Interview: Zero Charisma Directors Katie Graham and Andrew Matthews

If you’re checking out movie news on the web, there’s a good chance that you’ll be able identify some of the characters in Katie Graham and Andrew Matthews’ new indie comedy Zero Charisma, lovingly set in the nerd haven of Austin, Texas and examining the life of an RPG gamer who takes his hobby just a little bit too seriously.

Scott (Sam Eidson) doesn’t have a lot going on in his life outside of his weekly role-playing game gathering with his friends. There, he’s king and, quite literally, ruler. That all begins to change one day, however, when Miles, a smart, funny and charismatic neo-nerd hipster, joins the group and Scott’s popularity begins to falter.

ComingSoon.net spoke with Graham and Matthews about the painfully accurate look at some of the darker sides of fandom and learned that the pair have already written a pilot in the hopes that the adventures of Scott might continue in an ongoing form.

You can catch Zero Charisma on VOD and in select theaters beginning today, October 11.

CS: How did “Zero Charisma” start for the two of you?
Andrew Matthews:
It began with the character, really. We really loved films that have unlikable — or, at least, not traditionally likable — main characters. I really wanted to tackle that. Although, to be honest, halfway through pre-production there was a point that we were thinking, “What are we doing?” But we loved the character. We liked the idea of the kind-of know-it-all nerd character who is pompous and obsessive, but also quite vulnerable once you get to know them. I happened to be a games player since I was in fifth grade or so. It was kind of a no-brainer to set it in that world because it’s a very imaginative world. It’s a creative world. That meant that the main character could be kind of an artist type. He’s kind of a suffering artist. It’s also a very social world, too. There’s lots of different types who interact. Then, the plot of the neo-nerd hipster came in later when we were trying to figure out who would be a great foil for this character. A guy who would make him the most insecure. That’s pretty much where it came from.

CS: Was it a matter of developing the character and sort of hoping the story would find him?
Matthews:
There’s actually a script that I wrote years ago that has this character in it. He had a different name and it’s a totally different story. It was kind of a higher-budget-type endeavor. I had forgotten about that and, when we realized that we were going to make a very small movie with a very small budget that would have to be just a kind of character piece and exist in a very real world, we started to gather the data and really focused in on his personality and his family.

CS: One of the real charms of the film is just in how accurate it is to nerd culture. Was keeping that real an edict from the beginning?
Katie Graham:
Yeah, that was really important to us because there’s a lot of nerd portrayals out that that don’t stay particularly genuine. The actor and the casting is a big deal. We wanted people who really looked like they were kind of nerdier guys. We wanted them to be this world. We didn’t want Hollywood actors, more on the pretty boy side. Just plain nerds, you know?

Matthews: There’s this history of taking a very good-looking guy and putting a pocket protector and glasses on him and saying, “You’re a nerd now!” We were definitely anti-that. A lot of the cast, too, are genuinely into this world. One of our actors, the guy who played Martin, Vincent Prendergast was so excited to do the role but he did, at one point, ask, “Can I actually play the other character? Because I’m more of a ‘Star Trek’ fan and I would rather argue that side.” He actually wanted a role that correlated with what his fan-likes were.

CS: Was there ever a point where you had to explain some specific reference to anyone?
Matthews:
Yeah, definitely. Sometimes. Not a lot, but sometimes. Actually, Sam Eidson, who plays Scott, is into a lot of really nerdy things, but “Dungeons & Dragons” is not one of them. It’s like the only nerdy thing he’s not into. I lent him my books like a month or so before shooting. I didn’t expect him to read them cover to cover, but he tried to. He wanted to learn as much about it as possible.

CS: Were the references very thoroughly scripted, or did you just sort of let the cast loose on a given topic?
Graham:
The whole film is very, very scripted. There’s little to none improvised stuff.

Matthews: We originally wanted to do more improve, but it just didn’t fit the budget and the time that we had. We kind of just had to plow through, get the lines and then move on.

CS: Did you ever hit on something that was just too weird and you realized audiences would never believe it was a real fandom?
Matthews:
I have to give it to Katie and, given the fact that Katie is not into “Dungeons & Dragons,” she was able to take on the script — the original script that I wrote was like twice as long as the movie. Once I started writing about these guys talking about these things, it just kind of goes off the rails — She was able to read it and say, “At this point, it gets a little too ‘Inside Baseball.’ I don’t know what they’re talking about here. It was a tough line we had to walk for a while figuring out the difference between authentic and also having the film move quickly enough.

Graham: To make it for a more general audience. I don’t need to know anything about gaming culture to understand what’s going on.

CS: It seems like you were really able to embrace the nerd side of Austin. How did that kind of cooperation come about when you were finding locations?
Graham:
It’s kind of funny. Andrew and I both grew up in LA and then we moved to Austin. But we had come up with the idea before we moved to Austin. When we moved to Austin, we were like, “This is really the perfect place for this movie!” Austin is, in my mind, like the nerd capital of the country. There’s so many film nerds and comic book nerds and hipster nerds and just every kind of nerd in Austin.

Matthews: We had a big outdoor screening where a ton of people came and the audience was like 50/50. Nerds and hipsters.

Graham: We were like, “If there’s a war, it’s going to start here.”

CS: It’s not actually “Dungeons & Dragons” in the movie, but the riff on it blends in very seamlessly. Was it ever planned to be “Dungeons & Dragons” or did the fact that you were using the game’s creator as a character make you want to create your alternate version?
Graham:
Yeah, initially we had it as “D&D” but, as we started looking into it further, “Wizards of the Coast” owns “Dungeons & Dragons” and “Wizards of the Coast” is owned by Hasbro. We knew that would be nearly impossible. We also had a filmmaker friend who had a “D&D” theme in one of his movies. He was like, “Don’t even. Don’t even ask. Don’t even ask. Just find a way around it.”

CS: Does it become a cathartic experience identifying and writing about the more negative aspects of being a nerd?
Graham:
Absolutely. I’ll tell you, the major emotion that I had to tap into writing the script was insecurity. Everyone deals with that, though Scott is a particularly extreme example. That’s kind of how we designed the Miles character. To be the person who would make Scott the most insecure. That why people ask, “How come the ending isn’t a little bit more victorious for Scott?” For me, my personal journey with insecurity is that you’re never going to be the best at anything. You just kind of have to accept who you are. That’s kind of more what we wanted to happen with Scott.

CS: The idea that the character was developed before the script is interesting to me. Were there scenarios you put him through just in drafts to build the character that ended up having nothing to do with the final film?
Matthews:
Yeah, and we cut a lot from the script. There were a lot of scenes that got cut out of the final film. I’m trying to think of some substantial ones offhand. There was stuff that was kind of more extreme situations. The original script that I wrote years ago that had a character that was kind of like Scott. A guy that is sort of obsessed with having his “D&D” game, but he has his own adventure in just trying to get a “D&D” game off the ground. It was kind of extreme and there wasn’t as much a look at him and how he ticks. We did have a scene that we shot — and it should be in the deleted scenes on the DVD — where he does this whole thing with his little figurine, Ulrich. It appears to him as an actor and sort of tries to give him some advice. It doesn’t go very well. They argue. It was a really funny scene but, at the end of the day, it was so tonally different from the rest of the film and it kind of makes Scott seem a little crazy, talking to his imaginary friend. But that’ll be on the DVD.

CS: Did you always envision this a film? In a lot of ways, the character seems like he would lend himself to a television series or a web series.
Graham:
It’s funny because, honestly, I agree with you. I think it even makes more sense, probably, as a tv series or a web series or something like that. But basically, we had set out to do this movie and that was what we wanted to do.

Matthews: We raised money for it, initially, on Indiegogo and we had made a teaser trailer with just a handful of scenes. We actually had some production companies in Hollywood say the same thing. “Have you thought about this as a TV show?” And yes, a lot of our inspiration is certainly from TV.

Graham: Our biggest inspiration, honestly, was the U.K. “The Office” because there’s this character who’s very, very hard to like and, by the end, you do feel some empathy for him. We just loved that. We loved the kind of awkward, hard-to-sit-through moments. It makes sense that people think that about it, I think.

Matthews: And we actually have, you’ll be the first know, written a pilot for a Scott half-hour show. That would be great if that goes somewhere.

Graham: Mainly because it’s such a fun character to work with, you know? There’s a lot of things that we didn’t include in the movie. We’re still always saying, “Oh! We could have done that!”

Matthews: We had scenes, initially, where we were more ambitious, where he was a Comic-Con lecturing the other attendees on the proper way to appreciate a comic book. Talking to LARPers and sort of insulting them on their hobby. We wanted to have him at all these different aspects of nerdery and show off how he felt his nerdery put him above everyone else.

CS: The film has already gotten a great response and it seems like nerd culture does a really good of laughing itself. Have you met anyone that was the opposite and was genuinely offended by the portrayal?
Graham:
Not yet!

Matthews: Really, it’s only people who haven’t seen it yet. I could imagine people hear about it or see a trailer and go, “Oh, it’s another one of those.”

Graham: “Oh, they’re making fun of nerds. It’s another slam on nerd culture.” But that haven’t seen it yet.

Matthews: Just about everyone has been very positive but, for those who haven’t liked it, they haven’t liked it not because of the way nerds are depicted. It’s just that they don’t like the movie. We had this really cool event at an Alamo Drafthouse in Houston. They called it “Dungeons & Drafthouse” with four classic movies in the Sword and Sorcery realm. The audience there was probably 95% hardcore “D&D” fans. We were nervous, too. These are the people that own this world. They’re the best judge of how authentic it is. The response was so, so good. That was really nice.

CS: One last question before I let you go. You don’t actually think that the Millennium Falcon is faster than the U.S.S. Enterprise, do you?
Matthews:
(laughs) No comment. That line is in there for the characters to say, but we’re not taking an official stance on that question.

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