Whiz-kids 'spellbinding' fodder for the big screen
By ALYSSA SCHWARTZ, CTV News Staff
September 11, 2002
Small children struggling over big words wouldn't normally make for riveting film content. And a hotel ballroom full of parents, tensely watching their kids sound out syllable after syllable, isn't likely to leave audiences spellbound. But strangely enough, it does.
From Spellbound's opening scene, where Harry Altman, one of the young competitors stands in front of hundreds of spectators, straining to spell the word "banns," the viewer is sucked into the blood, sweat and tears that is the National Spelling Bee, held annually in Washington, D.C. Spelling might not be the Olympics, but with director-producer Jeff Blitz handling the subject, it's just as enthralling.
Spellbound, Blitz's first-ever feature length documentary, follows eight contenders on the road to the ultimate spelling match. Blitz, who stumbled upon his first bee by chance while watching a cable sports channel, says he knew intuitively that the subject would be fascinating fodder for the film he was struggling to find. "It was the first time that I'd seen a spelling bee in my life and I was just awestruck by it," Blitz recalls.
"I knew that these kids, just from looking at them and from seeing these little children spell these incredibly big words, that there was something in that contrast that was incredibly compelling. And I suspected that there were probably pretty interesting back stories behind that, so for me it was about trying to get at the character and the story behind the drama of the spelling bee."
What he found after doing some investigating was that those stories made up almost a microcosm of America.
"It felt like this is one of the few academic competitions, or competitions at all, that really draws this wide spectrum of American kids," Blitz says. "You have kids represented there who come from very wealthy families and very poor families, kids from the East Coast and the West Coast and kids whose families have been in the States for hundreds of years and kids who've families have moved there a few months ago."
"We thought, because that's a natural cross section there, it felt like here's a way to show this great kind of melting pot idea without it having to be forced at all. We don't have to be PC by trying to work stories in that sort of don't ordinarily exist there. They're right there for the taking."
Spelling bees are also the great levelling ground. The aforementioned Harry, a spunky Jewish kid from New Jersey, struggles over "banns," a word that means the Catholic declaration of intention to marry. But his mother doesn't think the stumper is unfair - after all, the kid from Texas is asked to spell the Yiddish word yente.
Blitz also found that for some people, spelling bees are the newest representation of the American Dream.
"We discovered that a lot of the kids are the children of parents who've just moved here, and having come to the States, many of them didn't have English as their first language. So the kids, to compete in a spelling bee, it represented so much more to them than just competing in an academic competition. It suggested that the family's move was ultimately a smart move, that the family would find a way to assimilate and do well in the States."
Bringing the drama of all those hopes and dreams to the big screen took Blitz five long years. Shooting began in 1999, nearly two years after Blitz caught that fateful bee on TV.
"We would typically shoot for a couple of weeks and because it was self-financed, we would rack up the credit card debt and then we would have to stop shooting, fly back home and work for a month to pay down the debt. Then we would go back and shoot again." Editing took another two years, drawn out because of budget constraints.
Before shooting began, Blitz scoured regional competitions and all kinds of spelling bee sources to find his ideal subjects. "I kind of tapped into this underground spelling bee world where there are spelling coaches, and people who are really plugged into what the great stories are that are going on and who the kids are that are likely to go far," he says.
The process involved screening dozens of candidates. "It was a combination of us choosing the subjects and the subjects choosing us," Blitz says.
"There was like a flirting kind of thing that goes on there, almost like when you're trying to ask someone out. You want to be honest about what your goals are but you don't want to be too honest. So we would make contact with these families around the country and we would explain to them that we were trying to make a documentary on the National Spelling Bee and some of them responded immediately with interest and we would put them into a category of interested families and then others had to be poked and prodded a little bit and others said no outright. … We decided that we really wanted to get a great cross section of American families there, so it was about figuring out the balance then of the families that were interested in the documentary, trying to figure out the stories that were most compelling."
Surprisingly absent from Blitz's story are the pushy stage-parents often associated with young achievers in any area. But Blitz says from his experience, they are "the rare exception."
"We were hoping that we would find several more to sort of add that other element into the film and to sort of balance it out that way but it was impossible for us to find."
"What we found is that it's the kids who drag their parents into it. It ends up being a phenomenal amount of work for the parents to have to sit and study with the kids or a phenomenal amount of money for the parents who are wealthy enough to hire spelling coaches to come and work with the kids. So the pressure is something that the kids bring onto themselves and seem to do it willingly. Now, sometimes they get more pressure than they've bargained for, so when they're standing up there in front of thousands of people, and in front of live camera crews there, to suddenly get a word that they've never heard before ends up becoming a real source of trauma."
He acknowledges that the constant camera entourage that is part and parcel of being a documentary subject added an extra layer of pressure for the kids.
"That was something that we tried to be really sensitive to, but we were aware of it. It felt like a real potential sort of tradeoff. Do we tell these people up front that our presence there might add some extra pressure to it or do we keep that quiet and hope that it doesn't happen. And we kind of played it out in sort of a case by case way. The families that seemed to be really with it and the kids that seemed to be able to stand up to the pressure we tended not to say anything to and they, I think, kind of grooved on having a camera crew following them around. It made them feel more important then all of the sudden. But certainly there were kids who I think our presence there made it harder for them."
Watching the kids struggle is just one ingredient that makes Spellbound such a gripping testimony of such a seemingly sedate sub-culture. But Blitz believes that's really just a small part of what his award-winning film - Spellbound has won four major documentary honours -- so compelling.
"The documentary became much more than just a piece about this national spelling bee, this academic competition," he says. "It became the story of American families at this moment in time."