'Zero Charisma' Is a Funny, Poignant Look at Nerd Culture
Zero Charisma is unlike the other films you'll see this year and its directors, Katie Graham and Andrew Matthews, wanted it that way. The comedy won the Audience Award at this year's South by Southwest film festival and will be released on VOD on Oct. 8, followed by select theaters throughout the month. The movie follows Scott, the gamemaster for a group that plays a Dungeon & Dragons-like role-playing game. As the gamemaster, he's the star, impersonating characters, creating quests—until a new player steals the others' attention.
Many different elements set Zero Charisma apart, but Scott's character serves as the key distinction. Matthews, who also wrote the movie, tells Bustle what they were looking for when casting the role.
"We didn’t want to do the thing where you kind of cast the good looking, hip guy and then put a pocket protector and say he’s a nerd. We wanted to really make sure we were finding people who understood the community and were part of it."
The result is relatively unknown Sam Eidson as Scott, the passionate, misunderstood outcast who gets a little carried away when he's in the one place he truly belongs — the game. Throughout the film, we see Scott in his element as gamemaster. The other players are drawn into his complex stories, they hang on his every word, but he takes advantage of his role.
Scott keeps the group on a tight schedule and when he finds out a fellow player is getting divorced, thinks an extra 10 minute break is generous. As Matthews explains, "If he has a big problem, Scott takes things way too seriously, which is also to his credit."
After showing just how important the game is to Scott, and giving a hint to some of the hardships he has faced, Zero Charisma introduces the man who will become his nemesis, Miles. Unlike Scott and his friends who don't have much going on outside of the game, Miles is successful, good-looking, and has a serious girlfriend.
"We didn’t want to do the thing where you kind of cast the good looking, hip guy and then put a pocket protector and say he’s a nerd."
For him, the game is just a casual hobby. His character represents a specific part of "hipster" culture, not being invested in anything. This trait made Graham and Matthews believe a hipster-type character would serve as a perfect foil to Scott, as Matthews tells us.
"Miles as a hipster takes nothing seriously. We always described Miles as kind of like a sampler, which I guess you could say is what that culture is. Little bit of this, little bit of that, is not afraid to do new things but doesn’t have a deep commitment like Scott does to the game."
When Scott's group becomes impressed by Miles, the film's main conflict begins. And though the two clearly oppose each other, much of that conflict plays out internally for Scott. Around the same time that Miles joins the group, Scott's mother returns to care for his grandmother (whom he has lived with for most of his life) and we begin to understand why the game is so important to him. Scott's mother essentially bullies him, and the stories she tells shed light on his difficult childhood.
The aggressive ways he's seen treating his only friends make sense once we get a glimpse of his own experiences. Role-playing was the only time he was in charge and could feel important. Does the power get to his head? Absolutely, but it's the only taste of power he's ever had. Though Scott is never explicitly bullied, Graham says that she and Matthews wanted to make it a part of his past.
"We wanted him to be kind of this tough guy, a nerdy guy but there’s this tough element to him and its kind of because he was pushed around a little bit."
Eidson, in his largest role to date, excellently conveys Scott's conflicting sides. Just as you start to get mad at him for being insensitive or unreasonable, you sympathize with him again and start to understand where he's coming from. Even towards the end of Zero Charisma, when Matthews and Graham admit they wanted to worry the audience a little, you're mad at Scott, embarrassed for him, mad again and finally understanding of his actions—all in a few minutes.
Though Matthews and Graham were worried that Zero Charisma wouldn't even make it into SXSW, they managed to take home the Audience Award after a "thrilling week" filled with a lot of positive buzz for the film. It had gone into the festival with a good reputation, thanks to their 2011 Indiegogo campaign, which featured Eidan in a teaser trailer that raised $25,000 — $10,000 more than their goal. They even raised an additional $12,000 for the film's post-production earlier this year. Graham says the trailer's popularity was, "exciting and terrifying, too."
At SXSW, Zero Charisma was noticed by Jonah Ray of Nerdist, who brought it to Chris Hardwick and Peter Levin. Nerdist has since partnered with Tribeca Films to distribute Zero Charisma, the first fiction film that Matthews and Graham have ever directed.
Though there are no definite plans yet, Matthews says that the pair are working on a few scripts, which have something in common with Zero Charisma, "untraditional main characters." Graham gives one explanation for their interest in exploring these characters.
"Andrew and I both grew up in LA so there’s something very exciting to us about casting people who wouldn’t usually get cast as leads in films."
Matthews recalls a statement by screenwriter Mike White about characters like Scott, that explains why he likes to write them as well.
"He said something about untraditional main characters that I love, which is that it sort of spreads empathy in audiences. We like that too, to have a character that at first the audience finds not like them and, 'oh I have nothing in common with this character,' then hopefully by the end of the movie, if they are sympathizing or empathizing with them, then you’ve done something that’s really great and that’s we want to keep doing."
With Zero Charisma, Matthews and Graham have done something really great.