May 2003
Spellbound : An interview with Director Jeffrey Blitz and Co-Producer Sean Welch

Interviewed by Wilson Morales

Spellbound : An interview with Director Jeffrey Blitz and Co-Producer Sean Welch

ďSpellboundĒ is an extraordinary film on the young and talented children who strive for perfection in the form of spelling bee. Itís a documentary that was nominated in this yearís Academy Awards. Itís the work of a filmmaker who waited long enough to a passionate subject for his first film. In an interview with blackfilm.com, Director Jeffrey Blitz and Co-Producer Sean Welch talked about the process of making the documentary Spellbound.


WM: Itís not easy doing a first film, but you chose to do a documentary. How did that come about?

JB: I was a grad student at USC at the time and I was spending a lot of time actively fretting about what my first feature project would be and one of the days when I wasnít thinking about it, I was watching some awful program on cable and when that ended, the National Spelling Bee had started. I had never seen a spelling bee and I guess if I had ever thought about it, I would have imagined that it was a nice old fashioned event and instead what I saw in the national spelling bee was this incredibly intense drama and I knew instantly that this what I wanted my first feature project to be. I knew that I could tell a bigger American story using the bee as a kind of basis for that story. It was a love at first sight experience.


WM: Documentaries tend to take some time out of oneís life. Where you prepared for the amount of time you would spend on the project?

JB: Part of why we made the film is because we were so completely green at it I think if anyone had told us the amount of work that it would have taken, we probably would have a different course.


WM: Sean, a great deal of work that you have done has been with studio films and TV commercials. Knowing that a documentary is a hard sell to begin with, what led you to do this film with Jeff?

SW: Well, Jeff and I have known each other and have worked with each other for about 10 years and on the projects we had worked on previously, our relationship developed and also the projects were successful such as the short films at USC. But really, over the course of six months of Jeff doing the research, there was one night specifically where he invited me to his apartment and showed me the research he had done on some of these kids. He began to tell me the stories as he thought they would fit together in the mosaic of this documentary. Jeff is the most masterful storyteller when he writes, when he speaks, and visually that I know. So it was then that I saw what he happen been thinking about and talking about for six months. I told him that after seeing the research we would do this project together what ever it takes.


WM: Each of the kids in the films comes from different backgrounds and cities, which required a lot of traveling. Can you talk about the funding for the film and how it helped with the expenses?

JB: The primary challenge was talking Sean into going into credit card debt with me. Once I had somehow managed to convince myself and to convince Sean that was an appropriate way to fund a documentary, the rest of it was easy in a sense that it was about getting more and more credit cards but it was obviously a very scary thing for us as well. At last count, we had like 14 or 15 maxed-out credit cards.


WM: How did you convince the parents of the kids to allow you to film them?

JB: I think you have on something that has always been strange for us. How do a couple a guys who have no credit to their names convince these people that we are setting out to make a movie of some worth and that weíre not a couple of strange guys? I think it was through Seanís skills that contact with these parents were made.

SW: It required a lot of phone calls and letter writing initially to just these families know who we were and what we are doing, what are our interests and trying to see if they are agreeable to having us come out and spend some time with them. There were some families that said no, but fortunately there many that said yes.


WM: What were some of the reasons you were given for those who said no?

SW: Most of the reasons were of scheduling conflicts. Once we received a message from someone who wasnít interested, we quickly moved on. We concentrated on those who said yes.


WM: Most of the kids come from different races. Was it your intention of showing how diverse the candidates of the spelling bee are?

JB: I think what was more important for us was the idea that we would have a cross section that would suggest what the natural spelling bee group of kids is like and so we didnít set out to have a cross section because that would be good for the movie. I think itís safer to say because the national bee has a natural group of kids from different backgrounds that for movie to be an honest representation of what the bee is like it was important that we have a cross section of the bee.


WM: Documentaries are not an easy sell. Do you think thereís an audience that wants to see this film?

JB: I think one of the things that been amazing for us is that when we have seen the movie play at different film festivals, the crowd response has been crazy. People are like cheering and crying at the screen. It has so far exceeded what we imagined we were making and whenever you an emotional connection with your audience and great word of month on the film, I canít believe but that audiences, paying audiences are going to embrace ďSpellboundĒ the way festival audiences have also.

SW: We are also pleasantly surprised that the cross generational appeal that this has had and weíve played now in over 50 festivals, domestic and international, and weíve have seen kids as young as 8 years old going to the film with their parents and grandparents and all of them enjoying it.


WM: With so much research and footage gathered, how challenging was the editing process?

JB: Ultimately we have 8 kids whose lives we followed but Sean and I followed 12 or more stories and to get to the point of how to cut the stories from 12 to 8 was and incredibly difficult thing for us. There are nights when Iím falling asleep and I wonder if we could have squeeze in another story but after the 12 stories ended up being cut we spent months and months trying versions we had 6 stories, then 8 stories, and somehow deciding that 8 stories was sufficient. But, youíre absolutely right, this was a difficult process.

SW: With the remaining spellers that are not in the film, our hope is that they will be on the DVD version, which will be out in a year.


WM: How did marketing and distribution come about?

SW: Again, it was a very organic but also unusual way. Normally, as we have been told, a film will hold out to play in a big festival like Cannes, Sundance, and Toronto, and then at that premiere, if itís good enough, it will be picked up. We happened to premiere at South by South West, which is a good festival but not known as a buyerís market. We continued to play regional festivals for about six months before we got a call from Toronto. We went to Toronto with the film and that where Thinkfilm saw it and picked it up.


WM: What do you want anyone to walk away with after seeing the film?

JB: I think we stumbled about the idea is that old fashioned American dream that through hard work you can achieve your dreams and thatís something thatís not a syrupy sweet thing or a fake thing and that for a lot of kids the American dream is still real. If we can open peopleís eyes to that, then we have achieved something real cool.