Labor Day brings up reflections on how the American
Dream, the myth that hard work and talent will result in success, is often undermined by
treachery, deceit, entitlement and greed. I haven’t seen many films that have
probed that dichotomy as entertainingly as Seth Gordon’s “King of Kong,” which
follows the heated quest of Steve Wiebe, an unemployed man of the people with
extraordinary but otherwise apparently not very marketable gifts, to wrest the
title of Donkey Kong champion from insufferable hot sauce entrepreneur, Billy
Mitchell. I won’t give away the ending, but in a sense the American Dream is
vindicated by the success of the filmmaker, whose hard work and talent has
resulted in one of the year’s best documentaries, which in turn Fine Line
studios has green-lighted to become a fictional feature that Gordon will
direct. Here’s a transcript of a telephone conversation I had with him.
Be forewarned there might be a spoiler or two [noted in the text]
in the following.
Q: This film is a microcosm of everything right and wrong with America.
Nonetheless, were you tempted at one point to say to your subjects: get a life?
Seth Gordon: Kind of. There were moments we couldn’t believe how
seriously people were taking the smallest detail. I felt it’s alright to take
the record [score of Donkey Kong] seriously because we all need meaning in life,
but the lengths that they took wereextraoordinary. And pretty dark. I think
that’s where for me it crossed the line.
Q: Billy Mitchell: would you describe him as the Barry Bonds or
Karl Rove of video games?
SG: That’s a hard choice. He’s such an icon, kind of like a WWF
wrestler. The thing about Billy is that he’s a self-created construct as an
icon. I never met anyone like him in my life. It was truly eerie to spend time
with him. Everything was so rehearsed and p.r. savvy. You never got the sense
of talking to a real or complete person.
Q: You had more access with Steve Wiebe than with Mitchell. Did
that influence your sympathies?
SG. I would say that Steve
had nothing to hide, in every way. In retrospect it should have been clearer to
us that Billy really did. It evolved in front of our eyes and grew really clear
in the editing room. When you’re living through it and it’s separated by time
it’s not as staggering as when you have to tell the story.
Q: The story emerged from the facts and wasn’t imposed?
SG: Absolutely not. We recreated an analog of our own experience
of what happened. When we met Billy he, was amazing, extraordinary. I had such
high hopes. Such an amazing personality.
He talked in such platitudes and we got so excited. And then as he revealed his
hypocrisy, I wouldn’t say we were disappointed. We sort of were in awe. We
tried to create that same experience for the audience. Every single time
[spoiler] we thought he was going to show up [to play Wiebe one-on-one] we were
desperate for him to show up. And it got foiled continuously. It was so
maddening. Then it took an open mind for us to realize that the fact that he’s not
showing up is not the point.
Q: Mitchell doesn’t look
too good, but with and the fictional remake he’ll certainly get a lot of
publicity. Could that be his ultimate motivation?
SG. There were definitely moments during the filming of this and
when we were taking it to festivals that I thought, you know what? This is
Billy’s plan. We are his agents wheteher we like it or not. We fell into
something premeditated whether we like it or not. I had that eerie feeling.
He’s a master gamer.
Q. He’s sees the grand plan. Has he seen the film?
SG. He refuses to see it. But he’s mounted a counter-attack
through his minions in the press. His association with people in the press.
Often folks want to interview him and some times he agrees to do it and when he
does he tries to debunk. It’s an interesting battle we’ve been fighting in the
last couple of weeks.
SG. Legal action?
A. He can’t actually because before we started in on the remake
we had to have his life rights. In order to get the life rights we travelled to
get his signature and we offered him a chance to see the doc and he turned it
town. Part of the agreement to the life rights he can’t officially
counter-attack in the courts or whatever.
Q. The film is refreshing because so much effort is expended on
something other than money. Is there any money in these games? How about in the
SG. No, not really, other than Billy occasionally offering
bounties to gamers to set high scores. Recently he offered $10,000 over a weekend for someone to break the Kong
Q. If this movie or the remake make money do they get anything?
SG. The remake, yes. The doc, no. But statistically the doc is
unlikely to make much money.
Q. Have you cast the remake yet?
A. We talked about it a lot. For Steve Wiebe we’re thinking of
this great actor named Nathan Fillion, from the movie “Waitress.” He played the
doctor. He actually looks a little like Steve and has that same guy quality.
The trickier casting is Billy, because that would take a truly exceptional
Q.The Tom Cruise of “Magnolia?” He’s a good actor when he’s
playing a scumbag. Or maybe Ben Stiller?
A. We don’t want to shoot for a remaking of “Dodgeball.” I’m a
total geek. I go to The Funspot every summer. So I respect the games and the
gamers. So if we went the route of “Dodgeball”
I think that would undermine that. And I
think that New Line is aware of that and is supportive of something that has
all the heart in it.
Q. On a scale of 1-10, what’s the irony quotient in this film?
SG. Irony? I would say it’s not that ironic. I didn’t intend any.
There shouldn’t be any smirk. If anything the point is hopefully have Wiebe
subjectify what’s happening so you’re along with him in that journey. That is a
very common baggage auduiences bring, though, the expectation that we’re poking
fun. But we worked very hard to set a tone that took the whole thing seriously.
Usually that comes across at the end but that’s not where most viewers start
Q. The tears [from Wiebe when he learns his high score is not
accepted] were not ironic. Was the scene manipulated?
SG. He was totally upset. The question that got him crying, it
was about his frend Mike Thompson who sent him to Fun Spot. The cut was made
from Mike talking about how Steve hated to let people down. And the question
was if you could talk to Mike right now, what would you say. And Steve just
burst into tears.
Q. I also liked the
daughter’s comments about the Guiness Book of Records.
SG. She was such a precocious and hyper-intelligent kid. That was
unprovoked and unprompted and we couldn’t believe she said that. I think it may
be the best line in the film.
Q. What’s your score?
SG. In Kong? About 1/10th of Steve and Billy’s. About 100,
Q. So Steve’s son can’t beat you yet?
SG. I’m sure he will once he applies himself.
To be continued in part II, in which for some reason we drift off into digressions about Egon Schiele, Glenn Gould and Jorge Luis Borges.