The Story Behind King Of Kong

From arcade days to the big battle...

One of the best films ever made about video game rivalry is Seth Gordon's The King Of Kong: A Fistful Of Quarters.

It delves into the real-life battle between smug gaming prodigy Billy Mitchell and obsessed everyman Steve Wiebe as they vie to win the world record high score on classic arcade machine Donkey Kong.

So let's go back... way back to a time before the Wii. Even before the PlayStation and even the Sega Megadrive. Back to the time of Kong...



1. Early years

The King Of Kong grew originally from director Seth Gordon's own memories of days spent shoving coins into arcade machines at Funspot, a paradise for gamers in New Hampshire.

"I spent my summers going to Funspot, the arcade featured in the film growing up, and I knew how awesome that place was and I tried to go back there during college whenever I could. It's just a special place to me. I was aware that these gamers were playing there."

In the early 1980s, there were few options for home gaming - Pong and the early Atari systems were trickling into homes and there was no Internet for players to swap trash talk and trade achievements.

Funspot was one of places where hardcore joystick-bothers could gather to battle demonic enemies or - in the case of Donkey Kong - help plumber Mario overcome a barrel-tossing giant ape and rescue a princess.

Like any activity where scores are kept, the likes of Kong and Missile Command generate bitter rivalries between button-hitting experts, with some players spending hours and hundreds of dollars into the cabinets.

These days, the arcades are slowly disappearing, and many of the games are a lot more complicated, but the battles continue.

Not a bad subject for a documentary. Which is why Gordon set out to make a film based on the hardcore game-jockeys...

Next: Random Footage

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2. Random footage


Gordon broke into filmmaking thanks to cheapening technology and better access to equipment. "I discovered shooting and filmmaking around the time all of the software became affordable to anyone with a PC.

"There was never the guild-delineated sense of job specialization I've found in the formal film industry. Before moving to LA it hadn't occurred to me that you did anything other than all the jobs required to get a project finished."

Before cracking into the story of Kong, he'd been a graphic designer, a cinematographer, an art director, an edit and a producer, so director was the next logical step.

And though it might seem from the finished film, Seth Gordon didn't originally set out to focus on the conflict that now forms the spine for King Of Kong.

No, he was just interested in the general world of players, and spent months just shooting various rivalries and interviews.

"As some documentaries go, we had no plans for which story we were going to cover," he says.

"The Pac-Man story is great. The Centipede story is great. The Q-Bert story. So we were simultaneously covering all of these.

Although I wasn't that well-acquainted with Kong. But I knew that almost all roads lead to Billy Mitchell."

It wasn't quite that easy, though...

Next: Finding The Fight

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3. Finding The Fight


"The producer of the film, Ed Cunningham, who co-produced New York Doll with me, he met Steve Wiebe - Steve was a friend of a friend," explains Gordon.

"I wasn't present, but he met Steve in Seattle and told me about it and I knew it could connect back to Funspot, which I really loved. And then, really speculatively, we went to try and meet Billy, who we understood to be Steve's rival.

"I didn't think that Kong really had that much potential as a storyline, but I knew that video game rivalries was a rich topic, for the reason of the nostalgia and the intensity of the emotion.

"I know how high the stakes are for the gamers. I wanted to pursue a number of them at once. The original idea was Spellbound for video games. A portrait of different rivalries was what we were thinking.

"But the more we learned, the better the King story got. And because Billy was so remarkable and because his behaviour was so out there, once we were in post, we realised, 'this is going to be about Kong.'

"We did try cutting those other things together and nothing was as compelling as Billy and Steve.

"Once we went to the final competition and had a chance to review all the footage, it was pretty evident what the best way through the story was going to be and I still tried to stay faithful to the notion that we'd make a portrait of multiple rivalries, but this one, because it had such a clear timeline and had gone on for decades, it felt like the right one.

"It had the natural story beats of traditional feature film: the guy who has a thing he's trying to accomplish and he has obstacles to that. It just lent itself to that story.

"It sort of revealed itself as it went. We said, 'This is great! These guys are such opposites from one another and that'll make good storytelling.'

"In a documentary, you're trying to duplicate journalism, you uncover, uncover and uncover, you follow your nose and follow leads and Kong had this great legend around it: the original 1982 battle and it just made itself clear that it was the story we should be making. We listened, basically."

So who are these two very different rivals?

Next: Meet Billy

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4. Meet The Players: Billy


In the long-haired red corner, Billy Mitchell.

A true legend in the classic video game world, he's best known for chalking up a series of record high scores in the Golden Age Of Arcade Games, dated roughly around 1979-1983, as the machines moved from traditional spots like bowling alleys into their own facilities.

Billy began playing games at the age of 16, following a successful run as a pinball wizard. At first, he wasn't interested in the flashy new cabinets, but realised everyone was paying attention to them, and wanted in - particularly on Donkey Kong.

Discovering a passion, he became a fervent player and was soon notching up scores, becoming selected in 1983 as one of that year's Video Game Players Of The Year by games monitoring board Twin Galaxies.

"I had heard of Billy," recalls Gordon.  "When I started researching the film, Billy Mitchell came up everywhere. He was the Gamer of the Century.

"He posted the perfect Pac-Man score. He held all the records since day one basically. He vanquished Steve Sanders when Sanders lied about his Donkey Kong score and by doing so, sort of created a reason to found Twin Galaxies, which is essential to the self-government of the players.

"We went to him to talk to him and he was fascinating and genius, which I think comes across. He was just extraordinary. One of the most remarkable things was his passion about Donkey Kong.

"It was clearly his favorite record, partly because that's what earned him permanent fame in that world."
 
Best known for his patriotic ties and long mullet hairstyle, not to mention his flamboyant style, he splits his time between running a sauce business (Rickey's World Famous Sauces, which earned him the title The Sauce King Of Florida) and constantly defending his world records.

Next: Meet Steve

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5. Meet The Players: Steve


And in the blue corner, Steve Wiebe couldn't be more different from his rival if he tried.

A former employee with Boeing Aviation, he was downsized and switched to working at working as as maths teacher in Washington State.

Long before his working days, he'd been a fan of video games including Pac Man and was 12 when Donkey Kong arrived. “Donkey Kong came out and it was like four games in one,” he says. “The graphics were state of the art, the music was captivating. The story about the monkey captured you.”

With extra time on his hands, the adult Wiebe began playing Donkey Kong on a home machine, pouring his frustrations with life and worries for his family's finances into defeating the pixellated villain.

Soon, he was racking up high scores and, after years of effort, finally cracked the high score on the game, besting Billy Mitchell's long-standing record with just over one million points.

But the road to recognition would not be easy. He had to fight to claim his score as valid and was forced to prove himself time again - which is how the story of Kong arrived on film...

Next: Festival Success

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6. Festival success

Despite a compelling subject matter, Gordon's finished film faced the usual challenges foisted on to documentaries that lack hefty studio backing.

Two things helped matters - one, the crew had kept costs to a minimum and two, the director was an old hand at touting films of this sort around - he'd worked on several, including New York Doll - before, so Kong quickly hit the festival circuit, originally premiering at Sundance spin-off Slamdance in 2007.

From there, it was off to various film events around the US, including the Aspen Comedy Festival and the Fantasia Film Fest.

"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 (Chasing Ghosts, above)," says Gordon.

"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."

The movie also had a presence at the 2007 Comic-Con, drumming up interest by bringing Wiebe along to play games live.

It didn't hurt that the likes of Eli Roth and Kevin Smith added their voices to the praise being heaped on the film.

Which all helped, finally, in snagging the film a distributor across the pond.

Picturehouse gave it a limited release in the US, before it hit DVD.

Next: Release

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7. Release

It took a while for Kong to find its audience. Growing slowly, it's since become a cult hit and while it's far away from blockbuster figures (it made less than $1 million across the pond), those low costs mean it's cracked profit.

Sadly, the movie was never given a cinema release over here (aside from a couple of festival appearances), though you can find it on DVD - and we highly recommend checking it out.

But as the cult hit has grown in popularity, the controversy has also swelled...

 

Next: Controversy

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8. Controversy

Most documentaries end up winning fans and also alienating people. Kong has been charged with simplifying the story and falsifying other elements.

For instance? There's a lot of debate about whether two friends of Billy went over to Steve's house and took his Kong machine apart to check for irregularities.

"It's not that they barged in," Wiebe has commented.

"My mother-in-law was polite enough to let them in, and it's true she gave them a quarter, which is funny....

"It was friendly, but it's not like I was happy to have someone drop by unannounced. I'm coming home from work. I want to take a shower and relax. I wasn't too happy, but I didn't express it. And the movie never says they broke in."

The truth is tough to divine, though Gordon himself admits that some moments were edited for story reasons and others are subjective.

"If you wanted to talk about it point-by-point we could, but the central fact for me is that Billy hasn't seen the movie and yet he has all these problems with me," he says.

"My official response is that I would love him to see the film and after he's seen it to have a conversation. My big thing is that I never knew Billy before this started and I never knew Steve. I had no particular opinion of either of them; I simply showed what happened.

"A lot of people come to conclusions that I don't expect them to based on what they see Billy do.

"I have a bit more sympathy for him than most. I think he's driven by a profound desire to be perfect and live up to the guy that he was when he was seventeen. He got an unbelievable amount of attention at a very young age.

"Now he's sort of fossilized and petrified - almost frozen in time. He's almost like a WWF wrestler.

"I've read some stuff online. It shouldn't be surprising to us when we make a film about people who obsess on the details of video games that they're going to obsess on the details of our film!

"But I don't get a lot of personal feedback. I know there are blogs and people talking. I also feel like when you make something like this, it's not really yours anymore. It's out in the world and people can say whatever they want. We had our voice and now it's their turn."

And what of the the next step?
 

Next: The Future...

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9. The future is fictionalised?


While it's still in development, Gordon is still planning to get a movie made based on the documentary, though these days he's thinking it could be a sequel story that continues the rivalry.

And there are still gaps to be filled... "I think the best answer is that there was some stuff we were present for sort of by accident in the documentary but there are more facts we know about what happened, and there's a way to bring that to life in the fictional version that you couldn't just because of the timing of when you were there," he admits.

"The doc is a whole lot of talking heads, because that's the nature of the genre. I think it could be compelling if you bring it to life with actors. I also think it's a good enough story that it could get out to a larger audience."

New Line has the rights to the fictionalised version of the story, which Gordon is busy developing. He's also been keeping busy, having won his first big studio job with Vince Vaughn comedy Four Christmases last year.

So while Billy is still pumping out top scores and flogging sauce, what is Wiebe up to?

"Steve's still going out and competing - he gets his stuff sponsored once in a while.

"I think the documentary has totally changed his life. It's certainly justified what his wife thought was his pretty ridiculous pursuit," laughs Gordon.

"There's the band My Chemical Romance that had Steve out to play drums at a stadium show because they liked him.

He's in Four Christmases, playing a character. A pretty small part (laughs) but he was great. It was actually Vince (Vaughn)'s idea."

As of right now, the Kong remake/sequel still doesn't have a cast - Gordon has floated names like Tom Cruise, Johnny Depp and Ed Norton for Billy and Nathan Fillion or Greg Kinnear for Wiebe.

Unless the cinematic kill screen happens, this is one story that's going to keep on playing...

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Comments

    • MrScary

      Sep 8th 2009, 16:53

      Funspot!!!!! I used to go there too!!! That place was awesome!!! Ware's Beach, NH. Haven't been there in 25 years, will have to check it out again the next time I'm up there. Wow, that brings back memories of blowing hundreds of $$$ on Donkey Kong Jr. and Centipede.

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