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indieWIRE INTERVIEW | “The King of Kong” Director Seth Gordon

indieWIRE INTERVIEW | "The King of Kong" Director Seth Gordon

Director Seth Gordon‘s “The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters” takes a look at the arcade circuit. The film follows the travails of a middle-school science teacher and a hot sauce mogul vie for the Guinness World Record on the arcade classic, Donkey Kong. This is the first feature-length directorial effort for Gordon, who has also worked as a cinematographer on Barbara Kopple and Cecilia Peck‘s “Shut Up & Sing.” Picturehouse will open the film in limited release beginning Friday, August 17.

What initially attracted you to filmmaking, and how has that interest evolved during your career?

I didn’t know what filmmaking was when I first had a camera. It was one with a screen (Hi8), way back in the ’90s. I lived in Africa, in the middle of nowhere with no electricity and no running water and fell in love with making little movies with the students at the high-school where I taught on the Kenya/Uganda border. When I returned, non-linear editing was just coming to the desktop computer, and I learned how to edit so I could tell the story of what happened in Kenya. Since then I have come to think that the most important step in the process is probably editing, because so much of the final content and storytelling style are determined at that phase.

Are there other aspects of filmmaking that you would still like to explore?

The list of stories that have not yet been told is almost endless. My hope is to be involved in some of them.

How did the idea for “King of Kong” come about?

“The King of Kong” is a documentary about the race for the world record on the Arcade Classic Donkey Kong. I was familiar with the underground classic arcade scene because I am a geek, and the arcade where much of the film takes place, Funspot in Weirs Beach, New Hampshire, is one of my favorite places on Earth. I knew there were great stories in the classic arcade world. That we would stumble upon one with so many unexpected twist and turns was a matter of fortunate timing and the extraordinary personalities in front of the camera.

Elaborate a bit on your approach to making the film…

The producer, Ed Cunningham, and I set out to make a sports film where the sport was a classic arcade title. We studied other sports docs, like “Pumping Iron,” in our preparation for editorial. We tend to shy away from a doc style with narration and also the kind of docs where the filmmakers are intentionally in front of the camera, so we watched the Verite masters like the Maysles, Robert Leacock, D.A. Pennebaker, etc… As the film story evolved, we had to let go of our initial expectations for the arc, and simply hang on for the ride.

We felt increasingly paranoid that the whole endeavor was a waste of time, but at the end of production, we looked back and the previous fifteen months and 350 hours of footage, began to connect the dots, and found that the story that emerged was not unlike the traditional narrative structure of a three act hollywood film. Patience and perseverance were probably our most valuable assets throughout.

Picturehouse head Bob Berney with “King of Kong” director Seth Gordon during the Tribeca Film Festival in April. Photo by Brian Brooks/indieWIRE

What were some of the biggest challenges you faced?

In a bizarre turn of events that has entirely to do with the appetite in the cultural zeitgeist for retro nostalgia, we toured the festival circuit with another gaming related doc. The fact that two films covered roughly similar worlds greatly influenced the distribution and acquisition process. Other than that, our biggest challenges were simply getting reps and festivals to watch our film. We’re grateful someone did.

How did the financing come together?

We made it ourselves on a shoestring on DV Cameras and final cut pro. As a result, our biggest expense before film-out and music licensing was probably airfare and hotel bills, which were nominal. If we didn’t make it almost entirely on our own we couldn’t have made it at all.

Who/what are some of the creative influences that have had the biggest impact on you?

Mario Kart, Iggy Pop, “Dukes of Hazard,” “Die Hard,” Egon Schiele, Antoni Gaudi, “Le Corbusier,” “The Wonder Years,” and my dad’s now broken belt drive turntable.

What other genres or stories would like to explore as a filmmaker, and what is your next project?

“Kong” has led to a number of industry opportunities, including a remake of the doc at New Line, which I will direct, a comedy at Dreamworks, and a coming-of-age film at Sony. This last year has been a dream come true. To have these upcoming opportunities is beyond my wildest dreams. I owe it all to “Kong.”

What is your definition of “independent film,” and has that changed since you first started working?

I guess independent film used to seem like a euphemism for private finance with terrible strings attached, but now I think almost anyone can make a film on their own outside of any system, studio or otherwise. The new cameras look amazing and cost almost nothing and it simply doesn’t cost hardly anything to post something that explodes on YouTube.

What are your interests outside of film?

Architecture and photography (which is sort of cheating, of course).

What general advice would you impart to emerging filmmakers?

Don’t let anything get in your way of making your movie. If you believe in it, it can happen. Don’t get caught up in how polished something looks, the most important element of all is a good story.

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