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Seth Gordon on “The King of Kong”

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By Matt Singer

IFC News

[Photo: Left, Steve Wiebe in “The King of Kong,” below, director Seth Gordon, Picturehouse, 2007]

As evidenced by their behavior in the stellar new documentary “The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters,” competitive video gamers are an insular and suspicious lot. So how did director Seth Gordon earn their trust and gain access to their world? “I’m a geek,” he shrugs, “and I believe an arcade game record is a completely legitimate and kind of awesome thing to go for. I think that came across in the interviews.”

The record in question is the world’s highest score in Donkey Kong, an old arcade game involving a little guy leaping over barrels thrown at him by a disgruntled, woman-stealing monkey. Against this backdrop is set one of the most exciting real-life competitions ever captured on film, between perennial video game champion and current record holder Billy Mitchell and dark-horse challenger and high school science teacher Steve Wiebe, but, as Gordon noted in our interview, “Kong” is about more than just the battle over the record.

In between updates on the movie’s protagonists and admissions of his own gaming obsessions (“Paperboy and Karate Champ,” the director confesses), Gordon shared some revealing insights into his characters’ psyches and explained why he wants to remake his documentary in fictionalized form.

When someone breaks a world record in Donkey Kong, how long does the game last?

To get to the kill screen [the near-mythological last board where Donkey Kong kills you for no reason], it takes probably two and a half hours of uninterrupted play. You can’t stop. You can’t go to the bathroom, nothing. It takes quite a bit of commitment and focus.

People talk about how hard Donkey Kong is in the film, but I don’t think you realize just how difficult it truly is until you try it. I played it after I watched the doc and I couldn’t even get pass the first screen.

It is crazy hard. It’s really easy to comprehend, but also almost impossible to play well. And if you’re Steve and Billy — I don’t come out and say this explicitly in the doc, but they are really the only two people in the world who are anywhere near that level. It’s just that hard.

How did you hear about Billy and Steve and what made you decide to make a movie about them?

Well I had been going to Funspot [an arcade and the site of one of Steve’s record-breaking attempts] since I was a kid. And I just loved that place; they are family-owned and they give tokens for report cards if you get good grades. So I would save up grades all year and then turn them in. I just thought that place was the best place on earth. When we came across Steve Wiebe through a friend of a friend, I felt like he was a really nice guy but not necessarily good as a subject of a film, because he didn’t seem remarkable to me at first. But I knew the video game world was kind of extraordinary because of my experience at Funspot. And I knew those competitions were still happening.

As we researched, we realized that all roads led to Billy Mitchell, who I’d never met and who, from what I could tell, was an interesting guy. So we went to meet him and he was like an encyclopedia of information. He knew everything about everything. But the one thing that he left out was Steve Wiebe’s name. He avoided it like a landmine. Steve was the nicest guy in the world as far as I could tell, but he was like Voldemort to Billy Mitchell, like the name that shall not be spoken.

Has Billy seen the film and reacted to it yet?

Curiously, he has reacted to it, although he hasn’t seen it. [laughs] He’s read reviews online and he’s got a general sense of what’s in the movie and he really doesn’t like what he’s heard. I think he feels like we captured a moment of his life that isn’t representative of him in general and for that reason he’s frustrated by the whole affair. But from our perspective, we were there for two years, we had the cameras rolling and we represented what we saw. It’s not like we put words in anybody’s mouth.

Billy’s an incredibly manipulative guy; he’s constantly playing mind games with the people around him. Did you ever feel like he was manipulating you?

Totally. We came to realize that if you’re Billy and you’re a master gamer, once you’re done mastering the game you start playing games with people and we were definitely part of that.

He led us to believe he was going to go [to Funspot] and then he didn’t. We had arranged for all these people to be part of production and we flew people in, and then he didn’t show up. That was so confusing and so infuriating. As you saw in the film, he sent that tape with Doris so that he was effectively participating in the competition. We felt kind of used. But at the same time that’s when the story went from being about the competition to being a portrait of these two competitors.

He’s also got all these lackeys who do his dirty work, spying on Steve, practically breaking into his house, and they seem so loyal to him despite his scheming. Why are they so devoted to him?

Billy’s very charming and charismatic. And, to a certain extent, the more important that Billy is — because he is the most visible member of that community — the more credible the whole community is. Most people aren’t even aware that this world of classic gamers exists. And for those who are aware, the reason they know about it is Billy. He was on “The Today Show” last week. He’s got a huge level of exposure and a persona that’s like something from the WWE. I think it’s in all the gamers’ best interests to keep that alive. That’s my only sort of explanation for the crap we saw. [laughs]

I grew up playing video games, and I still do — but I play new games now, not the ones I played when I was 13. Why are these guys still playing these 25-year-old games?

I think there’s a level of puzzle-solving to the old games that is very addictive. No one knew these games had an ending before these guys discovered those endings, because they weren’t designed into the games; they’re just accidents. Each of the games runs out of memory at some point. And you have to be extraordinarily committed to get to that place. You basically exercise the scientific method for so long that you go places that no one’s gone before. That’s essentially why they love these games so much.

New games aren’t as challenging: you can pause the game, you can save your progress, you can enter a cheat code and skip some levels ahead. Those things that make the newer games so much more lush make them less interesting to these guys, and frankly, a lot less pure.

You’re making a fictionalized version of “The King of Kong.” What can you do in a fictional version of this story that you couldn’t do in the documentary? To me, the documentary’s almost perfect — and it’s crazier than any fiction story.

I’ve definitely heard that from a number of people. The primary goal of the remake is to get the story out to a wider audience. Plus, some of the things that were just talking heads in the doc we are now going to be able to be see; as opposed to people talking about the break-in, and talking about Roy Awesome’s past with Billy. If we can bring that to life I think it will get a lot more interesting.

Okay, so if you had to be one of them, who would rather be: Billy or Steve?

[laughs] That’s a totally loaded question!

I know. But it’s also kind of the point of the movie.

Yeah. Steve is the hero, but Billy’s the star. [laughs] Honestly, probably Steve, even though that means I wouldn’t be on a Wheaties box someday.

“The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters” is now in theaters (official site).



Reminders that the ’90s were a thing

"The Place We Live" is available for a Jessie Spano-level binge on Comedy Crib.

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GIFs via Giphy

Unless you stopped paying attention to the world at large in 1989, you are of course aware that the ’90s are having their pop cultural second coming. Nobody is more acutely aware of this than Dara Katz and Betsy Kenney, two comedians who met doing improv comedy and have just made their Comedy Crib debut with the hilarious ’90s TV throwback series, The Place We Live.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Dara: It’s everything you loved–or loved to hate—from Melrose Place and 90210 but condensed to five minutes, funny (on purpose) and totally absurd.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Betsy: “Hey Todd, why don’t you have a sip of water. Also, I think you’ll love The Place We Live because everyone has issues…just like you, Todd.”


IFC: When you were living through the ’90s, did you think it was television’s golden age or the pop culture apocalypse?

Betsy: I wasn’t sure I knew what it was, I just knew I loved it!

Dara: Same. Was just happy that my parents let me watch. But looking back, the ’90s honored The Teen. And for that, it’s the golden age of pop culture. 

IFC: Which ’90s shows did you mine for the series, and why?

Betsy: Melrose and 90210 for the most part. If you watch an episode of either of those shows you’ll see they’re a comedic gold mine. In one single episode, they cover serious crimes, drug problems, sex and working in a law firm and/or gallery, all while being young, hot and skinny.

Dara: And almost any series we were watching in the ’90s, Full House, Saved By the Bell, My So Called Life has very similar themes, archetypes and really stupid-intense drama. We took from a lot of places. 


IFC: How would you describe each of the show’s characters in terms of their ’90s TV stereotype?

Dara: Autumn (Sunita Mani) is the femme fatale. Robin (Dara Katz) is the book worm (because she wears glasses). Candace (Betsy Kenney) is Corey’s twin and gives great advice and has really great hair. Corey (Casey Jost) is the boy next door/popular guy. Candace and Corey’s parents decided to live in a car so the gang can live in their house. 
Lee (Jonathan Braylock) is the jock.

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Dara: Because everyone’s feeling major ’90s nostalgia right now, and this is that, on steroids while also being a totally new, silly thing.

Delight in the whole season of The Place We Live right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. It’ll take you back in all the right ways.


New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

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Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…


IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon.

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number!

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time.

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by.


IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo.

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim.

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t?

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?”

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud.

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.


The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

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Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”


Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).



Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.


And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.