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July 18, 2006 |

By Daniel Carlson | | July 18, 2006 |

Never let it be said that there are no benefits to living in Los Angeles. In addition to crippling traffic, proudly consistent crime, and often beige air, the city is also crawling with genuine bona-fide members of that elite cadre, the entertainment industry. (Though the thrill wears off after seeing Andy Dick at the Grove for the thousandth time.) Among them is documentary filmmaker Patrick Creadon, whose first feature, Wordplay, can currently be seen at finer theaters near you. Despite my protestations to the contrary, Creadon agreed to squander his growing celebrity by answering way too many of my questions about everything from producing Wordplay to his opinions on modern documentaries to the perils of meeting Bill Clinton and Jon Stewart.

Daniel Carlson: What first drew you to the topic of Will Shortz and the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament?

Patrick Creadon: My wife, Christine O’Malley (producer of Wordplay), and I had been fans of the New York Times crossword for years and just naturally became curious about this guy Will Shortz, the editor of the puzzle. We’d also heard him on NPR and imagined this mysterious man who lived in a cave surrounded by enormous reference books and 20 cats. He seemed interesting to us. We had not heard about the tournament, and the decision to shoot the annual event didn’t happen until we got pretty far into the project.

Access to Will was ultimately very easy: We called 411, got the number to the New York Times, and left Will a voicemail. He called back the next day and said, “Sounds fun. Let’s do it.”

DC: How open were the various contestants to being filmed? How did you decide to pick the five people you focused on — Al, Ellen, Jon, Trip, and Tyler?

PC: All five competitors were very excited to be featured in the film, and have since told us how happy they are with the results of the film. We chose the five of them based on Will’s recommendations — they had all done well in previous tournaments. Little did we know that from a story perspective we would hit the jackpot with how things panned out at the tournament.

DC: Wordplay is your first feature. How long have you been in the industry, and in what roles? What drew you to the work in the first place?

PC: I’ve been a documentary cameraman for over 15 years now. My first job was in Chicago on a PBS show called “The 90s.” It was an amazing show, which featured the works of documentary filmmakers from around the world. I really lucked into that job and started shooting for them almost immediately. Since I was a kid, I always loved documentaries, and suddenly I was a 22-year-old cameraman for PBS! It was a total dream job. I owe my whole career to what I learned there.

DC: As far as the industry goes, do you live in Los Angeles? What’s it like to raise a family and work in the business?

PC: Christine and I are both from Chicago, but didn’t meet until we got out to L.A. We met on a very low-budget film, which to my knowledge was never released. Come to think of it, we worked on a lot of those kinds of projects in the mid-’90s. We’ve been married since 2000 and have two daughters — Fiona, 4, and Grace, 2. Our production offices are in our guest house behind our house, and it’s an ideal set-up. We can work long days and still be home for all three meals with the family. We didn’t travel with the kids during production, but the girls did make it to Sundance and to our world premiere in New York City in June.

DC: How has the film changed since it screened at Sundance? What was the Sundance experience like? At what point did IFC pick up the film? Have IFC/the Weinstein Co. been good partners on this?

PC: The Sundance cut was 94 minutes, and the theatrical version was trimmed to 85 minutes. We sold the film on Tuesday night at Sundance, four days after the film premiered on the first Saturday of the 10-day festival. Immediately, we received offers from different distributors. The film became an instant sensation at Sundance. After talking to seven different potential buyers, we decided to go with IFC Films, one of the main reasons being they gave us final cut on the film. The following day, after Harvey Weinstein called our agent, John Sloss, from Cinetic Media, all parties agreed that the Weinstein Co. would come on board and co-distribute the film with IFC Films. The two companies had worked together on Transamerica and had great results.

Working with both companies has been fantastic. We’ve worked more closely with IFC Films on the theatrical release (that’s the way the deal was structured), and I can’t say enough good things about them. Everyone — from the president, Jonathan Sehring, all the way through their entire ranks — has been incredibly supportive. They are a very intelligent and passionate group of people. Together with the Weinsteins, we all decided the film would work even better if it was tighter and included more motion graphics. I’m thrilled with the results — we are very proud of the final cut.

DC: Gary Louris contributed some new songs for the film. How did that come about? Are you a fan of his music, or is he a crossword guy who was put in touch with you and the film via a third party? How did you decide on the rest of the music?

PC: Our music supervisor is Tracy McKnight, and she immediately suggested we do two things with music: Hire a composer to write most of the music (which we did — Peter Golub came in and worked miracles in a very limited amount of time), and bring Gary Louris in to write a theme song. She’s known Gary for years, knew he was a crossword fan, and knew he’d hit it out of the park. Christine and I were a little nervous about hiring Gary, since we’re both big fans, and we were afraid he’d deliver a song we weren’t happy with. Tracy said, “He’s a professional — if you don’t like it, then don’t use it.” Our fears were quickly put to bed as soon as we heard “Every Word.” It’s the song you hear during the end credits. It’s just an amazing song, both thematically and musically. I can’t imagine the movie without it.

One final note on the music: A man named Vic Fleming wrote a very witty song which he performs during the movie. It’s called “If You Don’t Come Across, I’m Going to be Down.” We later had Christine’s brother, Sean O’Malley, re-record the song, which is the final song you hear at the end of the end credits. We love the fact that her brother has the final word in the film — Wordplay has been a labor of love from day one, and a real family effort. Having Sean take us to the finish is the perfect ending.

DC: Some more general questions: What is your favorite movie(s)? And what do you think of the current state of American film and documentaries? Has the newfound resurgence in the popularity of documentaries (Fahrenheit 9/11, March of the Penguins) made it easier or harder for you to make and distribute Wordplay?

PC: Favorite movies? In no particular order: The Godfather, The Fog of War, Hoop Dreams, Goodfellas, The Kid Stays in the Picture, This is Spinal Tap, anything by the Maysles brothers, anything by Wes Anderson, anything by Christopher Guest.

I think we’re in a golden age of docs right now. Anyone with a camera can make a movie about anything. It hasn’t always been that way. As for Sundance, they accepted 16 docs out of 760. I still don’t know for sure why they picked us. … I guess they’re all Bob Dole fans.

DC: Was it difficult getting access to the celebrities you interviewed? How did you decide on Jon Stewart, Bill Clinton, Ken Burns, etc.? Did you know they liked crosswords, or did someone point you in those directions? What was it like meeting Clinton? Was it more or less intimidating than meeting Stewart? (Call me crazy, but those two meetings seem somehow comparable in my mind.)

PC: Will has a list of about 100 famous people who are big fans of his. It’s quite a diverse list of smart, fascinating people. Think Bill Gates and Stephen King and Brett Favre, all on the same list. Clinton was by far our No. 1 get, and we were lucky that Little Rock Judge (and crossword fan) Vic Fleming put in a personal call on our behalf. Immediately after our interview with the President, Christine and I and our graphic designer Brian Oakes (who, along with our editor Doug Blush, shares the co-MVP award for Wordplay) went out for a drink to talk about the interview. We played a little game: Who would be a bigger and more fascinating interview than Bill Clinton? We all drew a blank, concluding that of the 6 billion people on our planet, he is the most fascinating person we could have gotten for our film. In fact, no one else even came close. Meeting and interviewing President Clinton was easily the highlight of my career, and I’m so happy with how his interview went. What can I say, he’s captivating! Countless people have come up to me after watching Wordplay and said, “Wow … I never realized how much I miss him in the White House.”

Jon Stewart was also a big thrill, as was Ken Burns (“The Civil War” aired while I was working at PBS and had a huge influence on me) and the Indigo Girls. I directed and also shot the film, so during all our interviews I was holding the camera and asking the questions from behind the camera. Jon Stewart was the only interview in which I had to look away during the interview. If I had maintained eye contact with him I would have never gotten through the interview without laughing. He is hilarious, and a very nice guy, too.

DC: Was there any pressure from distributors or anyone else to inject a more political or satirical spin into the film?

PC: As I mentioned earlier, we had final cut of the film in our contract. The only notes we received from IFC and the Weinsteins were suggestions to heighten the energy and drama of the film. Many of the suggestions were implemented, some weren’t. I think Jonathan Sehring said it best early on in the final editing process: “We fell in love with your film at Sundance. We’ll be happy no matter what you do with it during the final phase of completion.”

Our reviews have been overwhelmingly positive across the board. At last check we had a 96 percent positive rating on Rottentomatoes* out of 92 reviews, an incredible number. Of the few reviews that weren’t positive, it seems people are looking for Wordplay to be “darker” or have “more of an edge.” We just laugh at that notion — if you’re looking for those things, clearly you’re in the wrong theater.

[*Currently at 95 percent. — Ed.]

DC: How hard was it to craft the story in the editing room? How much total footage did you shoot? Did you have an idea going in of how you wanted to shape the story, or did it take form as the interviews and tournament progressed?

PC: In the end we had 93 tapes — about 80 hours of footage. Doug Blush and I split up the editing responsibilities and went from zero to Sundance submission cut in exactly nine weeks. We had a very clear sense of what the elements were, and the trick was just coming up with interesting transitions and pacing to give the film the cohesion we were looking for. By the way, if you’re making a movie like ours, I suggest you hire an editor with a great sense of humor, which Doug has in spades. We had a blast editing Wordplay! We were under a big time crunch, too, but ultimately I think that helped keep us focused.

Doug happened to be in the edit bay the day Sundance called with the big news that we’d been accepted. He cried first, then Christine and I joined him. It’s hard not to cry when a grown man is weeping right in front of you. It was a very big day for all of us.

DC: Whose idea was the interactive crossword graphics? Who designed them?

PC: Christine and I called Brian Oakes immediately after Will said yes. I’ve never met anyone as talented as Brian (in any discipline). He’s a genius, and he’s a really cool guy, too. He was on board from day one, designing a poster to show to our investors and our prospective interview subjects. Once we started editing the film, the first thing he made was the “Being Al Sanders” graphic, which is the part when Al Sanders solves a puzzle in just over 2 minutes. We told him we wanted it to feel like the audience was “flying through” the puzzle. Brian nailed that one, and we very quickly realized that more was better for graphics on this project. In the end, he built every graphic element in the film — over 100 elements. I particularly like the opening title sequence, which is cut to the Cake song (“Shadow Stabbing”). That alone is worth the price of admission!

DC: Looking to the future: Are you working on anything right now? Would you like to shoot another documentary, or a fictional narrative?

PC: Next up for us is building the DVD, which will be out for Christmas 2006. It will have tons of extra features, including classic puzzles from the New York Times and the people who made them. Puzzle fans are going to go crazy when they see it.

Our next project? Don’t know. It will definitely come after a very long vacation with our family!

Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a copy editor at a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald. And while you’re at it, go see Wordplay. It’ll make you want to do puzzles. Seriously. Go check it out.

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