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Game (Still) On

The director of the surprisingly successful The King of Kong talks about the film’s crossover appeal.

Director Seth Gordon’s critically acclaimed documentary The King of Kong: A Fistfulof Quarters offers not only a peek inside the strange world of video gaming but also a deeper meditation on the quest for fame and immortality in America. The film focuses on the rivalry between two men in their late 30s. The champion, Billy Mitchell, generally regarded as the best Donkey Kong player of all time, is a wonderfully outsize character — a walking, talking ball of hairspray and hubris — whose bravado disguises a more complex need to maintain his position atop the gaming world. The challenger, Steve Wiebe, is his opposite —a meek and mild-mannered but secretly gifted fellow who’s suffered a life full of setbacks and failed dreams. After being laid off from his engineering job at Boeing, Wiebe sets out to take down Mitchell’s 23-year-old record at DonkeyKong, the most difficult of all classic arcade games, and gain a spot in the Guinness World Records. The film, shot and edited over the course of more than two years, follows this strange pair as they travel across the country for Kong matches. Gordon whittled down some 300 hours of footage into a visceral 80-minute documentary that transcends its humble context, becoming a mesmerizing film that’s pitched somewhere between the high drama of Shakespeare and the low comedy of Revenge of the Nerds. Audiences, apparently, liked that combination. The film was a success, in documentary terms, at the box office. (It’s just been released in a bonus-laden DVD set.) Hollywood liked what Gordon did with the movie too. Just barely in his 30s and with only The King of Kong under his big-screen directorial belt, Gordon has now been tapped to helm a feature-film version of Kong as well as a holiday film called Four Christmases, which stars Vince Vaughn and Reese Witherspoon. Still, this Yale graduate and former architect says he’s not letting any of the sudden success go to his head, insisting, “I’m still a geek at heart.” The director talked to us about all things Kong.

How do you turn a real-life documentary into a fictionalized feature film? The story we uncovered often feels too good to be true. And when you’re remaking something like this, the line between character and caricature is a really tricky one to walk. I want it to maintain the emotional integrity and authenticity the documentary has, or I don’t think it’s worth making. I don’t want to make a spoof. We want to have serious actors in it. Because I think Billy has such a complicated psychology, you can’t have a guy who does sketch comedy do the role. It has to be someone with serious acting chops. Some of the dream scenarios that have been mentioned include Johnny Depp playing Billy. And apparently, there’s even been some interest from Tom Cruise’s camp. It all remains to be seen. But it’s going to be interesting.

You say you’re a geek. But you didn’t really understand all that went on within the gaming world when you started making the documentary, did you? Originally, we set out to make a documentary about the various rivalries on classic arcade games. We basically wanted to make a sports film where the sport was video games.There were a number of fascinating stories out there, but once we discovered Steve and Billy and their rivalry on Donkey Kong, that immediately seemed way more interesting than any of the others, and we focused on that. We had no notion at the start of this of how intense the politics were on all sides of the Donkey Kong rivalry. One of the taglines we played with for the film was: “The highest form of corruption at the lowest levels.” And that really is what we found ourselves in the middle of. We had no idea what we’d walked into.

Was there a turning point for you in terms of being able to see what the story was? The critical moment was in understanding that Steve Wiebe, who talks about himself like he’s a loser — whose friends, whose parents, whose wife all talk about him like he is a loser — isn’t really a loser. He’s just the guy who always came in second place. Once we understood that, it allowed us to see Billy as not just the guy who is the big winner but as someone who is constantly living up to an idea of himself that he created when he was 17 years old, where he is totally perfect. Once we had that more complicated understanding of the two of them, that’s when we felt the story was taking shape.

Though the movie centers on video games, it’s not really about the games, is it? I think the basic nature of what was at stake here was uniquely American and [also], in someways, very universal. Kong is about someone trying to make history, to make a mark and be remembered. In this country, we’re taught that fame, to a certain extent, is a completely legitimate pursuit, and that’s what these guys are after. And I think it’s kind of wonderful to see people pursuing that in something where they’re creating their own meaning entirely. There is no inherent value in having a video-game record, but they have developed these elaborate constructs in terms of verifying and validating these scores, and so that pursuit becomes as important as sports or politics are to the rest of us.

Shall We Play a Game?

Match the descriptions with the appropriate video-game-themed film. Earn extra credit for naming the lead actor and the year the movie came out.

MOVIES

A.     Grandma's Boy

B.     Stay Alive

C.     Tron

D.     WarGames

E.     The Wizard


DESCRIPTIONS

  1. This Disney classic from the golden era of arcade games boasts the actor who later bowled his way through The Big Lebowski playing a programmer whose video-game ideas are stolen.
  2. In this movie, a high-stakes game of global thermonuclear war nearly brought about a conflict between the United States and the USSR.
  3. A comedy, it features TV’s Kevin Arnold taking his brother on a cross-country trip that culminates in a triumphant video-game-playing competition. Hint: This film also stars Jenny Lewis, now front woman of Rilo Kiley (it’s one of her early roles).
  4. The main character in this raunchy comedy works as a video-game tester; the movie was produced by Saturday Night Live alum Adam Sandler.
  5. A horror-fueled film in which a group of teens tries to solve the mysterious death of a friend in the chilling world of an online video game. A certain Malcolm in the Middle star is the actor we’re looking for as the extra-credit answer.