Nowadays, battles for video game supremacy are typically waged in cyberspace, by anonymous competitors armed with headsets, plasma televisions and intimidating screen names like "MasterKill47" or "CreepingDeath29." But it wasn't always this way. In the early days of gaming the arena of choice was the video arcade, a mystical place where adolescents flocked to blow their allowances on classic games like Pac-Man, Defender and Centipede. Legends were born as pizza-faced gladiators vied to determine whose initials would sit atop the list of high scores.
Though the golden age of arcades has long since passed, a handful of old-school gamers remain loyal to the stand-up games of yesteryear. In his riveting new documentary, The King of Kong, filmmaker Seth Gordon followed two such gamers, Steve Wiebe and Billy Mitchell, chronicling their epic duel for the Guinness World Record in Donkey Kong.
More than just a documentary, The King of Kong boasts a storyline almost Shakespearean in scope. Watching the adversaries compete, two archetypes quickly emerge: Wiebe is the talented upstart, naive and affable, while Mitchell is the fading legend who'll seemingly resort to any means, no matter how dubious, to retain his crown.
ReelzChannel recently sat down with Wiebe, Gordon, producer Ed Cunningham and co-star Steve Sanders, to talk about their experience making The King of Kong. (For the record, Mitchell has declined to participate in any of the film's promotional efforts.)
Seth, how did you get interested in the subject matter?
Seth Gordon: When I was a kid I used to go to The Fun Spot, which is this arcade in New Hampshire, and I'd go there every summer for weeks and weeks. I couldn't go to the beach, so my parents would leave me at the arcade. I would stay there all day and hand in my report cards for tokens. It was this mystical, magical place. I always wanted to go back in the hopes of meeting Steve (Wiebe). We weren't sure that Steve and Kong was the story that we were gonna pursue. We went down and visited Billy (Mitchell) and we didn't really know anything about Billy before that. But among the things that made that interesting was that Billy would not say Steve Wiebe's name. It was like Sauron, the name that will not be spoken. And that made this rivalry really interesting. I knew something was going on. And so we looked deeper into it and it got crazy, as you can see.
What has Billy's reaction been?
Gordon: We don't think he's seen the movie. We've offered several times and he refuses to watch it. Which is a shame; I'd love to hear what his thoughts are after he sees it. I think he's read some online reviews and he's not painted in a very pretty light. He's probably come to some conclusions as a result. But I'd love to see if he still feels that way after he's seen the film.
How much did you try to shape the narrative as it unfolded?
Gordon: We tried to merge the narrative to our experience as it unfolded, which is to say we met the sort of "king of video games," and he was revered by everyone. As we watched his behavior toward the people around him and toward Steve, it was something other than regal. [laughs] That was essentially what we witnessed, and we just tried to stay faithful to the story that we saw. But I think it was more a case of a series of remarkable events that we happened to be present for, as opposed to two writers who were shaping what happened. We did sort of come up with a vantage point on these guys, though, because Steve -- and he's heard me say this before -- when he talks about himself or his friends talk about him, it's like he is a loser. But he's not a loser; he's just always the guy who got the silver. And that's really interesting. Billy, on the other hand, is sort of trapped by his remarkable success as a kid, and he's always trying to get back to that place. It's sort of like a curse. And I felt like once we had those understandings of the characters and how different they were, it became a really interesting way to make sense of the story.
Steve, how do you feel about how the movie portrayed you?
Steve Wiebe: I was pleased. I was represented as who I am, which is what you see on-screen: a family guy going for something that felt like it was a fun thing to start off with until it got crazy. And then I had no idea what was lying ahead, otherwise I might not have wanted to go there. What you see in the film is basically what you get. I was happy with the way I was presented.
They cast you as a real sort of hard luck guy.
Wiebe: Yeah, I’ve kind of often thought I don’t get the worst luck, but I don’t get the best luck. I’m kind of like one of those guys, I’m not going to win the lottery but I’m not going to have something really tragic happen in my life. Getting laid off, not being able to play in the baseball championship, those kinds of things aren’t tragic but it’s kind of like a little bit of a hard luck story.
But it’s a happy ending.
Wiebe: Yeah, I’ve always bounced back. It’s not like I’ve hit skid row and haven’t been able to recover. I remember getting laid off at Boeing. One of the guys goes, “We’re not worried for you.” They knew I was going to find something. I was always one of those guys that's pretty even: nothing too great and nothing too bad.
How does you family feel about all of this and what you’re doing now, now that the movie is finished?
Wiebe: They think it’s great. Nicole (Wiebe's wife) has been really cool about some of the things where I’m having to travel, just like working, babysitting. During the summer her job picks up and my duties kind of go to Mr. Mom. She’s very happy for me and for what’s happened. And the kids, I don’t think they quite understand the ramifications of what’s happened. When you click on one of the links on the website, Gillian (Wiebe's daughter) says, “Work is for people who can’t play video games.” So I had to come over and she listened and she just turned right around. It didn’t matter that her voice is on the internet. She was like, “Whatever.”
Cunningham: When she’s in college, some guy’s going to try to pick up on her by saying, “Weren’t you in the King of Kong?” Then it will sink in.
The closing credits say that she hasn’t yet figured out the significance of it, has anything changed since then?
Wiebe: No, I think she’s still oblivious to how huge this is.
When you have these really long practice sessions where you’re working on the game, somewhere in the back of your mind do you ever feel like maybe a little guilty, like you should be spending a little more time with my kids?
Wiebe: All the time. Yeah. I feel like I should have been with the kids because once they grow up, they’re done. They can’t grow backwards.
But at the same time isn’t part of playing the game an escape from the family and an opportunity to get away?
Wiebe: There are times when my wife will go on her walk or jog or take a bath and I’ll either go in the studio and work on music or I’ll play Donkey Kong, so it is kind of like a retreat. Everyone has to have some personal space as long as I don’t spend all day in there.
Steve, in the a scene in where you're playing the drums, is that from RUSH?
Cunningham: Yes. Wow!
Wiebe: You’ve heard the Rush solo. I’m very influenced by Neil Peart.
Is that "The Rhythm Method?"
Wiebe: I haven’t had any lawsuits from Neil yet. [Laughs]
Gordon: I want to talk more to that because I think that figures in a really interesting way with his ability to beat one of the two guys in the world that can play Donkey Kong at a totally elite level. When he was nine years old, he figured out that drum solo by working with Irv.
Steve: With Irv, my friend.
Gordon: Now DVD’s are sold that teach you how to play that solo, but he figured it out when he was nine.
That’s remarkable. Neil Peart is recognized as one of the greatest drummers of all time.
Gordon: And the way he figured it out was he broke it down into patterns that you have to execute in order and the way to beat Kong is by recognizing the patterns that are executing, that are random, and navigating your way through it, grouping everything so you can maximize the points and get a million and the kill screen. I think that Rush was an example of the thing that makes him uniquely able to play this game the way he does. It’s sort of like his Jedi pattern recognition gift.
Wiebe: Neil’s very technical too.
He’s The Professor.
Cunningham: That was a moment for us in filming because whenever you’re following someone, it’s like are they going to be compelling enough? Are audiences going to want to follow them? Steve is absolutely Steve: kind of a normal guy. And we spent a couple of days interviewing him and I had heard and he told us about how he was a drummer in a band. And I was actually downstairs because I was interviewing Derek (Wiebe's son) whose drum set he’s on. I don’t know if you noticed but that’s a Costco kid's drum set that he’s wailing on. I’m downstairs interviewing Derek and Seth’s like, “Sure I’ll go up and shoot what he’s doing," and all of a sudden this noise starts coming out and Derek, his son, who loves when he plays drums and is learning how to play too, he just takes off up the stairs to go follow him and I walk into this room and here is a grown man on a drum set that’s like this big, wailing away. It was those moments that we started to think wait a minute, he’s not just some normal father of two. There’s an amazing talent there. There’s just a different type of talent; you have to dig deep to find it. And that was one of those moments for us. And Seth when we got back, he’s like, “I hope I got that sound. It was so loud in there.” We listened to it.
Gordon: It sounds pretty good.
Cunningham: Yeah. It captured it great.
Seth, we've heard that you're working on some sort of follow-up to The King of Kong.
Gordon: Yeah, Richard Brenner at New Line saw the doc, really liked it, and then orchestrated a pretty interesting deal where the doc goes to Picture House -- which is part of the New Line family -- for distribution and then New Line purchased the remake rights. I’ll direct the remake. Ed will be a producer on the remake and it’s going to be based on the doc, very literally. Even some of the dialogue is going to stay the same, I think. Basically we’re going to portray that same narrative with actors that are better known.
Have you talked to any actors yet or do you have any actors in mind?
Gordon: The doc has had this weird underground viral distribution in Hollywood. They’ve just copied the DVD and sent it out. We feel very fortunate about that while also recognizing the hypocrisy of that given the warning that’s put by those very same companies on their own DVDs. So a handful of actors have seen it and gotten in touch with us or with New Line expressing their interest in it. I really think a final commitment will be dictated by how that script turns out.
(to Wiebe) Who’d you like to see play you?
Wiebe: I’ve got Mark Hamill and Ralph Macchio as my top two. [laughs] I’m kidding. Or myself. No, I can’t act, [to Seth and Ed] Ask these guys. That’s what they’ve been trying to tell me what we’re looking for, what kind of emotion, and I was like, I can’t do it. So I think there’s a couple names like Greg Kinnear or Steve Carell who’ve been kicked around.
Gordon: You know who's good? Nate Fillion, who’s in Waitress. He’s actually the spitting image.
So the remake will have less of a documentary feel to it?
Gordon: Yeah, but I think it’s going to borrow stylistically from the doc too. I don’t think if it’s like Dodgeball -- elegant and brightly lit and all that stuff -- that it’s going to work. That would be like poking fun at the games and gamers and that’s not the goal.
Steve Sanders: It's not like we're geeks and nerds or anything. [laughs]
Gordon: Not at all. I think that subjectifying the protagonists is critical to the success.
The whole "lovable loser" genre is so popular right now – like you said with Dodgeball and guys like Will Ferrell and Ben Stiller and these types of movies where seemingly insignificant challenges are so important to them -- The King of Kong is the real deal.
Gordon: This is the real deal. This is real life. Brenner’s way of framing it, as president of New Line, he’s always looking for the next sports movie that hasn’t been done yet. This satisfies that in a way. And also we were trying to find the next video game movie that will actually work. This sort of framing it as a nostalgic throwback that these guys are competing well into their late 30s is a way to frame it that could work.
Cunningham: One of the things when Seth and I dived into this world, it would have been very easy to be kind of wink, wink, nod, nod, look at what these guys are doing. but we went the absolute opposite route and treated it as a sport. The attempt to break a world record on Joust or Donkey Kong is no less important than a guy trying to break 80 on the golf course on the weekend. Yet that guy’s not lampooned for some reason. Spending all of Friday afternoon trying to book two tee times over the weekend and blowing off his job is considered socially acceptable...when we went in, our idea, the story that we wanted to find -- hoped to find -- was best case two people who are very good at a particular game -- hopefully one that everyone knows -- that are competing to break a world record. If you asked us what our dream was, that would have been it. We literally saw this as a sports film. We studied Pumping Iron. We studied a bunch of those documentaries to get a feel for how did they dive into this quote unquote subculture and treat it with the respect that the people within it treat it.
Click here for Part Two of our interview with the makers of The King of Kong.