Katie Graham and Andrew Matthews may well be this generation’s answer to Kevin Smith. They’ve so accurately honed in on a specific group of geek, and made a movie about, by, and for them, that surely Zero Charisma will be studied and hailed for years to come. They didn’t set out to do this, though. Making the movie independently in Austin, TX, they had simply a story to tell and the desire to tell it. We spoke to Graham and Matthews about their experiences in making the film, the way in which there are no true heroes or villains, and what movies they’d pair with their own.
NERDIST: With Zero Charisma, you’ve created a film that analyzes the parts of geek culture that sometimes aren’t talked about because of how much Hollywood is streamlining it. What inspired you guys to want to talk about what people call “pure geek,” that guy who is reclusive and holds on to these things so dearly. What was the driving force in creating that kind of film?
ANDREW MATTHEWS: I think it’s mainly the subject matter, the background of the world that the characters live in is motivated because of our experiences, or my upbringing, but it was really more about the emotional content, the insecurity of the main character, and I feel like it’s probably not just geek culture that has experienced some kind of mainstreaming of their hobbies and interests. I imagine it has happened to a lot of subcultures, but this was one I was more familiar with. We just wanted to make a movie about a character who feels like their turf is being threatened and how people can respond to insecurity and how you deal with it, and it seemed like a good match to have the antagonist character be somebody who is hip and cool and interested in the same things as the main character; he likes the same things, but he’s also hip and cool and doesn’t have the same problems, which seems unfair in a way. For me personally, I’m glad geek-related things get popular, but there’s a little piece of you that goes, “Oh, I used to have special ownership of this, but now it’s not special. It’s the thing that made me special that I knew about these things; now everyone knows about these things. What do I have anymore?” I think that’s the resentment that was a good springboard to look deeper into this character.
KATIE GRAHAM: I think also the metal nerd was kind of an exciting character to show in film. I’ve seen goth nerds hundreds of thousands of times but never really seen in film or television. So it was fun to do a representation of that.
AM: It was exciting to find things that we believe to be true but for whatever reason not represented in mainstream movies. Its fun to capture that. When I was growing up, playing Dungeons and Dragons, everyone in our group was into metal like that was a given. I had never seen any connection between D&D characters and metal in film or television and thought, “Why is that? Let’s do that.”
N: Sam Eidson and Garrett Graham are both very good actors, and I know that Sam gets more screen time, but Garrett, at the same time, had a great arc, and I was wondering how early in the process did you find those actors and what did they bring to the table that excited you about them playing the characters?
KG: Sam, we met in 2011 when we were gearing up to do the IndieGoGo teaser to raise money. We actually never met with anyone else. We met Sam and were like, “He might be a little too comedy”; at first, we were worried about that but we cast in the IndieGoGo trailer and he did an awesome job and it was really fun working with him. We raised 10,000 dollars past our goal on IndieGoGo, and we felt that it had a lot to do with Sam. So that’s how we cast Sam.
AM: It was also really important to us, that he, in real life, is very likable, a very sweet-natured guy and we knew that if you’re going to make a movie about a guy that potentially be very unlikable that it would be a lot wiser to cast somebody who was naturally vulnerable and sweet then push them to put on this front of toughness and domination rather than cast someone naturally jerky.
KG: Or very, very confident. That would give off a different vibe and maybe a more unlikable guy.
AM: Garrett came on much later, because we auditioned a lot of people for that role. We actually thought that was going to be a really easy role because when you live in Austin, there is a hipster culture there. So we thought it would be easy but it turned out to be really difficult because it’s a hard role, you have to strike just the right balance — if the guy is too cool, I just wouldn’t believe that he would be into this stuff, but then he has to be cool enough to be a source for insecurity, he has to be confident but not too confident.
KG: And be believable that he’d be into this stuff.
AM: We actually did auditions, we had Sam do a lot of the auditions with different actors, and Sam actually had a lot of friends who would have been right for the role as well — actors in Austin — but we didn’t want to have someone Sam was comfortable with; We wanted him to keep him on his toes a little bit, and when he auditioned with Garrett, Sam was like, “This guy intimidates me.” Garrett was great, he had a more mysterious role. He had a lot of questions like what was my motivation here and am I really into this stuff and he really made us think a lot about the character and forced us to come to some decisions about who exactly miles is, what his background is and how malicious is he or is he being playful, and that kind of stuff.
N: One of my favorite things about Graham’s character was that I could go back and, if you remade this film from his perspective, it would be about him getting terrorized by a metal geek. Did you intentionally try to create that balance where they’re both on an equal footing, nobody’s really done anything to the other? Was that completely intentional or did you hope people would pick a villain?
AM: Some reviews we’ve had have said things like “Oh, you kind of love and hate the hero and villain in equal measure,” and I love to hear that personally, because within the first draft of the treatment, not so much the script phase, when we were originally talking about it, “wouldn’t it be great if there was this game master who’s very obsessive and passionate and in comes this hipster villain who ruins his game?” The hipster character was much more the villain in the original idea, but when we just talked about it and tried to hammer out a story more, we realized that it was much more interesting and more accurate if there wasn’t a villain, because there’s no villain in real life. That’s what makes it more resonant, as it’s just people from different backgrounds or different personality times who are thrown in together, and the movie is about Scott, and if its a character study about Scott, the major problem is majorly internal for him. It’s something I’ve struggled with my whole life, to blame your problems on outside sources, but that’s Scott’s big thing, it’s him looking inside and how his own behavior is affecting things. So we’re careful to give Miles a few lines here and there that are one of the more honest lines that you hear in the movie, like this is a game supposed to be fun, or it’s your own fault that no one likes you and he might be too harsh about it; It might be non-empathetic with Scott, but he’s not totally wrong.
KG: But, yeah, it’s kind of a “we do it to ourselves” sort of thing, and that’s much more of a real life sort of thing that everybody deals with.
N: He knew them for all of two weeks, why would he invite them to the party too quick?
KG: I have a lot of friends who don’t mingle with other friends, and that’s just how it is.
AM: And that’s what makes Scott different, because he’s aware of the social structures, and he cares about his social image and what the other guys do, but that also makes him an understandable source of resentment. These hobbies and games, they were popularized and kept alive by people who did work sensitive to their social standing, and there’s that resentment there.
N: And I will posit this other theory: how do we know that the hipsters aren’t the fake friends he’s trying to take a break from with real people?
AM: That’s true, too. Anytime you write something you try to see it from every character too otherwise it will be a cartoonish villain kind of thing. When I was in college, I was like, “oh, I’m going to be cool now,” and “I still played Dungeons and Dragons but I didn’t want my cool friends to know I played Dungeons and Dragons.” That soon failed, but I do remember that guilt, how I was dividing my friends up, and that kind of goes into that character.
N: You guys filmed this in Austin, and that’s a very organic community that’s very close knit. What does it mean to you to make it in Austin and be able to share it with that community that is so close?
KG: Well, I mean, Andrew and I grew up in L.A., and when we came to SXSW with a documentary we worked on, we were like, we just really love the town and we loved the environment and there was a rising film community and growing up in LA, you don’t even understand what a film community is, it’s an industry, so we were like lets go out there, lets try to make a movie.
AM: I think being born or raised in L.A., you kind of feel like an outsider in LA because everybody else moved there so there’s that kind of that weird, we go move to Austin and we become the outsiders again. We just really took to it. The opportunity that it afforded us, film making wise, I don’t think we would have had in Los Angeles.
KG: Plus, often in terms of low budget productions, (they) are just more possible: we shot in our backyard behind our house, our house became the production house where the crews would have lunch, and we got great deals on businesses — they would just open up their doors. It just felt like a community that was so open to helping us make the movie, and it just happened to be — we didn’t know how prevalent nerd culture is in Austin, so we moved there and we were like, “My God, this is the perfect place to make the movie.”
AM: It’s hard to explain, but there’s this meant-to-be-this feeling there where things feel easier, they work out, you meet the right people at the right time; in L.A., it feels like such an uphill battle all the time.
N: You guys have been in many film festivals, but what movies would you like to see Zero Charisma be paired with in a double or triple feature?
AM: Well, one other Austin-shot indie that is sort of about nerds this year that came out at SXSW but we didn’t see until Maryland Film Festival was Computer Chess by Andrew Bujalski, but that’s more of an art film than Zero Charisma is. It’s a period piece about the early days of computer programmers teaching computers to play chess, but it’s an art film that’s got a great sense of humor. We really enjoyed that movie.
KG: I heard, actually, that it should be paired with Big Fan, but then it might get a little too depressing.
AM: People might be like I’ve had enough of these loners for the day.
KG: People have been comparing it with Clerks, because it’s an old school version of what’s going on in nerd culture and now this modern day version.
AM: We’re also big fans of the 2000 Dungeons and Dragons movie with Marlon Wayans. I actually have it on Blu-ray. It’s not a good film…
If you’re in New York this weekend and want to see Zero Charisma (produced by Nerdist Industries and Tribeca Film), go to one of the special Q&A screenings at Cinema Village on Friday, October 11th, and Saturday, October 12th, by getting tickets here. Can’t make it to one of those? No sweat! The movie will be playing there all week, too! You can get the movie via digital download on Amazon, iTunes, Vudu/Ultraviolet, and Xbox.