Valley of The Boom: The Story Behind Steve Zahn’s Eccentric Con Artist

Steve Zahn transformed into a con man for his role on National Geographic's Valley of the Boom.

You can hear it in his voice: Steve Zahn is downright giddy to talk about his role in Valley of the Boom. It takes precious little prodding to find out why. “We break every fucking rule in film,” he declares, momentarily borrowing some bombast from the preacher-turned Silicon Valley con man he portrays in the show.

At first glance, Valley of The Boom has the basic trappings of a biographical drama. It follows the early days of the ‘90s tech bubble and the influential people who were major players in that gold rush. Get closer to it and you’ll begin to understand where Zahn is coming from. When I first spoke with Zahn, I had yet to see a single clip of footage (you can now watch the trailer here). I was told the story would be a hybrid of scripted and documentary storytelling, which was familiar enough since the show’s home, National Geographic, used a comparable narrative structure with MARS. And then Zahn continued in his personal synopsis.

“The minute think you got this pegged, a character looks into the camera and starts talking and then talks as an actor playing the character in the moment,” he says. “Then everything freezes and I do a dance, an old-school Hollywood dance with a professional dancer. It was beautiful.”

The show’s colorful asides–and there are plenty of unexpected moments and narrative devices in store–are no match for a reality that is stranger than fiction. Zahn plays Michael Fenne, the founder of Pixelon, a company that raised millions of venture capital dollars on the promise that it will deliver the nascent internet’s first video streaming platform. It didn’t, and its founder was revealed to be David Kim Stanley, a con artist and fugitive from rural Appalachia who vanished in 1996 and resurfaced under a new name in Silicon Valley.

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Numerous Silicon Valley titans could have been dramatized in the show, but Fenne’s story, a mostly forgotten one, is a purposeful outlier. In our interview with Zahn, we spoke about his physical transformation into the 300-plus pound Fenne, the allure of Silicon Valley’s riches, and the impact of the ‘90s tech bubble as a cultural moment.

You had to undergo a transformation for this character. What was it like getting into character, and did you stay in character throughout shooting?

I was so excited initially because this is an extremely broad character, but I was scared shitless. I mean it’s a daunting thing, the idea of wearing anything kind of fat suit. I didn’t even know that was what they were going to. Were they going to take liberties with this? Is this a real guy? I thought, ‘man this guy is so eccentric and he’s this guy from Appalachia.’ Nowadays it’s not like theater where you have four weeks to fuck up and perfect.

So I was very excited and I worked extremely hard at home, on my own. I talked to Matthew and admitted my fear. He said, ‘Hey man, I’d hired you because I just knew you’d just dive in. You need to dive in.” The first day you just show up on set in this suit, and you’re performing for a crew. I don’t think of it as performing for the camera. If the crew buys it, you know what I mean, they’re all looking at you like, ‘This is insane. What are you wearing? This is crazy.’

Then you feel this confidence creep in, and you get more and more confident, the more and more they believe you on set. It took like two days, and then I had so much fun with this. It’s one of the only jobs I’ve had where I can’t wait to go back to work. Truly. It’s so much fun.

Did you meet Michael Fenne in person?

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 You just watched video?

I watched very minimal. There’s really not that much. It’s right before everything got fucking documented including your breakfast. At first you’re like, ‘there’s no way this guy can get away with this.’ Yeah, it’s before the internet. And if you existed as an adult before the internet, you realize, ‘oh yeah, no. Easy.’ 

He raised millions while he was a fugitive. 

FBI most wanted. It’s not like people are looking for somebody who has embezzled money out of their dad’s church in western Virginia in the mountains. Look, this guy cruised out there, pulled some teeth, dyed his hair, changed his name, lived out of his car, right?

He got stabbed from a guy asking for money with a little box cutter, and he ended up taking that box cutter, and put it on his desk at Pixelon. It represented something in his life. This guy is eccentric, religious, he’s a preacher. I mean he’s an old school Pentecostal Southern Baptist. He’s an assertive, intelligent, no fear guy, who has the most confidence in the world. It’s so odd because you look at him and you go like, ‘how can someone who looks like him, with that crazy hair, with no side burns, out of and shape, how can that guy be that confident?’

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Why do you think they want to tell that story and use that character?

Because it’s fascinating. His journey’s insane.

What do you think audiences are going to connect with here, the story more so the rise and what it took to that success? Like you mentioned having the knife on the desk and that’s a good anecdote, or the fall?

I think overall, it’s just fascinating to look back something that wasn’t that long ago that’s in our lifetime. This will be viewed historically as culturally changing event world-wide. In 1,000 years they will talk about that mid-90s as like the same way they talk about the engine being [invented]. It’s that monumental. I think as an audience you watch that and you realize that it really is that moment. That’s how it’s told in this. I mean the minute you think this is figured out, it’s a documentary, it’s experimental art, it’s performance art. 

How did you learn how to dance like that?

Oh, I’m an old hoofer. No I mean, I’ve been in theater for years. The first time I was in this city [Vancouver] was a national tour of Bye Bye Birdie, with Tommy Tune in Anaheim. 

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Is this story a cautionary tale?

It’s going to take a long time for people to learn their lessons. I was just talking about this and I think that’s the fascinating thing about this technology. It’s so new and it moves so fast, but we as humans are these kind of weird, primitive… we’re still like pilgrims in a weird way. We just stepped off the Mayflower. Here’s this technology, but we haven’t learned the rules. We haven’t learned the boundaries of what’s appropriate and what’s not with these things. 

What did you learn in doing this series that you didn’t know before? What’s something you had no idea about with technology or Silicon Valley that you took away with this series?

Well, I never even thought of it as a moment. I just took it for granted that these things happened and seeped into our lives. Then to look at it in this kind of wild crazy Wild West. The Gold Rush that happened in a year or two, where all these people had lots of money they wanted to throw into it, but they didn’t know what the fuck they were throwing it into. They had no concept.

So here’s this guy, my guy comes along. He’s just smart enough to know, ‘I don’t know it either, but I’ll take your money.’ And I’ll give you a story, but I’ll work on that story hopefully in the time that it takes. That’s kind of what happened. We’re like, ‘we have this idea.’ ‘You do? That’s great, you guys are cool. You’re two students at Yale, here’s like billions of dollars. Here’s millions of dollars.’ Then all of a sudden they have to show up and perform.

My guy didn’t. He stole the technology, re-shaped it, re-named it something, and it didn’t actually work. He got busted for it, he didn’t even get busted for that, he got busted for other fraud stuff. But for me it’s to look at this as a historical event that I was unaware of.

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I can remember little things like playing Doom all night. I thought it was the most amazing thing in the world. I was shooting Crimson Tide, staying at my friend’s house, and he had 2 bulldogs, I can’t remember, and I slept in their office. He said, “here’s what you do, you go and you put this code in to play Doom on the computer.’ I was up all night, every night, and the sun would come up, and I’d go, ‘Fuck. I gotta go to bed.’ God, that game is so fun. 

Valley of The Boom premieres Sunday, January 13th at 9/8c on National Geographic.