August 31, 2006

Word Up! Puzzle Doc Teases the Brain

New York Times Crossword Puzzle Editor Will Shortz, subject of Patrick Creadon's 'Wordplay.' Courtesy of IFC Films and The Weinstein Company

While many may argue over whether The New York Times is the paper of record, there is no debate about the supremacy of its crossword puzzle. Wordplay, the first feature documentary from husband-and-wife team Patrick Creadon and Christine O'Malley, explores the whimsical world of the puzzle and those who both love and create it.

At the heart of the film is New York Times Crossword Editor and NPR Puzzlemaster Will Shortz, the man responsible for the sweet frustration felt by so many when confronting the black-and-white checkerboard. It is a treat to get to know the only person in the world who holds a degree in Enigmatology--"the study of puzzles"--and get a behind-the-scenes look into what goes into the construction of a good puzzle.

In addition to Shortz, the film features a diverse, entertaining cast of characters who ultimately compete against one another at the 28th Annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament in Stamford, Connecticut. Celebrities hooked on the crossword habit--Jon Stewart, the Indigo Girls and Bill Clinton among them--also make an appearance in the film.

Relaxed, personal interviews with both the famous and not-so-famous, such as professional crossword constructor Merl Reagle, are one of the highlights of the film.  Director Creadon shot everything with a hand-held camera and a wide angle lens. This allowed he and producer O'Malley to remain in close physical proximity to their subjects and make them feel at ease-even as they tackled the crossword puzzle.

 "I used to work for Biography, where the celebrities are in a big chair, there are all these lights, and the interviewer's far away," says O'Malley. "This was a different style. It felt like a conversation between people."

Another strength of the film is the black-and-white graphic theme used throughout the piece that echoes the layout of the crossword. At various points, sections of puzzles are illuminated onscreen, along with the corresponding clues in large type. The audience finds itself racing to figure out the correct answers together with the experts on screen, becoming participants in the action of the film rather than just spectators. The filmmakers credit motion graphic designer Brian Oakes for establishing this strong visual motif.

"We knew from the beginning that we wanted to have graphics so people could be involved," Creadon explains. "There's nothing more boring than watching someone write on a piece of paper." After Oakes "knocked it out of the park" the first time they tried to incorporate the visual device, the team decided to weave it into the film whenever possible.

For such a graphics-heavy film, the fact that O'Malley, Creadon, Oakes and editor Doug Blush were on different coasts could have made the post-production process absurdly difficult. "We were never in the same place together making the movie," Creadon notes. "All three of our workstations are in our spare bedrooms, and we sent all our files and edits to each other on iChat and then dropped them into the timeline."

O'Malley and Creadon financed Wordplay themselves with help from friends and relatives--a personal financial sacrifice than nonetheless allowed for artistic control. This was especially important to the director and producer, given the responsibility they felt to both crossword fans and Shortz. "That was the first thing that happened--Will agreeing to participate--and that gave us the room to get started," says O'Malley. "Without him, it would have been hard to tell the story. When you're making documentaries and you're getting into people's lives and asking them to trust you to tell their stories, that's a real responsibility that you take with you.  You have to treat it with respect."

Wordplay premiered at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival and is being released this summer through IFC Films and The Weinstein Company.

 

Tamara Krinsky is associate editor of Documentary magazine.

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