Steve Wiebe is the underdog protagonist of the cult documentary The King of Kong (2007), which chronicles his quest to capture the Donkey Kong world record from his eccentric and scheming rival, Billy Mitchell. Andrew Myers recently had the chance to conduct this phone interview with Wiebe about his participation in the film.
Andrew Myers: How did you get involved in the film? From what you were told when you agreed to be filmed on this journey, what were your expectations about how you would be portrayed and how the film would affect your life?
Steve Wiebe: My friend who appears in the film, Mike Thompson, is a screenwriter and he’s pretty savvy on what is material for movies or stories. We’d have barbecues and get-togethers and I would tell him all the current happenings in the Donkey Kong world. When I explained that the guys came to my house to check out my machine [an early plot point of the film], he couldn’t believe that it had reached that extreme. So he thought this has got to be a story that can be told. And he knew some documentary people that were doing a documentary on the New York Dolls and they were finishing it up—they were in post-production, doing all the editing and basically looking for new material—so he left. His name was Ed Cunningham, and he went to the University of Washington. I didn’t know him personally but I went to the University of Washington too. So he told Ed about my story and Ed was intrigued. Then they started rolling a few months after that.
I wasn’t told anything about what the movie would be like in the end. They explained they were following a bunch of stories. There was a story about the lady going for the Q*bert record. And there was a guy going for the Ms. Pac-Man record. And there was a gamer called Fatality [who] was a first-person shooter gamer. They were following him. They didn’t say what would be the end result, so I didn’t even know if I was going to be much of the story or what. I really didn’t have any high expectations; I was wondering how they were going to make this all interesting. I even said to Seth [Gordon], “They’re supposed to be interested in the story. How are you going to do that?” He said, “That’s our job.” So I didn’t know [to] what extent I would be involved in the movie. They were rolling tape and in the end they realized the story of Billy Mitchell was the most entertaining. And then they threw in the side stories, with the lady going for Q*bert, that was the little side story.
Basically I didn’t know much about what the end product would be, except that it would be about video games in some capacity. Then I got a copy of the movie. After they were done there was a rough cut. They were going to go out to the film festivals and shop it around. I saw it before that, and I was kind of in disbelief how much it was basically about my story. So I didn’t have any idea that was coming. I was pretty blown away about how it focused basically on me.
AM: Wow. When they showed you the rough cut were they looking for input from you? Did they want your feedback?
SW: Yeah, they weren’t asking me, “What do you want changed?” But I said, “I think you told a great story.” They were looking for what did I think of the story, but they weren’t going to edit it if I didn’t like it. The way I was portrayed, I didn’t feel it was inaccurate. They hyped up the good guy versus bad guy, obviously, in the movie—so they made me kind of look more like a loser than I might be in real life, but that’s just part of the drama. For entertainment purposes they have to heighten those differences between ability. But I wasn’t asked to say what I think should be different or anything. I just told them, I think you told a great story, and it was something that a person who wasn’t into video games could follow.
They had some earlier draft that I wasn’t involved in but they had shown Mike Thompson. They were trying to tell too much detail. There’s a lot of stuff that is actually missing for the people that are really into video games. But the first version was over two and a half hours. I never saw that one. So they had to cut out some of the stuff that would go over people’s heads that weren’t into video games. The way they got it down to 85 minutes told a new story, and the story moved along without any—there’s no real place where you’re bored. It progresses very nicely. I thought they were good storytellers.
AM: I re-watched it again last night, and I was just blown away by how cleanly the story was told, and how accessible and dramatic it was. I’m curious whether any scenes had to be reenacted? Or was everything captured as it happened?
SW: The very beginning stuff, half of the movie basically tells the back story. They came to my house and all the things—they missed the people coming into the garage, and things like that. It’s all scenes—you know, if I’m holding up a package I’m going to deliver it [to] Twin Galaxies [an organization that tracks video game world records]. That just was to show people…it wasn’t like they were filming it right when I was going to go to the post office, that was a reenactment. They wanted to show people what you had to do to submit a record. So they had me show the package, I don’t know if you remember that?
SW: It was right after my friend was crying. That’s when I had to send it to Twin Galaxies. So a couple of things here and there in the first part were reenacted. Then once we start at Fun Spot, from there on till the end, they were following, the cameras were rolling the entire time and nothing was reenacted there. At the very end when I broke the record at home—they weren’t there when I got the record, so we had to reenact me and Derek. Derek wasn’t actually on my shoulder when I was playing for the record. If you remember at the very end—
AM: I figured that was a reenactment, but I wasn’t sure.
SW: Yeah, yeah, they weren’t there filming the end in the middle of my game. It was just like they wanted some footage. They came back to get that footage. They thought it would be better to show me playing it, instead of just saying on the screen, “He broke the record.” A better film.
But everything else, there was no reenactment. They had the cameras. One crew was [on] Billy, and the people were coming to my house probably came to my house three or four times for a period throughout the entire filming. Then [during] the Fun Spot and Guinness Tournament they were there the whole time, filming 24 hours. They didn’t miss anything.
AM: Wow. And they had multiple cameras on you, right?
SW: At Fun Spot they did. At my house they would just have the one, but at Fun Spot they would have a couple of people just to get different perspectives. But they had to edit a bunch. I don’t know how much video they had, but it’s a lot of video they had to weed through.
A couple of the conversations with Billy over the phone with Brian Kuh, they weren’t sure if they had that. There was one person at Billy’s house, and there was another person following Brian Kuh around, and for some reason they were lucky enough to find those two ends of the video and piece them together. They realized they had that conversation on both ends. They had to weed through and they found that. That was huge for the movie because it showed what was happening. So they just captured everything from the middle of the movie on—all live, no reenactments, except for the very end.
AM: Did the simple fact of being filmed or did the involvement of the filmmakers influence the choices you made in participating in the film? For instance, did the director suggest that you travel to the tournaments and go to Billy Mitchell’s restaurant? Or do you think that would’ve happened anyway even if there were no documentary?
SW: Yeah, definitely helped. If they weren’t filming it I don’t know if I would’ve necessarily went to Fun Spot, because the time they found Roy Schildt’s box in my garage, they had to cut off any videos that I could submit. They wanted everything live. If I didn’t want to surrender the record I got fair and square…I broke a million, and they were saying, well, just do it again. They even offered if someone wanted to come over to my house, one of the refs, Robert Mruczek, and stay in Seattle and give me a couple of days to get in my house and in my garage. Basically, if I would have said that, I would have surrendered my score and said, “OK, I need to redo it.” So I said, I don’t think I need to prove that I had already done it. And I didn’t have any money to go to Fun Spot; that wouldn’t have been something that I would have tried.
So I think the movie kind of gave me hope. I thought I was down and out. I was pretty much—no way was I ever going to get a score recognized. So it kind of gave me hope that if this can capture some of the things that happened to me, maybe it can expose these inequalities. So that kind of inspired me to do the things.
Then Fun Spot was something they heard about in Billy Mitchell’s side of things. They definitely wanted me to go to Fun Spot, and my friend actually had the money to pay my way, Mike Thompson. In the movie he says he sent me out there. So he paid for my lodging and airfare. That was definitely inspired by the moviemakers to go and prove myself. Otherwise I don’t know if it would’ve happened necessarily through Fun Spot or if I would’ve went to a more local event down in California. I pretty much thought before the movie started that I was blackballed. I didn’t know if there was anything I could do. So it gave me hope that the movie people were rolling film, and it kind of gave me a second wind.
AM: And what about traveling down to Florida—because that makes the perfect confrontation at the end of the movie. Was that also suggested by the filmmakers or a product of you wanting to get that on film? And specifically, going to his restaurant, whose idea was that?
SW: The restaurant—well, everyone was going there anyway—I’ll go back to the other thing first. I wasn’t told to go there but Mark was going, so I jumped in his car. I wasn’t told to go there. I was told there were people going there. As far as the tournament for Guinness, that was something I got a call from Guinness, Walter Day did. So once that call from Guinness came then Walter had the idea to have a tournament. I don’t know whose idea it was to make it in Florida. I wasn’t involved in that. I don’t know how they came up with that. It must have been between Walter and the filmmakers. Guinness didn’t care where it was. So, I don’t know if they wanted to make it closer to Billy’s home so there was more chance that Billy would go there. I’m not sure why they chose Florida. I wasn’t involved in that, but the filmmakers said there’s going to be a Guinness Tournament in Florida on this date. So I just went down there.
AM: Now from your perspective, how accurate was the final film in depicting the real people and events that you encountered?
SW: I think they captured basically who I am. I’m trying to do right, getting some unlucky breaks here and there. But I was successful—when the movie was rolling I had a teaching job. I didn’t have a full-time job. I was still a long-term sub. I was getting back on my feet from the layoff. It did show some of those things that happened that didn’t work out in my favor, but I was bouncing back.
As far as Billy, I think his friends will admit that he has a persona where he’s kind of arrogant. So they showed little quotes…the quotes they didn’t manufacture. That gives you an idea of the kinds of things he says. He’s not a direct confrontational person. If you were to meet him he would be polite to you. It didn’t show him being rude or anything directly, which is his act that he was never overtly—it was just that quote. Even when I went to his restaurant he actually came in later on, after an hour wait.
Because there’s an argument on Twin Galaxies actually, if you go to their website there’s all these things where they say “they left this out!” And same for me: there’s stuff they left out on my end that could have been in there. Billy has a very loyal group of friends. There were even things that they said, quotes that were left out, I was told, that would have been even more hurtful to Billy if they would have put them in. So there were things that were definitely left out that would have changed the complexion of the movie.
But overall I think all the gamers that I came across, it captured the people, the culture of the whole gaming…there’s a band of people who are into these games and are hardcore, who play as much as possible. I didn’t see anything that was, in my perspective, misrepresentative of the people. Billy will say he hasn’t seen it yet; I know he still says that. People on Twin Galaxies will say there’s misrepresentations, because they’re not happy with the way it shows him. I didn’t see anything that I was infuriated about as far as the way they portrayed me. And as far as what Billy said, that’s what he said and there was nothing that they fabricated.
Special thanks to Steve Wiebe for participating in this interview. Check back in with the Mediascape Blog soon for Part 2 of our interview with Steve Wiebe.
Andrew Myers is coeditor in chief of Mediascape and a doctoral student at the University of Southern California. He recently received his M.A. in Cinema and Media Studies from UCLA. He also serves as the post-processing editor for the Media History Digital Library. His diverse research interests include media industries and production culture, archival film and television history, new media (especially video games), and documentary.