Zero Charisma began as a fake movie trailer attached to an Indie GoGo fundraising page. Now, it's a finished feature film making its grand premiere at SXSW.
The story of Scott Weidemeyer, a tabletop role-playing dungeon master who finds his Dungeons and Dragons group infiltrated by a faux hipster nerd, the film is the feature debut of directors Katie Graham and Andrew Matthews, the cinematographer and editor on the acclaimed documentary Best Worst Movie.
One element that has remained constant from the fake trailer to the completed film is actor Sam Eidson, who has watched Zero Charisma evolve from a few days of work to his first major leading role. We spoke with Sam about the challenges of having an entire film rest on your performance and the even greater challenge of making a living as an actor in Austin.
CultureMap: I've often heard it said that Austin is an amazing place to work but a terrible place to get paid. Can you describe what it's like making a living as a creative person in this city?
Sam Eidson: Yeah, that nails it right there! Austin is a great place to live and work and it's really easy to get your low budget stuff made, but I'm always borderline. I feel like it would be this way in any other city, but there is less work here. In New York and L.A. you'd still be pinching pennies, but here, you have to make your own work.
More than half of my acting gigs have come from me meeting people through friends and making those connections. It's not like that in L.A., where your agent and your manager help you get you all of that stuff.
As for directing…you've just got to write something and go out there and make it. That's hard to do elsewhere, but that's why I like Austin. They're not quite disillusioned with film here yet. They're like "Oh! We love film! We want everyone to shoot here!" They don't realize that the more people shoot, the more they'll start to hate them taking over their town.
But for now, Austin is awesome because they want people to shoot there and you're often free to shoot wherever. Getting permits for places is really easy. In the case of Zero Charisma, the production team got a lot of really good deals on locations or were told "Just mention us in the credits." It was really nice. People were really awesome.
CM: Zero Charisma has been in the works for quite some time. How long have you been attached to it?
SE: [My directors] Andrew and Katie saw me in a low budget movie that I did for free, because you know, everyone does their free stuff. They saw me in The Man From Orlando and they liked me. Then they had me do the trailer for their Indie GoGo campaign and that was pretty much my audition. They used that to see if I could pull it off.
CM: So it was a "do a fake trailer now for the promise of a job later" type situation?
SE: Yeah. If something sounds interesting, I'll take it. But honestly, I'll also take a job when it doesn't sound interesting. I'm always talking to [my actor friends] and we always say "Well, I've gotta' take this job" even if it's not something we want to do. If it pays, we've got to go for it.
CM: But that's not case here right? This is a lead role in a movie that's now playing at SXSW. When did you realize that this was something special?
SE: When we were making that Indie GoGo trailer, I was having a lot of fun. Then the response to that was awesome. That's when we realized "Wow, this could actually happen." The film deals heavily with fantasy roleplaying and that entire fanbase seemed to go for it. The concept of the movie seemed to immediately resonate with that niche audience. After that response, I realized that this could be something big.
The process of shooting Zero Charisma was way more intense than any movie I've ever worked on before. In most of the movies I'm cast in, it's usually just me coming in and going "Hey! I'm the goof!" Like in [Austin filmmaker] Emily Hagins' movies. I just get to show up and be goofy. But for this, I had to really dive deep into the role. I didn't do method acting or anything but I wasn't used to that kind of process.
CM: You generally do play comedic roles. Was taking on a more dramatic role completely new to you?
It was a brand new experience. I was trying to keep it as natural as possible, but it was new. That's why working with Andrew and Katie was awesome. They molded me into exactly what the story needed. I kept on wanting to do certain things and we'd talk about it and they'd say "No, he wouldn't be so soft spoken" and so on.
There were a lot of unnatural things that I wanted to do but I got rightfully pulled back and the result is the monster that the Scott Weidemeyer character. Actually, Katie and Matthew were worried that I was too nice and couldn't pull off being a complete asshole, but that's acting! I just had to pull it off.
CM: How concerned were you about playing a character so well versed in geek culture? Was that something you felt comfortable with?
SE: I felt comfortable with it. I've never done D&D before, but I've played board games and I actively follow that kind of culture. I'm sure there are things I do in the movie that will get nitpicked and torn apart by D&D players! But I kept the D&D manual with me on set and I read it every day to try to understand that world more and more.
CM: This isn't your first time appearing in SXSW film, but this is your first time headlining one.
SE: If you don't count the short I was in a few years back, Billy's Birthday. But yeah, this is my first feature lead.
CM: How does that feel? Having a movie rest on your shoulders.
SE: It's unexplainable. There's so much riding on it. It's like, "Well, if you're not good then the movie's not good!" I'm pretty cool about it. I try not to worry about it all the time. The more I see footage, the more comfortable I feel about it. Usually, I could tell when we were shooting if something was good. I'd be like, "I nailed that take! We did it!"
But it's funny. I direct too, so I like to watch and critique performances and here I find myself critiquing myself. It's like, "Oh, I should've done that thing with my eyebrows there!" I do stuff like that. But it's going to be awesome. There's been a good reaction from the people who have seen if so far. It feels good.
CM: What would you say to people who want to pursue a creative career in Austin? Is there any kind of path?
SE: I'm still in the game trying to figure that out for myself! It's a simple answer — just go for it. I think a lot of people worry too much. Don't try to do one thing. Go out of your comfort zone. I do that all the time.
Zero Charisma premieres on Monday, March 11th. It screens again on March 13th and March 15th.