There definitely are some geeks out there who are worried about Zero Charisma. Does the movie take a lot of cheap shots or does it for once accurately show what it's like to be a geek? Zero Charisma is more of a nuanced character study than a broad comedy, and the film captures it all without being mean, which is not an easy thing to pull off. To a lot of geeks, the arrested development, frustrations, and obsessions of the characters, not to mention the mullets, mustaches, and clothes, will feel authentic.
Scott Weidemeyer, played by Sam Eidson, is a much more complicated geek than we've seen in movies or TV before, and Andrew Matthews and Katie Graham, the writer-directors, didn't take the easy route with his character.
"We wanted to start with that archetype and go deeper," says Graham. "We tried to be honest about what it would be like for a guy like that. It's really about the emotions in the characters. The D&D and the nerdery of it all was kind of a backdrop." (The title is a Dungeons & Dragons inside joke, as having "charisma" in the game can overcome a character's lack of physical beauty.)
Matthews explains he picked the world of D&D because he's been playing it since fourth grade. "Beyond that, we wanted to make Scott seem almost like a suffering artist type," he says. "It's also a very social game. Early on, some people said, 'Oh, why don't you make it about World of Warcraft; that's really popular right now,' but we wanted those actors in the same room together instead of sitting in front of a computer miles apart."
Graham and Matthews wanted Weidemeyer to be an old-school geek, a D&D purist who is proud of his accomplishments as a Game Master. "He's the type of guy who prefers vinyl instead of CDs," Graham says. Matthew adds, "He's representing the old school, because in gaming there's a division that's growing greater as more and more video games take over the landscape."
An obsession with Dungeons & Dragons was not required for the role. Eidson is a newcomer to the D&D world, but during the course of the shoot, he was "reading the handbook over days and days. I'd never played it before this, but we rehearsed it so much. I hope it came across like I knew what I was doing. Andrew's the big D&D geek. He knew all the rules and details so that it would look authentic."
Part of Graham's job was making sure that the movie didn't get lost in all the geek minutiae. "Andrew's the geek of the two of us," she says. "I'm a little less so. I would go through the script and tell him, 'This is too inside-baseball; this needs to be shortened.' It's really about the emotions in the characters, that was the primary thing."
Matthews was also the editor of Best Worst Movie, a documentary about legendary cinematic turd Troll 2, which taught him how to make a movie that can appeal to everyone, not just the nerds who know the terrain. "It was such a challenge making a documentary about a cult movie that nobody had seen, and making that documentary for a wide audience," he says. "This was the same kind of dance. As anyone who's played D&D knows, an actual encounter in the game takes hours, and we show it happening in a matter of 30 seconds. That was a writing challenge."
Weidemeyer's look in the film and his character's surroundings certainly feel familiar. He's overweight, prematurely balding, and his wardrobe consists of metal shirts and cut-off Dickies. He lives with his grandmother and has a menial job. He loves being the Game Master of his group, but he also longs for a cool geek gig, like managing a game store.
The movie reaches a turning point when a Miles, a much more successful geek with a popular website and a hot girlfriend, infiltrates Weidemeyer's inner circle. Eventually, Miles comes between Scott and his longtime D&D brethren, and Scott himself ends up driving the wedge even further. It's here that Matthews says he put a lot of himself into the character of Scott. "To me, writing the character was mostly about insecurity," he explains. "I was playing off insecurities I've had all my life as a writer and a filmmaker. What brings out my insecurity the most is somebody who does what you do better than you, and does it effortlessly, and I guess the journey in writing the script was realizing you can't control other people's perceptions of how good you are at something. You just gotta deal with where you're at, and accept it."
Weidemeyer wasn't an easy character to make likable on screen. As Eidson explains, "On the page, he's already a whiny, obsessive asshole character, and I tried to keep him as realistic and sympathetic as possible. Scott is always intense, always at 11. Andrew and Katie were very detail-oriented about hand movements, eye movements, how many times he would point at people. It was a specific kind of a geek they were trying to talk about."
Thankfully, Matthews and Graham also wanted an actor who truly looked the part, the genuine article instead of a pretty boy in "nerd drag," as Graham puts it. Matthews says, "Even on a micro-budget movie, you still get pressure from people to cast a charming, hip actor to play the lead, and that would have obliterated the entire point of the movie, which was for the audience to learn empathy for a guy who doesn't look like they want him to."
Nerds and geeks may indeed find that Zero Charisma hits too close to home, like musicians who at first couldn't laugh at Spinal Tap because of its painful truths. Yet Zero Charisma is a much more sympathetic and empathetic look at the geek world, created by people who know it well, which clearly makes a big difference.
"The geeks have gotten a bad rap," says Eidson. "I've heard from fans that love Zero Charisma who say it isn't run of the mill; it definitely makes you think about geek culture and it definitely makes you think. Scott's usually the side character you never really know about. This movie shines a light on what his life is like."