The saga over high scores in Donkey Kong is no longer a tale of two dudes. While most of us came to know the world of modern day Donkey Kongers through the epic rivalry between Steve Wiebe and Billy Mitchelll, it wasn't long before a third player emerged out of left field. Hank Chien, a plastic surgeon from New York, shattered both of their high scores in 2010, and when Wiebe and Mitchell reclaimed the top spot, he did it again.
Doctor Kong: Cutting Up the Competition is a short documentary that follows Hank both through his daily life and his rise to gaming glory. Having began production long before Hank held the high score, the film originally started as a character study of this odd guy who would show up at a local bar in Brooklyn dressed in scrubs to practice Donkey Kong. Then he won the world record.
Nintendo Life was at the film's recent premiere in New York, where we got to catch up with the film's director Alexis Neophytides and share a beer with Hank. Hank was in good spirits, confident he could hold on to his world record at the upcoming Kong Off despite wrist pain from a slip on the ice, and in our interview with Neophytides we learned about the origins of the documentary, the difficulty of editing Hank's laugh and the Commodore 64 skills of the the film's director.
Nintendo Life: So how long have you been working on Doctor Kong?
Alexis Neophytides: About a year. We went to Fun Stop a year ago in November, and then I didn't see that much of Hank. So it's been off and on, but I first started right before November 2009.
NL: How big is your crew? Is it just you or do have some people working with you?
AN: Trina Rodriguez does my editing. She's amazing. She does most of the bulk editing,then I see it and spend a lot of time going back over it and deciding things like how many of Hank's laugh will be included in the movie, because he's so cute but, you know, if you use too many laughs it makes him seem silly. Jon Miller is one of the cinematographers. We both shot the film, so most of the stuff that looks good he shot. Not all of it, but most of it.
NL: Did he go with you to Fun Spot?
AN: No I went to Fun Spot alone. He went to Regina Cove. He shot the surgery because even though I was pre-med in college that totally freaked me out.
NL: That opening scene of him inserting the breast implant is pretty gruesome.
AN: Yeah he had this thing that looked like a shoehorn, and it would stick it and move it around to make a pocket. It was so gross.
NL: I noticed some of the music of the film had a chiptunes element to it, music that sounds like old-school video games. Who did the music for the movie?
AN: Gary Forsyth. He did most of the music, except for the one song that was playing when Hank broke the world record. It was Hank's home video, so the guy who did the sound mix did that song. Gary Forsyth did the rest of it and I gave him an idea of what I wanted. We decided we were going to do an album, have Hank drop an album.
NL: Is that going to happen, Hank's going to drop an album?!
AN: Hopefuly, Hank doesn't know that he's going to drop an album! Maybe Gary and I are going to drop an album for Doctor Kong. Doctor Kong's going to be dropping an album.
NL: The music was really good, you should totally release the soundtrack.
AN: Thank you. I'm glad you liked it.
NL: Before directing you acted. When did you start and why did you make the switch to directing?
AN: I first started acting when I was three at the community theater on Roosevelt Island. I don't remember when my first acting role was, maybe Snoopy. Its hard to be an actor because you have no control over your project, and I became less and less interested in not having control over my project. Also, I really love people, and making documentaries was a very natural process for me.
NL: You also studied Biology and French at Brown University before studying Film at the New School. What made you want to start studying film?
AN: Everybody has a lot of different interests, and for me, film at the time was more powerful.
NL: Do you still speak french?
AN: A little.
NL: Would you speak some now?
AN: Non. That was in French
NL: Je suis Patrick. That's pretty much all I know.
AN: Well my accent is really bad, so when I lived there (I lived in Paris for six months in college) I got so embarrassed because the first night I was there I ordered crème brulee, and the waiter made fun of me. He was like “oh hon hon, you want zee creeeeam bro-lee?” So afterward that kind of scarred me, so now I'm embarrassed and it takes a lot for me to speak it again.
NL: Your last film, Coney Island's for the Birds was about pigeon racing. This one is about a plastic surgeon who is really good at Donkey Kong. How do you find your subjects?
AN: Looking back on it now in retrospective, I think I'm interested in people that I would normally never hang out with, but who are kind of awesome. I like the idea of getting to know different groups of people I wouldn't have come across in regular life. To me that's what so interesting about being a documentarian.
This one I sort of fell into by accident. I meant to make a larger piece that I was going to call “The Regulars.” It was about all the regulars at this bar called Barcade in Williamsburg [Brooklyn], and Hank was the first guy that I started following.
NL: That's where Hank trained right, Barcade?
AN: Yeah, he would come into the bar everyday in his scrubs after work. Sometimes he would have a beer, sometimes he wouldn't. I started with him, and started following him around, and as I was following him he broke the world record, so I decided we should stick with it and keep following him around. It would make a cool short, but I didn't want to remake The King of Kong.
NL: Where you a fan of King of Kong, did you see it?
AN: I did, I saw that movie three years ago, before I even had the idea, but I purposely didn't rewatch it [while making the film] but at the time I loved it.
NL: Would you say you were more of a Billy Mitchell or Steve Wiebe fan?
AN: I can't say that on tape, I'm a Hank fan. Actually my friend Ben is one of top Donkey Kong players, I think he's currently ranked in 5th place. He's in the film too, he's the one Hank asks about the Donkey Kong machine being possessed.
NL: Coney Island's for the Birds made the rounds at some film festivals, is that going to happen with Doctor Kong as well?
AN: Yup, we just got into our first film festival yesterday, I'm so excited! It used to be called the Kent Festival, but now its called the Hills festival, its a small film festival in Connecticut. I applied to a bunch of other ones too so hopefully I'll get in. It kind of reminds me of applying to college.
NL: For our readers interested in seeing Doctor Kong, what are your plans for distribution, will it be available online?
AN: Yes, through the website (www.doctorkongthemovie.com). They're still being made now but they should be ready in two weeks. There is a contact section on the site so whoever wants to buy it can send in an email.
NL: We have a contest running at the site where our readers are making a T-Shirt for Team Chien. If you had to encapsulate the man in a T-Shirt how would you make it?
AN: I actually sent Hank an idea for a shirt. I was talking about this with my friends one weekend, we spent a night thinking about it. I think it should be blue, the color of scrubs, and have a stethoscope winding around a picture of Hank in his scrubs, like the intro graphic we used in the movie [an 8-bit Chien]. Maybe the end of the stethoscope has “Team Chien” coming out of it. I'm not very good at Photoshop though so for me to sit down and do it would probably take a week.
NL: Did you ever play games growing up?
AN: No, never. I used to play Summer Games on my friend's Commodore 64, but that was basically the extent of my video gaming.
NL:What event were you good at in Summer Games?
AN: Diving. I'm an expert diver on the Commodore 64. Haha, I think I just dated myself.
NL: What's your next plans, do you have another project coming up?
AN: I have another project I'm working on with the editor, Trina, and my friend Sarah Frank who did the media mash-up of the news segments in the film. That's what she does, she works for Newsweek. The three of us are in the beginning phases of a feature.
NL: Is there anything else you'd like to let our readers know?
AN: Hmm...No, I think that's it.
NL: Well thanks so much for talking with us, its been great!
AN: Thank you!