It’s easy to make a comedy that makes fun of its protagonist by making him or her a caricature of stereotypes. In ZERO CHARISMA, a comedy about an obnoxious RPG-playing nerd who acts like a child, writer/co-directed Andrew Matthews and co-director Katie Graham could have easily used their main character, Scott (Sam Eidson), as a punching bag because he is such an easy target. However, what I admire most about the film is that Matthews and Graham delved into Scott’s background to reveal the reasons behind his demanding attitude and exactly why he feels so out-of-place in the world around him. Scott’s role as as the all-powerful game master comes into question when cool “hipster” nerd Miles (Garrett Graham) joins the game and Scott’s estranged mother (Cyndi Williams) returns to his life. Because of this, Zero Charisma is one of my favorite types of films: a comedy that has enough human drama to make it easy to relate to because of its real-life similarities.
After reviewing the film, I had the opportunity to interview Andrew Matthews regarding writing and directing this film, which is his first feature. He provided plenty of insight into a film that must have been a labor of love for most of the creators involved, including how he and Katie Graham raised money for the film through crowdfunding, a route many indie filmmakers have recently successfully explored.
VIMOOZ: How familiar are you with the traditional roleplaying game subculture, and what made you want to make a film about Scott and the way his RPG fantasy world and reality collide?
Andrew Matthews: I have been playing RPGs for a long time–probably started in about 5th grade. It’s always been a very creative outlet and a comfortable environment for me, and the variety of types of people that play it (and reasons for playing) makes it a good backdrop for a movie about clashing personalities.
VIMOOZ: One of the reasons why the film works so well is that Sam Eidson is perfect for the role of Scott. Can you tell me about how you cast him in the role?
Andrew Matthews: We saw Sam in a few small roles in Austin-made indies and we thought he was funny so we approached him about helping us make a 4-minute teaser trailer to kick off our crowdfunding campaign. We ran around town for four days shooting bits and pieces of the script (none of which is in the final film) and the resulting teaser seemed to be a hit with people, and we knew Sam had a lot to do with that. So we offered him the role. Even though he’d never had a lead role in a feature before, we felt like he was so right for the part, such a committed actor, and had just the right kind of vulnerability to take on a character that on paper is so domineering and aggressive.
VIMOOZ: Why do you feel it was important for Scott to be physically intimidating in addition to his already demanding attitude?
Andrew Matthews: Everything about Scott’s exterior, from his physicality to his wardrobe and choice of music says “badass,” but his behavior, as you start to get to know him just screams insecurities. It’s also fun to cast someone into “geeky” things who’s not the stereotypically skinny nerd. There are all types of people who play this game.
VIMOOZ: When I first started watching the film I thought it was funny, but I initially felt it was kind of taking shots at easy targets (i.e. like “Comic Book Guy” jokes on The Simpsons). However, it soon became obvious to me that this wasn’t the case because Scott wasn’t just a stereotype and his persona hid deeply-rooted personal issues. Was it difficult to avoid portraying Scott as just a geeky stereotype, and did you do anything consciously to ensure you avoided that?
Andrew Matthews: The kind of comedy that we love plays upon audience’s perceptions and expectations before subverting them. We wanted the audience to first recognize the character as a type they probably see in real life. Once they’ve accepted the “type” we’re going for, then we want them to start thinking about him in a way they haven’t before. That means you do have to do a bit of a balancing act between using stereotypes and subverting them. Ultimately, we want the audience to have empathy for the character, which means showing his inner turmoil and at least some hints at why he behaves the way he does.
VIMOOZ: Garrett Graham’s character Miles obviously represents the “neo-nerd hipster” (to quote from the press notes) type of person which has become much more “acceptable” to the mainstream than the more traditional “nerd” type that Scott and his friends represent. What were some key things you wanted to portray in the conflict between Miles’ world and Scott’s world?
Andrew Matthews: Geek culture has long been a place of refuge and camaraderie for people who for whatever reason feel like outsiders. It’s understandable that when aspects of that culture become socially acceptable, there might be resentment towards those who might not be such fans if it came with a social cost. At the same time, how can the loss of stigma for one’s pastimes be a bad thing? The aim was not to portray Miles as a bad guy, but rather someone who passion for “nerdy” things doesn’t run quite so deep. Someone who likes to sample these hobbies, but hasn’t invested the time and sacrifices that Scott has, and someone who is still aware of social intricacies and perhaps divides his friends up based on those criteria.
VIMOOZ: Did the film change at all from its initial concept to the finish film? If so, what?
Andrew Matthews: Sure, but probably no more than most films change as things go from concept to execution and more collaborators come on board. I believe in the early development, Miles was more of a villain, but we thought the story would be more interesting if his motives were a little more ambiguous–and Scott’s problems more internal.
VIMOOZ: Both of you have worked on films before, but you both directed for the first time and this was also the first narrative feature either of you worked on. What were some challenges you had to overcome in your new roles?
Andrew Matthews: Being at the wheel of a ship is very scary, especially when so many people are working for so little, you really feel like you have an obligation to deliver something special so everyone feels like their time and talent (and money) was well invested. The buck stops with you, as it were. Also, making a narrative was more intimidating for us. When you’re working on documentaries, the characters are real people, so you don’t have to worry that the audience won’t find them credible. But with Zero Charisma, we were creating a character from scratch–and a pretty extreme one as well. Making him believable and memorable was so important to us. The whole thing would fall apart if that didn’t work.
VIMOOZ: You used Indiegogo to raise some money to put finishing touches on the film before South by Southwest. Can you talk about your experience with crowdfunding and offer any advice to other filmmakers who are considering to crowdfund their projects?
Andrew Matthews: Our main IndieGoGo campaign actually occurred two years ago, to raise initial funds. It was a successful campaign, not only in the money it raised, but the awareness it gave the film. We has several articles written and hundreds of people anticipating the film’s release–and we hadn’t made it yet! That was an anxious place to be, but the film would never have gotten off the ground if not for those original donors.
VIMOOZ: If you created your own fantasy RPG alter ego like Scott, what would yours be like?
Andrew Matthews:: I’m always the GM.
VIMOOZ: What were the most important things you learned about filmmaking from directing your first narrative feature that you will take with you as you go forward in your career?
Andrew Matthews: I’ve heard this many times before but it doesn’t hit home until you live through it: trust yourself. Take advice because it makes sense to you, not because the person giving it is somehow more experienced. We had a lot of great support and counsel throughout the process, but we also heard a lot of discouragement that turned out to be totally wrong. Besides, what’s the point of making an independent film if you’re not going to do things your way?