An Internet sensation that debuted as the Angry Video Game Nerd ten years ago, filmmaker James Rolfe has taken millions of YouTube visitors back to the past with his hotheaded, foulmouthed alter ego, who gleefully tears down some of the most notorious titles and accessories (the Power Glove, anyone?) from the golden age of retrogaming. (If you’ve ever thrown a controller across the room out of frustration, you’ll understand.)
As the creative linchpin of his website and production company Cinemassacre, the AVGN legend culminates with this year’s release of Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie, a feature-length, years-in-the-making collaborative effort between Rolfe, co-writer/co-director Kevin Finn, and co-producer Sean Keegan. A satisfyingly silly sci-fi/adventure comedy in the Troma tradition, the film enjoyed a sold out 16-city North American screening tour earlier this summer, and makes its Vimeo on Demand debut today (Sept. 2), with a DVD/Blu-ray release planned for the holiday season.
In this exclusive, wide-ranging interview, I spoke with Rolfe about everything from the film’s New York premiere last month, the Nerd Renaissance we’re currently living in, and the most “Japanese” (i.e., insane) game he’s ever played.
What was your personal introduction to E.T. the game? Was it anything like the portrayal shown in the movie?
It’s interesting. I played a lot of Atari games as a kid. It was my first console. (Well, actually, I think I played the Odyssey 2 before it.) Some of my earliest memories are sitting around playing Atari 2600. I played a ton of them, but never the E.T. game until adulthood, after the Angry Video Game Nerd began getting popular on YouTube and I kept getting requests for it. However, the E.T. movie was a different story. That had a huge effect on me as a child. The E.T. from the movie terrified me. I used to have a recurring nightmare that E.T. was outside my bedroom window. His head would stretch through the window and come for me! So obviously, I had to put a scene like that in the movie.
With the news earlier this year that Atari game cartridges, including E.T. were finally exhumed in New Mexico after years of rumors, the timing for the release of this movie couldn’t be better. How did you feel about all the comments that you received in the wake of this?
The Atari dumping in Alamogordo was always a fact. There are newspapers and photo evidence, from 1983, though the photographs were black and white, and with so much contrast, they looked like they’ve put through a copying machine a thousand times. I was surprised by the reactions of how many people thought it was a myth. The myth-side of things was when it was said that over two million copies of E.T. were buried, which is still open for debate and discovery. Only a small percentage of games found in the Alamogordo dumping were E.T. So it’s a foggy story, with a combination of fact and rumor. Either way, it’s definitely been a big year for the Atari landfill!
According to Wikipedia, the entire production budget of the film was crowdfunded at just over $325,000. How much did it ultimately cost to make and market, and what kind of projections are you anticipating after release?
I’m not much of a money person. I just want to make movies, without having to do an ordinary job at the same time. The amount the fans donated was impressive! But $325,000 was our gross income. Not the net income. Thirty percent of that money was taxed, since the majority was raised before the end of the year, and we didn’t begin spending it until April, the following year, so we didn’t have any tax deductions. That was after Indiegogo took a small percentage, and then PayPal took a percentage. Also the cost of printing the photographs, shipping them to me for autographing, and shipping them back out to all the contributors was an astronomical price! So the final “budget” was much less than everyone thinks. Compared to the multi-million dollar mainstream Hollywood films of today, it’s pretty impressive that we pulled it off with such a low budget. But again, for what the fans did, it was nothing short of amazing!
You mentioned on your website that you were learning on the job more than ever when shooting the film itself. What got easier throughout the process, and is that something that can be observed in scenes in the finished product?
The hardest thing for me might have been working with such a large amount of people. I usually keep my crew small. This was a new thing for me. No one would know the amount of trouble that happened on set, but we will tell all in the DVD/Blu-ray with a long behind-the-scenes documentary.
What does this movie mean to you?
It means that some ordinary guys can get together and make an epic adventure comedy, with the help from the fans, without having to go through a major movie studio. To me, it’s the ultimate fan-film. It’s made by fans, for fans. It means dreams can come true, with a lot of hard work and personal sacrifice.
It feels like we’re living in some kind of Nerd Renaissance—even “Weird Al” Yankovic’s last album went to number one. How do you feel about all this?
Nerds were big in the ’80s. It’s all coming back now. I feel there’s a much broader definition of “nerd” now, and it’s something to be proud of.
What are your thoughts on the live appearances you’ve had promoting the film so far? Which moments have been the most memorable?
Since July 21, we’ve been touring this movie around, city by city. It’s been amazing. The energy from the crowd is fantastic! There’s nothing like watching the movie with live reactions. The best moment is during the opening credits. Everyone cheers. Sometimes they clap along with the music. You can really feel the hype building up to the AVGN title screen. Then it explodes, and everyone goes nuts.
What can you share about the back-to-back screenings held for the New York premiere?
It was a rowdy crowd. Especially the second screening. I loved it, though it was exhausting. Under normal circumstances, I would be sick of looking at this movie, but the fans make it exciting every time. It never gets old.
For your introduction that night, you joked about screening the new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie instead, which has been an influential series to you. Did you end up seeing the film later that night?
It was late into the night, by the time we all loaded out of that place. I was too busy to see the movie, until days later. I enjoyed it enough. I still think the 1990 TMNT movie was the best.
How was Symphony Space on the Upper West Side chosen as the venue? Were there other historic movie theaters that you were considering?
It’s a great venue. We had a lot of theaters we were considering. The most important thing was to spread them out over the country, and get to most major cities. We also did some Canadian cities. We would have loved to bring it overseas, but we all maxed out every waking hour of our time booking these places and traveling around to support them.
Being from the East Coast yourself, what memories do you have of visiting New York to watch certain movies?
Whenever I’m in NYC, I’ve seen live shows. The most recent one I saw was [Broadway musical] The Addams Family. It’s a very exciting city. There’s so much to see.
Mount Fuji and Godzilla movies play a prominent role in the film. If you were to ever visit Japan, what would you most want to see and do there?
I’ve always wanted to go. There isn’t one thing in particular. I’d just like to see all around the major cities like Tokyo. Just normal tourist things.
What are some of your favorite moments of “Japaneseness” in video games that you’d like to give a shout-out to?
Hmmm. Not sure. Probably Ninja Baseball Bat Man! That game is insane.
What’s the Nerd’s fanbase like in Japan, and what kind of people have reached out to you from there?
I do get fan emails from there. Not as much as Europe or South America.
What’s the craziest email/comment you ever received from a fan?
I don’t even know where to begin. I’ve had some really crazy emails.
Several years ago you were mentioned, not too glowingly, on Howard Stern’s radio show, who didn’t seem to know much about you. What did you think about that?
“The Nerd’s raking it in.” That was awesome to hear Howard say those words. He was just hearing about me for the first time, and trying to wrap his head around “nerds” celebrating another “nerd.” It was hilarious.
You’ve also been profiled in the New York Daily News. How did this come together, and what did it do for your exposure?
I bet it got me some more exposure. It was a great thing to do an interview with them. They asked, and how could I refuse?
How did you and Kevin Finn and Mike Matei originally meet, and what was the first conversation you remember having with both where you bonded over shared interests?
I met Kevin Finn in high school. It was the first time I had an intellectual conversation with a fellow student. Up until then, I couldn’t relate to anybody. He was the only other person I knew who wanted to make movies. This was long before YouTube. The Internet itself barely existed. I met Mike Matei in college at a party. It was the first time I met somebody who knew as much about old Atari games. We shared the same kind of crazy sense of humor. As you can tell, Kevin and Mike would play important parts in my life and career, and without them, there might not have been an AVGN movie. Without Mike, there probably wouldn’t have even been AVGN. You could say he was the first fan.
A lot of people who have seen the movie have commented that for a first-time feature made entirely by its creators, it came out even better than expected. What kind of feedback have you received after the screening from those who aren’t so familiar with the Nerd?
People have all responded very well. I expected I might alienate some audiences with the low budget B-movie style, but everyone seems to get it, and they embrace what we were doing. I was happy to see that the jokes have all played well. Everyone laughs and cheers at the right parts. I think we accomplished what we set out to do.
Did you hold any test screenings with an impartial test audience prior to the editing process?
There was a small test screening with a local crew, but it was a rough cut, without music/sound effects, and with only half visual effects shots done. Still, it played extremely well! After that, I knew we would be in good shape, after the movie was finished.
In the movie itself, there’s an enjoyable running gag that the Nerd is retro in all ways, from his personal computer equipment to the way he listens to music on the go. How did you land on that idea?
I thought it was funny. He really lives in the past. It seems to be a common thing that the younger generations are more adaptive to newer technology. The Nerd’s sidekick Cooper [played by Jeremy Suarez] is younger and more in-tune with gadgets and technology. He’s the only person in the movie who can out-nerd the Nerd.
Was the montage of fan clips during the opening credits of the movie all real? How tough was it to choose the ones that made the final cut?
They were all real fan submissions, and yes, it was very hard to choose from. There were so many funny ones. We had to keep editing the scene down shorter, because it made the credits go for about 15 minutes. We had to make many cuts.
Without spoiling anything, can you explain the meaning behind the scene with the “Groucho glasses” near the end of the film?
It’s on a higher plane of existence. Nobody could ever explain it. It’s beyond all our comprehension. It’s something so far out and unbelievable that the human brain could never understand.
What were the conversations like that you had with E.T. game designer Howard Scott Warshaw during and after the filming?
He has a great sense of humor and always has words of wisdom. It was a pleasure to meet him and have him in our film.
Who else in the world of gaming would you most like to meet, and what would you like to talk with them about?
Probably Shigeru Miyamoto. I would like to talk about movie-based games, mainly Nintendo franchises, and if they would ever be made into films.
The late Roger Ebert famously said that video games can never be art. What’s your take on that?
Of course it’s art. I don’t know why it wouldn’t be. Unless it’s Tiger electronic games.
Does your one-year-old daughter play video games, or are there any game characters she’s taken a liking to yet?
No, too young still. I once let her play with one of those small plastic Donkey Kong arcades, but she prefers to pick it up and throw it instead.
To you, what’s the most overrated game you’ve ever played, the most underrated one, the one you like that everyone doesn't, and the one you’re not that crazy about that everyone seems to love?
I don’t really want to call anything “overrated” because everything has its place, but the first that comes to mind is a Sega CD game called Snatcher. Everyone raves about it, and it’s a real cool story. I like the cyberpunk style, but as far as the gameplay goes, it’s mostly text. Not my kind of game. Underrated? Maybe Mario Paint. But that’s just because I’m sentimental about it. I can understand why anyone would think it sucks.
You’re known for having a lot of rare games in your collections. Which one(s) are you still on the hunt for?
I haven’t been actively hunting any lately. The rare ones I don’t own are really expensive. My NES collection is almost complete, except for the really rare ones.
Can you share the story behind who really owned what between you and Pat the NES Punk regarding the Nintendo World Championships AVGN episode? Which/how many of the different cartridges do you both have now?
Pat has both the grey and gold, so he’s actually completed his characters’ mission! I never owned them. That was a precious video, because I think it was the first time anyone had ever made a video like that, using both real cartridges! (The ones we destroyed were fakes, obviously.)
What’s your favorite/oddest game-related merchandise or promotional item in your collection?
I have one of few cardboard E.T. Atari standees. When the game flopped, most game stores threw them in the garbage, so they are extremely rare.
Are there any coin-op arcade game units you'd like to own?
Maybe Killer Instinct. Or a Neo Geo arcade, so you can swap out the cartridges. I’d never have room for it, though. And I’d probably kill myself trying to get it down my basement steps.
Seriously, what's your electric bill like every month?
Historically, video game commercials in the U.S. never seem to show much of the actual game. Why is that?
I’m not sure. The new ones seem to usually be cut-scenes. They look like movie trailers. Not games. The games themselves have such long cut-scenes, it’s like you’re not even playing a game. You’re watching a movie. And action/sci-fi movies have so much CGI, they look like video game cut-scenes. It’s my prediction that movies and video games will become fused into the same thing.
Do you have any favorite game music that you listen to outside of playing?
Outside of playing? Hmm. I used to own the Killer Instinct soundtrack. That was awesome! Also Final Fantasy III (SNES). Loved that! So cinematic.
Which game are you personally the best at? How about the worst?
Probably side-scrollers and 2D shoot ’em ups. I’m the worst at Grand Theft Auto, or anything 3D.
What was your absolute favorite movie and game from the past few years?
Hmm. Favorite recent movie. Probably The Wolf of Wall Street. (I know it got a lot of praise, so that’s not too out-of-ordinary.) Game? Probably Killer Instinct 3, because I was so shocked it finally came into existence.
What are your thoughts on the movie The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, and is there any chance that we might see the Nerd review it one day?
I think it’s been well-reviewed enough already. It’s a great documentary, and shows the extreme dedication some gamers have.
Has anyone ever given you an answer as to why the game publisher LJN made all those horrible movie games for the NES? Has anyone who worked for the company ever reached out to you to tell you what they were thinking? What’s LJN up to now?
No, never heard much insight, especially since they’ve been defunct for so long. The less we know, the funnier it is. Just the fact that a game company existed that exclusively made bad games, based on well-known franchises.
Are there any other decent LJN games out there besides Maximum Carnage and The Punisher?
WWF Royal Rumble is fun. I played that a lot, as a kid.
Besides Bayou Billy, what are some other bad games by otherwise good publishers?
Fester’s Quest. That game could have been great, but has some major flaws and unforgiving difficulty. It was made by Sunsoft, who made Batman, Blaster Master, and Gremlins 2. Mostly all good games, but insanely hard.
Are your longer sideburns a new look for the Nerd?
I don’t know. Just didn’t have as much time to shave. Looks retro anyway.
Is there any game or pop culture-related significance to any of your tattoos?
You have a keen eye. I have a dragon and a Judas Priest trident on my arm, but most people will never notice them, unless I start wearing sleeveless shirts.
My favorite non-AVGN work of yours is The Dragon in My Dreams, which was very moving. What kind of comments did you received after that video was posted?
I was surprised how positive the response was. People could relate. I’ve had someone break down in tears, in front of me, at the mere mention of it. Even the dragon still lives, I’ve been told. It’s now at the outside of the park. I guess others may have been just as nostalgic. I’ll never again have a trip that deep back to the past. That dragon was my earliest memory.
You mentioned that there are no immediate plans for an AVGN movie sequel. What projects do you want to work on next? Will you continue to do Nerd reviews more frequently, or focus on something else?
The Nerd videos will continue, but only when there’s a good idea. They are time-consuming videos to make, and I’ve already done 119 of them, so I’ll be focusing on whatever I’m most passionate about. I definitely plan to do a lot more web videos. I would like to see videos, in general, more often on Cinemassacre, after the movie stuff is out of the way. There will be more movie projects in the future. I have so many burning ideas, I don’t even know how to handle it.
Since you’re a huge fan of horror movies, are you nurturing any ideas for a feature length film in that genre? Do you think it would have elements of humor in it like AVGN or the Scream series, or would it be something more traditional?
I have various horror projects that I wish to make. Some scary. Some funny.
If you could pick anyone, who would you want to cast in your next movie?
Hmm. Maybe Malcolm McDowell.
Thanks so much for your time, James! Any other messages for our readers?
Thanks a lot! Hope I keep you entertained.