The producer and star of the hit documentary talk about the film
Steve Wiebe and Ed Cunningham are a part of the team that brought The King of Kong: Fistful of Quarters to life. We recently interviewed the star and producer of this critically-acclaimed documentary, and here's what they had to say.
The most interesting thing about the documentary is the subject themselves, like how to find that nugget that makes the movie work. So why, Ed, did you and [director] Seth [Gordon] and the whole crew, why did you even decide on this whole arcade scene? Going after this kind of story, without even knowing the story was going to be there in the first place?
Ed Cunningham: Seth and I were working on a film called New York Doll, another documentary, and a friend of mine, long time friend, we've been friends for years, had sent me a link to an article about his buddy who broke the world record in Donkey Kong. And I just didn't think much about it and we were wrapping up production on New York Doll and I flew up to Seattle to see my friend. My friend used to be in a band in high school with Steve, and I met Steve, and [my friend] goes, 'Hey, this is the guy who holds the Donkey Kong record.' and he turned to Steve and he goes, 'but tell him what just happened.' You remember when Brian Kuh and Perry Rodgers go to the garage to check out his machine? Yeah. It was an unannounced visit is how we're verbalizing that now. I met Steve four days after that happened. And so he's telling me this story and I'm like, '...over Donkey Kong? They came to your house?' The one dude flew from New Hampshire, and you know, that was just the tip of the iceberg for us because that's not... I mean, it's an interesting story but it's not a film. So we spent time, we went and met Billy [Mitchell], we went an met Walter [Day], we went the Fun Spot tournament where all that great weirdness happened with the Donkey Kong kill screen coming up and we knew we were on to something. And it was just a chance meeting with Steve because he was in a friend of mine's high school band.
So with meeting the film crew Steve, what did you think? What did you think with all these guys coming into your house with the camera crew and said we want to shoot you trying to achieve this high score?
Steve Wiebe: Well, I welcomed them in with open arms because at that point I'd hit rock bottom with this whole Donkey Kong adventure. And Roy Shildt, remember him, Mr. Awesome, I was linked to him so they thought everything I was submitting was a fraud or cheat, so I was thinking this is my one shot to get my story told. It worked out, so I was really happy when they came in.
So when did you actually know that you had that story? Like you knew, you could go to the editing room and make this work.
Ed Cunningham: We were very concerned. The Guinness tournament, which is the end of the film, act three, just kind of came out of thin air. You can always go back and reconstruct stuff in a documentary, but it's so much cooler when you're there as it happens. Seth and I, Luis [Lopez] and Clay [Tweel] who are here, were working on the film after the Fun Spot tournament, we came back to L.A., and we had like a hundred hours of footage 'cause we shot nonstop for five days, three or four cameras. We also had done a bunch of interviews. We weren't sure what we had, we just had no idea. We knew that -- because we had chased the Ms. Pac Man story, we were chasing Doris Self going for the Q-Bert record, we were chasing all these other great stories. But every time we would show up, Donkey Kong was just so much more interesting than any of the other ones. Steve wouldn't give up. Billy was calling everyone in the room and telling them what to do and it just became so obvious that we should probably chase that story. But we knew we didn't have a film. So we went to visit Walter, you know when he's playing guitar in front of the barn, it was actually my decision to stop at that barn. So we went to him, remember he's a transidental meditator, and we had spent the day at the meditating dome with him and we came back to his place and we wanted to go get something to eat, and he wanted to check his messages. And on his message machine was Guinness. And they were telling Walter that they wanted Twin Galaxies to be the official video game score provider, and that they were going to put video game scores back in the Guinness Book of World Records in 2007. For the 2007 edition. And you just saw Walter change, you know, in his head, just all of a sudden, by the end of that day he had kind of decided to we need to have a tournament. We need to do something through this deadline so that people who are trying to get records can get it, and if they make it, they can get into the book. So off we went, and we were in Florida and Billy didn't show up, so we became very concerned. How do you make a film about two guys competing when they're never in the same room together in a gaming environment? They'd been in the same room before but we needed them in the same room with a Donkey Kong machine there. We thought about driving one to Billy's restaurant but that wouldn't have worked. And it was Nicole, Steve's wife, because we thought, we had a very simplistic idea of what this film could be. Two, head to head, guys trading off, two man Donkey Kong. And so that was out the window. And so Nicole, I don't know if you remember the part where she says, you know, he's not mean-spirited and condescending, he's a nice person. And Seth and I, when we left that interview, it was emotional. It was like, wait a minute, that's been the story the whole time. And thank God we rolled film the whole time because now we can go back and reconstruct it. So it was really an interview with Nicole talking about Steve and what a good person he was, and that, regardless of what happened upstairs at the tournament, which when we got back from interviewing her, he's a good man and has a great family. And that's what it became about.
You're a good man, you have a good family, you're passive. You're a nice guy. You're the consummate nice guy so where does that drive to compete in something like this come from? Why do you want to do this in the first place and why Donkey Kong of all games?
Steve Wiebe: Well, I think just growing up at a - some of the footage showed me and my brother playing football in the backyard so, growing up with my brother, we always competing in basketball and football. So that competitive drive came from there. Donkey Kong was something I picked up in college actually, when I was growing up, I was twelve years old and playing it when it came out. But in college, I got my own machine, had it in my fraternity and there was a group of guys that would always come in there and play. And that's when I got to this kill screen that I didn't know existed 'cause I thought it was a bug, that I just had a bad machine, 'cause it got to this screen and I just died for no reason. So I was always thinking, what's happening. So I played again, got to the kill screen one more time and it did it again. And I was like, I'm done playing this game, I can't get past this screen. So ten years later is where I thought of looking up the record and then I read something about the kill screen and that made sense now, that's what was happening ten years ago so that's when I got - I'd been laid off and I was thinking of something, a goal to go after, so I went back to Donkey Kong. Then my wife let me do it, kinda, and then, well I was already pretty good at it, and I just thought, well here I'm gonna go after this and then that's what happened.
What is that conversation like at the dinner table? When you're sitting with your kids, you've got the wife there, and you're like 'I have an idea, I want to start a new past time. I'm thinking of going for the high score in this video game and... what do ya think?'
Steve Wiebe: I kind of eased into it, I'm thinking, can I get a Donkey Kong machine... I wasn't going to get the camera and I'm going to spend hours and hours and hours going for a world record. I said, let me get a machine and can I get a Donkey Kong Jr. too, and she said no, there's no room for two machines, so I have to get one. So that's why it's a Donkey Kong Jr. cabinet, some of you might not have recognized that. But it doesn't have the Donkey Kong marquee, it's Donkey Kong Jr. and then I put the board in there, the Donkey Kong and I had a Donkey Kong Jr. board...
Was it a doctored board?
Steve Wiebe: [Laughing] It was semi-doctored. [Laughing] No, it was a clean board. Actually, if you look at the extra [Special Features on the DVD], there's something funny on there, I won't spoil it for ya but the history of the board that they claim has been doctored, you'll find out where it came from in the extra. So I just had one machine and then I started going for the record after I got the machine. I didn't want to go for the whole ball of wax at once.
So you were relatively unfamiliar with the competitive world of gaming in this sense. What did you think of this world? Were you intimidated? Were you kind of seduced by it all? Intrigued?
Steve Wiebe: Actually, I never met any of them until I went to this classic game expo in San Jose in 2004 is where I saw 'em. The documentary doesn't go back that far but I'd met 'em there and before I'd even met Billy, Billy Mitchell seems like a harmless name, like a little kid, Billy Mitchell you know [Laughing] but I was in for a rude awakening. So I wasn't intimidated by anybody. I was just there to improve myself on Donkey Kong. But there's several legendary gamers... some of these guys devote, they've got a list of video games and they're like, 'Okay, I've got the world record on that one, let's move down to the next game and we'll master that.' I don't have that much time.
Ed Cunningham: It was interesting when we were at Fun Spot because we hadn't been at the tournament in 2004 to film his first experience with the group. And then at Fun Spot, it was interesting to us because I don't think Steve realized the buzz he caused when he went into that room when he showed up. I mean there was just like this tension of, 'Oh is Steve Weibe going to show up?' We were already there before Steve got there and we'd already met Steve. We were like, 'He's kind of a normal dude, what's the big deal?' There was just this buzz in the room about this mysterious player from the West Coast and whether he was going to show up. So for us, it was kind of genius, like we were already there, he was showing up. I knew when he was coming and we were like, yeah we should probably be filming when he walks in here. It's probably a good thing. He may not of noticed it, but to us it was so obvious that he was an outsider coming into this world.
You're sitting there and you're competing in this environment. You've been in your garage for God knows how long trying to achieve this score, get to this kill screen, get to the pinnacle of Donkey Kong. And you go to this Fun Spot and you start playing with all these people over your shoulder, the pressure's on... do you feel it at all or do you just get in the zone?
Steve Wiebe: The whole game... well, we were left alone for a little while so it's not like it's two hours of people surrounding you and cameras flashing at you. So it wasn't like... I didn't feel the pressure at that point. When you're into the game long enough, you kind of lock in to what you're doing, and you don't really notice the people around you. I never looked around me because it might freak me out, because if you're up on a mountain you don't wanna like, look down. So it didn't really bother me actually. I'm like, I got used to my kid, you know, pounding on me so it kind of prepped me for that.
You read about these high scores in Donkey Kong and it takes you a couple of hours to get to the kill screen. How do you deal with bathroom breaks and things like that? Is there a preparation before you start playing?
Steve Wiebe: I think all the beer I drank in college created an iron bladder. [Laughing] I can hold a lot of liquid without going to the bathroom. I actually don't have a problem, only two and a half hours, that's not a problem, but there are games you can play for - like Asteroids, you can rack up so many ships, you can play for a month if you wanted to.
There seemed to be more challenge with this movie it being highly competitive, it doesn't really end story-wise, once the movie ends and the internet and whatnot. It's a new age documentary and you guys have been going back and forth a little bit after the film came out in theatres and on DVD. You updated a little bit because Billy came back and got the high score, then you got the high score and then Billy again, it keeps going back and forth. So where is it at now and what is your determination to possibly get back that reign?
Steve Wiebe: Yeah, last summer at a mortgage brokers convention, Billy recaptured the title by a thousand points, I think he scored 1,052,200, right? So it was three hundred mortgage brokers and Todd Rogers was there as the one referee. But my plan is to go back... actually a funny story, I heard of it when I got to Comic-Con. I arrived at the hotel and Ed breaks the news to me and he said here's some news that's going to actually help the film, I think, and he told me and I was like, 'Where's a Donkey Kong machine, I've gotta go for this record again.' Then I got back from San Diego and I was rigging up the camera alongside the game and my son comes in and goes, you don't have to play anymore, the King of Kong is over. [Laughing]
It seems like your kids are very astute when it comes to life knowledge. Like your daughter especially. It's one of my favorite scenes in the movie where she says something like, 'Dad, this is the kind of stuff that lives are ruined over.' What do you think when you hear your kid saying something like that and you're still going for it, you're still gonna take that dive no matter what it means? I mean, you still care about your family obviously.
Steve Wiebe: Well in the van, my reaction is, I look over at her. I don't remember what I said, but I just kind of stared at her for a minute and go yeah, what am I doing with our lives... but yeah, I think kids are smarter than you think. I don't know where they got it from... they didn't learn it from me.
The King of Kong: Fistful of Quarters is on the DVD shelves starting today, January 29.