King of Kong with Seth Gordon
A middle-school science teacher and a hot sauce mogul vie for the Guinness World Record on the arcade classic, Donkey Kong.
In 1982, Life Magazine assembled the world's greatest gamers for a photo shoot that would become the center spread of their 1982 Year-In-Photos edition. Billy Mitchell, who would later be named the “Gamer of the Century,” was one of the invitees.
Mitchell, the World Record holder on Centipede, had been tracking the score on Donkey Kong, and knew he could take that title as well. In front of the 20 best gamers in the world, Billy scored 874,300 points, a record many thought would never be broken.
In 2003, 35 year old family man Steve Wiebe, after losing his job at Boeing, found solace in Donkey Kong. Steve stumbled upon Billy Mitchell's record online, and set out to break it. He began perfecting his game every night after his wife and kids went to bed, and not only surpassed Billy's record, but ended up with a thought-to-be-impossible 1,000,000 points.
A tidal wave of media coverage followed, and Steve Wiebe quickly became a celebrity in his hometown of Seattle, WA. He also rediscovered his love for teaching, and regained the respect of all who once doubted him. Meanwhile, back in Hollywood, FL, Billy Mitchell hatched a plan to reclaim his fallen Donkey Kong record.
Steve and Billy engaged in a cross-country duel to see who could set the high score that would be included in the 2007 Guinness World Records book and become “The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters.” Along the way, both men learned valuable lessons about what it means to be a father, a husband, and a true champion, discovering that you don't always need to win to be a winner.
What does it mean to be the best in the world at something What about the best that ever lived What if the only person that could appreciate your gift took your title away
When producer Ed Cunningham and I first conceived of a documentary following the pursuit of a classic video game record, we had a very simplistic vision of the way the story might play out. We would follow the rivalry between two men on one of the most hotly contested arcade titles of all time, Donkey Kong. In the case of Kong, these two men are the only true contenders; they have an understanding of the game that surpasses all of their peers. Each of them can reliably make it to the end of the game, an end that even the game's designer wasn't aware of, now termed “the kill screen.”
Because these two competitors play above all others, and because Kong is so difficult, the stakes of this rivalry were from the outset of our story quite high. As we looked deeper a far more troubling (and ironically far more universal) story emerged. What started as a portrait of a competition turned instead into a portrait of two competitors, and the many agendas that took shape behind the scenes that bolster their rivalry.
One of the competitors, Billy Mitchell, is a sort of Video Game Jedi. Back in 1982 when arcade popularity was at its height, Billy was 17 and was the best of the best. He held records on all the major titles and knew the games so well that he developed rules of conduct, a code of ethics, and helped to established a governing body, known as Twin Galaxies, to officiate and police the legitimacy of video game records (many impostors lied about their video game achievements in the early days).
Billy literally laid down the law, and a community of like-minded gamers emerged and populated Billy's governing body as video game referees. All of them saw Billy as their leader and rehearsed stories that chronicle his prowess. To this day, Billy looks the part; his hair, his strident patriotism, his heroic witticisms all seem frozen in time, a walking anachronism from his glory days. All of Billys records from those days are prized but none more so than Kong because, as Billy explains: “Donkey Kong is by far the hardest game.” At that time Billy had no rival, which was for the best, because Billy always had to be on top.
Family man Steve Wiebe, 37, has always been in second place. Not a loser, just always in second place: in high school sports, in music, in his professional career. Never being the guy with the first place ribbon has taken its toll, especially for someone so competitive. A savant of sorts with his musical, mathematical, and technical gifts, Steve excels at the things he can control all by himself, and tends to falter when he has to work with others, play politics, or come out of his shell.
Steve's high-school sweetheart and now wife Nicole will tell you his gifts are in his hands, that his competitive nature has always been a real attraction for her. In 2003, more than twenty years after Billy set his record, Steve Wiebe discovered that he was really good at Donkey Kong. When he had some time on his hands after yet another layoff, he went online, found Twin Galaxies, and learned that Billy's record was within his own reach. Steve could finally be the best at something. He practiced and practiced and was able to beat Billy's score. Steve followed the procedures outlined by Twin Galaxies and submitted video taped proof of the record. Kong finally had a second elite player.
What followed would seem apocryphal in a written script, but became the heart of our movie. What we conceived as a simple showdown between two great competitors turned out at its core to be a scandalous rivalry as entrenched as a family feud. Both men had peaked in high-school and were now surrounded and driven by the expectations of those who had been with them when they were at their best.
When Billy's greatest record from his glory days was threatened he went to extraordinary lengths to protect it, forcing Steve to not only compete on the game of Donkey Kong, but to prove himself in the larger game of personal politics that surround any coveted crown. These two great gamers, one Salieri, the other Mozart, have grown to despise and fear each other and in so doing alienate the only person truly capable of appreciating their own achievement and greatness. That this heated battle unfolded in the name of the pursuit of excellence on what seems at first blush a trivial pursuit makes Billy and Steve's story all the more universal.
Director Seth Gordon is a graduate of Yale University, winner of an Oxford University Writing Fellowship, and alumni of Harvard Universitys Summer Graduate School of Design. He has produced and directed documentaries on location in Africa, Australia, Europe and around the United States for PBS, the Gates Foundation, and the UN, and has received an artist-in-residence fellowship from the state of Washington
He has directed several short films (Squirt, Fears of a Clown, The Problem with Percival) that have won awards at Sundance and Slamdance, and appeared on AMC. Seth produced and edited the critically acclaimed Sundance documentary New York Doll, theatrically released by First Independent in 2005.
Seth was also Editor, Associate Producer, and 2nd Unit Director of “Cry Wolf” for Rogue Pictures in 2005.
As co-founder of LargeLab, a full service production company, Seth writes and directs live action and animated projects for clients including MTV, Nike, Fox, Sony, Panasonic, and Ford. With LargeLab, Seth was a contributing producer and cinematographer on the Dixie Chicks' Oscar nominated documentary Shut Up And Sing, released in 2006 by the Weinstein Company.
“The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters” is Seth's feature directorial debut. He has been tapped to direct the narrative remake of 'Kong' for New Line Cinema, and is also set to direct The Only Living Boy In New York for Sony Pictures, and She's Out Of My League for Dreamworks.
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