“Wordplay” focuses on the man most associated with crossword puzzles, New York Times puzzle editor and NPR puzzle-master Will Shortz. Director Patrick Creadon introduces us to this passionate hero, and to the inner workings of his brilliant and often hilarious contributors, including syndicated puzzle creator Merl Reagle.
Along the way, the film presents interviews with celebrity crossword puzzlers such as Bill Clinton, Bob Dole, Jon Stewart, Ken Burns, Mike Mussina and the Indigo Girls, who reveal their process, insight and the allure of the game. In addition to deconstructing this uniquely American institution, Wordplay takes us though the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament where almost five hundred competitors battled it out for the title Crossword Champ and showed their true colors along the way.
It was Christmas 2004. Our very young daughters (ages 1 and 3) were thrilled as they opened their many presents. They were almost as ecstatic as Christine and I were, for we had just opened our gifts to each other, three of which were different crossword compilations by Will Shortz of the New York Times.
Love of Puzzles
Christine and I discovered our love of the puzzle years earlier on our honeymoon. The resort we were staying at was located far from civilization, though it did receive an eight-page digest of the New York Times every morning, complete with the crossword on the back page. Within a few days we were completely hooked on the puzzle, and have been ever since.
Origins of Docu
In 2004, just a few days after Christmas, I searched on-line for the definitive Will Shortz documentary film. Surely SOMEONE has made a film about this great man I thought as I continued to search fruitlessly. The moment I realized that such a film didnt exist was really the first step along the way to making “Wordplay.”
Appealing to a large audience
From the beginning the film was going to be about one man and his puzzle. We imagined we would talk to well-known puzzle constructors who submit puzzles to Will (Shortz rarely makes the puzzles, but rather edits them and does much of the cluing of answers), examine famous puzzles from the past, and talk about the various intricacies of how crosswords are made. The only problem with this approach was that we felt it would only appeal to hardcore puzzle enthusiasts. General audiences, we feared, might not find this approach nearly as interesting. In fact, it would probably bore them to tears.
Looking at puzzles through fans
What we ultimately decided to do was explore Wills work and the puzzles by looking at the puzzle through the eyes of many of its fans. This was the best decision we made, as it introduced us to the amazing characters that make up the heart of the film.
Style of shooting
As a documentary cameraman with 15 years of experience, Ive assembled a small mountain of equipment. For “Wordplay,” however, we left almost everything at home. I shot most of the film myself, and more often than not I was alone with my subjects during the interviews. This is definitely my favorite way to shoot.
I had learned this style as a young cameraman while working at THE 90s, the critically acclaimed documentary show that aired on PBS from 1989 through 1993. Our philosophy back then was that the less gear you have, the closer you can get to your subjects. Studs Terkel, the great interviewer and author who was a regular on our show, took this concept even further. His advice was simple: You have to show some of your own vulnerabilities if you want people to show theirs. I think this overall approach was helpful in getting very intimate and honest profiles of the people in our film.
The New York Times
We told Will very early on that we were big fans of his, and that we hoped he would ultimately enjoy the film. But we also told him that we did not intend to show him the movie until it was finished. There seems to have been a spate of documentaries recently where the subjects have been very involved in the production and editing of the film, which is something we absolutely did not want to do. Fortunately for us Will was willing to go along with this. As for the New York Times itself, our fear of mountains of red tape and legal bills were wiped away by one phone call back at the earliest stage of production. The Times basically said, If you want to do a film about Will Shortz, call Will Shortz.
Will Shortz's Response
Will finally did see the film after we had submitted it to Sundance on the very last day of submissions on September 30th, 2005. We received an e-mail from him in early October. I just watched “Wordplay he started. I am totally blown away by what you two have made. I absolutely love it.
Making a Personal Film
This has been an amazing year for Christine and me. With over 25 years of documentary filmmaking under our belts, the only thing we hadnt done yet was make a film that was our own. “Wordplay” has been a tremendous joy to make, especially considering that we made it together.
Patrick Creadon's Bio
Creadon was born in Chicago and is a 1989 graduate of the University of Notre Dame. He began his career as one of the youngest cameramen in the history of PBS, shooting and producing cinema-verite style stories for the critically acclaimed series The 90s. He earned his Masters Degree in Cinematography at the American Film Institute, where his thesis film (on which he served as Director of Photography) was nominated for a student Academy Award. As a cameraman his work has appeared on every major network, including NBC, CBS, ABC, MTV, VH1, and ESPN. He has also done work for Paramount Pictures, Warner Brothers, Sony, Universal Studios, and Disney. He currently lives in Los Feliz, California, with his wife and two children.
“Wordplay,” Creadons directorial debut, is a feature length documentary about Puzzle Master Will Shortz, the New York Times crossword editor and NPR personality. “Wordplay” was an official selection in the 2006 Sundance Film Festivals Documentary Competition. Creadon is a Wednesday/Thursday crossword solver, though he once finished a Saturday New York Times puzzle (almost). Hed rather not talk about it.