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The King of Kong - In The Land Of Kings

Author: Darryn King
Tuesday, 19 February 2008
In a world that’s quick to judge anyone who perhaps takes things too seriously, video game fanatics are easy targets. In fact it may seem like they’re just asking for it, with their thick, awkward glasses and complexions permanently blanched from their TV screens. Darryn King spoke to Ed Cunningham, producer of the surprise hit King of Kong: A Fistful Of Quarters – a compelling but not patronising documentary about two grown men and their rivalry over the original Donkey Kong arcade game.

King Of Kong is a unique insight into the world of competitive gaming, pasty faces and all – but producer Ed Cunningham had no temptation to overtly lampoon the subculture. “We had a really hard-and-fast rule – even before we began filming – that we wanted to take these guys’ pursuits as seriously as they did.”

That’s certainly not to say that audiences won’t have a lot of laughs at the expense of some of these guys. There’s gaming nude pin-up boy Roy Shildt, who prefers to be known by his pseudonym ‘Mr. Awesome’. There’s Robert Mruczek, exercising his joystick arm with a single dumbbell while painstakingly scrutinising endless footage of video game high scores. Then there’s Brian Kuh, who invites everyone in a mile radius to come see a Donkey Kong kill-screen and manages to look awkward in the effort of merely walking.

Cunningham points out that capturing these odd characters was just part of creating an honest portrayal of the gaming subculture. “We made a really concerted effort, not just during the editing of the film but during the entire process of the film, to treat the subjects with the same amount of respect that they treat themselves with,” he says. “Ultimately, I think that really helped us to get to the heart of the story.”

It may be a surprise that there even is a ‘heart of the story’ in a movie about video games, but there is, and it revolves around the character of Steve Wiebe. As Cunningham tells me, Steve thought that the film “may be the opportunity for people to realise that he is a good guy.” Steve is definitely a good guy – a family man who seems to be continually eluded by success as an aspiring musician, an artist, a baseball pitcher. When we meet him in the movie, recently laid-off his engineering job at Boeing, he’s using his new free time to see if he can break the world record in Donkey Kong – but even this dream seems set to end in tears.

“Steve never felt like he was being given a fair shake,” Cunningham says. “Steve felt like every time he showed up [to competitive gaming events], he showed that he was a good guy, he showed that he wasn’t a cheater… and yet he still wasn’t allowed into the Twin Galaxies world.”

Twin Galaxies is the organisation that records and tracks video game high scores. In the movie, it comes across as something of an evil gaming empire constantly selling Steve short. The organisation is so suspicious of him, in fact, that it sends two henchmen round to his house to muscle their way into his garage and dismantle his Donkey Kong unit to see if it has been doctored. “When I came back to LA and told [director] Seth Gordon about it,” Cunningham says, “we both just kinda scratched our heads and thought, Wow, these guys take this very seriously…”

So that was Steve’s quest to make something of himself – the rights to play Eye Of The Tiger cost a significant chunk of the film’s budget – but this still wasn’t enough to carry the film. “Seth especially was very concerned about, you know, how do you tell a story about a guy who’s kind of a vanilla guy- So then you add the hot sauce of Billy.”

Billy Mitchell is the defender of the Donkey Kong world record and voted one of the 10 Most Influential Gamers Of All Time by MTV. In the film, he comes across as arrogant, deftly manipulative and firmly in control of Twin Galaxies. “It became – and we tried as best as we could to truly represent it in the film – a study of contrasts. In our country, Redmond, Washington and Hollywood, Florida (except for Alaska and Hawaii) are the two farthest points apart, geographically, in the United States. And that’s what they’re like as people. We felt that the distance between these two places represented the differences between these two guys. Ultimately, that was what made both of them more interesting.”

It makes for a satisfying movie experience, but painting a real person as a movie villain has its drawbacks. “I had my assumption that [Billy] wouldn’t be very happy with it,” says Cunningham. “I have since tried to make amends and give him a copy to see… He says he’s not interested in seeing it. From what I understand, he’s not happy with his portrayal, he has some issues with some of the facts…”

But maybe even Billy can see something good about his portrayal in the movie. “I think he understands that, you know what- Steve Wiebe may be the hero of the story, but Billy Mitchell is really the star of the film.”

Just like Darth Vader is the star of the Star Wars films-  “Yeah. He’s the guy who really elicits a really strong reaction from audience members, and I think there might be a part of him that appreciates that.”

There’s a moment in the film when Steve, having suffered yet another blow to his integrity, says to the camera, “It’s not even about Donkey Kong anymore.” Cunningham agrees that the line is the turning point of the movie. “That’s kind of, in a lot of ways, it’s kind of the end of Steve’s journey, when he comes to that realisation. And quite frankly up to that point we weren’t sure if we had a movie or not. We had always had this notion of a real head-to-head, mano a mano battle in the arcade. And Billy hadn’t shown up, and he’d blown off Steve, and he didn’t play – we were kind of panicked about whether we were going to have a film. It was actually Steve and his wife Nicole who made us realise it was bigger than just two guys playing Donkey Kong. It was really Steve who showed us what the story was truly about.”

WHEN: In cinemas now