It doesn't matter if you live in a huge city or a small town, chances are someone nearby is making a movie. The rise in backyard filmmaking, so to speak, is one of the beauties of the increased access to and lower cost of high-grade filmmaking gear. And in the case of a little movie called Zero Charisma, filmmakers Katie Graham and Andrew Matthews (who together edited the must-see documentary Best Worst Movie) are literally making a movie in their backyard. And, as luck would have it, their backyard happens to be in my home town of Austin, Texas, which recently afforded me the opportunity to check out what they're cooking up in person.
The Internet got an early glimpse of Zero Charisma last year when the film launched a trailer and campaign to help raise a portion of its budget using crowdfunding. It wound up so successful that by the time the campaign ended, it had raised over 160% more than its initial goal. So what's all the excitement about? Well, it's not often that geek culture is explored in such an earnest and endearing way. Sure, the geek taboo has faded drastically in recent years, but the representation of that is more often than not something like The Big Bang Theory-- little more than attractive people with thicker-than-average glasses and tidy wardrobes name dropping nerd-friendly properties in a desperate grab for mainstream geek cred.
Zero Charisma is essentially the exact opposite of that. It's a film about one man, played by Sam Eidson (whose movie-loving group the Old Murder House Theatre we've featured on the site several times), struggling against the misappropriation of passions he's had his whole life. Or, in the words of our socially oblivious hero in the IndieGogo trailer, "He's not one of us, Wayne. People like of us have built this culture on a century of oppression and loneliness and now it's being co-opted by a bunch of neo-nerd, hipster douchebags for profit!"
Or in more official plot terms:
Scott Weidemeier runs The Greatest Tabletop Fantasy Game of All Time. It's more than a game-- it's his calling. And he wields power over his players with an iron fist. That is, until a new player enters the game: Miles Butler, a stylish, funny "neo-nerd" hipster who quickly charms everyone he meets. In his desperation to outshine Miles, Scott alienates himself from his peers, and eventually loses his game to this interloper. On top of that, the health of Scott's grandmother takes a turn for the worse, and his estranged mother Barbara swoops in to take the house right from under his nose.
As the humiliations pile up, Scott struggles to retain some shred of dignity-- even if it means a final duel with his greatest adversary.
As for Katie and Andrew making the movie in their backyard, that wasn't an exaggeration. The couple had been scouting various shooting locations when they noticed that the house behind their own was vacant. They tracked down the owner and, as fate would have it, the gutted house was his childhood home and he had no intention of getting new tenants in any time soon, so they rented it out, filled it with vintage furniture and turned the entire house into their main set. Walking into it was like taking the golden ticket from Last Action Hero and using it to enter into the kitchen from E.T. That's not to say it's an exact recreation of that set, but the way it perfectly captures that frozen-in-the-80s feeling is magical and just one of many early signs of the attention to detail that'll define Zero Charisma as being more than a comedy about a nerd's misadventures with D&D.
Of course, the entire film doesn't take place around Scott's grandma's dining room table, which is permanently covered with his latest D&D session. There are other locations, too, and as the filmmaking couple quickly found out, making a movie in Austin is a lot different than making one in L.A.
Katie Graham: I was sick of LA, and we were like, let's get out and go somewhere there's an actual film community.
Andrew Matthews: Yeah, we'd made shorts in LA, but it's really hard to do anything independent in LA. You walk into a small coffee shop and are like, "Can we shoot here?" and they say, "Yep! Here's our rate sheet, it's a thousand dollars a day." Whereas here we went to some of the most awesome locations we never thought we could get and they were just like, "Yep! We'll close the store and let you shoot here all day." It's a very supportive film community.
The couple was then able to take advantage not just of the open film community here, but the large gaming community as well. Several local gaming shops opened their doors to the production, which wasn't something the team was expecting. So not only did moving to Austin make actually making the movie easier, it also helped Andrew get back to his table top gaming roots, though he admits he's not quite as extreme a hobbyist as Scott, "Our character is something of a Luddite nerd. He's kind of like the gamer equivalent of the guy who says, "CDs are sh*t, vinyl only." So he's the type to say video games are awful and they're ruining the whole experience. But I obviously play video games too. I've got about 120 hours in Skyrim right now, if that gives me an credibility."
Don't think the film is going to be a gamer litmus test, though. As Andrew told us, "I always use the example of Black Swan, because Black Swan isn't only for ballet dancers. When you make a movie about nerd culture, there is a conception that it's for this little group that's just waiting for movies about their culture, and I don't think that necessarily has to be true. That's something we learned working on [Best Worst Movie]. The idea was not to make a movie for Troll 2 fans. It's about people. As a filmmaker, I think you should be making it to be enjoyed by anyone."
Andrew and Katie later elaborated on this very point, emphasizing that while their goal was to make a movie about a hardcore D&D player, the intent isn't to make a movie about D&D. They want to take the comic relief nerd side character stereotype we're used to seeing and make that our main character.
Andrew: We wanted to see a lead character who wasn't, you know, a young and hip, attractive leading man type. There are plenty of those. Or the one normal guy, but everyone else around him is so wacky and he's just like, "Oh,everyone is so wacky around me all the time!" We thought it was more interesting to have your main character be the most interesting character in the movie, and this specific shorthand became the know-it-all-nerd, like the Simpson's Comic Book Guy. He's a really popular comic archetype, but rarely gets his own show where you get to see why he is the way he is or what his family is like and how he deals with threats and problems.
We love having characters that once you understand what they love and what their passions are it's a delight to see them pursue it, to know how they're going to react to a situation because you know them so well.
Katie: Yes, the comedy in the predictability of their behavior. "Oh, God, they're going to do this now...
And if my all too brief time spent on the set is any indication, we're going to get to know these characters very well. We can't wait to see more, and we'll share it as soon as we come across it. In the mean time, here's a few more behind-the-scenes production photos that give just a glimpse of what's in store.
And here's the fundraising trailer, though keep in mind none of this is in the actual movie.