YBOR CITY ó Itís 1 a.m. and Iím hunched over a pile of plastic spoons, studying a list of phrases Iím supposed to shout aloud (Liar! Unfocus! HI, DENNY!) when a man with stringy ink-black hair sweeps to the stage.
"Oh, hi, Tommy!" a guy in back shouts above the cheers.
"We start a Q&A, just a little warm, romantic start here," the man says in his vague, untraceable accent. "You can ask any question you want."
How old are you? one woman asks.
"Who cares. Do you care? I donít."
Tommy, whatís your hometown?
"Hometown is Los Angeles right now. What about that?"
Where are you partying after this?
"I cannot tell you; itís confidential." He chuckles, an unsettling little ha-ha-ha. "Itís from The Room!"
Everyone else gets the reference. I do not. Because in this half-filled, second-story bar off Ybor Cityís Eighth Avenue, I am probably the only person who has never seen it.
Released in 2003, The Room is, by most accounts, one of the worst films ever made, a mystifying melodrama rife with terrible acting and inconceivably poor production values.
Yet in time it achieved an ironic immortality among fans who adore its canít-unsee-it insanity, and who flock to interactive midnight screenings like this one, a la The Rocky Horror Picture Show. A film based on the making of The Room, The Disaster Artist, was released last year to much acclaim, with James Franco in the role of the filmís writer, director, producer and star.
That would be Tommy Wiseau, the mysterious man with the stringy black hair. He has come to Ybor City with his Room co-star, Greg Sestero, to promote their new film Best F(r)iends at the Gasparilla International Film Festival, and appear at two screenings of The Room.
I had to be there. I wanted in on the jokes, the references, the cult of Tommy Wiseau. I wanted in on the phenomenon of The Room, a mere 15 years late. This seemed like the perfect gateway: a midnight film-festival screening, with Wiseau in attendance, surrounded by fans who know the film by heart. If ever there was a way to fall in love with The Room, this would be it.
"Enjoy The Room!" Wiseau says as the Q&A wraps. "Have fun! And thank you very much for your support! I love you all!"
How bad could this thing really be?
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Hours before it starts, there are already signs the event might be, well, a disaster. At the very last minute, organizers have added a second screening of The Room due to high demand. That prompts a complete reshuffling of Wiseau and Sesteroís schedule for the night. And theyíre already more than a half-hour late for their first stop: a quick sit-down interview with me.
Up close, Wiseau is a fascinating specimen. His background and age are a mystery ó his hands look older than his face, I can tell you that ó but his presence is unmistakable. As soon as he enters the interview room, he drops his silver-plated belt to the ground and stomps out a dent with his chunky black boot. When no one can find a straw for his Red Bull, he plops in a Twizzler. He plays cat-and-mouse in conversation, alternately praising and criticizing each question, laughing things off with a flat ha-ha-ha. But on the whole, he seems playful and engaged and game for the evening.
"The past two years, you guys have been very positive of The Room, which I appreciate of all the media, all the bloggers," he says. "I think people are very enthusiastic to write about The Room."
And to experience it firsthand. Outside Centro Ybor are hundreds of fans lined up to meet him and watch his films, some dressed in homemade Room T-shirts or full-on Room cosplay, including a few Tommys eager to toss footballs or trade lines from the film. To them, he is a legitimate cinematic god. When he approaches a group of film students from Blake High School, one screams, "He touched my hand! He touched my hand!"
"As bad as it sounds, he was able to accomplish so much without talent," says the student, Collin Aull, 14. "Pure determination and willpower."
"There are so many bad movies out there," said his friend Joshua Morgan, 15, "but you can see heart behind every single shot in this."
That the students have come in a pack for their umpteenth viewing of The Room is not surprising. Each fan I talk to says the best way to experience The Room is with friends, so you can live through and laugh about the nightmare together.
"The Room has a special magic when you see it with a group of people," Sestero tells me. "It just brings out the best in audiences. Obviously, Iíve seen The Room on TV, but thereís something about when you step into a theater with a group of people ó it just becomes this party, and you want to bring more friends. And itís just lived on that way. This is the best way to experience it."
Wiseau concurs, sort of, in his own way.
"You should put it in your article. Thatís the idea. Seeing it in a theater environment is better. Itís not better, but youíll have a groovy time. Youíll interact. Some people maybe not like it because people express themselves too much. But I will say if a lot of people all enjoyed it, the world would be a better place to live. So basically, enjoy The Room. Thatís what Iím saying."
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So how bad, really, is The Room?
Iíd say itís more bizarre than bad. It came out in 2003, but looks exactly like 1994. It is unnervingly dreamlike, a hypnotic simulacrum of soapy late-í90s drama. If it has a plot, I cannot recount it. Itís kind of like a satire of anticomedy performed by actors who donít get the joke. Or an homage to Douglas Sirk and/or David Lynch by an android whose only knowledge of human behavior comes from semaphore descriptions of infomercials.
That said, what they all say is absolutely true: If you see The Room in a group ó the right group ó itís hard not to get caught up in the fun. Everyone groans in unison during sex scenes, howls the same catcalls at Wiseauís onscreen girlfriend, hurls spoons at the screen at the proper cues. Itís infectious. I find myself laughing at both the surreality of each scene and the strangely loving dialogue between audience and film; there is comfort in riding this weird wave together.
Oh, hi, Mark! we all shout.
What a story, Mark! we all shout.
Youíre tearing me APART, Lisa! we all shout.
As much as his fans might argue otherwise, itís hard to credit Wiseau for all this. Even if he knew he was making a comedy ó big stretch, but letís run with it ó he could not have foreseen the life the film would take on at these screenings. Wiseau created The Room; his fans created what The Room became.
Around 2 a.m., one of them, possibly inebriated, plops down at my table without warning.
"People might say Tommy Wiseau is bad, but heís significantly his own person," he says as men in tuxedoes play football on the big screen behind him. "If you consider him really bad, thatís fine, but heís the only one."
He rambles on in this vein ("Is this person a lizard man? Obviously not. But itís a funny conspiracy") for some time as the rest of the audience keeps playing along with the film. Itís hard to say what happens next, because it turns out the bar weíre in has a hard 2:15 a.m. curfew ó which, like most of the choices in The Room, is never really explained. The lights come on and the film cuts out as Wiseau and Sestero jog around San Francisco, en route to their next screamable, meme-able moment.
And so, reader, here I must confess that after shadowing Wiseau around Ybor City for a night, and staying up until the wee, wee hours of a late-night screening, I still, technically, have not seen The Room.
But I do think I get it. And I do think I like it. I think I better understand Jordan Weinstein, a 19-year-old superfan I met on the red carpet outside Centro Ybor. She had Wiseau Sharpie one of the filmís many bizarre non sequiturs ó "Oh hi Mark" ó on her bicep, then raced down the street to Atomic Tattoos to get the words etched on her skin.
"Itís one of those things where itís like, itís so bad that itís awesome," she says. "And he knows that, too."
You want to know why our screening started late and ended early? Itís because Wiseau insisted on staying as long as possible on the red carpet, greeting as many fans like Weinstein as possible. Heíll leave Tampa feeling no different about his antimasterwork, but the fans he met here, myself included, will leave somehow loving it even more.
What a story we all now have to tell. What a story, Mark, indeed.
Contact Jay Cridlin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.