelson first made his name as a writer and host on the cult-classic, B-movie lampooning television program “Mystery Science Theater 3000” (MST3K). RiffTrax is a project created by Nelson after the show’s end, featuring Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett (voices of MST3K’s Tom Servo and Crow T. Robot, respectively).

RiffTrax utilizes specially recorded audio commentaries, on which the crew “riffs” on movies, from older obscuro oddities to contemporary blockbusters. In recent years, the crew has expanded to doing live, in-theater riffs — usually broadcast to theaters nationwide via Fathom Events — which is where “The Room” comes in.

Though the collaboration seems like a no-brainer, the RiffTrax crew actually had some trepidation approaching the infamous film at first.

“We sort of stayed away from [“The Room”] for a while just because it seemed like it had its own thing,” says Nelson, who claims he and the guys were a little stumped when first confronted with the film. Ultimately, the sincerity of the project is what sold them on going forward, with Nelson noting, “You could not create something like this if you were trying to be pulling one over on the audience.”

L to R: Bill Corbett, Kevin Murphy and Michael J. Nelson riff “The Room.” Pictured onscreen, L to R: Tommy Wiseau as Johnny, Greg Sestero as Mark.   Courtesy of RiffTrax
L to R: Bill Corbett, Kevin Murphy and Michael J. Nelson riff “The Room.” Pictured onscreen, L to R: Tommy Wiseau as Johnny, Greg Sestero as Mark. Courtesy of RiffTrax.

“A few years back we did it as a RiffTrax,” explains Nelson. “And then we were thinking about great movies that we loved, and had kinda been in touch with the Tribeca people and they mentioned [“The Room”], and we thought it probably wouldn’t be possible,” he continues. But after getting in touch with Tommy Wiseau himself, the RiffTrax crew found pulling the event together surprisingly easy, even setting up a larger scale 700-screen Fathom presentation to follow on May 6 (with a May 12 encore). “He’s just given us the blessing,” Nelson says. “He’s been willing, he gets it, and he thinks it’s funny. I mean, you know, he knows what he’s got — he’s savvy about what he does.”

Wiseau certainly seems excited for the forthcoming presentation, and with his signature peculiar turns of phrase, dubs it “different entertainment.” “They [RiffTrax] do have a good following, people, a group of people who like to making fun of any movie, and I don’t think there’s nothing wrong with that,” Wiseau intones in his distinctively non-descript, Eastern-European sounding accent. “I support that, and I say this openly, that there’s nothing wrong when you criticize, for example, ‘The Room’ — as long as you say in a sincere way,” he continues. “I think it’s a different concept and I think, I am pro-freedom, so I like it, what they’re doing, basically.”

Wiseau and Nelson are in agreement that “The Room” offers a lot of material to work with, but for the RiffTrax crew it presents the challenge of finding new spins on a well-trod work. They even went so far as to scrap most of the script of their pre-existing RiffTrax commentary of the movie.

“We wrote jokes before and we can write new ones, so we’ll try it again. That’s kind of our approach, to just keep going at the thing with fresh eyes,” Nelson reveals. These “fresh eyes” certainly apply to the film’s formidable cult as well. “We kinda know some of the rituals, but we pretty much avoided them because that is a different thing, and what we do is our thing,” he asserts.

Obviously, the RiffTrax guys aren’t ones to take the easy route or rest on their laurels. Indeed, this upcoming event is just one of many in the works. After a successful Kickstarter campaign, “We lined up kind of our dream lineup of movies for the live year,” Nelson comments of the other forthcoming Fathom events. In addition to “The Room,” the team will tackle modern-day schlock-fest “Sharknado 2,” 80s martial-arts disaster “Miami Connection” and something called “Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny” — which Nelson says with a laugh, “I think every human should see before they die. It’s the greatest movie ever.”

For his part, Wiseau declares, “I work very hard, and I like to work hard.” Most recently, he’s been working on “The Neighbors,” a comedy series currently streaming on Hulu, which deals with sitcom tropes and American culture in what could only be accurately described as a uniquely Wiseau-ian way. The busy shooting schedule for “The Neighbors” inhibits Wiseau’s ability to make it to the Tribeca Film Festival, but fans can take comfort in the fact that Wiseau is currently contracted for at least eight more episodes of the series (though he wishes to make more).

A bit further off in the distance for the filmmaker is “The Foreclosure,” a feature concerning a man named Richard whose house is foreclosed on by the bank. Wiseau says he has a 100-page script prepared and aims to begin shooting in May, in hopes of creating a unique film that provides some laughs and educates people. Further still down the pipeline is a currently untitled vampire movie, which he claims will make people “not fall asleep for two weeks.”

“There will be good and bad vampires at the same time, who actually conquer the world,” he divulges of the plot, elaborating, “Usually we associate vampire with the drama and the killing. And somewhat killing exists — but it’s different dimension. So it will be something special, something different.”

Looking out to the future as well, Nelson considers live events the crew may like to undertake, if licensing pans out. “A lot of those 80s movies, big blockbusters, are starting to age in a way that would make them fun,” Nelson says — expressing a particular interest in “Road House.”

“I don’t think it’s out of the realm of possibility,” he says of those kinds of movies. Citing a precedent Sony established with their successful live presentation of “Starship Troopers,” Nelson thinks that more studios might be willing to work with RiffTrax. “They saw the sky did not fall, and they quite enjoyed it, so hopefully we’ll do more movies from Sony, so hopefully that unlocks other studios as well.”

Nelson and the RiffTrax crew, it seems, have managed to get a lot of mileage out of an elegantly simple and funny idea, and continue to push forward. When asked to reflect on the staying power of MST3K and the continued vitality of the style of comedy it and RiffTrax pioneered, Nelson offers, “Mostly I just think it’s good joke writing and, you know, it’s dumb, goofy stuff meant to just entertain. We kind of did what we wanted. We had a ton of fun and I think that comes through,” he ends simply.

Wiseau, when similarly inquired about the ability of “The Room” to continue drawing audiences, likens his film to a building in an earthquake. “I always say that if you have a good foundation you will survive whatever obstacles — and I believe very strongly that ‘The Room’ has built that foundation.”

“Why people come back?” he muses aloud. “Because I think they want to yell,” he concludes. “How many places you have actually on the street, where people can sing or just express themselves — and people say ‘Oh you crazy,’ or whatever? With ‘The Room’ I actually encourage people. I say, ‘Say whatever you want.’ Scream, yell — you could maybe meet someone! The bottom line is, what I discovered in the past few years, is ‘The Room’ actually connects people, you know? Directly or indirectly. Because maybe they criticize ‘The Room’ because ‘it’s so bad,’ or criticize ‘The Room’ because they enjoy themselves — and again I encourage that, because, again, there’s nothing wrong with it. Contrary, you know, you may discover yourself, and you may be better person.”

Which is why, to Wiseau, the upcoming RiffTrax event is such an appealing idea. “I am very happy that RiffTrax actually approached us,” he says. “They find some kind of different, I would say, entertainment, that actually appeals to a few thousand or maybe one million people more, and I think this cannot be discredited.”


At the Tribeca Film Festival

Friday, April 17, 9:30 p.m.

At SVA Theater

333 West 23rd St. (btw. 8th & 9th Aves.)

Tickets: $38.50 Visit tribecafilm.com/festival

Call 646-502-5296

Artist info at rifftrax.com