Interview Date: 09/27/2010
After working on noted music-related documentaries "New York Doll" and "Dixie Chicks: Shut Up and Sing" as a producer, editor, and director of photography, and with a background that included studies in architecture and design at Harvard and Yale, Seth Gordon hit the documentary scene big time with his outstandingly enjoyable 2007 documentary, "The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters," about the rough and tumble world of competitive Donkey Kong. It was an epic embodiment of the cliché "They fight so hard because the stakes are so small," and one of the most widely liked documentaries of the last few years. Gordon quickly moved on to fiction work, including directing episodes of highly acclaimed sitcoms and – as I failed to realize before the interview – making his narrative feature debut with the 2008 Vince Vaughn / Reese Witherspoon comedy, "Four Christmases." Although the all-star laffer, "Horrible Bosses," is next, he hasn't left documentary film behind entirely.
Gordon is the director of the linking segments uniting the four longer mini-documentaries that comprise "Freakonomics," an omnibus-style documentary film of which he is also an executive producer. It's a spin-off of the hugely successful pop-econ book of the same name using economics principles to explore all kind of topics, ranging from the quirky and amusing, to the disturbing and highly controversial. Gordon's own segments deal with such matters as the hazards of using M&Ms as an incentive to get preschoolers to use the potty (smart ones may game their excretory functions for more candy), to why real estate brokers can't usually be trusted to go after every last penny for their clients, despite working on commission.
As someone who's comfortable in a number of filmmaking roles, Gordon is very much at home in interviews. When I met him during a press day at the top-floor offices of the company publicizing "Freakonomics," he seemed entirely in tune with the need to talk to the press. By the time the interview was done, we were blue skying casting suggestions for the "King of Kong" fiction feature.
Bullz-Eye: When you were in the early stages of producing "Freakonomics," did you ever think about just having one director, perhaps you?
Seth Gordon: You know what, Chad Troutwine, who’s the sort of lead producer, had done this film "Paris Je'Taime." He's a big believer in this omnibus format where a number of directors contribute to the final product. It was the idea from the outset to take this book and interpret it through the voices of a number of directors, and I think it was genius, actually. [It's] such a smart way to approach this material which is itself so compartmentalized. I don't know if you've read the book – it approaches so many different disciplines that it lends itself to being explained through different voices when adapted to film. It's a great idea, actually.
BE: I enjoy omnibus films just because, well, if you don't like this one – just wait. It keeps things moving along nicely.
SG: There's that. There's also certainly a marketing and publicity advantage to six directors. You cover a lot of ground.
BE: I know it's probably difficult for me to ask you what your favorite segment was, but what would you say is the most interesting "Freakonomics" observation?
SG: You haven't read the book, right?
BE: I haven't read it – familiar with it, read about it.
SG: The study that sums the book up best is also its most provocative, which is the notion that in the early 90s, when crime dropped in the United States, and New York specifically, the reason for the crime drop was the fact that Roe vs. Wade had [legalized abortion] in the early 70s so that the eventual criminals [i.e. unwanted children] were never born. And I think [Eugene] Jarecki's section does a really good job of handling that material, which is touchy to say the least. So, how do you do that? I think choosing Melvin van Peebles to do that was also a really smart voice-over choice. A great filmmaker in sort of the blaxsploitation genre. It's such an interesting choice to voice that particular chapter which is so much about race in America.
BE: I have to admit I was thinking, "That's a different kind of a voice." I didn't know who it was – when I saw it in the credits it made sense.
SG: Really interesting. Jarecki's great. It's such a hard topic and I think [he] did such a deft, careful, nuanced, job handling it.
BE: Speaking of topics which are sort of controversial, have you gotten any static from real estate brokers?
SG: No. I did, this Spring, look for and purchase a home. I'm in the middle of selling my other, so we'll see.
BE: You're going to meet some.
SG: Yes, totally.
BE: At least you've learned a lesson.
SG: Oh, yeah.
BE: I'm a little behind on some movies, so I had to watch "King of Kong" getting ready for this. I have to admit that I absolutely loved it. It was really enjoyable. I'm hardly alone and I'm sure you're used to hearing that by now.
SG: Oh, cool. Thanks.
BE: But you seem to be moving pretty rapidly into dramatic films. You've been doing a lot of television. I know your first feature's already happening. Am I correct about that?
SG: No, the second's just wrapped.
BE: Second dramatic feature. What was the first?
SG: "Four Christmases" and the second one is "Horrible Bosses,” just wrapped for Warner Brothers.
BE: The television shows that you worked on – "Community," "Parks and Recreation," and "The Office" in particular – have a kind of quasi-documentary style. I don't think you employed that on "Four Christmases"...
BE: But did you think about that with this one, "Horrible Bosses"?
SG: Also no. The script doesn't lend itself to that kind of self-aware filmmaking. If you were to use that documentary style, it would be very much about calling attention to the filmmakers themselves. ["Horrible Bosses"] is meant to be an escape – a big, fun, hard comedy and just enjoyable. In a sense, the work I did on some of those shows was very helpful in preparation in the sense that the speed with which you have to work in TV really forces you to know what you want. I think that was helpful.
BE: Anyone who's directed anything knows about that. One thing I noticed on your web site is that you were supposed to direct "She's Out of My League."
SG: Yeah, back in the day.
BE: What happened?
SG: Basically, I was involved in the development of that script and was the penultimate director.
SG: It was just a timing thing. "Four Christmases" at the time came together more rapidly. It's the nature of this business is that you have to be involved in a handful of projects because you never know when something can come together, and that's what happened in that case. It was a great script, though.
BE: I'm going to come back to "The King of Kong" because I just loved that movie, I really did. How did you find this whole story?
SG: I've been going to this arcade in New Hampshire since I was a kid, Fun Spot, which is featured in sort of the middle of the film. It became a pilgrimage for me. I'm on tape here, so you can't see how pale I am, but my parents literally couldn't take me to the beach because I would just burn, but they could take me to the arcade. That became where I would go whenever I could growing up. Also, during college, I would make this journey to get there like it was my Disneyland. It's dark in there. This place is actually a historical landmark now because all the other arcades in the region went out of business. This one – I don't know why – it survived. It became the place that all the other places gave their games because they had such a good repairman who could keep all the old ones up and keep them in good shape. Because they had everything and everything worked it became where all the gamers started to go over the years. They had a Wall of Fame. That's how I originally knew about this. Then, a friend of mine, who'd I done a doc with called "New York Doll"...
SG: He'd met Steve Weibe [the struggling family-man protagonist of "King of Kong"] because he was a mutual friend, they'd all went to college together up in Seattle. He'd met Weibe, and I knew the gaming world and I knew about Fun Spot. Literally, I said "yes" because I thought it might I'd go back to Fun Spot. Then, I think the fact that I'd spent my life nerding-out on the topic lent to the way I approached it all.
BE: One of the things that's interesting about the movie is that we always say that in real life there's usually not heroes and villains but, in this movie, my gosh, you came across one extremely likable person and another guy... I think Roger Ebert used the phrase "demonic wardrobe and pneumatic wife" to describe Billy Mitchell.
SG: [Snorting with laughter] "Pneumatic" is funny. Wow.
BE: I know there's been some controversy about this, but have you said that Billy Mitchell is actually worse in real life than he comes across in the film?
SG: All I can say is that there's stuff we couldn't put in the movie because it was just too mean. Billy was too mean and we couldn't use it because it would make him impossible to watch. It's just too much. He has gone to great lengths to simultaneously publicize that he hasn't yet seen the film but, also, that he doesn't agree with anything that's in it. Right?
SG: I don't know how to reconcile that, but that is actually totally typical for how he would approach this, which is to present you with an impossible conundrum that is meant to also somehow be demeaning. Right? Crazy.
BE: That's the way he handles the situation in the film. Now, there has been talk, and apparently you've been planning it for some time, to do a narrative version of this.
SG: Yeah, when we first made the doc at New Line, we were specifically spotted by an executive there who liked the doc and he thought it merited an adaptation. I can't say it's been easy to write that script because, frankly, we like the doc a lot. You don't want to rip it off, but you also don't wanna not do it justice. So how do you do that and also honor what's happened since we actually made the doc? There's a lot that's happened. In fact, Weibe took the record back last week – again.
SG: So it's sort of "the saga continues." And, yeah, we still intend to make it, but we've gotta do it right if we do it.
BE: I had read that you had thought of doing it almost more as a sequel.
SG: I would love that. In a way that's inevitable, right? You can't not acknowledge the back-and-forth since the doc somehow.
SG: And the way it's changed Weibe's life. He's been doing some rock and roll drumming. Bands will come to town in Seattle and Portland and they'll call him and say "come on stage with us." There's this band, My Chemical Romance, which has had some hit singles and stuff...
SG: Weibe did like a ten-minute drum solo for their entire show.
BE: He played piano in the movie...
SG: He plays drums too.
BE: Oh, yeah, we see him on his kids' drum set too.
SG: He's an incredible rock drummer. The piece he does in the movie is a solo from Neil Pert from Rush, which he figured out when he was eight.
SG: It's crazy that Weibe figured that out. That's often what he'll perform because it's the longest and most impressive.
BE: I just got the "one more question" nod and so, just one more question about this. There was a rumor I found about online. I just think it's hilarious casting: Nathan Fillion for Weibe and Johnny Depp for Billy Mitchell.
SG: They would both be great. Fillion is a weird kind of doppelganger with Weibe, so I think he could be really good. Depp it's like, it would be an honor to work with him, right? The only issue is Billy's 6'5". He's a big dude, and that's a part of his presence, is just his domineering stance. We'd have to get creative if the actor were under 6'.
BE: But you don't really get that in the movie because Steve Weibe doesn't seem like a very small guy.
SG: Steve's like 6'2".
BE: As long as they're about the same height. I was trying to think of less expensive actors for you. Nathan Fillion, you might be able to afford, but Johnny Depp is up there. He just seems...maybe it's the hair. You look at the hair and you think, Johnny Depp.
SG: That would be amazing. Don't get me wrong. That would just be amazing. I have some awareness of how busy he is and how that would be...five years from now, we could think about doing it. That's the only hesitation. If you want to actually make the movie, you've got to cast somebody who's available, but he'd be amazing.
BE: Here's another thought of somebody a little less [of a superstar]: Sam Rockwell.
SG: Oh yeah. He'd be good. I think he'd also be fun to see as a bad guy.
BE: He's good at that sort of thing.
SG: Yeah, like the morally ambiguous [guy]. It would be interesting.
At that point the interview was over, but as I'm finishing this I have another casting inspiration I'm happy to provide absolutely gratis to Mr. Gordon: Jemaine Clement, of "Flight of the Choncords" and "Dinner for Schmucks," provided he can do a decent American accent, is definitely worth a look.