Billy Mitchell is not a creep.
For people who saw last year’s documentary The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters — and perhaps for gamers in general — that sentence alone is anathema. But I’m telling you now: In a one-on-one conversation with the guy, he comes off as nice enough. A little eccentric maybe, but what person who has so thoroughly immersed himself in the world of classic arcade games wouldn’t be?
The explanation of how I came to this conclusion began with a review I wrote for King of Kong for my personal blog. I reviewed the film positively. I liked that it made the societal niche of competitive classic gamers entertaining and that it put images from the original Donkey Kong onto the big screen and into the public consciousness 27 years after the game originally hit arcades. In retrospect, though I didn’t expect Billy Mitchell himself to read my review, I was glad that I had bothered to mention that the film’s depiction of Mitchell seemed stylized to the point that I wondered whether director Seth Gordon might have purposefully painted Mitchell as a villain in order to give the piece a standard hero-versus-bad guy narrative arc. (Things I’m less proud of: calling Mitchell a “creepfest” and comparing his wife to both Elvira and the most recent incarnation of Pauline, Donkey Kong’s iconic damsel-in-distress. Though, on the Mrs. Mitchell-Pauline comparison, I have to insist that the resemblance is striking.)
Mitchell wrote me after he read my review and offered me a chance to hear the “real story” behind the movie. We talked. Mitchell spoke of the people who made the film cordially but guardedly. And while my initial concept of how this article would run on The Tanooki was a simple Q&A — which would in theory give Mitchell a chance to put his own words out there unmoderated — that changed, both as a result of my realization during the interview process that my own perspective had become relevant to the finished product. Additionally, Mitchell tends to speak in loop-the-loop narratives that wouldn’t necessarily suit the Q&A format. (I can’t really fault the guy for having a lot to say. If you felt like you might have been slammed by a well-received documentary, wouldn’t you?)
Right of the bat, Mitchell threw me. In one of the pre-interview emails, Mitchell wrote, “I am very sorry and please accept my apology for having offended you or anyone for the manner by which I was portrayed in the film.” I naturally assumed this statement implied that Mitchell had already deemed his portrayal in King of Kong inaccurate, but that wasn’t necessarily the case. Billy clarified: “A lot of people are offended by the way I was portrayed, the way that I act, the things that I say, and I apologize for that,” he said. “I myself — I don’t express any bitterness whatsoever. I just want to make that clear.” He added, “It’s not uncommon for me to read a review where Seth Gordon’s talking about me and attributes quotes to me which are totally erroneous, but that’s okay. I find it humorous. I find it kind of — I don’t want to say it because I don’t want to insult anyone — but I guess I find it very facetious that people find so much emotion in a movie that was originally intended to be a humorous, light-hearted movie that pokes fun at the obscure world of classic gaming.”
Not only had Mitchell not yet passed judgment on the film, he hadn’t even seen it, as of my interview with him. “If they’re telling me the truth, and I believe they are, then they sent the film to [Kong co-star] Steve Wiebe back in January… unbeknownst to me. They did not send me a copy,” Mitchell said, before explaining that, as a limited-release film, King of Kong never played within 200 miles of his Florida home. “They offered one time for me to go to Comic-Con and be on stage. Of course, I know they’re trying to get mileage out of it. And I said before I go to Comic-Con — and I have the emails — I said before I go to Comic-Con, I want to see the film,” he said. “Well, that was the last time I heard from him.” Mitchell said he has turned down offers to view the movie illegally, but, given King of Kong’s January 29 release date, it seems plausible that Mitchell may soon be able to judge the film for himself. In Mitchell’s words, however, it may be no accident that he has not yet seen the film in which he stars. “Maybe there was an understanding of why they didn’t send it to me,” he said, alluding to his status as the film’s bad guy.
Though it sounds strange to refer to real-life people featured in a documentary as characters, heroes or villains, Mitchell is the undisputed big bad in King of Kong. Donkey Kong record challenger Steve Wiebe emerges from the film as likable in his struggle for a small measure of greatness. I’d be shocked if anyone rooted for Mitchell. He’s depicted as manipulative, shady and egotistical. He apparently refuses to compete against Wiebe in person — sending in only a video that trumps Wiebe’s initial high score — and dodges Wiebe at the Laconia, New Hampshire arcade where the film’s climax takes place. Clearly, some of Mitchell’s characterization is his own doing. (Always a bad call: likening controversy surrounding yourself to the abortion issue.) However, looking closely at the structure of the film itself, one could make the argument that the odds seem stacked against Mitchell, abortion comment or not. For example: In the film, the viewer meets Wiebe’s entire family. His wife, Nicole, gets a lot of screen time, as do his kids. This all helps humanize Wiebe to the point that he seems like more than just a video game-playing machine. With the Mitchells, however, family life is limited to one brief interview with Mrs. Mitchell that seems to imply that she’s a bimbo. Billy joked that if she is the trophy wife that he’d heard the movie implies her to be, then she’s “not doing too good a job.” For the first half of their marriage, she brought in more income than he did, he happily admitted.
Walter Day, founder of Twin Galaxies, and Steve Wiebe.
Mitchell emphasized that he’s a family man first and foremost, and said that footage of both his wife and oldest daughter went unused in the final cut of the movie. Mitchell also said that his wife is supportive of his pursuit of gaming — in this specific instance, the feat of achieving a perfect score in Pac-Man. “Imagine me saying to my wife, ‘I have to go there for the Holy Grail.’ That could be a little weird. She might call a psychiatrist.” Mitchell recalled her reaction when he told his wife he’d be traveling internationally for classic gaming. “Her line was ‘You have to do what you enjoy in life. It makes the rest of life bearable,’” he said. “That was always the small token that she gave back.” Just hearing about this aspect of his life from Mitchell himself helped to make him seem like a deeper person than the one in the movie. And regardless of the actual reasons audiences don’t see much of the Mitchell family members — whether they declined, whether they were cut for time or whether they were cut specifically affect Billy’s characterization — the result is Billy seeming less well-rounded than his challenger.
In fact, the majority of Mitchell’s scenes make him seem like a jerk in one way or another. Whether that’s his fault or the director is a matter of opinion, at least as far as outsiders are concerned, as we don’t know what happened during filming beyond what ended up in the final cut. But the one scene that memorably lends Mitchell human attributes — his donation of a Q*Bert machine to gaming veteran Doris Self — stands out conspicuously in the scope of the movie, as if it were included as a tacked-on apology to Mitchell or a deferential nod to the fact that he’s not a complete asshole. “Do you think a bad guy like me would do something nice like that?” Mitchell joked, in response to my question as to why he thought this scene was included when others that might have humanized him didn’t. Mitchell seemed reluctant to guess why such selective editorial decisions were made. He did, however, fondly recall Doris, who passed away after King of Kong completed filming. “She was very good to us,” he said. “Doris was always there. She would come to the arcade. She was full of fire and a lot of fun. She’d always want to play games. She would sit down and eat pizza and talk.”
During our conversation, Mitchell brought up a lot of subjects. (The guy might be in the running for another Guinness record: covering the biggest variety of topics in order to answer a single question.) He focused a lot on his personal life. For example, he frequently wears patriotically-patterned ties — not to hint at his own political leanings but to recall his victory against Rick Fothergill, a maple leaf-draped Pac-Man player who called himself “Captain Canada.” He said that video games no figure so largely into his life anymore. “To be honest, it’s a very small part of my world,” he explained. “One of the reasons why I’m filmed in my business, in my car, traveling to something business-related, and only one time in my home, is because video games — the fun of them, and all the challenges — obviously played a large part in my life years ago. When I got a wife, and a kid and a kid and a kid… and more responsibilities, take a back seat.”
Nonetheless, video games were at the forefront of King of Kong — both Mitchell’s experience with them and Wiebe’s. But the fact that the two players were in direct competition didn’t result in animosity, according to Mitchell. He says he had a few friendly conversations with Wiebe that aren’t alluded to or depicted in the film. Since shooting completed, however, the two haven’t spoken . Nor has Mitchell had words with director Seth Gordon. Since King of Kong hit theaters, Mitchell said he’s only spoken with Ed Cunningham, one of the producers. “He knows — I didn’t even tell him — that I was disappointed with some of the things he did in the movie,” Mitchell said of his conversation with Cunningham. “But I think he tried to minimize it and let me know it wasn’t a severe thing. He’s entitled to his opinion. He had the impression that being a bad guy in the movie was something that got me all riled up. I told him if that’s your impression, that’s not true… Do you think when Charles Bronson walked out of a movie in which he played a bad guy he got all depressed and walked out on the street and started shooting people? I mean, it just was a movie.”
For now, Mitchell seems to be moving on. Since King of Kong’s theatrical run, he managed to win back the title of Donkey Kong grand champion from Wiebe by trumping the high score referenced in the film’s epilogue. (Competitive gaming site Twin Galaxies currently lists the all-time high score at 1,050,200 points.) On the other hand, Mitchell has also been dealt the dubious honor of being named Maxim magazine’s “Dweebus Maximus Dorkus of both the 20th and 21st centuries,” so clearly King of Kong still casts a shadow over Mitchell in spite of — or perhaps because of — his feats of gaming prowess.
That’s how I came to no longer think of Billy Mitchell as a creep. Those watching documentaries — King of Kong or otherwise — should remember that the people in them are, in fact, real people and that the few minutes of screen time they get can’t convey their lives off-screen. Billy Mitchell is a real person, a one that’s particularly good at Donkey Kong.
Again, I can’t say for certain why this guy ended up being the villain of a movie about competitive gaming. I can’t even say for certain that the one conversation I had with him was any more honest than what I saw in King of Kong. I will, however, stand behind my word that he’s no creep. That’s something.
All photos are from King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters