By Matt Singer
[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).