An interview with Patrick Creadon. You could follow in this filmmaker’s footsteps by entering our latest contests RIGHT HERE! A featured article from the WriteMovies archive first published November 2006 by Pam Grady.


The Wordplay’s the Thing

Tuesday, November 7, 2006

After working as a cinematographer on a number of saucy Maxim Magazine TV specials and DVDs, Patrick Creadon has successfully gravitated from the libido to the id.

By Pam Grady

“Rampage lady,” Merl Reagle says confidently as he shakes my hand. The crossword puzzle designer, along with filmmaker Patrick Creadon, have just been introduced to me in a San Francisco hotel conference room, where they have come to promote Creadon’s crowd-pleasing documentary Wordplay, new this week on DVD. And already, the cheerful Reagle is talking in riddles.

It is an anagram, he explains, of “Pamela Grady.” He just thought it up on the spot. Oh. Creadon laughs, clearly delighted in his traveling companion’s quick wit. And why not? Not only is Reagle one of the featured crossword fanatics in his film, but what better way to promote it than with a man who lives and breathes words in all of their glorious combinations.

Words are now a hot movie commodity. It started three years ago with Spellbound, the documentary set at the National Spelling Bee, which captured both the public imagination and Oscar and Independent Spirit Award nominations. Then there was 2005’s Bee Season and this spring’s Akeelah and the Bee, both dramas about little girls working their way toward a date with that legendary competition. Meanwhile, Eric Chaikin and Julian Petrillo shed light on competitive Scrabble players with their documentary Word Wars.

Creadon insists that there is a big difference between Wordplay and all of these other films. “The point I’m trying to get across is that our movie is really just a movie about people,” he says. “It just happens to be a movie about crossword puzzles.”

Still, Creadon admits that it is his own – and wife Christine O’Malley’s – love of words and of crossword puzzles in particular that inspired the film. The couple had put in their apprenticeship working on other filmmakers’ docs and felt that the time was right to make something of their own. They were casting about for the right subject when suddenly it hit them. “We said, ‘Why don’t we just do a movie about this topic? It’s never been done.'”

Friends and colleagues were initially less than enthused about the project, Creadon admits. A common reaction, he recalls, was, “Interesting, but how are you going to make a 90-minute movie about this topic without it being really tedious or boring?”

But Creadon and O’Malley would not be deterred. In Creadon’s mind, the subject was a no-brainer for a documentary. “I always thought that crossword puzzles are really, really interesting and dynamic and that the people that make them and even the people that solve them tend to be very bright, intelligent people, who are really engaged in the world around them,” he explains. “So, if nothing else, we figured we’d have interesting interviews with people about interesting stuff.”

Originally, the idea was to profile Will Shortz, longtime puzzle maker and editor of the New York Times’ celebrated puzzles since 1993. While he is still a big focus of the documentary, as Creadon and O’Malley got into the subject, the film’s horizons expanded. The irrepressible Reagle became a big part of it, and so did crossword solvers, including such celebrated names as former president Bill Clinton, Daily Show host Jon Stewart (who is so into crosswords that he proposed to his wife through one), New York Yankees pitcher Mike Mussina, and Clinton’s opponent in the 1996 presidential race, former senator Bob Dole. But the real stars of the movie, even more than Shortz, are the competitors at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, the Stamford, Connecticut contest that Shortz founded in 1978.

Like Word Wars, it is the tournament that gives Wordplay a story arc and a bang-up climax, an irony not lost on Creadon as he and O’Malley had never heard of it until Shortz brought it up. He gave them names of contestants that they might want to film and encouraged them to bring their camera to the 2005 competition, an idea Creadon admits, the couple initially resisted.

“We were like, ‘Well, we don’t know if that’s really what we want to do. We don’t see this as a competition. We see it more as a movie about a certain culture or slice of Americana,” Creadon remembers. “But he said, ‘No, you really should come. The tournament really is fun. You’ll meet a bunch of people. It’ll be great.'”

“So we went,” he continues. “The tournament was riveting, it really was. We got lucky in a sense that we interviewed all the people who happened to do really well in the tournament. We didn’t shoot any of the interviews after the tournament.”

More than that, it was the competition, and a real-life climax that is the type of bang-up finish filmmakers dream about, that convinced Creadon and O’Malley that they were really onto something. “We were like, ‘No matter what else happens, this is a great story. This is a group of people who are really passionate about this little corner of the newspaper for some reason.'”

And, points out Reagle, it is a group of people that tends to be play well with others. Unlike the sour competitiveness that pervades in Word Wars, it is sportsmanship that rules the day in Wordplay. “They are very friendly; it’s not a cutthroat thing,” Reagle suggests. “Everybody still – I hate to say – loves each other, but it’s an extremely friendly competition.”

“It’s almost like a big dysfunctional family of crossword nuts who get together for 48 hours at the Mariott in Stamford,” he continues. “What happens at the tournament is so dramatic and so unusual. [Patrick] happened to pick the one year when we had this extremely dramatic finish.”

But Wordplay does not just limn a crossword tournament or the type of people who love to solve puzzles; it also offers a short course on how the crossword has evolved. In particular, it offers a look at how the New York Times crossword has changed since Shortz took over as editor.

“There’s a puzzle-game sense to people,” Reagle explains. “What Will and me and the so-called new school of crossword people were about was we were trying to attract people with a sense of play, not just the hardcore vocabulary-dictionary-obscure word, look-stuff-up crowd, of which there is a big contingent. Our attitude was, it doesn’t have to be fun per se, but it has to have a sense of play about it.”

“There has to be some way to do themes where there’s either a twist or a pun or all the little things that we use in puzzles, anagrams, spoonerisms, reversals, palindromes,” he adds. “All the things that we do should come to play in a crossword puzzle. They’ve always been in crossword puzzles, but not in an entertaining way.”

“Amino acid becomes ‘Am I On Acid?’, which would be ‘Timothy Leary’s first words as a baby.’ It’s a set up and then a gag,” Reagle laughs, by way of example.

Adds Creadon: “Crossword puzzling is really a celebration of the language and of being able to wrap your head around a clue. The best kind of puzzles to me are the ones that have easy answers, but tricky clues.”

Both Reagle and Creadon point out that while crossword puzzles are thought of as a solitary activity, in many instances, they are not. Reagle likes to cite the example of the Stanford students who met when they noticed that they were both working on Reagle’s Sunday puzzle. They began working on it together. Two years later, he proposed to her – through one of Reagle’s Sunday crosswords. “It was on The Today Show and everything,” notes Reagle proudly. “Two people are like the smallest tango you can do, solving a crossword puzzle.”

Creadon agrees. “My wife and I have a tremendous bond over doing crossword puzzles together. It’s really important to us. Finding the time to do a puzzle together is like a great quiet time, wind down thing to do.”

He also argues that crossword solving can be a more boisterous, group activity, citing a recent clue from a New York Times puzzle, ‘They often have rolls.’ The answer turned out to be ‘sushi bar.’ Creadon marvels, “What a great answer! It’s a real answer; it’s not a goofy, made-up combination.”

But the reason he remembers the clue so well is because of the circumstances surrounding the solving of it. “This is slightly embarrassing, but my father and I were there and my brother-in-law was with us, and when we got it, there were high fives. We were hugging. It was so great to crack that.”

It is that passion for play that drove Creadon and O’Malley to make their film. They realize that they are not the only ones who share that great love of puzzles, so they know there is an audience for their film. Certainly, the $3.1 million domestic gross and glowing reviews indicate the film is headed for very happy times on DVD. And with Wordplay, Creadon feels he has tapped into something diametrically opposed from the 2004 offering Maxim the Real Swimsuit DVD, Vol. 2, one of several Dennis Publishing offerings for which he was the cinematographer.

“If you get on a plane these days or if you’re sitting in an airport or a subway or a bus, people are doing crosswords, they’re doing soduku, or they’re reading The Da Vinci Code,” he observes. “There’s something about puzzles that is really appealing to people. I don’t know why that is. I really don’t know what it is. We live in puzzling times.”

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