Axed from his engineering job at Boeing on the day he signed a new mortgage, Steve Wiebe could've gotten drunk, mulled suicide, or abandoned his wife and kids, à la Jimmy Stewart in It's a Wonderful Life. Instead, he retreated into his Redmond garage, bought an old-school video arcade game on eBay for $350, and set out to break a 25-year-old world record. And thus a very different kind of movie came out of his improbable mission: the widely praised documentary The King of Kong, which is already being adapted into a Hollywood feature.
The King of Kong Egyptian: 6:30 p.m. Sun., May 27; 1:30 p.m. Mon., May 28. Rated PG-13. 79 minutes.
Screening this weekend at SIFF and opening in theaters in August, Kong follows Wiebe's attempt to wrest the title of Donkey Kong champion from a smarmy Floridian who's a favorite of the gaming establishment and a co-founder of the all-powerful organization of arcade-game record keepers. You may recall reading about Wiebe, or seeing him on TV, in 2003, when he thought he'd broken the record. The documentary picks up where those reports left off, revealing how that record, his vintage machine, and his personal integrity were questioned. Just when Wiebe thought he'd proven himself, he was drawn into a cross-country duel with an elusive, scheming rival. A game originally for kids became a contest between gunslingers wearing white and black hats—and a very entertaining window into the obsessed-gamer subculture.
Expect no spoilers here about how Wiebe's quest turns out, but Kong and its remake rights sold in January for a deal in the high six figures (according to Variety) soon after playing at Slamdance, Utah's alternative film festival to Sundance. Now the Kong story will follow an even more challenging arc, as producer Ed Cunningham and director Seth Gordon, two former locals who've followed very different paths to Hollywood, attempt to keep control of the project and turn it into their first feature film.
Wiebe (pronounced WEE-bee), now a junior-high science teacher, was raised on the Eastside during the height of the early video-game era. Interviewed during a school visit and by phone, he recalls spending hours at home on an early Atari 2600 console, and out of the house mastering Pac-Man, Ms. Pac-Man, and other arcade games "when it was still hip to hang out at the Godfather's in Factoria." [Editor's note: When did it ever stop being hip?] Described in the movie by his long-suffering wife, Nicole, as "definitely OCD," Wiebe says, "I get locked into something, playing along for hours. It's kind of my nature."
By the time Wiebe arrived at the UW in 1987, the "golden age" of arcade gaming was over, victim to home-based console games like PlayStation and Xbox. But, as documented by Seinfeld, a few nostalgia buffs bought up affordable relics of favorites like Donkey Kong. "I had missed playing it," Wiebe recalls. "I bought my own, and brought it to my own frat and to my room." Soon he was routinely scoring 400,000 to 500,000 points, while "the next nearest person was like 150,000." By the time he graduated, he could exceed 900,000 points, meaning he had actually reached the end of Nintendo's circuit-board-based obstacles: There were no more ramps and ladders to ascend and no more barrels for Donkey Kong to throw. At that point, the game abruptly ceased to function. This terminal moment has come to be called "the kill screen," the Valhalla of arcade gamers. The first time he did it, Wiebe says, "I thought there was a bug. It just tumbled."
But the world did not take notice.
Flash forward a dozen years: Wiebe had sold his old Donkey Kong machine soon after college, married, then landed a job at Boeing, once the safest, surest legacy employer in the Northwest. Not anymore. Wiebe was laid off after two years and then bounced around the tech world doing programming until the dot-com crash left him idle. It was not a good period for Wiebe. In the movie, he asks rhetorically, "What can I do to feel I have control over something?"
The Internet introduced him to the Twin Galaxies Web site, which tracks scores and activities in the vintage gaming world. The biggest star of the classic gaming revival, he learned, was a slick, successful hot-sauce entrepreneur named Billy Mitchell. Mitchell held the record for several classic games, including Donkey Kong, on which he'd scored 874,000 points back in 1982—a feat that landed the 17-year-old in Life magazine.
Wiebe realized he had beaten Mitchell's Donkey Kong score back on his college machine—only no one knew it. "Something clicked in me—'Hey, I can beat that score.' And since it was so independent of other people. It's not a team sport. It's up to me. I can achieve something. I was just looking for something to cheer me up," he says.
So naturally he went to eBay and bought another vintage Donkey Kong game and began practicing like mad, even diagramming his screen with a grease pencil to route a path to maximum points. Wiebe had plenty of time on his hands to practice—not to mention an extremely patient wife, though his two children are less understanding. In one memorable scene in the film, as Wiebe pushes a game into record territory, his young son screams from the bathroom, "Wipe my butt! Don't play!"
Classic gamers typically submit their scores via videotape—camera pointed live at the screen while they play—to the Twin Galaxies arbiter in Iowa. So, in an attempt to not only break the record again, but get official recognition for the feat, Wiebe sent in a tape of a three-hour game totaling some 947,000 points in 2003. But he only encountered resistance. "I felt a little helpless," he says. "I was pretty much an outsider and had no chance of being heard." Soon thereafter, Gordon and Cunningham arrived on the scene to begin filming.
Though they have common Seattle roots, Cunningham and Gordon come from disparate backgrounds: Cunningham, raised in Virginia, was a football star at the UW who went on to play for the Seahawks and is now an ESPN commentator. Gordon, the son of UW academics, left Seattle after high school to study architecture at Yale. The two eventually met in L.A. while working together on the documentary New York Doll, an affectionate profile of former glam rocker Arthur "Killer" Kane, which played Seattle in late 2005.
The pair were casting about for a new project after Doll when Cunningham was introduced to Wiebe by a mutual Seattle friend. He and Gordon immediately recognized the cinematic potential of Wiebe's underdog tale. "It's a sports drama," says Cunningham, who knows a thing or two about jock narratives. "I was just gaga over the story."
Just as Gordon began filming, he recalls, agents of Twin Galaxies suddenly appeared at Wiebe's home to question his circuit board. Was it legit? Was it hacked?
"We were dealing with master gamers. [Mitchell] was certainly playing with us," says Gordon. "We hoped that these two guys would go head-to-head. And, routinely, Billy would make himself unavailable." As the camera follows Wiebe to New Hampshire for a live record attempt in 2005, Mitchell rebuts him with yet another videotape.
When tracked down in Florida, Mitchell proves to be a fascinatingly slippery guy on camera. "He knows P.R.," says Cunningham. "His public presentation of himself is very much like it's 1982," says Gordon. Thus, Kong makes use of pop artifacts like "Eye of the Tiger" (the anthem of Rocky III) and "You're the Best" (The Karate Kid). And the filmmakers strongly imply that there's a trove of off-the-record material left out of the doc that will provide rich fodder for a feature script.
But we're getting ahead of ourselves. Just as Wiebe has to contend with Mitchell in Kong, so do the filmmakers have to make their way in big bad Hollywood, where they're not exactly power players. New York Doll was Cunningham's first foray into producing, a way to diversify from calling college football games during the fall. Back at the U-Dub, he did produce a video documenting the Huskies' 1991 championship season, then sold the tapes door-to-door. But he never went to business school or apprenticed at a studio.
Nor is Gordon your typical bratty film-school auteur. During a period of foreign study in Kenya, he explains, he helped his young pupils make educational videos. "It was when I fell in love with telling stories." Returning to Yale, he discovered the school had bought high-end Avid digital editing machines that no one knew how to use. He studied the manuals and made a short documentary about his Kenyan experiences. After graduating, he discovered that "editing was an employable skill after a liberal-arts college. I wasn't afraid of the computer side of things."
Both men live in Venice, Calif. The remake deal they've inked with New Line will have Gordon directing and Cunningham producing the Hollywood version of Wiebe's story. (Picturehouse is distributing the doc; both are divisions of media giant Time Warner.) "It's a huge opportunity, a big break for us," says Gordon. Filming may begin as soon as the fall. Steve Carell's name is already being mentioned for the man-child Wiebe (perhaps too predictably), and Johnny Depp for his flamboyant rival.
The challenge for Gordon and Cunningham will be hanging on to the project if big stars wade in. "I've witnessed a thousand first-time directors swept aside" when top-line talent demands the material be tailored to them, says Mike Thompson, Wiebe's best friend from childhood and a scriptwriter for film (including Dragonfly) and TV. (He was also the guy who hooked up Wiebe with the filmmakers.) "They won't work with first-timers usually." That, or they ensure that the newbie director has no power, is essentially an employee for hire. Documentary directors also rarely make the jump to features. Todd Phillips, who went from Frat House to Old School, is one of the recent few.
However, Thompson thinks Gordon and Cunningham will be "protected" in the New Line deal. "It could be a summer tentpole movie," he says. But whose? Things could change if Vince Vaughn and Ben Stiller come knocking with a big bag of money, looking for another Dodgeball. It can be bad for your health in Hollywood to cling too tightly to something that's properly yours.
Yet Kong is a story about a couple of 40-ish white guys playing a video game—a game that, unlike Grand Theft Auto, contains no guns, cars, or hos. (Here's where you imagine the studio asking, "Couldn't we add a snowboard chase with machine guns where Steve and Billy end up in a hot tub full of Maxim girls?") Mitchell could easily be pushed into caricature, wearing acid-washed jeans, a mullet, and white K-Swiss sneakers; but the hero has to remain more or less what Wiebe is in the documentary: a math-science-gamer geek. Will the audience go along for the geek ride?
Gordon thinks so. He sees a retro appeal in the revival of arcade gaming generally, Donkey Kong included. The original phenomenon was not exactly analog, not exactly digital, but a kind of in-between cultural phase between the two—not unlike adolescence.
Gordon insists that Kong and its future remake are grounded in the essential modesty of the hero.
"In a lot of ways, he is a classic Northwest type," says Gordon. "Once I'd met Steve and Billy, I knew it wasn't going to be a movie about video games, but a movie about two different guys—and therefore the nature of competition." Wiebe is at once obsessive and normal, someone whose brain is wired in such a way—and probably augmented by his drumming, baseball, and engineering backgrounds—that playing Donkey Kong, says Gordon, "he's like a scientist. He will dynamically group and rearrange the obstacles and bad guys on-screen." It's a matter of seeing the patterns, "diagramming the randomness," without being all Rain Man about it.
On a more human level, the documentary Kong is about a guy "trying to get a fair chance," as Wiebe says in the film. And now, at SIFF and beyond, the filmmakers are looking for theirs.