Tuesday, Oct. 16, 10 p.m.
WFYI (Channel 20)
Until you see “Wordplay,” the idea — a movie about people who like to do crossword puzzles — sounds preposterous. Even its de facto star agrees.
“I guess the subject sounds like it’s impossible to make interesting,” says “New York Times” crossword puzzle editor Will Shortz, who serves as the heart of the film. “But virtually everyone who sees it, even people who have no interest in crosswords, gets into it.”
“Wordplay,” which has its television debut Oct. 16 on PBS’ “Independent Lens,” went on to earn more than $3 million at the box office — a respectable showing for a documentary. It also increased the number of crossword submissions Shortz receives for the “Times,” earned him some recognition in airports and other public places and, maybe best of all, won him a guest spot on an upcoming episode of “The Simpsons.”
Not bad for a guy who grew up on an Arabian horse farm in Crawsfordville, Ind., and attended rural grade schools before going on to Indiana University and law school at the University of Virginia.
Shortz took over as the “Times” crossword editor in 1993 and set out to contemporize the puzzles. He added pop-culture references to the classical clues and turned the puzzle into something that appeals to all ages. His all-time favorite is still the Election Day 1996 crossword, designed by Butler University math professor emeritus Jerry Farrell, which “predicted” the outcome of the presidential race by allowing puzzle-solvers to correctly write in either “Clinton” or “Bobdole” in the same space.
Shortz remembers a 1977 interview his predecessor, Eugene Maleska, gave to the “Village Voice” in which Maleska feared for the future of crosswords because nearly all the puzzle makers were elderly. Not anymore. When we talked, he was about to publish a puzzle by a 17-year-old — one of the youngest contributors in “Times” crossword history.
“I’m so pleased that now crosswords are appealing to younger people as well as continuing to appeal to older people,” Shortz said. “I think crosswords have a bright future.”
Here’s what else he said about the making of “Wordplay,” his lifelong love of puzzles and growing up in Indiana.
Q: Did the filmmakers approach you?
A: Yes. Patrick [Creadon], the director, left a message on my machine. I saw no reason not to, so I said yes. I didn’t realize how much the movie would be about me. I thought it was about crosswords. But it turned out great.
Q: Did you think it had any commercial potential?
A: I didn’t really think about that. I thought it would be something for cable TV, actually. Although they mentioned that they were hoping for theatrical release, that didn’t really sink into my brain. Not many documentaries make it onto the big screen.
Q: Are you surprised it’s done as well as it did?
A: Yes and no. When we started out, I was really pleased with their success to get it into the Sundance Film Festival and then find a distributor, and the movie was the second-biggest documentary of 2006. That’s fantastic. Once the movie got out there, I was hoping it might actually do better because everyone who’s seen it likes it, basically. It was the highest-rated documentary of 2006, according to rottentomatoes.com, with something like 95 percent of reviewers giving it a positive rating. It’s a subject that something like 50 million Americans do. And it’s a movie that appeals to all ages, from teens on up. So I hoped it would catch fire and be even huger.
Q: One of the scenes I remember vividly is watching a crossword puzzle being made and finding out that crosswords are a mirror image. I never knew that.
A: I think every time I’ve watched the film in a theater and they show how crosswords are symmetric, there’s a gasp across the room. Yet I think if you had taken away the symmetry of crosswords, you would have subconsciously felt that something was wrong. The reason for the symmetry is visual appeal, and I think you would have felt that if it hadn’t been there.
Q: On imdb.com, someone posted a comment saying that Bill Clinton can be caught lying in the movie. He writes, “During an extended interview toward the beginning of the film, Clinton reveals how he completes a crossword puzzle — starting at the top and going through the entire puzzle, first completing the answers he knows and then going back to the beginning and backing in the balance of the answers. He specifically states that he doesn’t start with one down and one across and fill them in sequentially. So far, so good. … Now, later in the film, you see him completing his crossword puzzle and — you guessed it — the puzzle he’s working on is halfway solved. He had completed it sequentially. It’s obvious he was given the answers to this puzzle. I’d be surprised if he even does crossword puzzles at all.”
A: That’s sad. In 1992, when Clinton was running for president, I had been told that Clinton was a big crossword fan. I was the editor of “Games Magazine” then. Another editor and I prepared a crossword for him, took it to his hotel room in New York City, interviewed him and then gave him this crossword to solve. He did it in front of us in six minutes and 54 seconds. And half of that time he was on the telephone. So that fellow is mistaken.
Q: When you see the people who compete in crossword competitions, do you think what they’re doing is an intellectual pursuit, or is it some sort of special wiring in their brain that helps them do this?
A: The appeal of crosswords in general is the love of solving a mystery, the desire to put things in order and the desire to test yourself and the joy of playing with words. Those are the biggest impulses for solving puzzles in general and crosswords in particular. Puzzle people tend to have a sense of humor and flexibility of thinking. It’s a nice group of people to be around.
Q: Before you got to IU, was there anything in your life that led you to think you could do what you’ve ended up doing?
A: From when I was a child, I imagined having a career in puzzles. But to me, that was a career of making puzzles. It didn’t occur to me that I could edit them. The breakthrough in my thinking came in the summer of 1974, the year I graduated from IU but before I started law school. I got a summer job at Penny Press, a puzzle magazine company in Connecticut. I had such a great summer and enjoyed it so much that I decided I could have a career in puzzles and it wouldn’t necessarily mean a life of poverty. I would never have imagined editing the “New York Times” crossword because I thought it was too intellectual for me.
Q: Do you remember what your high school guidance counselor told you you should do?
A: I have no idea. I know I had many different ideas for careers. I did very well in math in high school — just loved mathematics — and thought I might have a career in mathematics. Then I figured out it wasn’t so much math that excited me; I loved mathematical puzzles. Then I realized it wasn’t the math of math puzzles I enjoyed; it was the puzzles, which happened to involve math. I was going to be a librarian at one point because I love books and I love to collect books. I started out majoring in history at Indiana University. I then did declare my major in economics because my first semester I had an honors economics course I enjoyed so much. Later, I figured out it wasn’t the economics that excited me; I just had a really good professor. Then I went on to the University of Virginia School of Law, so I thought I’d be a lawyer. I graduated law school, but I never took the bar exam. And eventually, I came back to puzzles.