SEATTLE—In this corner: Steve Wiebe of Redmond, Wash., a junior-high teacher and all-around nice guy. In that corner: Billy “Gamer of the Century” Mitchell, a scowling hot-sauce mogul given to dark utterances like, “No matter what I say, it draws controversy. Sort of like the abortion issue.” Their weapon of choice: The `80s video game Donkey Kong.
The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters
Steve Wiebe, Billy Mitchell, Walter Day, Nicole Wiebe, Steve Sanders, Robert Mruczek, Brian Kuh
(Picturehouse; US theatrical: 17 Aug 2007 (Limited release); 2007)
“The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters” is a documentary that has at its center a most unlikely showdown. On paper, it sounds like the thinnest possible idea for a film: two guys competing for bragging rights over the Donkey Kong world record. On celluloid, it’s terrific fun, an initiation into a world of kill screens (which aren’t quite as sinister as they sound), battered arcade machines, egos and obsessions.
And it’s made 38-year-old Wiebe, a soft-spoken father of two seemingly out of Central Casting, into an unlikely star. “It’s fun to enjoy the ride and the 15 minutes of fame,” he said, smiling, during an interview at the Seattle International Film Festival alongside his wife, Nicole (who’s laughingly referred to in the movie as the First Lady of Donkey Kong). “But then you leave and go back down to your normal life.”
Directed by Seth Gordon (a Seattle native), “King of Kong” has screened at a number of film festivals since making its debut at Utah’s Slamdance Film Festival in January, where it was quickly picked up for distribution. Gordon, also at SIFF, admitted that he was initially concerned about whether the film would have appeal to those beyond the obsessive-video-game-player demographic.
“I think it’s showing itself to be appealing to a broader spectrum,” he said. “Mostly because of Nicole, actually. The family story is what takes us away from gaming-land.”
The Wiebes and their children, 10-year-old Jillian and 7-year-old Derek, began this odyssey when Steve bought a secondhand Donkey Kong arcade machine off eBay a few years ago, after being laid off from his job at Boeing. (He’s now a teacher at Finn Hill Junior High.) An avid player as a teenager and college student, Steve quickly found his old form on the game, with the machine installed in the family’s Redmond Ridge garage. “It was like getting back on a bicycle,” he said.
One day, deciding to take a run at the world record, he videotaped himself playing a high-scoring game, and sent the tape—hilariously punctuated with young Derek yelling offscreen for Daddy—to Twin Galaxies, the organization considered definitive in matters of world records and gaming rankings. “I thought it was a slam dunk,” he said, envisioning himself as a world-record holder.
It turned out, though, that things weren’t particularly straightforward in the world of competitive gaming, and Steve soon found himself in inadvertent competition with Mitchell, who had held the previous record for many years. Factions were formed, questionable judgments raised, mysterious schemes revealed, and Wiebe, who’d weathered other disappointments in his life, found himself increasingly frustrated. When Gordon’s filmmaking team proposed the project, he quickly agreed.
“This felt like a good opportunity to get the story told,” Steve said. “I was so frustrated with all the issues going on, it felt like no one was listening to me. I just felt if (Gordon’s team) just came in and witnessed everything happening, the truth would come out.”
Nicole Wiebe characterized the decision to do the film as an easy one, saying the family never considered refusing.
“It didn’t seem odd,” she said of the filmmakers’ invasion of their lives. “They just were very unobtrusive, very kind, worked around our schedule. It wasn’t a problem.”
Gordon, after two years of work on the film, said he was anxious upon first showing the Wiebes the completed version. “We were really nervous about what they were going to think,” he said. “They put a lot of trust and faith in us. We’re portraying a family.” But the couple, who say they’ve watched the film 10 or 15 times, express great pleasure with the final product.
And now, a postscript to the film and its real-life story is unfolding. New Line, which purchased the film at Slamdance, also purchased its remake rights. A narrative feature based on “King of Kong” is now in the works, with Gordon to direct and writer Michael Bacall at work on the screenplay. Gordon says it will enter production next year.
Though casting hasn’t yet been decided, the Wiebes are having fun wondering who will play them on screen. “I was at Home Depot a couple of weeks ago, and a man just said to me, `Has anyone ever told you that you look like Elisabeth Shue?,’” said Nicole (who, for the record, does resemble Shue). “I just giggled. I thought to myself, if this man only knew. ...”
For Steve, she likes the idea of Greg Kinnear, or Kevin Bacon, or Nathan Fillion of the TV series “Drive” and “Firefly.” (“He has Steve’s nose; they look like they could be brothers.”) Gordon says he loves Steve’s suggestion: Mark Hamill. “Too old, but it’s a hilarious idea.”