The director and crossword player talk about shooting the documentary
When you think about sitting down and completing a crossword puzzle, most people don't time themselves. But there are those select few who take the 'sport' of completing crosswords very seriously, and that's what caught the eye of director, Patrick Creadon. A huge fan of completing crossword puzzles, he decided he wanted to make a film about the most famous puzzle of them all - The New York Times. He called it Wordplay.
Patrick first contacted the editor of the Times puzzle, Will Shortz, who told him he had to film the Americanl Crossword Tournament; that's where Patrick met 20-year-old Tyler Hinman. Hinman was the youngest ever competitor of the tourney back in 2001 at age 16. In 2005, Patrick followed Tyler at school in upstate New York before he came down for the tournament and then at the event itself.
For Tyler, having cameras follow him around all the time didn't seem that out of the ordinary. "I was amused by the whole thing; 'He's making a movie about crosswords? Alright, best of luck.' And I agreed to do it, and why not; there's absolutely no good reason for me not to do it and I had a lot of good fun filming with Patrick at the tournament and it's snowballed since then, so I couldn't be more thrilled."
Patrick saw shooting the tournament as a lucky find, especially since he wasn't planning on going at first. When he first started Wordplay, it was only going to be about Will. "We enjoy puzzles and we enjoy the crossword puzzle in the Times; the trick was to get interesting people to be in the movie, because I think anytime you have interesting, smart people, you're bound to get a fairly good interview. So that was a good place to start.
So you say you've never seen crossword puzzles completed on screen - don't worry, neither had I until Wordplay. But thanks to some crafty graphics, this film gets a new look and became a real family affair. "We really knew from day one that we would have to rely heavily on my friend Brian Oakes, who designed the graphics to the film; I think Brian did a sensational job designing the film. We told him we wanted to feel like you're flying through a puzzle, and he did that. And originally, he was going to do one or two graphics, and then that became eight, and then it became twelve; and in the end, he created over 100 elements in the film, he did them all by himself. We are truly independent in every sense of the way. And Brian did all the graphics; my friend Doug cut the film and I also cut the film with him and directed it and shot it myself, and Christine, my wife, produced it. So it was really the four of us every step of the way."
Puzzle's aren't so easy, obviously, but Tyler fears nothing. He and the rest of his competitors can complete them in about 2 minutes. And it's not about being hard anymore, Tyler doesn't even look at these puzzles as challenging. "Sometimes I can fly through it pretty quickly, sometimes I just get locked into it. I'll have this one corner I'll be staring at forever and it'll take a really long time for it to fall. Then my competitive solving friends will weigh in and say, 'Yeah, it took me six minutes.' 'Yeah, ok, I guess today just wasn't my day.' I solve best when the word counts; I do my best solving at the tournament, which is nice to me."
Wordplay also includes some celebrity cameos like Jon Stewart, Bill Clinton, Bob Dole, and Mike Mussina. It was getting those celebs that was a huge joy for Patrick. "It was like a call to arms; Ken Burns called us back immediately and said, 'I would love to be in that film.' The Indigo Girls were really excited when we called, they're probably the biggest fans; they do the puzzle every day. I love the Indigo Girls and I was probably more nervous to interview them than I was to interview - well, I was pretty nervous when I interviewed Bill Clinton. But I would say for me, the Indigo Girls and Jon Stewart were on the same level, because I love Jon Stewart, but I've been listening to the Indigo Girls since 1989, and I love them."
But it was also very difficult getting them to appear in the film. "We had a little bit of trouble getting the Bill Clinton and the Jon Stewart interviews because they're both busy, and they get a lot of requests. The President was told about our movie from a friend of his who's actually in the movie, this guy that we just happened to meet at the tournament. And he called him and told him, and sort of, told him that we were decent enough people and seemed to be doing a good job. So the day that Bill Clinton agreed to do the interview, we called Jon Stewart and said, 'We booked the interview with Bill Clinton, can we get the interview with Jon?' And they said, 'We'll call you right back,' and we got a phone call shortly thereafter and they said, 'Jon would love to be in the movie. When can you do it?' So that was really great to get both of them; I'm a big of fan of both of theirs. It really was an honor to interview the President; I had never interviewed him before. What's interesting, I think it's worth noting, is that even though Bill Clinton and Jon Stewart and all these other famous people are in the film, when the movie's done, everyone wants to know about Alan, they want to know by Tyler."
And what about Tyler? What's he been up to since that 2005 tournament? "Well, I just graduated from Rensselaer (Polytechnic Institute) in Engineering and I'm just kind of being lazy for a while, doing this Wordplay stuff for a while. I'm going to move to Chicago and be a bond trader in August; got a job with a small group out there. I figure I don't have enough stress in my life; we'll see how that works out, I'm really looking forward to it. And I'll be back for the Tournament."
Before he starts his new career, he'll be trying his hands at another challenge - Dance, Dance, Revolution. "I've only played it twice. I played it in 'easy' and then I moved up to 'free' mode where they have the songs, and I'll get up to the harder difficulties. I'll go to 'hard' and then to 'very hard' and then I might even get up to 'super hard' and the game's over in like 15 seconds and I'm like, 'I can't do this.' So I'm still not very good at it."
We mentioned earlier about Tyler doing his puzzles under two minutes, but how does Patrick fair in that world? "I'm not that fast; I did time myself on a Monday once, and I felt like, 'Man, I am ripping, I am ripping! I am going through this thing!' And then when I was done, I looked, and it was 14 minutes; Al Sanders did it in 2:02. Wasn't that fun, by the way? Again, this is Brian's work, not mine, so I feel like I can brag about it. Watching the graphics as he's solving; there's no edits in the video, that's real time. And Brian was very meticulous about - he filled it in exactly the way that Al filled it in on the puzzle; that's just great craftsmanship. I mean, Brian Oakes, our graphic designer, made an incredibly big contribution to our film, and he's a very nice guy, so it was a pleasure to work with him; he's a good friend of mine."
Wordplay is all about crossword puzzles, but Tyler isn't just about crosswords - it's Sudoku as well. "I do them sometimes; it's kind of the thing where you do three or four and, 'eh, let's do something else now.' I can't really, especially if you're working on the same difficulty level, it's like, 'alright, I had enough of this.' But Sudoku is just one of the kinds of puzzles I do; there's a ton of ones just dealing with diagrams and symbols and numbers. You don't need to know language at all, which is why there is an international competition cause you don't need to know any languages."
But Tyler is all about the American Crossword Tournament; he was back in 2006 and he'll be back in 2007, and he's looking forward to the response he'll get. "Maybe next year will be a little different, maybe some people will come out to the tournament cause they saw this and they'll recognize me there and it may be a little different. But, other than that, it's a pretty tight-nit community and I don't think things will change much."
You can check out Tyler in Wordplay, directed by Patrick Creadon, nationwide June 23rd.