A Chat with Ed Cunningham, Ed Cunningham interview, Producer of The King of Kong

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Ed Cunningham may have the most original path to Hollywood that you are likely to find. After winning a national title as an offensive lineman for the University of Washington and five seasons in the NFL, he traded in his cleats for a microphone to do color commentary during college football games for ESPN, and that job led him, incredibly, to producing movies about the New York Dolls and Donkey Kong. While on location to cover Ohio State’s beatdown of Northwestern, Bullz-Eye met up with Cunningham to talk about the role of a producer and how the truth always winds up being stranger than you think it will be.

Note: Plot spoilers abound, so if you have not yet seen the movie, be warned. We discuss things that are, well, readily available on various Wikipedia pages.

Bullz-Eye: So how does a guy who does commentary for ESPN wind up producing a movie about video games?

Ed Cunningham: You know, it’s funny, in L.A., movies are obviously the big industry and of course a lot of people want to be actors or actresses or writers. So, it’s the big joke like, “Well I’m a writer,” and it’s always like, “Well, what’s your day job?”

BE: I know that joke.

EC: Yeah, yeah, so luckily for me, I have the greatest day job in the world, where I work about four and a half or five months of the year for ESPN/ABC. For a while, when I got out of the NFL, I used the other seven months to basically be retired. So that started when I was about 27 years old and, you know, it was cool for a while but there’s a reason you retire at 60 and not at 27. I had a great tan, my golf game was great, I was in great shape, you know, but at the end of the day I didn’t feel like I was doing anything, like I was being productive. And so, about four or five years ago, I stumbled upon, through a friend who was making a documentary, he needed some help. We ended up making a film called “New York Doll.”

BE: I was going to ask you about that.

EC: Yeah, so I was lucky enough to get on board and produce that, and we were lucky enough to get into Sundance and then got international distribution, and along the way, when I got into the depths of finishing that film and said, “I’ll never produce an independent documentary again,” I found the story that became “The King of Kong.” It just seemed too rich and with too much potential not to chase it. So “New York Doll” happened by accident. I was doing voiceover work on a totally unrelated project. It was actually an industrial video for the Marine Corps, and Greg Whiteley, who directed “New York Doll” and Seth Gordon, who directed “King of Kong,” were making this video and they brought me in to do voiceover work, and that’s when I learned about “New York Doll,” and Seth and I jumped on board with Greg to make that, and then Seth and I found the story that became “King of Kong.” We gave up a lot to do it, Seth especially. Making documentaries for me, it’s more or less, I don’t want to call it a hobby because that’s not fair to how hard we work, but, you know, it’s not my lifeblood. I don’t have to do it to pay my rent and live. For Seth, who at the time we started was an aspiring filmmaker and had been on the edit side, he turned down some amazing projects to stay on board to direct “King of Kong.”

BE: Like what?

EC: He was asked to edit “Talladega Nights.”

BE: Oh, wow.

EC: Yeah, like that’s the level that Seth had gotten to on that side of the business, but Seth aspired to be a director. He knew…it was funny, the day he got that call, because that group of guys who make those films, once you’re in, you’re in. It’s a very tight-knit… Will Ferrell has surrounded himself with very smart, very good people, and it was a difficult decision for (Seth) to make. But we both just believed in this so much and Seth, knowing he wanted to be a director, decided, “You know what, if I go edit that, I’m going to be an editor for a while and I’ll stay on that side of the business” – which he’s amazing at; he edited both “New York Doll” and “King of Kong” – “but if I want to chase my dream of being a director, I should finish this.” And luckily he did, you know, his career has taken off as a director, it’s amazing.

"Will Ferrell has surrounded himself with very smart, very good people, and it was a difficult decision for (Seth) to make."

BE: I’m happy that he chose to stick with “King of Kong” but there is a part of me that wishes he had edited “Talladega Nights,” maybe it would have turned out a little better.

EC: I don’t know, you know editors. I think that’s why Seth aspires to be a director because you have a lot more control on the raw material that goes to the editor. An editor is only as good as the raw material he’s given. Yeah, but who knows, he is a very talented guy.

BE: Tell me about the role of producing verses the stereotype of the producer. The big joke is that they just cut all of the checks. So what does the job actually entail?

EC: Well, that’s the hard part, because everyone always asks that question: “what does a producer do?” My answer is obviously quite different than somebody who produces a big, $80 million film. But ultimately, I think for us, it was whatever was necessary to make the film. From as little as booking travel, so we could go interview people, to making sure who we needed to interview. Making sure we were chasing all the right stories. Making sure that our eyes were wide open to everything that was going on. And then when Seth and I decided to make this film, I told him, on “New York Doll” I was more of a nuts-and-bolts producer. Getting rights clearances for music, getting footage that we needed to use in the film, writing checks to make sure we could go and finish the film, and all of those things. It was more of the business side. I told Seth, when we partnered up to make this one, that I was much more interested in the actual story itself and I wanted to help craft that story. And even though as a director he had final say, it was a very collaborative process of working on the story, making sure we were chasing the right parts of the stories while we were making the film, and then I was lucky enough to actually edit parts of the film and be side-by-side with Seth as we edited the film. So I still did the nuts and bolts of producing and getting the music cleared and making sure we were getting the right deals and making it as cheaply as possible and all of those things, but I was also intimately involved in the actual creation of the story, which was really a neat step for me in my career as a producer.

BE: OK, quick aside. Why do they make it so difficult to clear rights to songs for movies?

EC: I know, it’s unbelievable. When we did “New York Doll,” because it was a movie about a band, a semi-obscure band but a very influential one…

BE: We have a five-star review of the movie on our site.

EC: Oh, that’s great. Thank you. We were very happy with that. There were 24 pieces of original, what is called source music, meaning it came from a CD, basically. So I got a very quick education on “New York Doll” on how to fight the fight and get it cleared. My quick answer to why it’s so hard to clear music for movies is: I don’t know, because you would think they would want their music used in any way, shape or form. (In) “King of Kong,” we have five source cues. We have “Eye of the Tiger,” of course we had to use that. We have “You’re the Best” from “Karate Kid,” we had to use that, it’s an ‘80s movie. We ended up with a soundtrack for the movie, which is very rare for a documentary to have a soundtrack.

BE: I didn’t know that.

EC: Yeah. It’s through Lakeshore Records. Yeah, we’re very happy with it. It’s great. We have quotes from the movie in there too, which are hilarious. But you would think, with all we read about how the music business is in trouble, you would think it would be a little easier, but it’s a nightmare to get music cleared. And for little guys like us our first quote on “Eye of the Tiger” was almost as much as our whole budget.

BE: For “Eye of the Tiger?”

EC: Well, you know what, it’s funny, that’s a very popular song for like advertising and stuff like that.

BE: But isn’t there some kind of sliding scale for how old (the songs) are?

EC: No. It’s all based on how many phone calls they get a day, asking to use it. It’s all based on demand, and that song is demanded quite frequently. We actually have a Cure song in there, to me the Cure I one of my top five bands of all time.

 "We actually have a Cure song in there, to me the Cure is one of my top five bands of all time."

BE: I’m trying to remember which one.

EC: “Pictures of You.”

BE: Oh, that’s right.

EC: Yeah, yeah. It was actually my call. Seth almost pulled it. I was mad at him when he wanted to pull it. I was like, “Dude, you can’t pull the Cure.” But we actually had a really easy time clearing that one. And sometimes there is no rhyme or reason and the only rhyme or reason is whatever company owns the rights.

BE: You would think after HP used that for an ad, the price would have gone up.

EC: Yeah. That was actually the first song to clear, “Pictures of You” from the Cure.

BE: You went into (“King of Kong”), I’m sure, with an idea of what you were going to get on tape. How different were your expectations versus what you actually wound up recording?

EC: It’s not even close. We literally had a very simplistic idea when we started filming. We knew we were going into this very interesting world and we knew that a lot of the top titles were on the line. There was a great story going on with Ms. Pac-Man, there was obviously a great story with Donkey Kong, there was a great story going on with Q*Bert.

BE: Oh yeah, the old woman (Doris Self, who held the Q*Bert world record at age 58 and played competitively until she was 80 years old. She passed away in October 2006).

EC: Yeah, we were really interested in that story. We stumbled upon the potential for a Joust competition.

BE: I love that game.

EC: Oh, it’s an amazing game. So our idea, our very simplistic idea, was that we wanted to find a title or titles that people recognize, some of the more important classic games, and find good head-to-head competition. In other words, not a man versus a machine but a man versus man, and in one case man versus woman. So we had a very simplistic idea of that as a sports movie, where the playing field was these great old games and we would track all these people who would be trying to break world records. That was kind of the template of what we were after. Now, that’s what we ended up with, in the end, on Donkey Kong, but the levels of intricacy that we found within the story, and the back-room politicking and the protecting of turf and the clique that had evolved over the years within Twin Galaxies, the (record) keepers, was staggering to us, and it became so complex that we literally, before we started, had to map out the whole story on a grease board. It was hard for us to follow, and we were along for the ride. So our little, simplistic idea of some great head-to-head competition became this study in politics and cliques and how people change environments when they start to control them. It really blew us away.

BE: You could almost argue that it hurts the movie in that their acts were so contrived in what they did to keep Steve (Wiebe) from getting the title that it almost makes it look like the director is pulling strings behind the camera. But there wasn’t any of that, was there?

EC: No. Literally, it was everything we could do just to keep up with that because when it started happening – and I won’t give away all of our secrets, I had ways of kind of knowing what was coming and so we could prepare for it – but one thing happened after the other where, literally, after we were done, we would have to go back to the footage and say, “Wait a minute, here’s what we think happened; what did the cameras capture?” We shot so much footage for this film and a lot of it was very vérité, very fly-on-the-wall, and if we were in a rich environment, a target-rich environment…such a terrible thing to say, but true…but we were in that environment, we would have four cameras sometimes going for 12 hours a day. And so, that’s 48 hours of footage in one day and so it was really through sifting through 350+ hours of raw footage that some of the stuff that you see, we had no idea we had. Luckily, Clay Tweel, who’s the assistant editor and associate producer on the film, has an almost Rain Man-type memory, and he’d call us and say, “You guys have to come watch this.” He knew neither Seth nor (I) was there, you know, it might have been Luis Lopez, another camera guy and co-editor, who was there shooting it. He would give us a report of what he got, but he may not even realize how what happened there connected to something that happened here, sometimes a thousand miles away, because we were lucky enough to get some multi-camera things going in different locations and we were just…staggered. Honestly, just really gratuitous stuff.

BE: Did Billy Mitchell really give you any good side at all? Because he just seems to be, for lack of a better word, a jackass throughout this movie.

EC: You know, in fairness to Billy, we didn’t have great access to Billy.

"Billy has very carefully chosen how he appears, and the things that he says, and a lot of the things are rehearsed because he knows what people want to hear…"

BE: You had a camera in his house that one day, right?

EC: Yeah, but we weren’t there. He allowed us to send a cameraman, so neither Seth nor (I) was there to kind of dig in and get…we set that up in an hour. We finally realized Billy was not going to come to Funspot (the New Hampshire arcade where Wiebe wanted to challenge Mitchell head-to-head), we knew he had sent this tape (of his new world record), and I begged and pleaded for him to allow us to send a camera. I still have not met that cameraman. But Billy is a very…since he was 17 years old, when he went to Life magazine and gained some fame, he really did. I mean, if you’re in the center spread of Life magazine, that’s a pretty big deal, and through the years he has been a sought-after figure in video gaming. So, it’s almost like he’s a public persona, and that’s the way he comports himself while around cameras. He is very aware that “I’m on camera,” which most people, over the course of a year or two years or three years of filming, that goes away, where the camera just becomes a friend that’s in the room with you. Fortunately or unfortunately, and I don’t know honestly what the answer to that is, we never got to spend much time with Billy where he wasn’t “on camera.” Billy has very carefully chosen how he appears, and the things that he says, and a lot of the things are rehearsed because he knows what people want to hear…

BE: And you contradict him beautifully in one part where he chides Steve for not playing him one-on-one, and then you cut to a shot of his wife, asking her (if he has) ever played anyone one-on-one, and she says, “Never.”

EC: Yeah. At that point in the filming, we…up until that point we really didn’t know what the story was going to be. We were very concerned if we made a story about Donkey Kong and they didn’t play head-to-head, what do you have? So it became very clear to us that there was some hypocrisy that wasn’t realized, you know, saying one thing and then doing another. And all of this is muddied because of Mr. Awesome, Roy Schildt, because Billy and a lot of people in the world have a deep, deep hatred for Mr. Awesome and quite frankly, probably rightfully so. When he got involved, it did kind of change things, so I’m not trying to make excuses for Billy, but I know firsthand that Mr. Awesome is a lot to deal with, and Billy has grown to despise him over the years.

BE: I love that video you included of his.

EC: That whole thing, that’s from a great show from the BBC called “Disinformation.” I got to know the guys who made it very well and they’re allowing us to use the entire segment on our DVD as an extra. It will blow your mind. When he starts talking about his sperm count, then you know you’ve got something rather interesting.

BE: So you guys finished shooting and then, all of a sudden, you have to add that extra post-script that Steve wound up breaking the record, and (since the movie’s release) it’s been broken again by Billy.

EC: Yeah, the saga continues. Obviously we don’t want to spoil the movie too much, but suffice it to say, just like any sport, just like any endeavor, if the combatants didn’t die at the end, chances are it’s going to continue. Billy obviously didn’t like how things ended up, so he’s been back at it. A lot of people have said it takes away from (the movie), and I’m like, “No, are you kidding me? It’s real life.” We took a snapshot of about a two-year period that luckily for us, we couldn’t have decided to do this at a better time. With Guinness (Book of World Records) coming back on board while we were filming, these were some great things that we stumbled upon. I ask people all the time if we made a documentary about Tiger Woods winning the British Open two years in a row, and it was a great film and it was dramatic and everyone loved it, and he had to make a putt on 18 at the end to win it, and then he didn’t win the next year, does that ruin what he did for those two years? No, no, and that’s what this is. Donkey Kong didn’t go away. Both men are still healthy and vibrant and at it so, I suspect, if we had the energy, we could be out filming part two right now. We just don’t have the energy for it.

BE: Why do you suppose that Twin Galaxies and everyone associated with them went so far out of their way to keep Billy on top?

EC: I think it’s a function of, not just Twin Galaxies, but I think it’s a function of society that…it’s very hard for us, I think, as humans to have anything but singular vision. I think it’s very hard for us to give credit to multiple people. Even when a team has great success, we pick out one guy and we make him the hero. Even when the government is run by thousands upon thousands of people making decisions every day, we all think the President runs the whole thing. I think that, not just Twin Galaxies but any kind of endeavor that is governed, has that problem. Credit can only be given to one because, for whatever reason, we don’t have the ability to spread the wealth. And I think that we found that in this very interesting, quirky world and so that’s what made it good drama, was the tapestry on which it was happening was so interesting by itself.

BE: But how damaging would it have been to Twin Galaxies to give that credit to Steve Wiebe?

EC: Well, in fairness to them, they have recently. (Twin Galaxies founder) Walter Day has gone out of his way to recognize Steve and make sure he is given the credit that he deserves. Obviously the film has gone a long way in trying to give some credit to Steve, that he quite frankly deserves.

(Twin Galaxies founder) "Walter Day has gone out of his way to recognize Steve and make sure he is given the credit that he deserves."

Obviously the film has gone a long way in trying to give some credit to Steve, that he quite frankly deserves. I don’t think that, again, not to get psychological on it, but I don’t think people can even fathom the killing of their sacred cow. They think it would just be damaging, and I’m including myself in this. I’m not saying I’m above this, but I think that the idea of a sacred cow being slaughtered is too much to handle, because you’ve gotten to that place that everyone is happy, and everyone is comfortable with that pinnacle, with that point on it, and will it all crumble if we take away the peak? I just don’t know that humans are capable of thinking in those terms. And it’s funny because we have all learned the lesson that when it does happen, big deal. Like, we’ll figure out a way to get it back.

BE: Were you ever tempted to just stop the cameras and say: “You guys know this is just Donkey Kong right?”

EC: (laughs) You know, it’s funny, because at first, yes. At first it was very easy to be like wink, wink, nod, nod, oh my God, who cares. But we had a hard, fast rule while we were following this that we had to take it as seriously as they did, or why in the hell would we be there?

BE: Well, then it’s satire, and you’re making fun of them, and you clearly don’t do that in the movie.

EC: Well, thank you. Thanks very much. It would have been very easy to make a film that did make fun of these guys for their pursuits. I don’t think it’s very interesting. I think it gets very boring to laugh at people, I think you have to go on the journey with people. I think that’s what, hopefully, the movies that have impacted me throughout my life, “Miracle,” films like that, “The Shawshank Redemption,” I was on the journey with those people. I wasn’t observing them, I was going along with them, and that’s kind of what we aspired to.

BE: So do you have any producing projects lined up?

EC: I get to go along for the ride on the remake of “Kong” with New Line. Yeah, we’re doing a scripted remake.

BE: There’s a remake? You’re casting it and everything?

EC: Yeah.

BE: Do they have anyone lined up?

EC: You know, you always play the game, everyone always wants to talk about that, but what’s good for us is New Line, who bought the rights and one of the reason we sold it to them is, they don’t want to make “DoA chat with Ed Cunningham, Ed Cunningham interview, Producer of The King of Kongdgeball.”

BE: They’re the perfect studio for this, in my mind.

EC: Yeah, they don’t want to make “Dodgeball,” they want to make a very real, dramatic film so the idea has been to get, for lack of a better term, more dramatic actors than comedic actors. Because the comedy will come out of the situations. You know, you don’t need somebody running into a Donkey Kong machine and falling down with a bloody nose.

BE: You don’t need Jack Black for this.

EC: I don’t want to cut anybody out, because who knows!

BE: He would look good in a mullet and a beard, though.

EC: Yeah, he’s a big fan of the movie. There was this whole underground thing that happened in Hollywood. We sent the film out to get representation for it in the marketplace, and all of young Hollywood, all of the assistants at all of these agencies just started having screening parties for our film. Before long, Will Ferrell had seen it, Vince Vaughn had seen it. As a matter of fact, Seth Gordon, the director of “King of Kong,” starts filming “Four Christmases” with Vince Vaughn and Reese Witherspoon on Dec. 1, because of “King of Kong.” Because Vince saw the “King of Kong” and said, “That guy can direct our movie.”

BE: So passing on editing “Talladega Nights” landed him a directing gig with Vince Vaughn and Reese Witherspoon.

EC: Yeah, and it was interesting, the story goes that, and you’ll have to look, the guy who Vince hired to edit the film, or they had hired to edit “Four Christmases,” they were talking about potential directors, because they had a script that they liked and it was basically like, “Get a director and we can go make this thing.” And they were just kind of throwing names out and Vince says, “Have you seen ‘King of Kong,’” and without even acknowledging he had seen the film, (the editor) goes, “Now, that guy, I would like to edit his film.” And in that meeting they decided to approach Seth and see if he had the tools to do it. And Seth does. He’s an amazingly talented guy, and very easy to work with.

BE: Well, I think I’m running 10 minutes overtime here. I appreciate you taking the time to talk with us.

EC: Yeah, absolutely.

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