By Kevin Kelly
Movies about geeks have never been particularly flattering. Even in films like Revenge of the Nerds where the nerds win the day, there is plenty of dramatic license taken to make them badass so they can win the girl. But stories that cut to the heart of geekdom and reveal what true nerdery is all about? Those are extremely rare. It's even rarer when you find yourself pulling for the geek at the heart of those stories, despite everything else.
Luckily this year at SXSW we stumbled across Zero Charisma, a film about a gamemaster struggling to keep his RPG campaign alive after losing one of the main players. But problems arise when he has to battle with the replacement for popularity, and his world begins to unravel. The entire movie hinges on the fantastic performance of Sam Eidson as Scott Weidemeyer, and while he might seem a bit over the top, the honest truth is that we all know someone exactly like him. And we can see facets of ourselves in his personality.
Filmmaker Katie Graham served as director of photography on the cult hit documentary Best Worst Movie about the making of Troll 2, which she also co-edited with fellow filmmaker Andrew Matthews. Together, they co-directed Zero Charisma, based on Matthews' script. We caught up with them long after the frenzy of SXSW to talk about the making of the movie, and how they stayed true to nerdom. Read on for the full interview, and try to catch Zero Charisma if you can. With any luck, a distribution deal will get it close to you. There's a scene where Scott blasts some World of Warcraft players that you really need to see.
MTV Multiplayer: Where did the idea for this film come from? Are either of you gamers yourselves?
Andrew Matthews: The idea for the film started with the character, who was a kind of cross between Ignatius J. Reilly (Confederacy of Dunces), Cartman from South Park and David Brent from The Office. We loved the character, we knew he had to be deeply involved in some kind of nerdery, and since I (Andrew) have been playing D&D since junior high, it was a world and type of people that I knew very well. Though the storyline and supporting cast changed with varying iterations of the script, it was always "Scott Weidemeyer, Game Master."
Was the idea always to make it about someone into role-playing games? Video gamers are a ripe audience as well, and Scott does have a pretty great rant about World of Warcraft in the film.
Andrew: It was always role-playing games. There was some pressure from a potential investor at one point to make them all WoW players, because it's a more known hobby, but it was hard enough keeping the film dynamic with the characters sitting around a table all the time. Sitting in front of computers miles apart? Not the greatest dramatic setting. More importantly though, we wanted Scott to be a Luddite, someone who's on the fringe even within his own fringe subculture, an old-fashioned guy who's suspicious of progress and modern tech, like the vinyl snob who insists digital music is garbage. So he had to be as old-school a gamer as possible.
Have you seen a documentary called THE DUNGEON MASTERS by Keven McAlester? Your film dovetails with it quite nicely. There's a high level of nerdery associated with D&D and RPGs for some reason.
Andrew: We did watch that doc, both as research and because we are doc fans, and it does a good job of showing people who, like Scott, are way into D&D. I remember when it first came out hearing some complaints from the gamer community that it made gamers look bad, but I saw it as I hope people see Zero Charisma -- that these characters don't represent all D&D players, just exceptionally obsessed ones.
What about nerds or geeks? It's a badge of honor these days, but would you describe yourselves as either one?
Andrew: I am one or the other or maybe both. The definitions are so murky and changing it's hard to tell. I always understood a "nerd" to be someone who did really well in school but was socially inept (check) and a "geek" to be someone really into hobbies that others would see as childish, fantastical, or absurd (check). So maybe I'm both. One thing that is foreign to me, being in my mid-thirties, is the concept of "nerd pride". When I was growing up, that was an oxymoron. You didn't want to be a nerd, you didn't want others to call you a nerd. I think when people are proud of being a nerd these days, they're proud of their pop culture interests and knowledge, like Miles in our film. Nobody would be proud of the painful social issues that Scott struggles with, and I guess that's the conflict at the heart of the film.
When did you decide to make hipsters a target in the film? I nearly choked when I saw the guy showing off his high bicycle tattoo at the party.
Kate Graham: Well we wanted Scott, the main character, to have a nemesis and we thought no better nemesis for a hard core gamer than a neo-nerd hipster.
What was casting like for this film? Sam Eidson really sells this, and it is hard to imagine this movie without him. How did you find him?
Katie: Well there aren't many actors in Austin that could fit the bill. Matter of fact, there aren't many working actors out there that could play Scott Weidemeyer. We saw Sam Eidson in some local shorts and he had a small part in a film called Man From Orlando. We thought he was really funny and looked the part but we wondered if he could do drama. We asked him to act in our Indiegogo campaign teaser for the film we were putting together to raise money. He did a great job with that so we brought him on to do the movie. It was a big risk for us because he had never been a lead before but Sam knocked it out the park. He IS the film.
What about finding the other cast members?
Katie: We didn't have the money for a casting director so we had to do all the casting ourselves. We had an audition process of about a month and a half and we saw easily over 150 people. Wanda, Scott's Grandmother, played by Anne Gee Byrd and Greg Goran, played by Dakin Matthews were both cast out of LA.
There's a fine line between showing something as it is, and making fun of it, which you guys tread very finely in this film. How difficult was that?
Katie: The bottom line for us is that we have respect for the characters we create. No matter how good or bad they are, no matter how silly or awkward the things they do are, we write characters we like. In the film, we poke fun of nerd culture yet at the same time do have great respect for it. The line we walk has everything to do with respecting and caring for the characters we create like real people.
What were some of the things that didn't make it into the movie?
Katie: We originally had a scene where Scott's Ulrich figurine comes to life and gives him advice. We shot the scene and it turned out great, but in the end we decided it didn't quite fit, so we ended up cutting it. Definitely expect to see it in the deleted scenes on the DVD.
What was your own filmmaking background before Zero Charisma?
Katie: Andrew and I have been a shooting/editing team for many years. We primarily worked on documentaries. I shot and Andrew edited the 2009 documentary Best Worst Movie about the story behind the cult film Troll 2. We teamed up again with the same director of Best Worst Movie, Michael Paul Stephenson, to shoot and edit The American Scream for the Chiller network. The American Scream is a documentary about three families in Fairhaven, Massachusetts that make homemade haunted houses in their backyards every Halloween. You can find that one on Netflix Instant.
Now that the dust has settled after SXSW, what are your thoughts looking back? What were the interactions like with the audiences? What surprised you?
Katie: SXSW 2013 was easily one of the craziest rides of our lives so far. It's a very emotional process watching your film with an audience, especially when you're hoping they will laugh and be entertained. The audiences at SXSW couldn't have been better. They loved the film and we couldn't ask for anything more than that. I think Andrew and I are still in shock that we took home the Audience Award in the Narrative Spotlight category. It was a dream come true for us.
What's next for the movie? And for you two as filmmakers?
Katie: Right now we're touring Zero Charisma at numerous film festivals and working out a distribution deal to get the film out to the public. As for us as filmmakers, we're working on a few scripts and trying to decided which one we'll direct.
Last question: Let's say we are putting a group together for a dungeon delving party. What classes would you guys fit into? Cleric? Paladin? Magic User? Fighter? Thief? Something else?
Andrew: I always wanted to be a Mage, because I felt like they were the biggest challenge and I liked the idea of using brain over brawn to get out of sticky situations. I'd say Katie's a fighter. Yeah, definitely a fighter.