When Ian McKellen pretends to be a wizard, he gets $8 million and an Oscar nomination. When a bunch of ordinary working people get together to pretend to be barbarians, warriors, and trolls on the weekend for fun, they get called geeks. Call them instead LARPers live action role-players and the subject of Darkon, an overwhelming favorite on the 2006 festival circuit.
In their debut documentary feature, co-directors Andrew Neel and Luke Meyer enter Darkon, a high-fantasy world in which orcs rampage across nations, mages cast arcane conjurings, and dark elves plot in caves. In reality, Darkon is a set of gaming rules, a map of fictional countries, and a series of weekendlong live-action events on borrowed farmland. Players come in homemade costumes, and vie for power and hexes on the map through negotiations, treachery, and intrigue. When that fails, they battle with padded maces and foam swords.
This isn't teens rolling dice in a basement: With 1,000 members, or Darkonians, it's one of the nation's largest LARPing groups. Players are drawn from diverse swaths of society, from high schoolers to happily married managers with no shame about their hobby. Contrary to the stereotype, it's not just a boy's club, as plenty of women, and even whole families, join the fray. With a couple hundred gamers at any live event, Darkon is as much a real-world society as a game. Players keep the same character for years and develop strong friendships. Live-action events may be built around the game, but when the armor comes off, and the characters are dropped, it's also a huge campout, a chance to hang, eat, and catch up. There's an almost unspoken irony that role-players, once the teenage nerds who stereotypically avoided sports, are camping out in the Baltimore winter. Meanwhile, their jock contemporaries have been promoted to solitary armchair quarterbacking.
At SXSW Film 06, against a highly competitive slate of political movies, Neel and Meyer walked away with the documentary feature audience award. Their guide to Darkon was Skip Lipman, in many ways the film's true star. During the week, he's a devoted stay-at-home husband and dad from Baltimore. On the weekend, he's Bannor, warlord of Laconia. Another player/character (Keldar, in-game persona of middle-manager Kenyon Wells) is conquering the lands of Darkon in the name of the Mordom Empire. The mood turns ugly and personal as Wells' "playing" eradicates fictitious nations and created characters. Is he playing the game to its natural conclusion, or is he like the guy who turns a friendly game of poker into a way to take money off his friends? Lipman has to work out whether to call foul on Wells in the real world, or use Bannor's armies to vanquish Keldar on the field of battle.
Actually, it's a mistake to presume that Darkon isn't a political movie. There's the in-game war between Keldar and Bannor, reflected in personal animosity between Wells and Lipman. There's also a hierarchy in the LARPing world. Darkonians, with their emphasis on politics and world-building, look down on those who just bash one another with foam weapons (dismissively called "stick jocks"). Not that there isn't a fair amount of flailing around with plywood shields in Darkon, and while that's shown to be damn good fun, it's the result of a failure of nations. And that's where the real politics comes in. As Keldar starts to rip Darkon and the gamers apart, the players increasingly reflect on war-gaming during a time of real war.
We spoke to Meyer and Neel during SXSW, as well as a year later in the weeks leading up to a series of screenings at the Alamo Drafthouse Downtown.
Austin Chronicle: Role-playing is often dismissed as something for dysfunctional teens, but the film shows it as a social event. How did you come to the subject and get the insight you needed?
Andrew Neel: I got into role-playing the idea of it, not playing it and I wrote a screenplay, a contemporary fictional thing about the underworld of Dungeons & Dragons. Through Internet research I found out about LARPing, and I thought, I have to go down and see this, and that's how I met Skip. It was through this different game, and he was kind of wise to what we were doing. He told us, "There's this other game I play called Darkon. It has more story, and you should really check it out."
Luke Meyer: As a documentary filmmaker, you always hope you'll run into someone like Skip.
AN: He's such a creative person, and he really wanted to be part of it; not just a passive documentary figure. That made for a dynamic relationship between us and him.
AC: Was it harder to get producers interested or getting accepted by Darkonians?
AN: When we started talking to production companies, we were talking to more edgy, more outside-the-box people who saw that this could be awesome, that it's a risky endeavor, but it could be amazing.
LM: All it took them was looking at some battle footage, and the producers were sold. But it took a lot of time to let the club get to know us, to watch the trailers we cut together, to do one-on-one interviews with them.
AN: Especially since we're two guys from New York, turning up in a Volvo, unloading cameras and asking really presumptuous questions. A lot of people were really psyched and supported us. But there was politicking, and some people, we never got their trust.
AC: You had access not just to players' homes but, in some memorable scenes, from inside a charging force in a massed battle. How was shooting inside a fake fight?
AN: We had embedded shooters in tabards. I got hammered a couple of times, the camera got clubbed, we got knocked over, people got pissed off that we were getting in the way, but it's made all other kinds of shooting thus far kinda boring. There's this one crane shot of me, and I'm like, "Aaargh!"
LM: His eyes are so wide. But damage to equipment and actual injuries were pretty minimal. The game goes on no matter what weather. They play in the rain, they play in the snow, so it was just up to us to be there to film it.
AN: We were even shooting in the middle of a hurricane. Like any other doc that has subject matter outside, we're always stuck in the crappy weather.
AC: Several players draw comparisons between the game's civil war and U.S. foreign policy. It's never clear whether Bannor is fighting Keldar because he wants to stop him or just replace him, and he even began on Keldar's side. But after the schism, one of Bannor's allies turns to his wife and says, "We're the terrorists."
LM: Any fantasy world, no matter how otherworldly it is, is inspired by what's going on around you. Darkon is a world that's been expanding for 18 years. These countries have real history and real culture, and they're politically motivated. The land map allows the story to evolve over time.
AN: People accused Skip of being a flip-flopper, but other people were saying, "He's like Bush." Everyone thought they were America. There's this schizophrenia: On one hand, we were founded as a rebel nation, but now we're the establishment, so there's this confusion about where we're supposed to fall in. Bannor's character is ambiguous: Is he a warmonger? Was he right to do what he does?
AC: Ultimately, the movie is about how protective people can be of their fantasy lives.
AN: One of the ideas in Darkon that was most dear to me was that the world and life is a theatre, and we are all role-playing in a very intensive way. We've just finished a documentary about my grandmother [the portrait painter Alice Neel, premiering this week at Slamdance] but we're halfway through a semifictional biopic that I'm co-directing with Michel Auder [director of Chelsea Girls With Andy Warhol] called The Feature. It's about this guy who has filmed a large part of his life, including some intimate details. So we're creating a biopic, but there's lots of lies, and he's not like that in reality at all. The process of becoming an adult is the process of creating a persona, which is a created, structural thing which you then use to present yourself to the world. To watch these guys play it out in very certain terms was amazing.
Monday, Jan. 29, 7pm; Feb. 6, 7pm; Feb. 12, 7pm
Alamo Drafthouse Downtown
The Monday screening will include a 6pm demo by Austin-based LARP group Amtgard.
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