Nerds, Celebrities Puzzle Over 'Wordplay'

Crossword puzzles are a kind of "nerd thing" acknowledges champion puzzle solver Ellen Ripstein in Patrick Creadon's documentary "Wordplay."

Even with academic competitions like the National Spelling Bee gaining recognition, crossword fanatics understand that big brains and the ability to decipher clues aren't the sexiest traits in today's society. For recent Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute grad Tyler Hinman, being featured in a film all about crosswords hasn't necessarily helped his standing among his friends.

"They congratulate me for it," he explains, "but they also razz me for it. 'Yeah, you do crosswords. Yeah, how many dates does that get you? The ladies are all over the crossword solvers.' But, it's cool, I'm proud of what I do. My roommate has refused to acknowledge my fame until I get groupies."

As a director, Creadon knew he had his work cut out to make the world of crossword puzzles interesting to the non-solver. He decided to seek out famous people who also enjoy doing the crossword, and was ecstatic when former president Bill Clinton was one of the ones to answer his call to arms. Among the other celebrities featured is New York Times crossword editor Will Shortz, Bob Dole, New York Yankees pitcher Mike Mussina, the Indigo Girls, documentary filmmaker Ken Burns and "The Daily Show" host Jon Stewart, who famously proposed to his fiancee via crossword.

The film's graphic designer Brian Oakes also made the solitary activity interactive by using graphics to highlight clues and gradually fill in empty boxes with letters on the screen, allowing the audience to try to guess the answer before it's revealed. One sequence shows champion solver Alan Sanders speeding through a Monday Times puzzle, the easiest puzzle of the week.

"Al Sanders did it in 2:02," says Creadon, whose best time for a Monday puzzle was 14 minutes. "Watching the graphics as he's solving -- there's no edits in the video. That's real time. And Brian was very meticulous about it. He filled it in exactly the way that Al filled it in on the puzzle."

Creadon also features the 2005's American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, an event he initially didn't think would make the most riveting bit of filmmaking. But once he got to know the major players like Hinman, 2004 defending champ Trip Payne, 2001 winner Ripstein and many others, he was hooked by these ready-made, intriguing characters that also looked out for each other, such as when Payne lobbied the officials to reinstate 25 points to fellow competitor Hinman after a calculation error.

"In the tournament, everyone knows who everyone is and everyone wants to be fair and most of the time," says Hinman. "We all know that if the score isn't right, that's going to cloud the competition a little bit and ... it's going to affect who's going to win or the final scoring. Everyone wants to be right, and not just because we're nice people, but because you can only really savor your victory if it was just and everything was done correctly."

In the championship round, three finalists demonstrate their solving prowess onstage by racing to fill in clues to a puzzle on huge white boards while wearing Princess Leia-type headphones to block out the audience looking on. "Zolaesque," by definition, literally means "in the style of Emile Zola," but in the 2005 championship puzzle it was more cryptically described as "stark and richly detailed" and would eventually spell a nail-biting victory and defeat.

Crosswords aren't just for fanatics who cough up the entry fee for the tournament, but also touch the lives of everyday people. While Shortz, who's also the "Puzzle Master" for NPR's "Weekend Edition," is used to getting amusing hate mail criticizing the more devious puzzles, he received his strangest response from the relative of one avid fan.

"There was this lady in Long Island, she called me on a Tuesday, and said that her mother had just died the day before," recalls Shortz. "Her mother was a huge New York Times crossword solver. They were burying her on Thursday, and she was wondering if there was anyway she could get an advanced copy of the following Sunday's New York Times crossword puzzle to put in the casket and bury with her. The next day we FedEx-ed her an advanced copy of the magazine, and now I guess the mother is happy for eternity."

That is, if the clues aren't too difficult.

"Wordplay" opens in New York on Friday, June 16 and expands to Los Angeles and additional cities a week later.