At Tommy Wiseau’s Big Shark, I watched a new cinematic ritual being born

Thirty minutes before a midnight screening of Tommy Wiseau’s Big Shark at Chicago’s Music Box Theater, the man sitting in front of me and my husband turned around with a sly grin and asked us “Are you cowboys?” I immediately guessed where this was going, so I played along and told him, straight-faced, that no, we were not cowboys. “OK, then. You might need these,” he said, offering me a box of tissues.

I had no idea what he was referencing, but I got the vibe immediately. It was the equivalent of a Rocky Horror Picture Show veteran asking a newbie “Are you a virgin?” Clearly, this man was in the know about a Big Shark gag I wasn’t in on yet. But just as clearly, he had a plan involving some sequence in the movie, and he wanted us to be ready to participate.

Of course we were in. I grabbed a tissue and braced myself for impact. Big Shark is clearly Wiseau’s riff on “huge predator menaces small town” movies like Jaws or The Meg, though tonally, it’s closer to Syfy originals like Sharktopus. But I wasn’t really there for the shark attacks. I’d showed up to see whether Big Shark was already turning into the new edition of Wiseau’s infamous movie The Room. This invitation to participate in some unknown gag made it clear that I was about to get exactly the experience I’d been hoping for.

Oh hai, shark

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Tommy Wiseau’s first movie, The Room, is one of the most baffling pieces of outsider art ever made, and its success story is equally baffling. The narrative is incoherent. The script is full of non sequiturs. Characters and plot points are introduced, then disappear forever without comment. An excruciating sex scene is shown twice. The cast offers up some of the most awkward line readings and physical blocking known to mankind.

Wiseau stars in the film, and his half-mumbled, half-shouted performance and periodically mangled English are so mesmerizingly weird that many of his line readings — “Oh hai, Mark!” “You’re tearing me apart, Lisa!” “Everybody betray me! I fed up with this world!” — have become memes, merch, and instant shibboleths, traded around to identify those who have experienced The Room in all its confusing glory.

Theatrical showings of The Room quickly became focused on audience participation and engagement. An entire Rocky Horror-esque ritual has grown up around the movie. Participants throw plastic spoons, recite along with some lines and respond to others, and run down to the screen to imitate the movie’s phenomenally clumsy football-tossing scene or to interact with Wiseau’s on-screen character. The routine is part mockery, part celebration, part ego-driven public performance, as participants compete to come up with the cleverest new quip or get the biggest laugh.

Big Shark is not much better as a movie. More than a decade after The Room premiered, it seems impossible that Wiseau hasn’t gained some measure of self-awareness about his filmmaking. He’s been in on the joke for years, attending screenings of The Room, selling his own “Oh hai Mark” merch, and even appearing in The Disaster Artist, the 2017 film adaptation of Greg Sestero’s tell-all book about how The Room went so wrong. It was always a toss-up, though, whether his movie’s rep as one of the worst films ever made would push him to improve as a filmmaker, or whether he might consciously try to expand his myth by purposefully creating another infamously bad cult movie.

Big Shark shows no sign that he did either of these things.

You’re tearing me apart, shark

An underlit night shot from Tommy Wiseau’s Big Shark shows a building-sized great white lunging along a New Orleans street on top of the water Image: Wiseau-Films/YouTube

Big Shark centers on three volunteer firemen — game and rugged Tim (Isaiah LaBorde), seemingly half-stoned Patrick (Wiseau), and angsty Georgie (Mark Valeriano) — trying to stop a giant shark from terrorizing New Orleans. (Sestero, Wiseau’s The Room co-star, was originally cast as Georgie and appeared in an early teaser trailer, but dropped out of the project before production.) The shark, which the characters inform us countless times is a 35-footer, skates through the streets weightlessly on sudden inexplicable gushes of shallow water, snatching people up in its jaws like the improbable digital monster that leaps out of nowhere to gobble up Samuel L. Jackson mid-speech in Deep Blue Sea.

Why does it fall on three firemen to save the city? Why is no one else doing anything about the shark? Why do the firefighters frequently interrupt their shark-hunting plans for beer pong and clumsy fights with their girlfriends? Why do they keep repeating things they’ve already said, and holding atonal impromptu sing-alongs? This is the mystery of a Tommy Wiseau movie.

But there’s no sign that any of it is calculated or cunning. Big Shark is as mawkishly sincere as The Room, complete with similarly unmotivated relationship drama, played out in similarly unconvincing ways. Once again, the editing is an absolute conundrum, with redundant scenes and reused footage. The sound mix is terrible, with characters’ voices blaring one moment and all but disappearing the next, even within a single scene. A daytime sequence will suddenly become a night sequence, and vice versa, with no sense of elapsed time. Much of the dialogue appears to have been improvised on the day of shooting, with only broad guidelines about the purpose of any particular scene.

Wiseau hasn’t gotten any better at laughing, crying, or talking in ways that believably mimic any kind of previously known human behavior. The pacing is a snooze, the shot-to-shot continuity is nonexistent, and the titular big shark is a ridiculously cheap, Birdemic-level special effect that computer-savvy adolescents are routinely outdoing for amateur film projects on YouTube.

The audience loved it.

Ha ha ha, what a story, shark!

A gif of a badly realized CG shark skidding through the streets of New Orleans devouring people, with sprays of very bright red, very fake-looking blood
A gif of a badly realized CG shark skidding through the streets of New Orleans devouring people, with sprays of very bright red, very fake-looking blood
Image: Wiseau-Films/YouTube

Early on in Big Shark, it became obvious that the guy in front of us wasn’t the only one who had already seen the movie. Big Shark currently isn’t available for streaming or online rental; it can only be seen in theaters, as part of an extended nationwide tour ahead of a promised digital release. (Finding out about screenings in advance is a little challenging: Wiseau’s website and his many social media outlets are only erratically updated, though The Room’s website seems to have the most recent info.) You might think that limited availability would slow down the growth of a new Big Shark-based theatrical ritual. But many of the people at my screening were clearly veterans of The Room, and they came prepared.

Tim and Patrick go diving several times in the movie, seeking the shark and encountering the same batch of plastic kelp. Every time it reappeared, an audience member led a sing-along to the tune of The Beatles’ “Help!”: “Kelp! I need somebody! Kelp! Not just anybody! Kelp! You know I need someone! Keelllllp!” When Patrick’s girlfriend, Sophia (Ashton Leigh), tells Tim’s girlfriend, Charlotte (Erica Mary Gillheeney), to “implement discipline” with him to avoid relationship problems, someone in the audience made whip-cracking noises. The constant mentions of the “big shark” were met with a collective, choral “How big was it?” and an equally choral response of “Thirty-five feet!” A glimpse of a transparent egg with an embryonic shark inside naturally started a sing-along of “Baby Shark.” Every on-screen devouring earned a cheer of “Big shaaark!”

The continuity problems got plenty of callouts. Wiseau’s character wears oddly bright-hued gloves that change color from shot to shot: Someone behind me yelled “I hate my old gloves!” with a Wiseau accent to mark every color change. “Why is it night?” every time a daytime scene goes dark was a popular question. Tim rarely appears to be driving the same vehicle from scene to scene, which got a repeated catcall of “Let’s change cars!” Patrick repeatedly yowls Sophia’s name during a particularly weird scene where she tries to boot him from their house for unclear reasons: One wag in the back of the theater went full Streetcar Named Desire, echoing every shout of “Sophiaaaa!” with “Stellaaaa!”

There was prop comedy: The guy in front of me brought a sheet of cling wrap, which he held up, shouting “The plan is clear!”, first to echo the characters during their initial strategizing, then whenever they reference “the plan” after that. There was dancing: The movie ends with an extended New Orleans jazz stroll, and some viewers got up to circle the aisles, strutting and pumping like the characters. There were admonitions: When the shark swallows someone whole, but somehow leaves behind a huge pile of gore-soaked clothing and a single shoe, someone yelled, “Hey, you forgot your blood!”

There were plenty of references to The Room’s familiar audience script as well. Any vehicle in motion, whether it’s a car outracing the shark or an moored inflatable raft drifting slowly away, got a chant of “Go! Go! Go!” The frequent bar scenes had people yelling “Johnny doesn’t drink!” A scene where Georgie doesn’t want to go after the shark got a catcall of “You’re just a chicken. Chip-chip-chip-chip cheep-cheep!” With The Room’s audience ritual so well established at this point, it was inevitable that some of it would cross over, especially in the early days of audiences discovering the film and figuring out how it’s distinctive from The Room, and where it lines up.

But mostly what I heard at Big Shark was what I heard the first time I ever went to Rocky Horror: a room full of people collectively groping around for the perfect pause points in the script where they could inject a laugh line into the silence, or figuring out what gags or repeated call-and-response exchanges would draw in the most shared participation.

Many of the quips and barbs in the theater were unintelligible, with people speaking over each other, or over the movie’s muddled dialogue. Some of them just weren’t funny, and didn’t get a response. Sometimes the timing was off — possibly because most viewers don’t know the script well enough to know what the savvier viewers were responding to. Big Shark’s Chicago audience, at least, hasn’t found its rhythm yet.

Anyway, how is your shark life?

Patrick (Tommy Wiseau, in flat-top fedora, huge sunglasses, a bright red shirt, and inexplicable blue gloves) stands between his buddies Tim (Isaiah LaBorde, in jean jacket and a cowboy hat), and Georgie (Mark Valeriano, in khakis and a button-down shirt) on a New Orleans sidewalk as they argue about the shark in Wiseau’s movie Big Shark Image: Wiseau-Films/YouTube

But it’s working toward finding that rhythm. The tissue I was offered 30 minutes before the movie? It came in handy when Patrick and his friends suffer a loss, and weep inconsolably for a moment before Patrick tells Tim that cowboys don’t cry. Then suddenly they’re singing together, a grating, tuneless, barely musical group howl of the same four lines over and over and over:

Cowboys don’t cry
And heroes don’t die
Sparkles in the sky
So I won’t cry

We threw our tissues in the air. We swayed and waved them back and forth like lighters at a concert as this four-line song dragged on and on. And obviously, we sang along in celebration.

This isn’t Big Shark’s only terrible semi-song: Patrick croons a little ditty to Sophia’s beauty, and turns a drunken promise to save the city into an improvised sing-along with Tim. But “Cowboys Don’t Cry” (and its inevitable lengthy reprise) was the real inflection point for the movie’s nascent and growing audience ritual. It was the point where we all agreed on how to respond, and how to respect the sheer weirdness of what was going on on screen. It was a unifying moment of pure celebration — like a public Rocky Horror performance, like a showing of The Room, like one of the many sing-along screenings of musical movies that periodically tour the country.

It’s unlikely that Big Shark will ever fully replace The Room for fans of bad movies and collective experiences. The Room has a decade-long head start, and it has the advantage of being a movie like nothing its fans had ever seen before. Big Shark feels more like a spinoff or an echo than an entirely new thing — a chance to see more of Wiseau’s extremely strange way of looking at the world, but not an “I can’t believe this movie exists” revelation in the same way The Room was. It taps into the same well of humor, but with less novelty value. It has more action, more blood, more of a plot, and the odd advantage of being a sort-of kind-of group musical experience, but it’s still likely to live permanently in The Room’s shadow.

But for the moment, attending a screening of Big Shark is a fairly fascinating chance to watch a new cinematic ritual attempting to be born. For some, it could be a chance to put a lasting stamp on a new audience-participation experience: While there are regional differences between the signature rituals around other movies, favorite lines and gags tend to get passed invisibly from region to region, and it’s no surprise when a particularly well-timed, funny bit of viewer interaction in a Portland theater suddenly shows up at a DC screening. For other viewers, it’s just a chance to observe the process in action. Either way, if you’re seeing Big Shark in a theater, remember to bring your tissues — assuming you aren’t a cowboy.