This continues Friday’s posting about the documentary film Word Wars, which trains a camera on competitive Scrabble at its highest levels. The movie premiered at Sundance Saturday. When the first installment ended, we were discussing the surprisingly wide reach of last year’s documentary on the National Spelling Bee, Spellbound, and how that success might affect the fortunes of Word Wars as filmmakers Eric Chaikin and Julian Petrillo seek distribution for their two-and-a-half-year labor of love.
“We heard about Spellbound when we had just finished shooting, in August 2002,” says Eric. “First I worried that it would steal our thunder, but soon I realized that the success of the movie could help Word Wars. The issue was whether we would be too close to it, but when I saw it I knew we weren’t. Spellbound is about kids. The exploding child syndrome is a very visually compelling act, with the children grimacing and disappearing and so forth.” Julian concurs: “Spellbound has a different structure, starting out as a character study and then zeroing in on competition. We wanted to see the characters interact with each other, and as a result our subject matter is more layered and dense, and harder to explain. But it was a fine thing that a word-oriented documentary blazed the trail and proved that it could be done successfully.”
One thing Spellbound had going for it was the wide variety of settings in its first movement, from a Texas cowtown to inner-city D.C (it’s no picnic not using “hardscrabble” here, but I’m exercising restraint). How bound was Word Wars to the small interior spaces where the game is played? “Intruding with the camera on so many high-strung personalities in such little spaces–hotel rooms and an apartment in Alphabet City, for example–was a particular challenge,” Eric concedes. But there are some Scrabble settings that might surprise you, too.
Washington Square Park is the home base for street Scrabble in New York City. “Gutsy, gritty Scrabble gets played everyday in Washington Square,” says Eric. “A b-story in the film is about a main character coming back to the Park. I was playing in the Park for a while, and that’s where I met some of the most interesting people who inspired me to make a movie. People are familiar with the chess players on the south side of the park, but a smaller, equally ragtag group plays Scrabble on the northwest side, with beaten-up, battered old dictionaries. They know their words as well as the tournament people.”
Julian adds, “The park was a vivid setting, visually and aurally, with a protest against the war going on in the background and scraggly codgers playing each other for a dollar a game, penny a point, in the foreground.” Two of the Park regulars, who don’t appear in the final cut, are “African-American intellectuals from the 1970s who look like they’ve been wandering around the streets of New York ever since.” One of them, friendly with everyone in the neighborhood, once studied comparative linguistics at MIT and knows 13 languages. He’s given to tossing off inscrutable pronouncements like “Cornel West took the wrong fork,” or “Cornel West is highly medicated” (hmm, pattern?). He has a reputation as the only notable defensive player–he has no offensive game, so his strategy is to jam up the board. He used to be a good player, Eric says, until he got into this defensive, paranoid mode. “That defines his stance toward the world,” says Julian, “not just Scrabble.”
I asked Eric and Julian about influences, and Errol Morris’s name came up early and often. “Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control takes its own path, leaving a lot up to the viewer,” Eric said. Julian chimed in, “Morris takes subjects that aren’t intrinsically visual, and finds visual interest in them.” Hoop Dreams and Best in Show were also mentioned. I raised my eyebrows at the latter, which is of course fiction, a mockumentary (n.b., since I first drafted this, Word Wars itself has been described by one lucky soul who has actually seen it as–coming full circle–a nonfictional mockumentary). “We’re not out to mock anyone,” Eric clarifies, “but we did count on everyone to have a healthy sense of humor about themselves. The obsessiveness with which these guys digest the dictionary is absurd. I spend my share of time looking through the dictionary too, and I try to channel it productively. But it’s absurd. There’s an absurd, funny, intense camaraderie that I wanted to capture.”
So will those of us not imminently jetting off to Utah get to see it? I didn’t know it Friday, but the answer seems to be yes. Word Wars distributor Seventh Art Releasing has struck a deal with the Discovery Times channel. As far as I know, there’s no air date yet; when there is, you’ll hear it here. Seventh Art, meanwhile, is also still looking for a general theatrical distributor. The film’s warm reception at Sundance won’t hurt. Eric had set this festival as a specific goal for the film, but he admits that the prizes there tend to go to issue-oriented documentaries (this year, though, much attention seems to have gone to a surfing film that became the first documentary to open the festival). “But people may be looking for the next slice-of-life film this year, the next Spellbound.” It doesn’t hurt their cause that Julian brought to the project his experience of having worked on three films that have won the Sundance Audience Award in the past.
Both Eric and Julian are optimistic about the prospects for more documentaries getting commercially released following a year that saw the mainstream success of not only Spellbound but also Capturing the Friedmans. They have a standard “documentary diatribe,” but there have been so many good signs lately that the version I hear is pretty watered down with optimism. “It’s still a hard market to break into, financially speaking. Michael Moore’s success is unique. This was starting to change when we were filming; every year it seems there’s another documentary that breaks into the ranks of general-release films. People’s perceptions are changing. Everyone says,