Meet Mladen Milicevic, the College Professor Who Composed the Music for "The Room"
The soundtrack of this cult classic is almost as weird as the movie itself. Here's how it came together.
If you have yet to see Tommy Wiseau's world-altering cinematic debacle, The Room, you're one of the lucky ones. I say this for two reasons: The first is that you probably still have a lot of faith in the filmmaking process, the art of cinema, and, for that matter, in humanity itself. You probably even feel like the world is a decent enough place.
The other reason you are lucky is that I envy anybody who gets to watch this film for the first time. Even from its overstated beginning moments—which prominently feature stock footage of San Francisco paired with weirdly out-of-time, ethnically confused orchestral movements—The Room devastates your handle on reality. It takes everything you thought you knew about the world, everything you believed in about movies, and drives you mad with unanswerable questions of space, time, and humanity. It's like a bad acid trip, wherein you're condemned to the limbo moments of a bad porno, unable to escape until every last abandoned plotline refuses to tie up, until every character inexplicably mutates into an emotionally abusive monster, until the final credits roll. It's so puzzlingly horrifying that you cannot look away; so captivating in its flaws that you will spend weeks, months, even years trying to figure it all out. And let's be real: You. Never. Will.
And though most of The Room's dull-sting arrives at the hand of writer/producer/star Tommy Wiseau, his slew of misfit actors, his poor handle on the American language and culture, and his undeniably insufferable filmmaking, the movie's disorienting, epically overstated soundtrack also plays an important role in this mindfuck for a movie. Full-bodied orchestral pieces crescendo through a sea of woodwinds and click-clacking rhythms that seem to have nothing at all to do with the action on-screen. Like the film itself, which can't seem to figure out what it is about--a film that has been retroactively labeled as a black comedy, but most certainly is not-- the musical moods seem amorphous. There are even several sultry R&B pop songs that fill the silence during the film's numerous, excruciating and exceedingly revolting sex scenes.
But outside of the pop songs used to sex it up, the orchestral pieces were written by a fairly successful Loyola Marymount music professor named Mladen Milicevic, with roots in former Yugoslavia. I called up Mr. Milicevic to discuss all things Room, expecting to have one of the stranger conversations of my life. Instead, I spoke to a kind-hearted man who is as confused and fascinated by this film as we all are, even having taken part in its creation. In the end, it seems he tried his best to provide a decent soundtrack to an indecent film, while the powers that be refused to let anything about this movie work.
Noisey: Can you start by telling me a little bit about yourself?
I got involved with The Room through the editor Eric Chase. I worked with Eric on a previous movie that he edited and did sound for. So one day, Eric Calls me and says, "Hey, I have this movie The Room, and they don't have music, would you be interested in doing it?" I said, "Yeah, sure. Get me in touch with the director."
I talked to Tommy and Tommy says, 'You have to rent A Streetcar Named Desire, because that's the movie that we made here." That's the famous movie, Tennessee Williams. In the original advertisements for The Room, they said it was like Tennessee Williams. So he said, "You have to see that movie, because that is the movie I made." The score in that movie is kind of irrelevant. It's a theater play. I go rent the movie to refresh my memory, and I meet Tommy and we talk, and he gives me the tape; the VHS of the movie I have to watch. Then I watched The Room.
You can imagine my surprise comparing it to Streetcar Named Desire. I thought, "OK…this would be fun to do." You know? It was just so off-the-wall. So I started working on that. And I didn't have that much interaction with Tommy whatsoever on the creative side of it. It was all done by communication between me and Eric Chase, the editor.
I created the first version of the theme that was a little more dark—it didn't have that bouncy piano or anything. Very dark.
Eric said, "No, we want something really happy." So, I scratched that and then I came up with this theme. And then they said, "That's OK! Continue working on this thing." They had pretty much finished the whole movie at that point. And then Tommy came, actually, to negotiate the contract and he was absolutely adamant about getting a contract in which he has all the rights to all of the music. I said, "OK, fine. I mean, I don't care." And that's pretty much my interaction with him as far as the production part of the movie goes.
He wanted all the rights?
Yeah, and so I gave him all the rights. Because normally film composers get half of the publishing. But he wanted to have absolute control. He didn't really understand the nuances. He just wanted to be absolutely sure that he's in charge of everything. So I gave him that. I don't care.
And then he calls me up one day and says, "You know, I wanna release a CD of the score. Would you tell me what are the names of these songs?" I said, "There are no names; there are numbers." In the movie you just cue numbers. And then I asked him why he was releasing the CD. I told him, "Nobody is going to by this." People buy CDs not only for the music, but also for the actors in the movie. Like if you had a movie with Julia Roberts or Jack Nicholson, then people would buy CDs. But really the market is irrelevant—nobody makes money off of film scores. But he says, "Well, you don't know, maybe I am next Jack Nicholson." I said, "Tommy, do whatever you want."
The unfortunate thing is that they exported it directly from Avid, which is a film editing system. So, if you listen to the CD, you will notice that the loudness of every cue is actually the way it appears in the movie. They didn't master it. If you want to release a CD, you have to master all the music. So, when these songs come in and out, they sound unbelievably soft and unbelievably loud.
Finally he tells me, "The CD is in Tower Records!" So I go to Tower Records and I see there's a bin that says The Room. [Laughs.] That was even before the film was released, or maybe just about. And so at the screening on opening night, he was handing out these press packages in bags to everybody who came and one of the things in there was the CD.
And how many people were at the screening?
There was probably like 500 people at the opening. I even invited people to come. And then after that, I couldn't care less. I just thought, you know, whatever...
And then years later, a friend of mine sends me a picture that he took on his phone, because he went to see The Room in the theater. Tommy had this huge billboard in Santa Monica: "The Room showing in theaters." So this friend of mine goes and sends me pictures and says, "You're not going to believe what's going on in the theater." I say, "What do you mean? How can you take a picture of a movie?" He says, "People are dancing!" He describes this whole thing in the theater and I say, "Oh my god, I gotta go check this out." And then I actually went and saw what's going on, and that's the first time I learned about [the cult status it achieved.]
And when was this?
A couple of years after The Room came out. Maybe 2005 or something like that.
Tommy was a funny guy. With the accent and everything. I could never figure him out. He was so unusual. He wouldn't tell me which country he was from. I'd say, "Tommy what's your accent?" He'd say, "I'm Cajun." [Laughs] But I was kind of fascinated by the whole thing and then of course it took of the way it did. It became a cult and all that.
Now if you go on YouTube, you'll find music! If you search for "The Room Theme," you'll find tons of stuff. The funniest one is they have The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly--they have the last scene in that movie set to music from The Room.
People sometimes email me and say, "Could you send me sheet music for the opening scene? I want to play that!" And then I send it, and then they play it and put it on YouTube and send me a link and say, "What do you think?" [Laughs]. There are all kinds of versions—it's really funny.
What I find most fascinating is how many people know about this, especially younger people. I was in Croatia—which is what is my home country now—this summer. There's a fan club there. Or I get a photograph of the tickets for The Room in Amsterdam where my cousin lives, because his daughter was getting ready for the screening. Five days before she was practicing and being excited about going into The Room. It's screening everywhere, it's a phenomenon. My students, too, they go apeshit when they find out that I scored The Room.
One of the funniest things was two years ago. I went to Wesleyan University in Connecticut, which is where I got my Masters. That's the reason why I came to this country, to study with this particular guy named Alvin Lucier. And he is like an extremely instrumental composer and very well-known and respected. He's celebrating his 80th birthday and all his former students come for a three-day big celebration at the university. And the students find out that I scored The Room [laughs] and they all gather around me and say, "Tell us more!" It was funny, in this most unlikely place, because you looked and it was like highly academic music. And these students know about The Room. It was really interesting to know that.
It's interesting and bizarre what happened. And I wish Tommy does something more, because I would score anything for him. It's so fascinating. Whatever he does, I will do, too.
Do you keep in touch? Would you say he is a friend of yours?
No, no, no. I don't know who is friends with him. He is one of the most mysterious people. Even Greg Sestero [actor in The Room] cannot say they are friends—that they hang out. I need to read Greg Sestero's book [about working on The Room], but I don't know who he is hanging out with. I've been to five or so screenings over the last ten years. Some of those Tommy shows up and does a Q&A, and he's always clean and shaved. We never really had a conversation about anything. I don't know him as a person. I always wanted to know where this money came from. How did he produce the movie? How did he afford to do all this advertising for it? So I don't know if Greg Sestero explains it in the book—everybody is curious. But we are not friends. If I ran into him on the street I would say hey, but he would never ask me what's going on in my life. He's a rather iconoclastic figure. He stays in the dark, then he shows up and says these things, and then disappears. He's not the regular six-pack Joe. I keep up with him on Facebook and send him birthday cards, but that's pretty much the extent of my relationship with Tommy.
Can you talk a little bit about what that process was like? How many times did you have to watch the film?
The regular process is that they give you a tape, and you watch the tape and you score the movie. And I don't think that there was any temp music in it. Maybe very little. It'd be interesting to see if I still have that tape somewhere. I just scored the opening scene and then sent that to Eric [Chase]. And Eric said, "Oh, this is too dark. Why don't you try something a little bit light..." and then I went and added this piano and came out with the main theme. And then after that, pretty much everything was based off that. That was the mood of the film that Eric had in mind. And then Tommy came in the middle of the process to see what I was doing and also to sign a contract, but he was far more interested in doing the contract than really giving me any input. So I just scored it on my own with this initial kind of guidance from Eric: lighter and bouncier. It wasn't like with some directors, where you get more comments, or you have to send them every cue that you do. This was a breeze to do.
Do you remember what you wanted it to sound like? Because it always struck me that the upbeat nature didn't necessarily match what was going on in the film.
See, now I'm curious. I may go and try to peak into The Room folder on my computer and see if I still have the original [theme]. For me, the film was kind of tragic. I wanted to make it the way I assumed Tommy wanted it to be. He wanted this to be a dark drama. If you think of Streetcar Named Desire, that was the initial guidance for me. Not the score—that had nothing to do with anything—but the dramatic mood of A Streetcar Named Desire. That's a very complex drama. So, I thought that Tommy in his own way wanted to make a very complex drama. You know, this guy commits suicide. Regardless of the execution of that, if you were to see a plot of the movie: There's a guy. His best friend cheats with his girlfriend and he commits suicide. But, what makes The Room unique is the execution: who was acting, the people, all that. But the story and premise is very dark. Tommy, he wants to be happy with this woman, she cheats on him, and tricks him, and he finds out that his best friend cheated with his fiancé, and she wasn't pregnant and then he commits suicide. So that was my guidance, emotionally; for it to be much darker. The theme was dark strings. So apparently that's not what Eric saw.
When you first saw the movie, what did you think about it? Did you think it was ridiculous?
I thought what everybody thinks about it right now. But I didn't know where the movie was gonna go.
The best description I ever got was from a girlfriend I took to a screening. She was highly regarded in her profession—a big time important person in the world on a certain topic. She said, "You know what? This is like a porn with no action." If you think about it, the quality of the story line is kind of like the quality of the storyline in a porn. In the porn, they always have some kind of set up before they start fucking. Some ridiculous thing in the office, like, "Oh, how are you doing?" and then they start fucking. So, the storyline and the acting quality is pretty much what you get in the intro part of porn, except it goes for two hours and there is no action.
And when I was scoring the movie, a friend of mine came when I was scoring the sequence with the tape recorder. And then Tommy has a monologue that you will remember: "She cheated on me; I trusted them." And monologues are hard to pull off for great actors—let alone Tommy. So it was so funny! He didn't get that. She started laughing and crying from laughter.
Were you laughing while you were scoring it? How did you separate yourself from the movie enough to actually produce music for it?
You have to take it seriously. I'm a professional, so you have to. No matter what the movie is. You have to do it the way a director wants you to do it. You have to follow directors' wishes. I tried something dark, they didn't want that, so they told me what they wanted and I followed.
The thing that I always think about is that you have this guy, Tommy Wiseau, and nobody knows where he is from. It might be Eastern Europe or some French Occupied country---
---I think he is from Germany. That is my guess.
In The Room, the music is so eerie. It's almost sort of Lynchian.
Well I think that most of that movie is in a minor key. For example, the scene when they run and throw the football in the San Francisco park. That's a minor key [hums the theme]. It has a rather somber feel to it than a happy one. But there is a reason why I did that. Why I didn't want it to have it just happy.
Ok, let's take that scene. That scene, if you look at it isolated, it's happy. Two guys running, playing ball, etc. But if you look at it contextually, here's a guy who cheats, who is fucking your fiancé [laughs] going out in the field and pretending that everything is ok. So that's the line that I was drawing. I wasn't going with what you are actually seeing. I was going with the underlying plot, which is, "Something is wrong with this friendship." There's very few happy moments in this movie. Happy moments in the movie are when they are wearing tuxedos and throwing a ball outside. That is an isolated happy moment. Or when Michelle and her boyfriend are making out in The Room eating chocolate. Everything else is pretty dark. People cheating on each other, and dealing drugs, and the mom getting cancer, and Tommy and Lisa having disagreements. Except the lovemaking scenes, which I didn't do.
So how do you feel about it all?
I have some funny memories. And, of course, things progressed and got more and more bizarre. But what I do now is I go online and I look at all of these things on YouTube and wherever and I download them and keep them in my folder.
Drew Litowitz loves The Room more than you do. He's on Twitter — @drewsefL