Blitz and Friends, Capturing the American Family in "Spellbound"
by Eugene Hernandez
Since debuting at SXSW in Austin last year, Jeff Blitz's documentary, "Spellbound," has had a charmed life on the film festival circuit that was capped by an Oscar nomination this year for best documentary of 2002. I discovered the movie as a juror at the Los Angeles Film Festival in June where we awarded it a special prize. After seeing the film at an early fest screening, I took my parents to see it a few days later and they loved it as much as I did. The film -- a moving, hilarious and thrilling look at a group of kids competing -- in the National Spelling Bee, was acquired by ThinkFilm and also sold to HBO, guaranteeing wide exposure for this special movie.
Festival audiences in Tribeca, Los Angeles, Toronto, and many other cities have embraced "Spellbound" in the year that its been on the circuit. "To be honest, it is still such a shocking thing, in a way, to see just how passionate people get," Blitz told me in a telephone conversation yesterday as the movie opened at Film Forum in New York. "I saw a screening recently where a woman actually started to cry." Blitz, from the first time he saw the National Spelling Bee in 1997, realized that it would be possible to tell an emotionally resonant story and he was intent on making a documentary about the subject.
Blitz and producer Sean Welch, along with the rest of the team, tracked a group of contestants, some from early days leading up to the big event in 1999 (particularly noteworthy in this film is the work of editor Yana Gorskaya). The result is a unique portrait of contemporary American family life, with subjects that come from an array of ethnic, cultural, and socio-economic backgrounds.
"I started to research it in 1998," Blitz explained during our conversation. "It was during that time that I found that a lot of the kids stories seemed to be stories that were (interesting) above and apart from spelling." Continuing he said, "I think it was then that I realized that even if the Bee (in 1999) turned out to not be as great as the Bee that I had seen in '97, that possibly the movie could stand on the strength of the kids' stories."
An alum from USC's graduate film school, following undergrad work at Johns Hopkins, Blitz admitted that the seed for the film was perhaps planted during an undergrad class on the work of Alfred Hitchcock. "I like the play on words obviously," Blitz offered, "I didn't mind stealing the title from a fiction film that's got a lot of suspense to it also."
After completing the film, Blitz and team pursued Micah Green of Cinetic Media and were able to secure representation for the project with Green and rep Josh Braun. But it took a few months for a deal to emerge. "We thought it was highly unlikely that we would be releasing the film in any kind of significant theatrical way," Blitz said, "The festival tour was going to be a kind of substitute for that." Without an overall strategy for tackling the festival circuit, the team worked to find as many outlets as possible. "The lack of a festival strategy ended up being good platform for building lots of positive word of mouth for us," Blitz explained.
Blitz and Welch plan to tackle a second doc project soon, but right now they are are busy promoting the theatrical release. "Spellbound" is screening exclusively at Film Forum for the next few weeks, followed by an expansion into other areas of the metro New York area on May 16. Expansion into major markets will be timed to televised National Spelling Bee broadcast at the end of May. ThinkFilm is organizing a special D.C. screening of the movie during this year's Bee, welcoming three spellers from the film as well as this year's competitors and their families. It is expected to air on HBO at the end of the year.
For now, the filmmakers are basking in the glow of their positive reviews. New York Times critic A.O. Scott, himself a spelling bee champ, praised the film in yesterday's review. "The eight stories entwine to form a fascinating portrait of a group of young people and their families," Scott wrote in his Times review. "In which the peculiar, anachronistic spelling-bee subculture becomes a window into contemporary American society."