Every day through the end of the Sundance Film Festival, including weekends, indieWIRE will be publishing two interviews with Sundance '06 competition filmmakers. Sixty filmmakers were given the opportunity to participate in an e-mail interview, and each was sent the same questions.
Will Shortz, New York Times puzzlemaster and connoisseur of word-based brain-teasers, is the subject of Patrick Creadon's fascinating documentary "Wordplay." Creadon investigates what it takes to create a crossword puzzle for the Times, while also highlighting a number of contestants at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament. Sundance describes the film as "an engrossing, yet lighthearted portrait of an American institution...and its masterful execution produces the same satisfaction as completing a particularly ingenuous and challenging puzzle." "Wordplay" is part of the Independent Film Competition: Documentary category.
Please tell us about yourself. How old are you? What is your current job? Where were you born? Where do you live?
Age: 38. Day Job: Cameraman. Birth place: Chicago (Go Cubs!). Currently reside in: Los Angeles.
What were the circumstances that led you to become a filmmaker? Did you go to film school? How did you learn about filmmaking?
How'd I get into this: My first exposure to filmmaking came when I was a child growing up in Chicago. My brother and sisters and I did quite a bit of commercial acting (commercials, radio spots, Sear's catalogues, etc...) and I really enjoyed the process. I have also always been a huge fan of non-fiction filmmaking. I watched a lot of PBS as a kid, and I remember at a very young age being glued to the television whenever "60 Minutes" was on. My career has really been an outgrowth of these two factors.
Film School: Yes.
After graduating from the University of Notre Dame in 1989 I spent three years working on the greatest television show in the history of television - a show called "The 90's", which was produced in Chicago and aired on PBS from 1989 through 1993. Finding that show late night on WTTW in Chicago - and then going on to convince the producers to hire me onto the show - was the one and only break I needed. Once I started there I knew I'd found my true calling. My main duties there were shooting and cutting segments, as well as working on the promotion and outreach of the show. It was by far the greatest job I've ever had.
When the show wrapped in late 1993 ( "The 90's" ended up on the short end of the funding stick during the now infamous Jesse Helms/National Endowment for the Arts battles), and I felt it was time to find a new challenge. I was accepted at the American Film Institute and received my Master's Degree in Cinematography in 1996.
Where did the initial idea for your film come from?
As for "Wordplay", my wife (Christine O'Malley - Producer, "Wordplay") and I had been trying to find a great first project to dive into. Between the two of us we've been working in television and film for over 25 years, yet we'd never done a feature film that we could call our own. It had always been the goal, but the right opportunity hadn't come up yet...
Then came Christmas of 2005. Christine and I have been fans of The New York Times Crossword for years and our friends and family knew that. On Christmas day we received 3 different Will Shortz Crossword books. We loved them! Later that night I searched on Amazon.com trying to find the "Will Shortz documentary film".... surely there must have been a film made about him! Once I came to the realization that in fact that film didn't exist yet I knew we'd found the topic for our first feature length film.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in either developing the project or making the movie?
The only challenge we faced was whether or not Will wanted to take part in this project. We knew without him we wouldn't have a film. We kicked around ways of getting to him - approaching the The New York Times corporate office first, sending Will a formal request in a letter, trying to reach him via the NPR connection. In the end, cooler heads prevailed... we picked up the phone, called information, and left him a voicemail on his answering machine at the paper. He called the next day and said "Sounds fun... let's do it."
Final Score: HAPPY RESULTS = 1, RED TAPE = 0.
It's been less than one year since we made that phone call. The film is done, we're very happy with the results, and we're on our way to Sundance. It's been an amazingly productive and positive year. Getting accepted to Sundance was the perfect way to cap it all off!
What are your goals for Sundance?
Our goals for the festival are fairly modest - we hope to see a lot of films, meet a lot of the other filmmakers, and have fun with our friends and family that are coming out to support "Wordplay". We are confident that "Wordplay" has a broad audience, and we're hoping to find an opportunity at Sundance to bring the film to them. Anything beyond this will be icing on the cake.
What or who are your biggest creative influences?
In no particular order - The Maysles Brothers, Haskell Wexler, Ken Burns... "THE 90's" television show, "60 Minutes", FRONTLINE, "This is Spinal Tap"... The Replacements (the band, not the movie), Notre Dame football (and their tailgate parties), and my family.
What is your definition of independent film?
Definition of independent film: At least one edit bay is in someone's spare bedroom. We had 2 "spare-bedroom edit bays" on "Wordplay", so we pass.
What are a few other films you're hoping to see at Sundance and why?
Other films we want to see at Sundance: "Small Town Gay Bar", "The World According to Sesame Street", "EV Confidential: Who Killed the Electric Car", "Clear Cut", "Steel City", "Wild Tigers I have Known", and the Iraq docs.
Who are a few people that you would you most like to meet at Sundance?
I'd love to meet Robert Redford and tell him "Thanks" for building Sundance. Ditto Geoff Gilmore.
If you were given $10 million to be used for moviemaking, how would you spend it?
If I were given $10 million to be used for movie-making? That's easy. I'd find 100 filmmakers and give them all $100,000 and see what happens.
[Get the latest from the Sundance Film Festival throughout the day in indieWIRE's special Park City '06 section]