Who'd have thought that a documentary about crossword puzzles and the people who love them would generate the kind of excitement that gets theatergoers shouting solutions at the screen?
Watching audiences catch the puzzle bug has been great fun, says Patrick Creadon, director of "Wordplay," which opens Friday in New York before expanding wider later in June. "Playing games is something you typically associate with children," says Mr. Creadon, who screened the movie at the recent Seattle Film Festival. "As people get older, they don't always make time for that."
More than 50 million Americans – from former presidents and rock stars to ordinary folks around the corner – do crossword puzzles each week. For them, The New York Times is the gold standard. As Jon Stewart, who proposed to his wife in a custom-made crossword puzzle, quips in the film: "I'll solve a USA Today [puzzle] in a hotel room, but I don't feel good about myself."
Creadon and his wife, producer Christine O'Malley, had been casting about for a topic for their first feature-length documentary when they realized it was right on the page in front of them. Both come from puzzle-solving families and they began working crossword puzzles together on their honeymoon.
"Like a lot of people who are in the film, we find that it's just a special little part of the day," he says. "It's nothing profound. It's just something we like to do."
They initially planned to focus only on Will Shortz, the New York Times crossword editor and the only person to hold a university degree in "enigmatology" (the study of puzzles). "Will was the key," Creadon says. "We knew that without Will, we probably wouldn't do the movie."
With Mr. Shortz's blessing, the project soon expanded to include puzzlemakers, celebrity puzzlers, and competitors in the annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, held each year in Stamford, Conn.
Shortz provided a list of die-hard fans such as the Indigo Girls, Ken Burns, and New York Yankees pitcher Mike Mussina, who often works on solutions with teammates in the bullpen. Creadon's goal was to show how people from different walks of life relate to crossword puzzles. Creadon, an accomplished cinematographer, shot many of the interviews himself using only a hand-held camera.
"It's interesting watching President Clinton solve puzzles because you realize that he really has a love and a passion for figuring things out," Creadon observes. "I think it is one of his defining characteristics."
For crossword constructor Merl Reagle, inspiration is everywhere. Take a laundromat sign reading, "Wash, dry, fold." "Wash could be the start of Washington D.C.," he says. "Fold becomes the end of wood scaffold, and dry the center of laundry list, which is also a clue to the other two words. It just makes this perfect little three-line, 15-by-15 puzzle."
Creadon says that shooting footage over the tournament weekend surrounded by 500 puzzlers felt like coming home. Participants ranged from college students to grandmothers. A few have been competing every year since the tournament began in 1978. "Everyone we met were nice people," Creadon says. "They're smart. They're interesting. They're funny."
When the competition exploded into heartbreak in the final round, Creadon says they knew they had the climax of their movie. That left only the filming of the life of a puzzle from beginning to end.
"From there we flew to Merl's house where he made the puzzle, then directly to Will's house where he edited it," Creadon said. A few weeks later, the puzzle ran in the paper. After interviewing the celebrities, the project was done in less than a year.
Reagle thinks puzzles feed into a basic human need to figure things out. "Everything is a puzzle really," he says. "And you hope that all problems are solvable."