For a good amount of time in the last fifteen years or so people really didn’t have an interest in Donkey Kong. Old-school gamers out there certainly appreciated the game, but for the most part it was just looked at as a relic of gaming’s past. But when the documentary the King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters was released in 2007 interest in Donkey Kong was reinvigorated, partly because new gamers realized how much fun the game is, even if it’s ridiculously difficult.
Of course part of the newfound interest in Donkey Kong laid with the competition between Billy Mitchell and Steve Wiebe as the two men battled one another to become the Donkey Kong champion. The battle between the Billy and Steve has definitely been interesting but things were kicked up a notch when Hank Chien made his arrival as a DK champ contender. Entirely new to the realm of arcade gaming competitions, Hank took the world by storm as he became the Donkey Kong champ not only once but twice along with beating the top scores of both Billy Mitchell and Steve Wiebe.
Hank’s rise and journey as the Donkey Kong Champion is the focus of a new documentary titled Doctor Kong. Directed by Alexis Neophytides, Doctor Kong shows what it’s like for a man to go from being a simple doctor to an idol for gamers across the world.
I was able to talk to both Alexis and Hank about Doctor Kong and Hank’s career as a champion Donkey Kong player.
Interview with Alexis Neophytides
Ian Fisher: You have a background in film studies through school, but how did you ultimately decide to do a documentary about Hank Chien and his recent quest to gain the Donkey Kong title? Are you deeply entrenched in the world of gaming and have some previous knowledge about the battle between Steve Wiebe, Billy Mitchell and Hank or did you learn of Hank’s battle to be the DK champ out of sheer coincidence?
Alexis Neophytides: I definitely was not entrenched in the gaming world! I had seen King of Kong a few years back and really enjoyed it, but I had no idea that I would ever come into contact with the gaming world myself. I met Hank at Barcade, a bar in Brooklyn that has tons of classic arcade games. Hank would come in after work in his scrubs to practice playing Donkey Kong, and we became friends. I asked him to be part of a feature documentary project that I was working on called “The Regulars,” about 5 or 6 of the regulars at Barcade. Hank was the first one that I started following around with my camera. A few months into filming he broke the record, and it seemed silly to not just continue with his story since it was such an exciting time. That's how Doctor Kong was born!
Ian: As a documentary filmmaker, was it challenging to do a film revolving around the Donkey Kong arcade battle, even if it just focused on one man and his journey to become champion?
Alexis: Not really. As soon as I decided to focus on Hank, I knew the story would be a short focused on him. I didn’t want to tell the story of all of the ins and out of the drama between players, because that story has been told already.
Ian: I know that Doctor Kong has been in production for a while, but exactly how long have you been working on the project and have you been recording every single moment when Hank has attempted to do a record attempt or have you chosen to do limited footage and focus more on the interview side of things, whether it’s with Hank or other folks?
Alexis: I’ve been working on it since November 2009, so it took a little over a year to finish. The filming was on and off, I definitely have hours and hours of footage that I didn’t use. Hank usually filmed his own record attempts, and then I would get the footage from his camera afterwards.
Ian: What sort of things did you want to do to differentiate your film from what director Seth Gordon did with the 2007 film “Kings of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters”? While the “Kings of Kong” is a film that’s loved and appreciated by gamers, it has gotten a reputation in some circles for using editing to paint certain people in an ill manner, and further play up the dramatic side of things. Obviously such a thing isn’t the case with Doctor Kong, but did you worry that people may put Doctor Kong under the same slightly dramatized umbrella?
Alexis: No, I didn’t worry about that because I knew that this film was going to be pretty drama free. That’s the good thing about a short movie, it can sustain itself without the same kind of drama that a feature may need…
Ian: Out of the time you’ve spent with Hank chronicling his journey and the fandom that surrounds him as the Donkey Kong champ, what have you found to be the most fascinating? Do you ever find it trippy that both gamers and the mainstream press across the globe are fascinated over someone breaking a record for an arcade game that’s over twenty-five years old, or do you think such attention is given because of the ever-growing nature video games have as part of our culture?
Alexis: For me watching Hank in surgery was probably the most trippy experience of filming. In college I was premed, and I just kept thinking to myself, “Thank God I didn’t go to medical school, thank God I didn’t go to medical school!” In answer to your question about Hank’s fandom, I definitely think it is fascinating. I also think it is so awesome that people can have him as a role model to look up to! He's a smart, accomplished and genuinely nice guy who has an awesome talent. We need more of those positive role models around.
Ian: Previously you did a documentary about a relationship between a father and son and now you have Doctor Kong. Obviously you may not want to pigeon hole yourself into one category as a filmmaker, but would you ever want to do another video game based documentary, and if so what sort of topic would you want to tackle next?
Alexis: Nice use of “pigeon hole.” :) I don’t have any plans as of now to do any other video game pieces, but you never know!
Ian: Since this is your second documentary, did your prior experience with “Coney Island’s For the Birds” help you to put together Doctor Kong, and if so in what ways did your previous project help you improve and become a better filmmaker?
Alexis: Yes, I think we are always growing and learning from previous experiences. The main difference with this movie was that I learned I didn’t have to do everything myself! I worked with a great editor this time around, and I really enjoyed that collaboration.
Ian: With your film and “King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters”, what do you think could be next for the Donkey Kong documentary saga? Do you think someone else will step up and take another stab at covering the never ending battle between Donkey Kong arcade players, or do you think all the stories have been told now that you’ve shown how things have been with the journey Hank has taken?
Alexis: There are always more stories to tell! As long as the game is around there will be new people trying to beat the record, I’m excited to see what comes next!
Ian: Right now Doctor Kong is making the circuits at a few events, one of which will be at the Midwest Gaming Classic at the end of March. When can people across the U.S. and overseas be able to watch Doctor Kong? Are there any plans for a theatrical or home distribution release or will the film be posted online someplace?
Alexis: For now the film is making the rounds at gaming events and film festivals. People can go to our website (doctorkongthemovie.com) or our facebook page to keep up with screenings and request a copy of the movie.
Interview with Hank Chien
Ian: Obviously you don’t have a problem talking about your accomplishments in Donkey Kong, but did you have any apprehensions about a documentary being made about your quest to become the Donkey Kong champion? Specifically did you have any worries that things in the documentary may be overly edited, as they apparently were in “King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters”?
Hank: When Alexis first approached me about a documentary, I was a bit apprehensive. In fact, the first question I asked her was "Will it portray me in a positive light?" At that point in time I already knew Alexis for a few
months and I knew she is a positive person. I just wanted to be sure there wouldn't be any negativity or controversy surrounding my name. So yes, it was definitely a concern, but I think she did an outstanding job of telling a positive story about such a controversial record.
Ian: Compared to the other Donkey Kong and classic arcade players out there, you literally came out of nowhere to upset both Steve Wiebe and Billy Mitchell to be the current DK champ. From what I’ve seen as an outsider, the community of classic arcade players seems to be a tightknit group so when you came onto the scene was there a vibe of “Who the hell is this guy?” or were they generally happy that you came on to the scene, even if you were a competitor?
Hank: Although to the general public, it appeared that I came out of nowhere, I can assure you that I put in the hours necessary to become good at Donkey Kong. There are literally hundreds or thousands of people playing Donkey Kong now; it's hard to know who's going to be the next world record holder. A lot of my earlier scores
were public but they received little attention. For example, do you know who's 4th on the Donkey Kong scoreboard? Since most of the hardcore classic arcade gamers saw my progression, I don't think many of them doubted my scores. For the most part, I was welcomed with open arms into the community. I have to say there were some that were skeptical, but I've played live enough times that I think I've alleviated any doubts within the community.
Ian: Having jumped into Donkey Kong playing fairly recently, how has the battle between Billy Mitchell and Steve Wiebe helped you any, at least in terms of learning tactics or picking things up?
Hank: Early on, I learned how to play on my own. At the time, there were only a very few youtube videos and a few tips in the King of Kong and on the internet that helped. It wasn't until after my first killscreen that I started meeting people in real life who were able to point me to available resources. I haven't seen much of
Billy Mitchell's gameplay, but I did watch a couple of Steve Wiebe's million point games when I was shooting for a million myself.
I was able to pick up a few things in his game and but mainly I discovered that we played very similarly-- conservatively! There were also a couple of players that were streaming their games online and sharing tips over the internet which were very influential. For the most part though, everyone has their own style. We all learn from one another, but we all play our own unique game.
Ian: Since you have a rather serious profession, how much time are you able to dedicate to practicing Donkey Kong or even doing things like the world record attempts?
Hank: When I started playing Donkey Kong, I was only working part time and I was starting a new office. I was waiting around a lot-- waiting for the bank loan to be approved, getting permits, waiting for contractors, etc. Back then I had a lot of free time. Ironically, now that my gameplay is so public, I have very little time to practice. I would say I average an hour a day of practice, but there are months where I barely play at all and there are days where I practice the entire day. Basically I squeeze it around my work schedule.
Ian: What has it been like to see such a key aspect of your life documented for all to see? Is it a bit trippy to see moments that have happened in the past from a different view point or has it been interesting to perhaps get more insight and perspective on just how huge things have gotten for you?
Hank: It was a lot of fun seeing that part of my life on screen. It was a very crucial period in my Donkey Kong journey and I'm so glad it's permanently documented. It's something I can show my grandkids someday. I don't think I've changed much as a person though. The only difference is back then I could walk into Funspot and go unnoticed. Now I'll usually have a couple of people coming up to me to congratule me or ask for my picture or autograph. It's kind of neat.
Ian: As of now pending any sudden upsets, you’re the current Donkey Kong champion and you could very well be the champ for quite some time unless Billy Mitchell and Steve Wiebe stage a huge comeback. But if you were to lose
your mantle as the King of Kong, would you want to stage a comeback and reclaim the title or would you prefer to graciously step back having held the crown only twice?
Hank: The current world record is very beatable so I know it's only a matter of time before it gets broken by me, Steve Wiebe, Billy Mitchell, or a number of other competitors. My goal isn't to keep the world record forever. I will stop playing when it's no longer fun and it will no longer be fun when I stop improving. I just want to put up my best game and retire.
Ian: The Kong Off is later this month and it’s shaping up to be a huge event in the Donkey Kong world since you, Steve Wiebe and Billy Mitchell are set to attend. What exactly are you expecting from the Kong Off in terms of the vibe the event will have? Are you going into the event with a lot on your mind seeing as how you basically
have a target on your chest, or are you just going to chill out and enjoy the event for what it is?
Hank: I'm looking forward to the Kong Off. It will be the first Donkey Kong competition to attract such high caliber players. I know Richie Knucklez, the organizer, very well and I've been to his place several times. He is a very high energy guy, so I know this event will mirror his personality. My main goal is to have fun there. It would be nice to win too, but Donkey Kong is a game of both skill and luck. The caliber of the 10 players is high enough that on any given weekend any one of those players could win. I won't think any better or worse of the person who comes in first or last.
Ian: Even though you experienced all of the stuff in the documentary, what’s the one thing that you found to be the most entertaining or were just happy to see turn out the way it did?
Hank: The documentary was so well done that I can't say I didn't like any scene. In fact my favorite scene keeps changing. Currently, I like the scene where I'm telling the story of when I broke the world record. The music and the editing were a perfect lead-in to the climax. Oops I just spoiled the documentary for you.
Ian: With Doctor Kong under your belt and being the King of Kong, what’s next for you besides the Kong Off?
Hank: I'm just taking it one step at a time for now. I've received a few offers to appear at events or on TV or to be a guest speaker, but nothing is set in stone yet. Oh, I also have a "Team Chien" T-shirt coming out. Thanks to Zach Kaplan for organizing a T-shirt design competition for me and to Patrick Stanley who won!
I would like to thank both Alexis and Hank for taking some time out to discuss Doctor Kong. You can stay up to date with the latest updates on the film via the official Doctor Kong website. Additionally, those that are interested in the Kong Off can listen to the event this Saturday on Sirius XM Radio as The Virus Channel 202 will be broadcasting live from the event.