Game Theory: Seth Gordon and "The King of Kong" Part I

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 Florida 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 films?

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 title.

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 actor..

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 from.

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, 110,000.

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.

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