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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).

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A-O Rewind

Celebrating Portlandia One Sketch at a Time

The final season of Portlandia approaches.

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Most people measure time in minutes, hours, days, years…At IFC, we measure it in sketches. And nothing takes us way (waaaaaay) back like Portlandia sketches. Yes, there’s a Portlandia milepost from every season that changed the way we think, behave, and pickle things. In honor of Portlandia’s 8th and final season, Subaru presents a few of our favorites.

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Put A Bird On It

Portlandia enters the pop-culture lexicon and inspires us to put birds on literally everything.

Colin the Chicken

Who’s your chicken, really? Behold the emerging locavore trend captured perfectly to the nth degree.

Dream Of The ’90s

This treatise on Portland made it clear that “the dream” was alive and well.

No You Go

We Americans spend most of our lives in cars. Fortunately, there’s a Portlandia sketch for every automotive situation.

A-O River!

We learned all our outdoor survival skills from Kath and Dave.

One More Episode

The true birth of binge watching, pre-Netflix. And what you’ll do once Season 8 premieres.

Catch up on Portlandia’s best moments before the 8th season premieres January 18th on IFC.

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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…

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IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.

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IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).

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IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.

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IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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Reality? Check.

Baroness For Life

Baroness von Sketch Show is available for immediate consumption.

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Baroness von Sketch Show is snowballing as people have taken note of its subtle and not-so-subtle skewering of everyday life. The New York Times, W Magazine, and Vogue have heaped on the praise, but IFC had a few more probing questions…

IFC: To varying degrees, your sketches are simply scripted examples of things that actually happen. What makes real life so messed up?

Aurora: Hubris, Ego and Selfish Desires and lack of empathy.

Carolyn: That we’re trapped together in the 3rd Dimension.

Jenn: 1. Other people 2. Other people’s problems 3. Probably something I did.

IFC: A lot of people I know have watched this show and realized, “Dear god, that’s me.” or “Dear god, that’s true.” Why do people have their blinders on?

Aurora: Because most people when you’re in the middle of a situation, you don’t have the perspective to step back and see yourself because you’re caught up in the moment. That’s the job of comedians is to step back and have a self-awareness about these things, not only saying “You’re doing this,” but also, “You’re not the only one doing this.” It’s a delicate balance of making people feel uncomfortable and comforting them at the same time.

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IFC: Unlike a lot of popular sketch comedy, your sketches often focus more on group dynamics vs iconic individual characters. Why do you think that is and why is it important?

Meredith: We consider the show to be more based around human dynamics, not so much characters. If anything we’re more attracted to the energy created by people interacting.

Jenn: So much of life is spent trying to work it out with other people, whether it’s at work, at home, trying to commute to work, or even on Facebook it’s pretty hard to escape the group.

IFC: Are there any comedians out there that you feel are just nailing it?

Aurora: I love Key and Peele. I know that their show is done and I’m in denial about it, but they are amazing because there were many times that I would imagine that Keegan Michael Key was in the scene while writing. If I could picture him saying it, I knew it would work. I also kind of have a crush on Jordan Peele and his performance in Big Mouth. Maya Rudolph also just makes everything amazing. Her puberty demon on Big Mouth is flawless. She did an ad for 7th generation tampons that my son, my husband and myself were singing around the house for weeks. If I could even get anything close to her career, I would be happy. I’m also back in love with Rick and Morty. I don’t know if I have a crush on Justin Roiland, I just really love Rick (maybe even more than Morty). I don’t have a crush on Jerry, the dad, but I have a crush on Chris Parnell because he’s so good at being Jerry.

Jenn: I LOVE ISSA RAE!

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IFC: If you could go back in time and cast yourselves in any sitcom, which would it be and how would it change?

Carolyn: I’d go back in time and cast us in The Partridge Family.  We’d make an excellent family band. We’d have a laugh, break into song and wear ruffled blouses with velvet jackets.  And of course travel to all our gigs on a Mondrian bus. I feel really confident about this choice.

Meredith: Electric Mayhem from The Muppet Show. It wouldn’t change, they were simply perfect, except… maybe a few more vaginas in the band.

Binge the entire first and second seasons of Baroness von Sketch Show now on IFC.com and the IFC app.

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