First off, you should know that “Zero Charisma,” the indie drama about the weird power dynamics at play around the D&D table is more or less finished. The film was recently accepted into South By Southwest after a couple of years of development thanks to the help of a successful Indiegogo campaign back in 2011 which sought $15,000, ultimately raising $25,000. Filmmakers Andrew Matthews and Katie Graham are simply passing the hat around a second time for completion funds for the feature which they co-directed based on Matthews’ script.
While the duo need your help reaching the finish line with the last of post-production, consider this recent conversation we had as more of a primer for indie filmmakers looking to go the crowdsourcing route.
The film stars Sam Eidson as Scott, a foul-tempered, overweight gamer who finds life around the table upset by the arrival of a good-looking hipster named Miles (Garrett Graham). It’s just one more challenge in Scott’s life as he deals with his grandmother’s failing health and the sudden appearance of his mother with her new fiancee in a film that sounds like it promises to do for D&D what “Big Fan” did for the armchair athlete. You know the guy (or girl): a source of constant emotional exhaustion who always needs to be the center of attention, whose constant stream of real-life dramas threatens to overwhelm the fantasy worlds that are supposed to be a temporary escape and source of fun. Matthews says he’s been interested in exploring this character who he describes as easy threatened and insecure, a warrior at the table but a source of pathos in regular life.
If you’re worried about “Zero Charisma” being the kind of lowest-common denominator joke piece at the expense of so-called geek interests (you know, the kind that would prefer to look at comic, sci-fi, and D&D fans as laughable personalities instead of actual people), Matthews is there to provide a little background and veracity to the project. “Personally, I’ve been playing Dungeons & Dragons since I was in junior high,” Matthews tells me, saying he’s been a frequent player off and on until now. Talking about the Miles character, Matthews says he wasn’t part of the original script, emerging after their move to Austin and realization that the scene was broader than it was in grade school, part of the new mix of players who aren’t just there to craft a deep, weekly story, but are also use the table as a place to expand their social network and get together to have some laughs.
For Matthews, who says that the script does play around with the archetypes found around every table, it was important that they populate the film with real characters. “Hopefully, we’re looking at these stereotypes more closely to see whether or not they’re true and what’s going on,” Graham jumping in to say that it was very important to them to root these characters in reality. “We wanted it to be true to these people without making fun of them.”
The emerging vision of the film had grew beyond the simple idea of a bunch of gamers around a table, Graham saying that to make “Zero Charisma” cinematic, it had to be about more than just that. Don’t look for the latest rule book being played out on the screen with meticulous attention to detail for the average game–that’s not what “Zero Charisma” is trying to do. “The game’s just the backdrop, but the real story is about the characters and their motivations and what they want. You don’t have to be a gamer to understand the movie,” Graham says, confessing that she’s not much of a gamer herself, but following these characters was her “in” and way of connecting with her own movie. Matthews says that it was a tricky balance between the authenticity of that world and spending time with the characters away from the table, with the constant concern of too much detail in the script possibly losing the audience.
The project was born from their first time at SXSW back in 2009 during the promotion of the documentary “Best Worst Movie” on which Matthews was the editor and Graham served as the director of photography. Inspired by the enthusiasm and support of the Austin film community, “And we almost immediately decided, ’let’s go ahead and make this movie we’ve been talking about,'” Matthews says. That led to a move to Austin where they started “getting serious” about “Zero Charisma.”
When it came to crowdfunding the project, Matthews and Graham didn’t see Indiegogo as simply a platform to build up the production budget for their film: it was also a way to get exposure for an independent project that it might not otherwise get. If you’re lucky, smart, and tenacious for the month or so that your Kickstarter or Indigogo campaign or whatever is running, you’ve got a platform to get people talking about your nascent project, giving backers and potential viewers alike a place to see the tangible efforts to get a project made. “You could explain an idea to someone,” Graham says, “but if you could them a video of what your idea is, it makes it so much easier.”
The next step was recruiting from the pool of Austin talent (and L.A.), folks that Matthews says had to me like-minded, really believing the idea of the film. “Once you raise that money it’s like, ’This is gonna happen'” Matthews adds, when they tell me how it felt to raise 160% of their goal. “It was kind of exciting to be in a position to be forced to see your vision through to the end.”
The Indiegogo campaign has been all about getting the funds necessary for color correction and the final sound mixing in preparation for the premiere (Graham says these are the final costs to get the modestly-budgeted movie “done-done”). By way of advice to would-be filmmakers looking to go the same route, Matthews offers that you simply need to have an idea that’s personal that would resonate with people. It also helps to put in the extra effort beyond a personal video begging for money: he and Graham cut a fake trailer for the film (the trailer above is the final, SXSW-ready promo). “Let’s get it as good as you possibly could with what you have,” Matthews counsels, saying that although they had to lay out some of their own cash to make that trailer, it was worth it to get word-of-mouth out there for “Zero Charisma.”
“Zero Charisma” will make its debut at SXSW in March, and will be hitting the festival circuit throughout the year.