On Sunday, Tyler Riggs’ new movie, “God’s Waiting Room,” premieres at Pier 76—one of seven outdoor venues for the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival. The sold-out screening marks the first time New Yorkers get to be in new Hudson River Park, and it’s the world’s first peek at the Tampa native’s directorial debut.
The 95-minute movie follows Rosie, a fresh-out-of-high-school musician played by Nisalda Gonzalez, who meets Jules (Matthew Leone) whose charm and confidence help Rosie fall in love fast. Across the way, in the same central Florida town made steamy by another Sunshine State summer, Brandon (played by Riggs) is back home after 10 years in prison and trying to find a way to live life while cohabitating with the scars of his past.
God’s Waiting Room
Available to stream at home starting Monday, June 14. $15.
Previews of the film—which also stars Suvi Riggs (Tyler is her husband), Michelle Nuñez, Ray Benitez and Renata Eastlick, co-owner of Tampa Bay’s own Eastlick Coffee Co.—call it “expressive and tender,” but locals and the world at large won’t get to see “God’s Waiting Room” until Monday when Tribeca releases the film for streaming across the U.S.
In a statement issued early this month, Riggs, 35, said the circumstances someone gets issued played heavy on his mind while he was writing the film and added that a “shity hand” he was dealt early in life largely inspired the movie.
“ ...this film is me: It’s about who I was and who I could’ve been had I gone left instead of right on one of those fateful days,” Riggs wrote. “It’s about young love and hopes and dreams. It’s a complicated love letter, an unflinching display of the constant war between beauty and ugliness in the Sunshine State, the place where I was born and raised; the place America goes to die.”
Save for scant Wiki and Tumblr bits on his modeling career, there’s not much else about Riggs on the internet. To learn more, you might have to watch “Boomtown,” where Sabyn Mayfield directed him alongside Rachel Brosnahan and Dwight Yoakam in a 2017 drama set during the North Dakota gold rush. Further back, there’s “Nobody’s Darling,”a 12-minute short Riggs wrote in 2014 and shot in Austin, Texas using a Canon 5D and a $1,000 budget. The short premiered at the 2015 Gasparilla International Film Festival (GIFF, coincidentally having its own 2021 dates locally this weekend).
GIFF is where Riggs met Mayfield who complimented him on “Darling” then set him up with “Boomtown” (the year before, “And A Bag of Chips!,” which Mayfield directed, won the Audience Choice Award at GIFF). That meeting put Riggs on set with David Newbert who was Director of Photography. Newbert had recently worked on “Marfa Girl” with director Larry Clark, who famously helped the 1995 classic “Kids” written by Harmony Korine, who put Tampa Bay on the map with his own 2012 film, “Spring Breakers.” It was a full circle moment for Riggs.
“Saybyn Mayfield had just come off working on 'Spring Breakers'—he did all the local casting in Tampa and St. Pete—so I was getting to work with these dudes that I really respected,” Riggs told Creative Loafing Tampa Bay on a phone call from his Tampa office.
“Darling” only happened because another film he was working on fell apart, which led Riggs to start working on a dialogue about a kid who had a pet greyhound his dad was gonna race before the dog hurt his paw and had to be put down.
“There's all these moments in my life like that I think back on that just led me to where I am. There was sort of a plan, but there was, like, no plan,” Riggs laughed, “It all just cascaded. All because I was eating fucking Chick-fil-A at International Plaza, man.”
But the road to that food court chicken sandwich is complicated.
Riggs was born in Clearwater and grew up in Town 'n' Country, raised largely by his grandma before eventually moving to a four-acre lakeside Lutz property after his single mom met his stepdad. Riggs’ biological father wasn’t a part of his childhood, but they’ve since found a groove as far as how they can interact; now Riggs’ kids can have their grandpa in their lives. Without getting into the details, Riggs said he lived in and out of a lot of different places; as a kid in Town 'n' Country one of his best friends was assaulted and left for dead before being found alive in the woods behind the apartments they lived in.
Those events were part of that shitty hand Riggs alluded to, but “God’s Waiting Room” is about the gorgeous state and community that helped the filmmaker overcome, too. Eventually Riggs ended up at Tampa Baptist School. The religious teachings didn’t save him, but the hardcore music scene being cultivated at the school did.
The chaos of Riggs’ life and the weight he carried in mind could only be quelled by the energy of the bands his friends—and eventually Riggs himself—were playing in. “God’s Waiting Room” isn’t a movie about music, but its undertones speak to how that music made him feel. And the way the movie’s theme’s—down and out Florida man and the crazy subtropical paradise he lives in—manifest themselves within the frame are an expression of that, too.
“I was on a trajectory, getting in a lot of fights and hanging out with guys who’re ending up OD-ing and what not—the path they were on was the path that I was on,” Riggs said.
“I was exposed to bands and lyrics, energy and people who had so clearly come out of the chaos feeling the same things that I felt. That music embodied that, and that music has informed me as an artist and a filmmaker. The way that that music made me feel the first time I heard it is what I want people to feel when they watch ‘God's Waiting Room.’”
But Riggs had to find his way to the camera first, and that’s where Don Sizemore comes in. Sizemore—who played in old-school Tampa punk band Clairmel—taught a photography class at Gaither High School. He remembers Riggs being a terrible student and having to call home because he was failing. Still, Sizemore told CL that Riggs was “definitely unique and had an edge to him that I liked.”
Sizemore taught kids how to develop film, and in a way, sit in the dark and develop themselves.
“Working in the darkroom is such an evocative experience and immediately immerses you in the creative process. Teenagers like him walk in the first day and know they're home. It sounds corny but it's true,” Sizemore wrote in a text message. “The majority of their grade is based on day to day process and very little on lectures, notes and quizzes. So they can show up, talk to their friends, listen to loud music, be creative and get a grade for it? And all in a safe and caring environment. I think that vibe hooks some of them deeper than the actual content that I'm teaching.”
“That was my first exposure to cameras,” Riggs said.
There were bumps along the way. One time he got busted squatting at some friends’ apartment while their band was on tour. Amends were made, and the same band eventually hired Riggs to be their merch guy. Being on the road—even when sometimes making a $6 per diem—helped Riggs realize he needed to get out of town.
Then on that day he had that Chick fil-A Polynesian sauce on his face, someone asked him to model for a class photoshoot. He ended up in front of Tampa Academy of Art and Design students over and again. This was his way out of town. His modeling career took off, and Riggs ended up in campaigns for Louis Vuitton, Dolce & Gabbana and Ray-Ban and in front of photographers like Steven Klein and Cass Bird. Knowledge from Sizemore’s class gave Riggs the tools to know enough about what was happening behind the scenes and pick up an unofficial education.
“I ended up in the greatest photography school there ever was—modeling,” Riggs explained. Eventually he used the money he saved to attend NYC’s Esper acting school, which led to some roles he didn’t like and then more he did, culminating in his filmmaking and run in with Mayfield.
The shot locations for “God’s Waiting Room” represent the places, people and energy that have carried Riggs to where he is now (he recently moved back home from L.A.). On screen appear his friends and even his stepdad’s paving systems business.
“If you call the number on the shirt, you’re going to get my old man picking up the phone,” Riggs said.
So for now, as Tribeca gets this introduction to Florida man, so, too, does Tampa to Riggs, a filmmaker who’s spent the last decade developing his visual style and the story he’s telling in “God’s Waiting Room.” And while it’s taken a tumultuous life for him to get here, I’ve got a feeling he’ll be telling the world his stories for even more years to come.
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