The night I met Tommy

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Coeur Voice Writer

There is no other film experience quite like “The Room,” a 2003 melodrama popularly referred to as the “Best Worst Movie” of all time (apologies to “Troll 2”).

It is the subject of “The Disaster Artist,” the acclaimed new film directed by and starring James Franco, based on the book of the same name by Tom Bissell and “Room” co-star Greg Sestero. Both the book and film document the behind-the-scenes insanity that spawned a movie unlike any other.

Last year, I fulfilled one of my lifelong dreams. I met Tommy Wiseau, the star, producer, writer and director of “The Room.” It was one of the most surreal experiences of my life.

For those unfamiliar, “The Room” was first intended to be a smoldering drama in the vein of “A Streetcar Named Desire.” It is definitely not that.

Wiseau, of some mysterious European origin, reads his lines in an inexplicable cadence never heard by human ears before or since, and the movie itself is riddled with unintentionally hilarious technical deficiencies and story choices. It is a terrible movie – but quite possibly the most entertaining 99 minutes ever committed to film/video. The movie was shot on both, simultaneously, for some reason.

My “Room” fanaticism dates back several years. I often test the limits of friendship by subjecting the uninitiated to in-home screenings, and I’ve gifted multiple copies of the DVD to mostly flabbergasted recipients.

But in the years leading up to my meeting Tommy, I had never seen “The Room” on the big screen, a reprehensible fact that would exclude me from any proper Tommy Wiseau fan club. In the years since its largely ignored initial release, the film has become a midnight movie sensation, with audience participation on the level of the “Rocky Horror Picture Show.”

Screenings are held regularly in Portland, and, finally, I got to experience “The Room” in all its theatrical glory. Even better, Wiseau was in attendance for a Q&A and to meet his devoted followers.

Though some of the Wiseau mystery has been exposed by “The Disaster Artist” book (a compelling and hilarious read, by the way), there is still about a 5 to 10 percent chance Wiseau is some sort of vampire/alien, and, to his credit, he knows how to play into the image at public events. Somewhere along the line, Wiseau learned to embrace the reasons why audiences love “The Room.” He now insists the film was always intended to be a “dark comedy.”

At this particular Portland screening, Wiseau greeted fans at the theater’s concession stand, and, if you bought a piece of merchandise, you could meet and take photos with the screen legend.

This was a great deal, because 1. You could simply buy a DVD copy of “The Room” for less than 10 bucks, and you can never have too many copies of “The Room,” and 2. Only fools would pass on a special edition Tommy Wiseau football (“The Room” features numerous scenes of characters “tossing the football.” The phrasing is important, because the actors definitely aren’t throwing or catching the ball in any familiar fashion).

I bought the football because I hoped Tommy would not only sign the ball but also engage in a little game of toss right there in the lobby. Sure enough, my dream came true.

Wiseau looked predictably sharp, black vest, blue tie, plaid dress shirt and jeans, and he wore sunglasses at night to mask his potentially age-identifying eyes (according to reports, Tommy is either 60, 573 or D.B. Cooper).

He shook my hand, posed with my me and my friend for several pictures, signed the ball then proclaimed, “Let’s have a toss.” I took four steps back and we underhand-tossed the ball back and forth. For a moment, I was Greg, best friend to Johnny, having a toss on a lonely rooftop backed by (green-screened) San Francisco. Tommy then raised his hands and declared, “THAT’S IT.” He turned his back to meet another adorer.

He signed the ball, “To Tyler, Love Tommy.” He asked how to spell my name twice.

Short of Norm MacDonald patting my head when I met him at a comedy club a few years back, meeting Tommy was the greatest celebrity encounter of my life.

The screening itself also did not disappoint. After a 40-minute delay (Tommy had other footballs to toss), the evening opened with the pilot episode of his sorta-TV series “Neighbors” (also terrible, but not quite in the same fantastic way). Wiseau then appeared for a swift Q&A. My friend asked to be a part of his next project, and Tommy brought him onstage for an impromptu monologue reading. My friend delivered the famous “Room” line, “You’re tearing me apart, Lisa!” and Wiseau awarded him an “A-“ before literally shooing him offstage.

Every question was met with a short non-answer, followed by an occasional Tommy-trademarked “HA HA” and a curt “Next Question.” Then he brought all the people in “Room” costumes onstage so he could serenade them with a rendition of “A Whole New World” from “Aladdin.” I don’t know why.

Wiseau then vanished into the night, and “The Room” began playing to a sold-out crowd of fanatics. Those who have never seen “The Room” should watch it at home first, because the people in attendance shout over every line of dialogue that isn’t Tommy’s. There are recurring bits – people scream “Close the door” whenever there is a shot of the open front door of the titular room, mountains of plastic spoons are thrown at the screen when the camera lingers on the baffling framed portraits of utensils, and people toss the football in the aisles during the sports sequences.

Thanks to the crowd, there were things I never noticed before, like a mobile goiter on the neck of a key character, and the repeated times a character named Peter looks directly at the camera (the guys in the row behind us shouted, “Peter, over here!” just before every incident).

It was a glorious way to see the movie – and probably the only time I’ve ever enjoyed audience participation in a theater.

After almost a decade of being the weird guy who forced others to watch a video featuring numerous shots of a European vampire’s bare bottom, it was nice to share the experience with like-minded weirdos.

I’m grateful for the evening, especially now as “The Room” phenomenon creeps into the mainstream. “The Disaster Artist” book is a certifiable best seller, the James Franco film has performed well with critics and general audiences, even generating Oscar buzz for Franco’s performance as Tommy. The fan club will grow, and that’s a good thing, so long as people don’t lose dismiss the specialness of “The Room” and focus on Franco’s accomplishment bringing it to the mainstream..

“The Room” endures, I think, because despite whatever Tommy says now, there was real intention and love put into making the movie. It’s terrible in a way that can’t be faked. It spawned a character and creator unlike any person before him, and to have Wiseau embrace the ride demonstrates the power of letting audiences engage with and create alongside the art. Yes, “The Room” is art, and it continues to evolve because of the way Tommy Wiseau has given it to us.

I’ll channel my inner Tommy for a moment and say this – When I tossed the football with Tommy that night, I felt like the football represented the magic of the movies, and Tommy and I were harnessing it together.. HA HA.

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