In the Dungeons and Dragons-themed Zero Charisma (which comes out tomorrow, and is also available on VOD) a socially awkward D&D obsessive called Scott (Sam Eidson) loses both his role-playing game and his friends to a suave hipster-type, Miles (Garrett Graham), with darkly comedic consequences. The film’s writer and co-director Andrew Matthews was inspired to make the film by his own history as a gamer and ‘Dungeon Master.’
“I’ve been playing Dungeons & Dragons since 5th grade,” he explains. “It’s a nerdy obsession but it’s a very creative one too and it’s a social hobby where lots of eccentric types get together.” Matthews directed the film with his real-life partner Katie Graham who says part of her job was to de-nerdify the screenplay. “I offered the perspective of the non-gamer,” she recalls. “I would go through the script and go, ‘Okay, this is getting too inside baseball.’”
The pair say the film has been greeted warmly by gamers at festival screenings although inevitably there have been some Comic Book Guy-esque complaints. “In the first teaser trailer we had an actor who was supposed to roll the 20-sided die but he picked up the 8-sided die because he didn’t know much about the game,” says Matthews. “Of course, the first comment on YouTube video, ‘That is not a 20-sided die…’”
Below, Matthews and Graham talk more about Zero Charisma and – but of course! – Troll 2.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Why did you decide to make a D&D comedy?
Andrew Matthews: The genesis was probably the character. We really are fans of films that have unorthodox main characters or anti-heroes. We really like especially the characters that you see in other films and TV shows – the kind of know-it-all, pompous, nerd-type – who is actually vulnerable. We’re a fan of that character but he rarely gets his own storyline where you see what his background is like and delve more into his world.
Sam Eidson’s character Scott is certainly not a traditional movie hero. There were a few points in the film when I thought, “Wait, why am I supposed to be rooting for this guy?” Were you worried about making him too annoying?
Katie Graham: Yeah. People would read the original script and say, “He’s pretty irritiating, he’s pretty difficult.”
AM: Halfway into preproduction, we thought, “What are we doing? It’s our first attempt at narrative filmmaking and we have chose to do this unlikeable main character.” What we did, as a little bit of insurance, was cast an actor who naturally is very likeable. Sam is a very mild-mannered, very gentle, and very sweet guy. We thought, “If we cast a guy like this and get him to act like a jerk, that’s probably a lot safer than casting a guy who naturally acts like a jerk and try to get him to be vulnerable.”
They don’t actually play Dungeons & Dragons in the film but rather a fantasy game of Scott’s own design. Is that for legal reasons?
AM: It started as that. It’s a company that’s known for guarding their copyright closely – as well they should, it’s a valuable one. We just went, “What, if we make this his own game that he’s designing?” I’ve known people who make their own rule system and we thought not only does that sidestep [the legal issue] but it actually gives a little more background to the character.
You say in your directors’ statement that parts of Scott are are based on you. I assume the “you” is Andrew?
AM: I’d say it’s me. It’s part of the the control element. I was always the Dungeon Master or I always at least I wanted to be. It’s sort of similar to being a filmmaker, where you want to have control over all aspects, but at the end of the day it is a collaborative art, just like D&D is a collaborative game. You do have to accept what other people are bringing to the game and just sort of roll with it.
And, just like Scott, you also believe that you “wrote” The Matrix?
AM: I remember sitting in the theater and when Neo is getting out of that pod I was shifting around in my seat going, “This is my story! This is my story!” But I didn’t take that belief too far. It was a short story that I wrote in high school. It’s not like it found its way into anybody’s hands or anything like that. As I got older, I realized, “I bet there was a lot of people my age who wrote that same story.”
Could you explain the double meaning of the film’s title?
KG: Yeah, it’s just charisma points, right?
AM: It’s one of the stats for the attributes your character has. When you’re actually a D&D player for a long time it’s one of the stats that you don’t allocate points to because [you think], “Oh no, I want my guy to be strong and quick and nimble and good at magic and these things. Charisma? Eh, I don’t really need that.” But in the real world, charisma is one of the most important attributes to have, and one of those ones that unfortunately Scott kind of lacks, although think he actually has quite a bit of charisma onscreen.
This is the first film project to be distributed by Chris Harwick’s Nerdist company. What has that experience been like?
KG: It’s been great. Jonah Ray – he works with Nerdist – saw it at South by Southwest and he passed it on to Chris Hardwick and his business partner. They really got the ball rolling for us and really helped with distribution and got Tribeca Film involved, so it’s been great. It just gives us such a bigger platform for the movie than we could ever have imagined.
You both worked on the fabulous Troll 2 documentary Best Worst Movie (Graham was the film’s director of photography while Matthews edited the movie). What’s your favorite memory of that experience?
KG: Everyone we met! It was insane how insane they were. Very early on, when we were first dating, we watched Troll 2 together, so we were fans for a long time….
AM: We were big fans of Troll 2 and when we got to the point where (Troll 2 star and Zero Charisma exec producer) Michael Paul Stephenson, who directed Best Worst Movie, was asking us to help him make this film, I mean, at first it was just like, “We get to meet Michael Stephenson and (Troll 2 costar) George Hardy? Let’s do that for sure!” I remember the first time that we met them we had breakfast with them in Hollywood and it was more exciting than if it was Julia Roberts!
You can watch the trailer for Zero Charisma below.