Seth Gordon’s The King of Kong poses a microcosm of America. A very tiny microcosm. Billy Mitchell, haughty hot-sauce magnate and holder of the Donkey Kong record score since 1982, takes on Steve Wiebe, a polymathic middle-school science teacher, the upstart challenger, with all the cutthroat tenacity of Karl Rove in a presidential campaign. Has someone lost perspective?
WHO’S #1?: Walter Day checks Steve Wiebe out.
“We couldn’t believe how seriously people were taking the smallest detail,” says Gordon about the experience. “I felt it’s all right to take the record seriously, because we all need meaning in life. But the lengths that they took were extraordinary. And pretty dark. I think that’s where for me it crossed the line.”
It took Gordon a while to decide the subject could be taken seriously enough to make a documentary. “When I first met Steve Wiebe, I was frankly uninterested in doing anything with him because he was such a nice guy, I didn’t think he would make a good subject for a film. Then two things happened. We met Billy, and he wouldn’t even say Steve Wiebe’s name. That fascinated me because I knew how nice Steve was, and the fact he was being written out of history by Billy was really interesting. And then when I saw Steve play drums, everything changed. Because he’s so extraordinary at it.”
That scene, a montage in which Wiebe plays his son’s drum set intercut with diagrams of Donkey Kong strategy and shots of the game itself, are almost mystical. But the Shakespearean villainy of Mitchell eclipses Wiebe’s talents.
“The thing about Billy is that he’s a self-created icon. I never met anyone like him in my life. It was truly eerie to spend time with him. Everything was so rehearsed and PR-savvy. You never got the sense of talking to a real or complete person. I would say Steve had nothing to hide. In retrospect, though, it should have been clearer to us that Billy really did. It evolved in front of our eyes and grew clear in the editing room.”
So Mitchell was as big an asshole as he seems, and not because of movie magic?
“Absolutely not. We re-created an analog of our own experience of what happened. When we met Billy, he was amazing. I had such high hopes. Such an amazing personality. And then, as he revealed his hypocrisy, I wouldn’t say we were disappointed. We sort of were in awe. We tried to create that same experience for the audience.”
And he will be doing so again, since Fine Line studios has greenlighted a fictional remake of the documentary. Gordon has already thought about casting.
“For Steve, we had in mind a great actor, Nathan Fillion, who was in Waitress. He even looks like Steve. The big challenge is Billy.”
Tom Cruise? Ben Stiller?
“We want to steer clear of Dodgeball. I’m a total geek; I respect the games and the gamers. So if we went the route of Dodgeball, I think that would undermine that. Irony? I would say it’s not that ironic. I didn’t intend any. There shouldn’t be any smirk.”
Maybe the smirk should be Mitchell’s: even though he’s cast as the bad guy, he’s gotten two movies made about him. Could that be his ultimate motivation — manipulating Gordon for his own self-promotion?
“There were definitely moments during the filming of this and when we were taking it to festivals that I thought, ‘You know what? This is Billy’s plan. We are his agents whether we like it or not. We fell into something premeditated whether we like it or not.’ I had that eerie feeling. He’s a master gamer.”