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Puzzle Master: Notre Dame grad returns to present acclaimed film

Rama Gottumukkala | Thursday, September 14, 2006

His name appears in The New York Times every day. Millions of people around the world have attempted to crack open his work. He’s the only person in the world to hold a degree in Enigmatology – the study of puzzles, if you must know. And he manages to ensnare both young and old alike, enthralling icons like Bill Clinton, Bob Dole and Jon Stewart in the ritualistic daily scratching of stationary to newsprint, fingers to forehead, mind to matter.

Clearly, Will Shortz, the editor of The New York Times Crossword Puzzle and a National Public Radio personality, commands a widespread influence. But for all this hype, Shortz remains a mystery almost as veiled as the thousands of cryptic black and white squares he’s dedicated years to constructing.

So when Notre Dame grad Patrick Creadon, crossword puzzle aficionado and documentary filmmaker, was searching for a subject for his first feature film, Shortz was an obvious choice.

“He’s almost like the Wizard of Oz, because he’s this person you never get to see,” Creadon, Class of 1989, told The Observer. “You never meet him, but he’s the one behind the curtain who’s controlling everything. It’s his responsibility that the puzzle is always accurate, that there’re no mistakes in it.”

Still, Shortz is just one piece of the captivating mosaic that is “Wordplay,” a feature-length documentary that’s been receiving national attention for its ability to spellbind audiences with a look at one of our culture’s most engrossing pastimes – the crossword puzzle.

Finding the story

Garnering rave reviews from critics, the film has earned more than three million dollars at the domestic box office, good enough to crack the list of the top-25 documentaries of all-time. But for Creadon, the success of “Wordplay” didn’t come as a big surprise, despite its seemingly mundane subject matter. The trick, he said, was believing in it from the start.

“A lot of our friends and colleagues early on were like, ‘Oh my God, crossword puzzles? That’s the worst idea I’ve ever heard. What are you guys thinking? Get it together!'” Creadon said with a laugh. “But the minute we had the idea to find out about Will Shortz and the people who make the puzzle, I knew it was a good idea and I knew it would be a great movie.”

“Wordplay” has certainly lived up to and surpassed Creadon’s expectations, flexing its long legs at the box office. Entering its 14th week of theatrical release, “Wordplay” has played in more than 500 theaters around the country and was a surprising smash hit at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival. But despite its acclaim, Creadon is quick to credit the spark for the documentary, which was a collaborative effort with his wife, Christine O’Malley.

“When we were making the movie, Will and Christine and I really wanted to shine the light on the people on who make these things, because they don’t make a lot of money from it,” Creadon said. “They just do it because they like it. We thought it would be fun to get to know who these people are, kind of the same way you’d get to know a novelist or a film director.”

Here lies the heart of the film. While the glue holding it together is a charming leading man in Shortz, “Wordplay” is as much a meditation on fandom and a common passion as it is a film about the allure of enigmatic puzzles. Heck, given the right amount of charisma and painstaking effort, Creadon is confident the film could have succeeded with any topic – be it NASCAR, fly fishing or house painting.

“If the topic is about people who paint houses for a living, that’d literally be like watching paint dry for 90 minutes,” Creadon joked. “But if you scratch beneath the surface of what that story is, maybe you find a father and son team who have been painting for 60 years, and you tell that story.

“I’m sure there are a million stories they have about jobs that they’ve done in the past. … The real trick to making a really good movie or telling a really good story is getting to know a group of people and finding out what they’re about and why they’re motivated to be good at what they do.”

Bringing the puzzle to life

With this recipe in mind, Creadon embraced the task ahead – creating a 90-minute documentary bent on unlocking the mind of Shortz and correcting the misconception that crossword puzzles should be saved for lazy, rainy-day distractions. Or that the average puzzler is a grandmother with knitting needle in one hand, pen and puzzle in the other.

“There are probably some incorrect assumptions that people who do crossword puzzles are kind of boring and nebbish and it appeals to only a much older audience,” Creadon said. “None of those things are true, so we wanted to show that. … That was a big reason why we tried to go out and get interesting people from different walks of life.”

These interesting people turned out to be a former president, a senator, a comedian, two musicians, a filmmaker and an athlete – Clinton, Dole, Stewart, the Indigo Girls, Ken Burns and Mike Mussina, respectively – forming quite a collection of star power for a hobby supposedly reserved for stuffy bookworms. Besides sharing a common passion, these celebrities offered Creadon a chance to connect the Average Joe Puzzler to, say, the 42nd President of the United States or the host of “The Daily Show.”

“I also love the idea that every day when you’re doing a crossword puzzle, you’re not the only one looking at that puzzle,” Creadon said. “There are millions of others looking at it. It’s interesting to me that when I’m stuck on a puzzle, chances are Bill Clinton is doing that same puzzle the same day, or Jon Stewart or whoever.”

A colorful cast of characters

While names like Clinton, Dole and Stewart provide the sprinkles on top of the cake, the spirit of Creadon’s confection lies with the five contestants who vie for the crown of top puzzler at the 2005 American Crossword Puzzle Tournament in Stamford, Conn. With $4,000 in prize loot and bragging rights hanging in the balance, tensions rise as these contestants reveal their true colors. Shortz may be the hook for “Wordplay,” but these characters – whom the audience can’t help but root for – provide the line and sinker.

“Patrick does wrap you into it,” said Jon Vickers, Browning Cinema Manager and coordinator for the screenings. “Even if you’re not a crossword puzzler, he manages to draw you in and make you want to know more about the characters, making you choose sides between certain characters. … Believe it or not, even though it deals with a crossword puzzle tournament, it builds to a really exciting conclusion.”

To achieve this effect, Creadon spent a lot of time with his subjects outside of the production schedule. Instead of locking them in a room and rolling film until he got the footage he needed, Creadon subscribed to a different, more personable approach. He took his subjects out to lunch, shared walks through Central Park and conversed with them. Instead of coaxing their stories out, Creadon took a step back and got to know his subjects as men and women – not pawns to be placed in front of a camera, microphone and lights.

“When people make documentaries or reality television, they don’t make an effort to really get to know their subjects, and therefore their subjects don’t really know them really well or trust them really well,” Creadon said. “You’re basically shooting objects. You’re shooting people but you might as well be shooting a tree or a car.”

Staying the course

For Creadon, it’s been a long but fruitful road from South Bend to Chicago following graduation and then on to Los Angeles, where he and his wife run O’Malley Creadon Productions – a joint production company founded in 2000 that specializes in non-fiction storytelling. Along the way, he earned his Master in Cinematography at the American Film Institute, worked as a cameraman for almost every major network – including NBC, CBS and ABC – and most of the major motion picture studios, among them Universal, Warner Bros. and Disney.

But despite his world-worn experience and expertise, Creadon remains the little kid fascinated by public television and documentaries, the one who idolized filmmakers like Christopher Guest, Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese.

“I was like the only seven-year-old on the block who liked to watch ’60 Minutes’ every week,” Creadon said. “That was the first thing that inspired me. I was just old enough to realize that these stories that I was watching must have been made by somebody – somebody picked up a camera to shoot these things, cut them together.”

He still hasn’t lost that youthful enthusiasm, instead pouring it into “Wordplay,” a film he likes to describe in any number of words except one: boring.

“A lot of people think that documentaries have to be serious or have to pick some political side,” Creadon said. “And that’s fine. There are a lot of good movies that fall into that category. The last thing we wanted to do with this topic was make it dry and sort of boring.”

Back where he began

It’s been 17 years since Creadon’s days as an International Relations major living in Dillon Hall, puzzling over whether to pursue a stable career in law or take a leap of faith towards his passion – filmmaking. His return to Notre Dame this weekend will be anything but a dose of déjà vu.

He returns to present “Wordplay” at the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center, a venue he’s never seen and a building that offers an ambiance quite unlike the O’Shaughnessy classrooms he used to haunt years ago. It will be a rare opportunity for students, faculty and the general public to watch each of the four scheduled screenings with its filmmaker present.

“I think it would be a crime to not take advantage of meeting the guy who’s had the No. 2 highest-grossing documentary this year,” Vickers said. “He’s a person who’s been in the media industry for quite a while and he’s coming back to campus to share a project of his that he’s proud of.”

As for Creadon, he’s relishing this all-too-rare chance to bring the film home to his alma mater and present it to an audience.

“What I love most about the film is that I can sit at the back of a theater with an audience, and I can watch it with them and know that the movie worked,” Creadon said. “That’s what I’m most proud of – the movie connects with people and … it’s exactly what we hoped it could be and a whole lot more.”