PATRICK CREADON on 'WORDPLAY' Contributed by Michael J. Lee, Executive Editor for Radio Free Entertainment
June 8, 2006
In his documentary Wordplay, writer/director Patrick Creadon explores the world of competitive crossword puzzle solving. His film follows a select group of competitors as they make their way to the 2005 American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, and also features several interviews with well-known puzzle enthusiasts including Bill Clinton, Bob Dole, Jon Stewart, and the Indigo Girls. Although crosswords are generally a very solitary activity, the movie does a good job of capturing several dramatic moments, and manages to be both educational and entertaining.
In this interview, Patrick Creadon talks about the making of Wordplay.
MEDIA: Has your name suddenly found its way into a lot of crossword puzzles with the making of this movie?
PATRICK: Yeah, it has, actually, because everybody who's in our movie, or a lot of the people, make crossword puzzles. When we got into Sundance, somebody sent us a puzzle that had my name in it, [my wife and producer] Christine's name in it, "Wordplay," and actually our two daughters' names, which is cool, like as a gift.
What was your objective in taking on this project?
We always sort of said from the beginning we didn't want to make a movie that was just for crossword puzzle people. What's the point of that? We wanted to make a movie that was just a fun movie for a general audience. That was certainly what we tried to do. If you like crossword puzzles, I think you'll be in heaven. If you don't, it's still a very fun movie with very fun characters. So that was certainly what we tried to do.
What were some of the challenges of translating this subject into a feature length film?
A lot of people said early on, "That's a bad idea. This bird won't fly." But we enjoy puzzles and we enjoy the crossword puzzle in the Times--that happens to be the paper we read. So the trick was to get interesting people to be in the movie. Because I think anytime you have interesting, smart people, you're bound to get a fairly good interview. So that was a good place to start. We really knew from day one that we would have to rely heavily on my friend Brian Oakes, who designed the graphics to the film. I think Brian did a sensational job designing the film. We told him we wanted to feel like you're flying through a puzzle, and he did that. And originally, he was going to do one or two graphics, and then that became eight, and then it became twelve. And in the end, he created over 100 elements in the film. He did them all by himself. We are truly [an] independent film in every sense. Brian did all the graphics. My friend Doug cut the film. I also cut the film with him and directed it and shot it myself. And Christine, my wife, produced it. So it was really the four of us. And every step of the way, whenever we looked at edits of the film, we'd say, "Is this boring or not? If it's boring, get rid of it. If it's fun and interesting and exciting, then put it in." And we just had to whittle it down and try to work toward that.
How did you approach the filming of the tournament's championship round?
You know, we went to the tournament not really sure if that was going to be a big part of the movie or not, because frankly, we didn't think it was going to be very exciting. And it was. It was the most exciting tournament they've ever had, the way it all ended. And so right away, we knew, "Boy, that's going to be a big part of the story." And the trick was to make that exciting and to make that fun for the audience. All of the other stuff in the front of the movie, with all the celebrities and stuff, I think is really cool, too, because you get to see someone like Bill Clinton doing one of his hobbies that he normally does at lunch or does on a plane. He actually is solving the puzzle during the interview. He is like most crossword puzzle people. They have a very active mind, they love a challenge, and they love to figure things out.
Movies about academic competitions have recently been gaining some mainstream popularity. How long ago did you begin work on Wordplay?
We started the film, basically, January of 2005. We finished the film September 30 of that year. So we did it in nine months. And it was a pretty tight schedule, but we wanted to submit to the Sundance Film Festival. It's funny because I think when people read the synopsis of what our film is, it's very easy to say, "They wanted to make a movie like Spellbound." And I think in some ways, there are some similarities. I love Spellbound. I think it's a brilliant film. But that wasn't where we started. Our movie was really going to be about Will Shortz. It was just going to be about him and his puzzle. He's almost a revered personality. And he's also mysterious. No one knows what he looks like, no one knows what he's like. So we thought, "Take someone and take something that is very well known, and yet completely unknown." And that's a great place to start, I think, for any story, because you're going to learn about something that you thought you knew something about, and in fact, didn't. Literally, as we went on this journey telling this story, one of the places we went to was the tournament. And the tournament was so exciting that we felt it would be crazy not to include that in the film. I think we do owe gratitude to the Hoop Dreams and the Spellbounds and the movies that involve competitions of non-famous people, because they sort of have opened the doors for this type of film. But what I liked about our movie is that it's like in life--there's drama and passion anywhere. You just gotta be looking in the right place and you gotta be asking the right questions.
Have you always been a fan of documentaries?
I've loved documentaries since I've been 4 years old. I was the only kid on my block who watched 60 Minutes every Sunday. I loved it. I really did love it. And I love public television, and so to be making a movie that people are going to go see this summer is really a dream come true.
What's your fastest time for solving one of these crossword puzzles?
I'm not that fast. I did time myself on a Monday [puzzle] once, and I felt like, "Man, I am ripping. I am ripping! I am going through this thing!" And then when I was done, I looked, and it was 14 minutes. [Tournament finalist] Al Sanders did it in 2:02.
What was the process of getting the celebrity cameos like?
Ken Burns called us back immediately and said, "I would love to be in that film." Or, someone from his office said he would love to be in the film. The Indigo Girls were really excited when we called. They're probably the biggest fans. They do the puzzle every day. They ask people onstage, "Did anyone get 6-down today in the New York Times?" Amongst their crowd, people really know it. And I love the Indigo Girls. And I was probably more nervous to interview them than I was to interview...Well, I was pretty nervous when I interviewed Bill Clinton. But I would say for me, the Indigo Girls and Jon Stewart were on the same level. Because I love Jon Stewart, but I've been listening to the Indigo Girls since 1989, and I love them.
Was it difficult for you to get some of the interviews?
We had a little bit of trouble getting the Bill Clinton and the Jon Stewart interviews because they're both busy, and they get a lot of requests. And the President was told about our movie from a friend of his who's actually in the movie, this guy that we just happened to meet at the tournament. And he called him and told him that we were decent enough people and seemed to be doing a good job. So the day that Bill Clinton agreed to do the interview, we called Jon Stewart and said, "We booked the interview with Bill Clinton, can we get the interview with Jon?" And they said, "We'll call you right back." And we got a phone call shortly thereafter and they said, "Jon would love to be in the movie. When can you do it?" So that was really great to get both of them. I'm a big of fan of both of theirs. It really was an honor to interview the President.
Do you feel that audiences think the cameos are the movie's main attraction?
What's interesting, I think it's worth noting, is that even though Bill Clinton and Jon Stewart and all these other famous people are in the film, when the movie's done, everyone wants to know about [the competitors]. And obviously, they all want to know but Will. And I think it goes to show if you get good characters and try to tell their story well, they really jump off the screen. The stars of our movie are really a group of people that no one's ever heard of and maybe will never hear of again, but they all shared in this experience and are in this little film that we made, so it's fun.
How did the regulars at the tournament feel about suddenly being part of a movie?
They all are very, very proud of their group and of the tournament. And so for them, it was a big honor to be in the movie. There was one person who asked very politely to not be filmed. He felt that it would make him self-conscious during the tournament. So we said, "Okay, we won't film you. That's fine." And then I saw him at the tournament, because we brought the movie to the tournament the next year, and he came up and told me that he was disappointed that he's not in the movie. [laughs] But I've heard this from people who have seen it: Our movie is very, very funny and it's very engaging. And so whether you're a puzzle fan or not, Wordplay is just a great night out at the movies. And that was certainly what we tried to do, and it seems like it's connecting with people, which is a great feeling for us.