I consider James Rolfe a major pioneer of transmedia. His website, Cinemassacre, offers a wide array of short films, videos, blog posts, podcasts, etc. I’ve personally followed Rolfe and Cinemassacre since the fall of 2008, when I discovered the Angry Video Game Nerd. The first AVGN review I ever watched was in fact his 3-part episode on the Philips CD-i, showcasing the system’s three Zelda titles and Hotel Mario. It was hilarious, informative, and well-produced. And it made me a fan. Since then, I’ve devoutly followed his work, watching Rolfe’s series such as AVGN and Monster Madness, not to mention his short films. But my personal favorite Rolfe video is “The Dragon in My Dreams,” a wonderful, emotional short exploring where his passion for filmmaking began.
As a filmmaker and media producer, he’s a big influence, and I’m very happy to see how much he has grown over the years, and how successful his work has become. He’s become so successful in fact that his feature film, Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie, just wrapped a month-long theatrical tour and makes its VOD debut tomorrow (Sept. 2, 2014), exclusively on Vimeo. (A home video release will be available some time in November.) I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Rolfe and his co-writer/co-director Kevin Finn about their filmmaking in general, and Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie in particular.
TP: Why filmmaking?
JR: Yeah, it was a crazy idea, wasn’t it? [Laughs] It’s really the best medium. You get visual, sound, movement… I’ve tried lots of things. I’ve been interested in writing books, drawing comics, and I’ve always been interested in animation. When I was younger, it was hard to get friends together to act all the time, so I would do animation. I eventually got lonely, so I went to live-action.
KF: It’s interesting you bring up loneliness, James. Because that’s a big part of my answer, too. The first thing I wanted to try was animation. By the time I got to be 16, I wanted to be a painter. But, that always felt lonely as an animator. I was in theatre a lot in high school, and it was one of the things I loved. Suddenly, I began making movies in high school with friends, James included. It seemed to be the best way to combine visuals, music, and acting. It was kind of like a catch-all.
TP: When did the two of you come to the point where you saw potential for The Angry Video Game Nerd to have his own feature film?
JR: It was right after the first year where it got popular on YouTube . Around that time, Kevin and I were already talking about making a feature film using that character. And I was already thinking about the 100th episode. My friend, Mike Matei, who is an Atari expert, was telling me all about the story of the Atari landfill, back when it was still a legend. Then, it became sort of this perfect Nerd quest to find the game burial site. We found a lot of potential in that story, so we turned it into a whole fantasy—a fantasy/adventure/science fiction comedy. In 2007, we started to get serious about it and wrote an outline. In 2008, we had a script (which we then revised for years), storyboards, and started thinking about how we could shoot it. It was a long process, but we started shooting in 2012. And, now we have it done.
KF: In 2006, I was in Los Angeles, after moving from Philadelphia. I remember James calling me up, saying that he was thinking about doing the Atari landfill story. He was mentioning E.T., the big video game crash of 1983 that started everything, and then this mysterious burial out in the desert. I remember thinking, “Jeez, man. This is a movie!” I’m on the phone with James and we then just started spit-balling these ideas on what it could be. E.T. was the first movie I remember seeing. It had such a big impact on me, and helped lead me to becoming a filmmaker. It was the perfect thing for me to do as my first feature film.
JR: We love Spielberg. One of my favorite films of all time is Duel.
TP: Close Encounters is my personal favorite.
KF: Obvious influences from that as well.
TP: The movie is a monumental effort compared to the video reviews. When you’re making something of that magnitude, you’re bound to run into obstacles that can cause a lot of stress. How did you two deal with it?
JR: Pretty well. [Laughs]
KF: In the course of seven years, a lot of things come up, big or little. It seems like you can’t overcome them. But, you just keep pushing forward. Then, what seemed like such a big deal at the time doesn’t. One instance, we couldn’t get the licensing for E.T., and I’m thinking, “How can we make a movie about E.T. if we can’t get the licensing?” James and I always talk about how this movie as sort of an alternate universe, where the excavating of the games is an unusual event, and everything else around it becomes this uncanny, unusual thing. It becomes its own world. The biggest thing to overcome all of this is having a collaborator like James, and Sean [Keegan] who we have known for 20 years. When one of us would get pissed off at the other one, then one would be an intermediate.
JR: When you’re just bored and you want to do something, it’s more like a spare time sort of situation. With the movie, it became something that just takes over your life. There’s not a single day where you’re not thinking about it. You can’t even sleep without thinking about it. It’s just like every day for years and years.
TP: What are some things you learned while making the movie that you will apply to future work?
JR: It was a real life film school. Real hands-on. It’s hard to pick up a certain thing. The whole thing was just so different from what I did before. I usually work with a very small number of people, if any. I’ve been making videos by myself when I was a kid. This was just huge, with tons of people. You’d think with more people working on it, the movie would get done faster. Instead, you have to manage all of them. I think with my next film, I’ll keep it small because it’s a lot of maintenance and extra work for extra people.
KF: When you look at the script, it’s big for every movie-making situation—from the start, the fundraising, from getting the money to casting, hiring crew, all the way to post-production where you needed more people to work on the visual effects. We did a lot of practical effects, but we ended up having to do a lot of digital effects. Our visual effects supervisor told us we had more effects than Iron Man.
JR: Sometimes we would run into a problem that we couldn’t fix. The answer to that is, “Well, we’ll fix it in post.”
KF: We had around 80 people working in post.
TP: Whenever you post a video or finish a project and the response isn’t what you would expect it to be, how do you deal with that?
JR: I think they’ve all gone over very well. You know, once it’s done, it doesn’t matter anymore. Sometimes you look at it and you say to yourself, “I wish that could have been done better,” but it’s over. You just go on to the next thing.
KF: I feel the same. I work out in Hollywood, on TV. For the most part, I don’t even watch it when it’s done. I just move on to the next project.
TP: As a theatrically-and VOD-released film, Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie, is open to criticism not just from fans, but from professional critics. How have you/are you prepared to deal with their responses?
JR: The movie is made by the fans, for the fans. That’s who our audience is. As for professional critics, who knows? They might not like the cheap effects or the DIY kind of style. But, there’s nothing you can do about it. We made the movie. We’re very happy with it. And as long as you are happy with it, and the fans are happy with it, then that’s all you can do.
KF: I think that for our first feature, we were more ambitious than when you think about it. We put so much in it that you can’t really feel bad about it, no matter what anybody says about it. James and I feel really good about it.
JR: One thing I’m really happy about is the length. It happens really fast. It’s a huge epic story. If it were any mainstream film nowadays, it would be a two and a half hour movie. Ours is just under two hours. It goes by faster than your average superhero movie or Michael Bay film.
TP: Now that the movie has been released, what will become of the Angry Video Game Nerd?
JR: It will go back to the shorter episodes and I’ll hopefully just focus on (what I have narrowed down to) six feature film ideas. But the Nerd will always continue.