Filmmakers Jeremy Tremp and Scott Conditt aren’t shy about acknowledging their target audience for their new independent movie, Max Reload and the Nether Blasters.
“It’s a love letter to video games and gamer culture,” Tremp says. “We're diehard gamers; we're nerds. We like pop culture. We both grew up in the late '80s and early '90s, which were just a really fun time, especially for video games. We wanted to make a movie we wanted to watch.”
All that said, you don’t have to have ever worn a Power Glove or entered the Konami Code to enjoy watching the action-adventure film, Tremp says.
“We also wanted something that could span generations of viewers, where if you watch the film, you don't fully need to understand every little nuance of gaming to get into it,” he says. “It's not just for gamers. It's something that families or anyone else can have fun watching.”
And if they catch the flick, which premieres at the Game On Mega Drive In on Saturday and on video-on-demand on August 11, what they’ll see is a 100-minute adventure featuring ancient curses, a hero’s journey, and tons of gaming references.
The plot involves an underachieving game store clerk and coder named Max Jenkins, played by Tom Plumley, who comes across a cursed ColecoVision game that infects (or "nethers") its players with an evil spirit. He must work together with his friends and the game’s developers, played by Greg Grunberg and Joseph D. Reitman, to stop the curse from conquering the entire world.
Shot entirely in Phoenix in January 2018, it includes several Valley gaming spots, such as Fallout Games and Cobra Arcade Bar. It also features indie director/geek icon Kevin Smith, Cobra Kai actor Martin Kove, and more video game references than you can shake a SuperScope at.
Gaming flicks are familiar territory for Tremp and Conditt, whose previous work includes the documentary Game Jam: The Movie and the short film Show No Mercy. Max Reload and the Nether Blasters is their biggest project to date, both in runtime and scope, says Conditt.
“We set out to make a film that looked, sounded, and felt like it cost a hell of a lot more than anyone would ever believe we made it for. And we think we achieved that,” he says.
Phoenix New Times got a chance to speak with the pair about Max Reload and the Nether Blasters, as well as its influences, how they were able to get Grunberg and Smith involved with the project, and why anyone can enjoy the film.
Phoenix New Times: How did y'all come up with the story for Max Reload and the Nether Blasters?
SC: The initial seed came [when] we were driving back from IndieCade in 2016. We were doing a documentary, Game Jam: The Movie, about video game developers, and we’d kicked around the idea of “Let’s make a movie that we’d want to see. A movie that's just way out there."
Jeremy's like, “Hey, by the way, I saw this cool article about the video game Doom and how its developers had embedded certain audio signatures, or WAV files, in the soundtrack [as Easter eggs] that you could run through a waveform analyzer [to reveal] messages about demons and demonic stuff, unlocking a portal to hell. That reminded me of The Beatles or how back in the day, people thought their kids were going to become possessed if you play albums backward.
JT: So I said, “What if that was real? What if in today's world, if you've listened to that, it actually affected you and no one knew it?” So we started going down the road of embedded code and how code could possess people.
Growing up in the '80s, I was always told by adults that video games were from the devil.
SC: Yeah. That's always been funny to me. Like, how many times did your mom tell you, “Those games will rot your brains."
Y’all didn’t skimp on the gaming references. The beginning of the movie is a straight-up homage to the Leeroy Jenkins meme.
JT: We put a lot of nuances, a lot of Easter eggs, a lot of things to make you go, “Oh, I know what they're doing there.” So there’s a lot of fun, little references that we cherry-picked. And we wanted to make a movie for people like that, who could really appreciate it and hopefully appreciate that it's made independently. It's not super, super slick.
Is it too inside baseball for non-gamers, though?
SC: We wanted enough inside baseball stuff to really just let the tribe know, "Hey, this was made by you guys, for you guys." At the same time, there is a factor throughout the scriptwriting process where it's like, "Okay, but does this walk the line where enough general audience members can enjoy it and appreciate it?"
Did you have that problem with anyone?
SC: Well, [actress] Lin Shaye, she's a legend in the film community who’s in the film, she told us, "I read my parts and I loved it.” But she was like, "I didn't read the full script because I wasn't a gamer. I didn't think I'd understand it." When she watched the film, she reiterated, "I didn't need to be a gamer and I loved everything about it."
Was The Last Starfigher or Scott Pilgrim vs. the World a major influence on the movie?
JT: Definitely. Those are probably two of my favorite films right there. Alex Rogan is the chosen one, he plays the game and unlocks the world he never knew existed. He's a small-town guy who doesn't really think he's going anywhere, kind of a reluctant hero. And then Scott Pilgrim was just so [over-the-top] and ridiculous. At no point in the movie did you think it was taking itself seriously.
SC: That was a huge theme in our film, too. And [with] Scott Pilgrim, I think the biggest element was, at the time it came out, it wasn't afraid to do something totally unheard of aesthetically with all the animated overlays and stuff. So Scott Pilgrim was one of those references we had in our lookbook: "Let's do something bold."
JT: And the female character in there is a strong lead. So Liz [in Max Reload] was heavily influenced by that. We didn't want it to be where she's not very empowered. We wanted her to be a badass character to stand on her own, who would give Max shit, but [she] was still this friend and possible love interest.
Was there any thought of having a female protagonist in the movie?
SC: Now that you say that, Maxine Reload and the Nether Blasters [as a] sequel does sound pretty cool. But I think mostly, on this one, it was so personal to us, we wrote what we knew. And as young dudes growing up on games, I think there's a bit of us in Max Reload.
Were scenes where Max and the other hang around Fallout Games chatting about game developers an homage to Clerks?
SC: Yep. That's the movie that made me want to make movies. I was a long-haired metalhead kid who went into Video Update and the metalhead senior from my school who worked their said, "Dude, you haven't seen Clerks yet?" I was like, "What's that?" So that and Empire Records and movies in the '90s where a bunch of kids run amok and have [free rein] of a store influenced me.
Plus y’all shot it at night, too, just like Kevin Smith did with Clerks.
JT: Yes. Because we're an independent film, we can't close down businesses and pay 'em for weeks at a time, so we had to shoot 90 percent of the film overnight in January when it was 30 degrees. It was very challenging; it was cold, it was the middle of flu season, cold season. If something goes wrong on set, you can't just run down to Home Depot, you can't run to anywhere because everything's closed. We had to solve a lot of problems on the fly.
How did Kevin Smith get involved?
SC: Interesting enough, [former KWSS DJ Beef Vegan] is a buddy from high school. He had Kevin on his show while he was in Phoenix for a comedy gig. They hit it off and Brad knew I was a big fan. When we got Greg Grunberg on board, Greg and Kevin had just hosted the show Geeking Out on AMC and we were thinking Kevin would be perfect for the character of Chuck, the owner of the game store. So we reached out to Brad [and] if Jeremy and I make a short, personal, and professional video message.
Basically just laid it all out there: what we were going to do, what the story was about, who we had involved so far, and why we were reaching out to him. Just like, "Hey, man, if this is interest to you and you don't think we're total assholes, give us a shout." And 30 minutes later, Brad texted me back, going "Dude! He wrote right back and said, 'This was awesome! Tell the boys I'm in.'"
Was it one of the easiest acting jobs Kevin Smith ever had? Y'all had him standing there playing VR games for most scenes.
SC: He told us, "I don't know video games, man. I don't want to say anything wrong." I went, "Listen, you're playing yourself in Comic Book Men except you're selling video games." So he's like, "Aw fuck, I get it."
You had his character wear adult diapers. Did he, in fact, shit his pants?
JT: That would've been great, because he wore diapers [in the movie], but he did not, in fact, shit his pants.
How did Greg Grunberg get involved?
JT: We were working on another project, kind of a buddy comedy, and we went out to L.A. and we did a table read with him and really hit it off. When the time came for Max Reload, we were like, “Greg would be amazing as the character Eugene.” After reading it he was like, "I'm into it.”
SC: And he’s a gamer. His studio's awesome and has tons of arcade cabinets. So, when he read it he sent us, I think it was a photo from his studio of him next to all these machines. We're like, “Okay, you get it.”
So in Max Reload universe, Fallout Games is owned by Kevin Smith and Cobra Arcade Bar was started by a burned-out former game developer.
SC: Yep, exactly right. The real owners of both places were really cool about it and awesome to us. [Ariel Bracamonte, owner of Cobra Arcade Bar] supports local artists and told us, “Let's do it. You guys have run of the place.” We filmed Show No Mercy there with Martin Kove from The Karate Kid, so we had a really quick friendship with [Ari] and he let us back in there for Max Reload.
JT: And when we approached Fallout Games real apprehensively. Like, are they going to let us do this? We explained what we wanted to do and [owner Zed Masters] was like, "Yeah, that sounds fine. If you guys can do it at night, it doesn't mess with business hours.”
SC: So, the local scene, as opposed to like trying to get anything done in L.A. or New York, is amazing and generous.
Did you have a working version of the Nether Dungeon game for the movie?
JT: That was really hard because we couldn't really make a game, but you got to have an actual adventure game that’s exciting, that has rules, and it's easily understandable to the audience. And we were like, well, there's no way we're going to actually find a ColecoVision game that can do all that. And it's got to be cool. You know, like ColecoVision was very rudimentary, very basic. And this game was supposed to be like pushing the boundaries [of the console].
SC: I got online and there was a homebrew game developers group and I linked up with this really cool dude named Arturo. He heads this team that makes homebrew current new games for Coleco. And, funny enough, they had a game called Deep Dungeon Adventure. They literally retrofit their whole game, including the little cut scenes and the main title screen to be Nether Dungeon. And he added some new sprites in, the new characters, like these little dudes.
Is there a chance Nether Dungeon would be ever released?
SC: There is, yeah. The gentleman at the team over there that made Deep Dungeon Adventure has the Nether Dungeon variant of it. They're gonna, at some point in 2020, look at pressing 50 limited-edition ColecoVision cartridges that are functioning Nether Dungeon games.
Think anyone would get possessed after playing it?
SC: I hope so. Sounds like a fun time.
Game On Mega Drive In. 6 p.m. to midnight, Friday, August 7, and Saturday, August 8; $30 per vehicle, per night, gameonmegadrivein.com. WestWorld of Scottsdale, 16601 North Pima Road, Scottsdale, 480-312-6802, westworldaz.com.