Disasters, Dreams, and Risk-Taking: Thoughts on The Disaster Artist

At the time of writing, everyone’s abuzz about The Disaster Artist, the screen adaptation of the book of the same name. I saw it recently and was glued to the screen the entire time.

I’ve spoken and written about my love of really bad movies and how we draw both entertainment and inspiration differently from them opposed to “good” movies. I’ve also delved into how niche media has always inspired me. The whole mix of unorthodox media I had growing up– the obscure cult movies my dad would find on Laserdiscs for $2 a pop at the local Blockbuster and ancient Mac shareware games no one else knew about– coupled with spending virtually my entire adult life in the realms of punk, hardcore, vaporwave, and all of their offshoots, is what made me want to create 80 million different things.

Then well, I went to college and panicked about being unable to find a job with just any degree and was turned off from joining the games industry since I didn’t think I had any shot at it without getting better at coding, and my classes seemed too fast-paced for me. I had no fucking idea that going for the “safe” thing wound up being anything but that and it doesn’t matter whether your degrees took you on a linear path or not. You are not your job. You are not your degrees.

There’s so many stories about succeeding against all odds and having that one fluke completely change the course of history. So, what makes The Room and its origin story so captivating that it not only got a book but also a theatrically-released feature film about the actual making of the movie?

For a lot of people, The Room symbolizes the American Dream: an immigrant comes to America and accomplishes his dream from nothing. It’s a dream that’s honestly dead and buried to millions of people, whether in whole or part. For creatives in particular, it’s dumbfounding how a piece of media that is so patently terrible wound up catching on to the point that it has attained the same level of cult status as Rocky Horror Picture Show and Turkish Rambo.

But whether you find the utter lack of cohesion in The Room entertaining, or the story behind it to be beyond belief regardless of what you know about film-making: something about it just speaks to so many of us.

Los Angeles freeway sign

Speaking just for myself, I grew up in the late 80s/early 90s and all the games I played put a dream in me. I also wanted to try other types of media, having written both fan fiction and as a coping strategy growing up with an abusive parent. Wanted a band. Tried and am still doing some of these things! It’s also why I have Sonic Toad Media, not Sonic Toad Games: didn’t want to limit myself.

So while New York’s the place to be for a career in most media, California’s where you had to go for film and especially for games. By the time I reached college age, I decided it wasn’t worth the risk to go. By the time I graduated college, “indie developer” was becoming mainstream industryspeak and a huge thriving community was burgeoning in NYC. Nevertheless, it’s definitely where a lot of my dreams incubated and the same can be said for millions of other people.

I first went to California on a family vacation in 2002. My father always wanted to go to San Francisco since he missed the boat in the 60s and while he knew it wouldn’t be the same 30-some years later and with a family, he still wanted to make the trip. I wanted to see where all of my computers were born and where my games were made, go to punk shows at Gilman Street since I’d only just heard tales of it but wanted to see what inspired those songs. The Bay Area and LA were subculture-rich and in a different sense than back home: who wouldn’t have a dream put in them? Digging deeper, I wanted to see what kind of crazy world out west existed that inspired the tongue-in-cheek game world I saw in games like Leisure Suit Larry and other works that wound up being a huge influence on my sense of humor and writing style. Playing games like the fifth one in the series along with all the Carmen Sandiego titles, it put dreams in me of traveling the world on my own terms and getting into crazy adventures going up and down the coasts.

Suffice to say, the world’s changed a lot since 2002: there’s game design programs in schools now. Technology’s part of daily life, and games are slowly gaining more legitimacy and becoming more common in peoples’ lives. The nature of work is also changing despite resistance to keep things the way they were: many people are now living out their dreams of traveling or taking up more nomadic lifestyles thanks to so many types of work only requiring an internet connection. You definitely don’t need to be out west to make games anymore. I’ve traveled to cities around the nation that have thriving game developer communities, people striving for the indie dream and looking to get into AAA and III studios. But the dream remains and there’s still something about trekking out west that just…calls to so many of us.

For me personally, hey, I’ve changed a lot too. I’m nowhere near as fatalistic and pessimistic as I used to be. My outlook has changed from being around more positive people who are unafraid to think big (more on that in a bit.)

I’ve taken more advantage of the life and career I built to travel: old fatalistic me would say “What are you doing? Save the money!” (Modern realist me does this too, depending on how finances are doing: just not by default like old me would’ve done.) But life is short, creatives stagnate staying in the same place too long, and girlfriend has discovered how to game the bejesus out of travel reward programs (did you know you can score Delta Skymiles by connecting your Lyft account? I WAS MISSING OUT) So it used to be momentous going from coast to coast: now it’s something I do a few times a year, so scratch one for the “living the dream” card. I went to Vegas for the first time this year and definitely saw what inspired Leisure Suit Larry, and proceeded to have an incredible adventure meeting friends new and old and visiting places new and old, ending the trip in San Francisco where so many of my dreams incubated…along with millions of others, including The Room.

Every time I go to San Francisco, I try to see at least one place where it was filmed. When I’m in town for GDC I usually only have time to visit the location of one of the most hilariously bad scenes in film history: the flower shop (or what is now Sofia Cafe.) When I went in May to break up my Japan trip since I couldn’t stomach 10-12 hours on an airplane each way, I made it up to Bay and Broderick Streets in the Marina District to catch a familiar sight:

“Hi babe! I’ve something for you!”

In addition to gleefully informing my Toadlets on Twitter that I now saw every location where The Room was filmed, daresay I felt something when I was walking down Broderick Street and looking at the rest of those charming Victorian houses resembling decorated cakes amidst the petite roan condos that probably cost easily 20 times what my utilitarian little place in the Bronx ran me.

I felt that magic I felt when I first visited at 17 back in 2002. When I wondered if that was where I’d be at this age, coming home to a place where I’d be just a hop and skip from a punk show instead of a 1-1.5 hour schlep on the 2, 4, or 6 train, if I’d be in a fancy office on Market Street or coming in from Silicon Valley. I didn’t know I was going to work in a variety of shitty tax offices and an off-Wall Street firm where about 70% of my former bosses were indicted or at least sued for something, and spend most of my adult life not coming home to anyone except my toad. Now I’m toadless because I travel too damn much after I rarely ever traveled in my old life since I never had the money and/or autonomy. No less, that feeling of hope and wonder came back to me at 32 as I looked at that condo that looked exactly the same as it did when The Room was shot the same year I graduated high school and had so much to look forward to.

But it wasn’t desire alone that prompted me to chase my dream. I mean, we hear so many narratives about some motivated self-starter blah blah. Desire’s important. But it’s not the only thing.

If there’s anything we can learn from The Disaster Artist, it’s that you also need batshit crazy risk-takers in your life.

Despite living a life entrenched in subculture, I wasn’t around risk-takers. Not just in terms of creativity and/or entrepreneurship even though everyone I knew, including my own family, thought a job was the only way to make money. That’s how you’re indoctrinated. And until the free flow of information in the past decade or so, the only way most people COULD know. But I wasn’t really encouraged to go beyond “Have a job and just do X for fun or on the side.”

I wasn’t encouraged to do a lot of things: to make the first move on a guy I was interested in, that was a goddamn terrifying prospect. To just say what was on my mind instead of a complete lie for niceness’ sake. All these things led me to have such a closed-in and fatalistic lease on life.

Whether it was in terms of creativity, finding a way to make money without a job, romance, you name it– pretty risk-averse crowd. Not saying any of them were bad people. Just risk-averse, at least in my eyes.

It wasn’t until I started to take game development seriously and went off the beaten path, started hanging out with more genuinely passionate and batshit crazy risk-takers that I realized I’d been on the wrong path the whole time and I finally found my people. I still retain a love-hate relationship with a lot of entrepreneurial spaces, favoring creative ones for writers and game devs a bit more, but I can’t deny that I was still inspired by a lot of the people I met through them and learned a lot.

Now I’M that batshit crazy risk-taker (either in passing or in a few cases, a more present force) in a lot of people’s lives.

Creative would-be risk-takers tend to be stopped by one thing.

And it’s not money. I mean, that’s the OBVIOUS one. Fear you’ll run out of money, fear that you’ll never make money and assholes like landlords, grocery stores, etc. don’t take passion and “exposure” as payment. (Or how much it burns your ass that someone who makes commentary on video games with a few hundred K followers can easily make a hell whole lot more than the average indie developer…)

No, the thing that stops us that people will think this thing we poured all this passion, hard work, sacrifice, and our own cash into IS BAD.

That it will be the subject of much mocking on Twitter from people who never bothered to make anything themselves, or haunted by 1 and 2 star Kindle reviews.

If it’s even acknowledged at all.

So, let’s put everything we know about The Room aside in terms of critiquing it as a genuinely bad movie and get our timeline straight: The Room came out in 2003 after Tommy Wiseau initially wrote the screenplay around 2001 and couldn’t get any studios to pick it up, so he decided to make it on his own. Given that he was independently wealthy from cashing in on real estate before everything in San Francisco skyrocketed after the tech boom, $6 million worth of really bad movie with nice production values wasn’t difficult for Wiseau. The Room made about $1800 on its opening weekend, shown in just one theater. It didn’t really pick up a following until a year after the initial release when a bunch of college students were laughing their asses off at how bad it was and told all their friends to come see it. After getting constant emails from these students after the screening ended, Wiseau agreed to do a midnight showing in 2004 and a cult was born.

Wiseau then got mainstream prominence when Tim and Eric: Awesome Show, Great Job! on Adult Swim showed The Room to a wider audience by broadcasting the movie in their April Fool’s lineup, since the origin story and premise pretty much fit in with the low-budget aesthetic of all the absurdist skits they did. He also got his own episode in 2009.

Several fan-made series and adaptations including plays, books, and even talk of a BROADWAY MUSICAL later– The Room is getting a nationwide theatrical release after 14.5 years.

I mean, it’s BAD. By every stretch of the word.

But it found an audience that loves the living shit out of it.

Look, even the best games, movies, books, and so on in the world will have people saying bad things about them. Because they think it’s overrated or just don’t care for it.

And something that is commercially successful may not necessarily fit the arbitrary mold for “good”. A good story can be told with shitty production values, or the complete inverse as The Room showed us.

So if you’re scared of putting something out there because the world will think it’s bad?

Remember that we live in a world where you can be wildly successful, have highly-acclaimed creations, and STILL GET HATE MAIL. Hell, 2017 marks for me the year of two major firsts: the first time I legit got fan mail, and the first time I also got hate mail.

Let’s get real: both are creator/baller/influencer/whatever word you choose milestones.

So even if you DO put something out there that’s genuinely bad? At least you actually put it out there.

A lot of people don’t even bother trying. I was thinking about that as I was browsing Twitter one night and a woman in LA who I follow talked about how she found it sad how she just saw another busload of fresh-faced young whippersnappers arrive, surely to have their dreams of being an actress, filmmaker, or artist totally crushed under the heel of capitalism in one of the most expensive regions in the country.

I honestly don’t see how it’s sad.

They’re at least TRYING. So many people don’t try because they figure “What’s the point? The odds are against me, I need the safe option.” which was a mistake I made when I was younger and wish I had been more risk-tolerant.

So they’re in that land of dreams out west, just like Greg Sestero and Tommy Wiseau, just like all my game dev heroes of olde, at least trying like hell to make something happen.

Worst thing that happens is they decide it’s not for them and apply that experience elsewhere, or perhaps re-manifest that dream into that something else.

I initially envisioned focusing on game development full-time as an indie dev. That was my dream. I let the original dream die then resurrected it once I was around plenty of batshit crazy risk-takers who got it. I’ve now re-manifested that dream to account for not just financial reality but all the other things I want to do in life in addition to making games: teach, write, speak, raise other voices, and still get to have time for punk shows, activism, and petting lots of toads. Doing things by my own design and helping others do the same.

Because life’s too short for just one thing. As much as I love my father, I can’t frigging imagine going to the same job every day for 30-some years like he did. That was the path he basically told me to take. My generation may lament lacking the option for that kind of security: I think that option should be there, but I’ve embraced the reality we were given since being a risk-taker wasn’t encouraged when I was growing up.

If I hadn’t AT LEAST TRIED? Chances are this site wouldn’t be up. I wouldn’t have an awesome following of Toadlets, wouldn’t be making anything period let alone anything I wanted to share with the world. I’d still be trudging to one shitty tax office job after another thinking that’s what I was doomed to live my life as.

We need not try to do everything like Tommy Wiseau did. And just because you don’t fit neatly into some business magazine’s “I crushed my goal in 1-2 years!” narrative, doesn’t mean you’ll necessarily take 10-15 years to attain yours other.

Just that it may happen in a different manner than you expected. Whether you journeyed near or far for it.

If 2017 has taught us anything, it’s that life’s about to get even weirder and more unexpected.

Happy 2018, Toadlets!

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