An exclusive GeekWeek Interview with Keven McAlester, director of DUNGEON MASTERS & Producer Phil Hay

You know how in Rolling Stone when they interview someone they paint a picture? Like, they talk about their modest Bel Air estate and the bottled water they offer?  To humanize them?  That's cool. 


Documentary filmmaker Keven McAlester spent a year following three dungeon masters - Scott, Richard and Elizabeth.  THE DUNGEON MASTERS isn't a game; it's about three of the thirty thousand RPG gamers who flock to Indianapolis every year for the D&D Convention. 

Anyway, I gave Keven water.  He may be a robot.  But he made a really great documentary that isn't making fun of a subculture that is so easy to mock.  Here's our sit down.  I pretend to be a real journalist He pretends to not be a robot.  Phil Hay sometimes chimes with his midwestern charm and good looks. You ready?  Here goes. 

Shax: Gimme the Keven creation story first.

Keven: I grew up in Texas and was a history and literature major at Harvard - the least practical major in the world. I always wanted to make films but it took me about 8 years to get the courage; before that, I was a fairly embarrassing radio DJ and then a music critic.


I figured the only way to get people to give me money was to make a documentary about a musician, which is how I ended up making my first film, You're Gonna Miss Me. It's about Roky Erickson, a 60s rock pioneer who pled insanity to a pot charge and was sent to a medieval mental institution that really scarred him; eventually he quit playing music and ended up in the care of his mother. 

Shax: And this movie?

Keven: I've been friends with Matt Manfredi and Phil Hay forever; they're ridiculously nice guys. They're also really talented, and I was so flattered when they brought me this idea of making a film about D&D. 

Phil: For us [the producers] the movie came down to an essential question about creativity.  Because if you're an adult in America and you get paid to be creative, people look at you like you have it made.  But if you aren't getting paid for it suddenly people laugh at you.  When you think about it, it is pretty brave to keep the creative spark alive in your adult life when it's not your job.  And these are incredibly creative people.

Shax: So Keven, you're a D&D player too?

Keven: Not at all. I grew up in the first wave of D&D but I was just too uncool to play. My dad is a geology professor so until I got my first Led Zeppelin record, I was collecting butterflies and bird watching--shit that you just can't find any other person under the age of 70 to do. D&D was well above my social strata.

But I knew all about the culture of D&D and think it's an amazing world. It's incredible how many of my own cultural references were from D&D, from the baroque language to the movie Heavy Metal.



Keven: Documentaries about eccentric subcultures have, over the past decade, become poor men's genre films. I wanted to make something about real life, relatable struggles. Everything I put in the film I related to: a creative struggle, finding your place in the world, your relationships.  These things are universal.  I didn't need to play D&D to relate to the people I interviewed. And as someone who has spent days searching Ebay for some record that I probably threw away two years later, I get their level of obsession. I've been lost in it. 

Phil: None of the producers currently play.  I think the last game I played was seven years ago.  But when I was growing up D&D was my thing.  Not just D&D, a whole bunch of obscure role playing games like Twilight 2000 and Call of Cthulhu. 

Shax: Did you guys make Keven dress up when he went to games and cons?  Keven did you dress up?

Keven: I thought about it! I mean, at certain points we were asking people to appear in costume and in character, and I wondered if we should try to as well. But I sort of felt like I would be busted immediately for my lack of knowledge. Instead I was upfront, "I know nothing and you have to be my guru" and they reacted just as well to that.

But I was routinely mocked for stuff like having never seen a “demilich." I was told to leave a gaming room because I asked what “THACO” meant. (Answer: To Hit Armor Class Zero. Long story.) Questions like, “why can't a living being outrun a giant piece of jello?” were met with appropriate derision for a man who had never considered the short stride of a dwarf when compared to the slithering ability of a Gelatinous Cube.

Shax: So now I feel like an ass because I have to ask... a Dungeon Master is?

Keven: A Dungeon Master is the person who runs the game. They make the rules, create the world, lead the group through the world. They are essentially god in the game. Which presents an interesting contrast because these people, like all of us, are not god in their real lives.

Phil: A really great Dungeon Master is what makes the game.  They are the story teller.

Shax: How did you find your three Dungeon Masters for the movie?

Keven: We went to the big convention in Indianapolis, and we just kind of watched people play so we could get a sense of how they interacted with players, what their language was.  Scott lives in Torrance and is a real gamer, exactly what you think of when you think of D&D. Richard is in the military and has a job with the city and has a relatively normal life. He just loves killing people on the weekends. Obviously when we saw Elizabeth as the drow-elf in costume we had to know what her story was.

Shax: What is her story?

Keven: She's a drow, an underground dwelling evil elf. It's a matriarchal society, ruled by queens, and men are essentially slaves.  She covers her body with charcoal. She spent a lot of time perfecting this mix of powdered charcoal and paint. She's also developed another method of spraying it on. It's like Mystic Tan, but obsidian. Mystic Drow.


Shax: I always feel like there's a sense of superiority in D&D players.

Keven: The convention is held where the Colts play and the convention and the field share the same hallway. A high school football team came walking through the convention center and they were surrounded by these role players, all talking shit. There was gonna be a rumble - it was 20 years of repressed rage, playing itself out. And at the same time you see the football players and fans in their face paint and outfits and the RPG people in their face paint and outfits and what's the difference?

Shax: Why do you think people play D&D still?

Keven: I think the real appeal of these older tabletop RPGs is getting together in a room with other people and playing. The social aspect is what brings people in. Conventions will always exist because it is a way for people to interact who might not interact otherwise. 

Phil: As a player the social component is so compelling.  Yes, online gaming is huge and they all grew out of the D&D tradition, but nothing can replace the table top games.  They are just more social, you're sitting around playing with friends, drinking beer, eating food.  And I know the stereotype is that people in D&D aren't social but a lot of these people are really gregarious. 


Shax: Talk a little bit about the intersection of sex and D&D.  Or is it my imagination?

Keven: I think that portion of the RPG world is a bit exaggerated by non-gamers. Certainly when you're playing as a pre-teenager it isn't so sexual. You're sitting in this house in suburbia and going on these adventures of the mind. As you get older, adventures of the mind lead to the opposite sex and sexual adventures more often.

But at the conventions with people dressing up, I think it's a way for people to feel attractive in ways that they don't in their normal lives. The convention is spring break for gamer. It has that summer camp feeling. But it isn't any more sexual than say, a film festival. Probably way, way less, now that you mention it. 

Phil:  When I was playing there were no girls dressing up as Sailor Moon and playing live action RPG.  In high school if there was any girl at all interested in your D&D game you were like a superhero.  What is interesting that the intersection of edgy cool people and people who play RPG has never been closer than it is right now.  It is a very fine line between The Flaming Lips and guys playing D&D. 

Shax: How did Blonde Redhead come to write the score?

Keven: Originally I wanted to do it with all this heroic music, so it would be the irony of their journey. But it just seemed way too cute. We started changing it around, and the temp score was a confused mix of heroic music and jazz and just shit that seemed right but wasn't. When we were looking for a composer, we wanted someone who was conversant in all those things and could bring them all together, and Joe Rudge, our music supervisor, put the word out. A bunch of people came up who I never thought would want to do this, and Blonde Redhead was one of them.

Shax: Why hasn't D&D gone totally digital?

Keven: I was worried about that when we started, wondering if people even play the tabletop version anymore. But there are 30,000 people at this convention. And for young people there's an analog coolness, like the way kids are starting to buy vinyl again. See there, I just justified my own obsessions again. That's all the film really is...a 90-minute apologia for my record collection.

Shax: Okay Phil, talk about Keven like he's not here.

Phil:I'm really proud to have helped Keven make 'The Dungeon Masters.'  It's a loving, funny, and strange portrait of some truly creative people. Gygax forever!


So then we turned off the tape recorder and trash talked for awhile and then I bribed Keven and the producers to give us an exclusive clip that will be coming tomorrow!

The Dungeon Masters is available by VOD on February 12th.  We'll have pics and a party report next week!
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