Spellbound: Finding the American Dream in the Dictionary

When Sean Welch’s friend of 10 years first approached him with his idea for a documentary film on kids competing for the National Spelling Bee title, Welch wasn’t overcome with excitement. Spelling Bees don’t normally conjure thoughts of high drama and suspense. It wasn’t until director Jeff Blitz invited his friend to dinner six months later that Welch was sold on the story.

“The entire wall of his apartment was covered with three dozen spellers and their bios, computer photos, their parents’ bios, a map of the U.S with pushpins indicating where these spellers lived and post-its with his hand-written notes,” says Welch. “Jeff was like a Vegas odds-maker. As best he could he handicapped the kids in terms of reaching the National Bee.” Blitz had cracked into the sub-culture of the spelling bee spending months of research to come up with a list of likely National Spelling Bee candidates that also took into consideration where they lived and their cultural, social and economic backgrounds. “I was just overwhelmed by his dedication and hard work. He started to describe the patchwork of the documentary as he saw it and said that if these stories unfold into more heartwarming, intriguing – more humorous- than what’s on paper, we may have something here.”

Impressed with his friend’s vision and fascinated by the story’s prospects, Welch signed on as producer. Four years and fourteen credit cards later, Blitz and Welch would be at the Academy Awards waiting for Spellbound to be read as a nominee for Best Documentary. “We had no idea this would happen,” says Welch, a tone of disbelief still lingering in his voice despite all the awards, festivals and press coverage.

Spellbound presents the intense, behind-the-scenes experience of the National Spelling Bee as illustrated by the stories of eight highly-motivated and very diverse spellers as they make their way to the competition in Washington D.C. January through May 1999, Blitz, shooting with an XL1 and Welch, recording sound, crisscrossed the country filming 12 spellers and their families in their bid for the national title. “We weren’t sure what we were going to uncover or discover crisscrossing the country,” says Welch. The not knowing part naturally included the built-in obstacles to make things more interesting. Blitz and Welch flew to Missouri to begin shooting two spellers, Georgie and John, and their families who had agreed to be profiled. When they arrived the organizers of Georgie’s Regional Bee would only allow them to film Georgie. The restriction meant very limited footage. To make matters more difficult, Georgie’s family decided the documentary was interfering with his studies and quietly backed out of participating. Next was John, who the filmmakers hoped would propel them over their first hurdle. The journey’s most natural disaster happened – John misspelled a word (“monotonous”) and failed to win his regional Bee. “There we were and our first subject backed out and our second one misspells a word,” laughs Welch. As testament to the team’s perseverance, he quickly points out, “But it was great – that’s how we met Ted who had a great story and is one of the spellers featured in the movie.”

The duo continued from the countryside to the suburbs to the inner city ultimately presenting the audience with a rich tapestry of American life and the American family. “In watching it now, I feel that although Spellbound focuses on the Spelling Bee, it really focuses on American family, education and above all the American dream,” says Welch.

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Like pro-athletes, the spellers relentlessly train for the Big Dance in May; each with their own motivation, family dynamic and style. Sometimes funny, sometimes heartbreaking, the window into their private lives shows the audience the breadth and depth of effort and discipline that the spellers must endure to compete at a national level. Training includes hours of daily study and memorization as the kids learn thousands of words, word origins and root languages. The inclination to think spelling is a skill of the past given computer spell-checkers, is to miss the nuances of the Bee says Blitz. “[These kids] learn the value of determination. [They] are usually self-starters whose energy and devotion are rewarded with participation in the Bee, with meeting like-minded kids and with being treated like champions, win or lose.”

Less you think the National Bee is as compelling as watching paint dry — the Bee is covered on ESPN complete with commentators and if you’re not gripping the arms of your seat rooting for each kid to take the dictionary to the mat with an intensity usually reserved for moments of 9th inning playoff ties or one-point games with two seconds on the clock — you’re not breathing. Incidentally, when you watch the movie (and you absolutely should) count how many times you’re trying to spell words along with the kids — and are wrong. Now imagine that on stage in front of a few hundred people, TV cameras and those tuning in at home and you’ll have an inkling of what these kids face.

Such drama raises the filmmakers’ ethical challenge: how do I film and portray children in their moments of great vulnerability without embarrassing or exploiting them? Mix in their personal lives complete with parental idiosyncrasies and baggage (again, imagine being 12 and having your parents on camera) and you have a recipe for humor at the expense of a kid’s esteem. “We wanted to portray [the kids] as they saw them and as their relatives and friends saw them and that hopefully that’s how they saw themselves,” says Welch. “Kids say brilliant things, funny things and they do all those things as well and that was something we didn’t want to shy away from. Their parents do the same thing and they told us that too.”

As a testament to Welch and Blitz’s ability to walk a thin line between humiliation and touching humor, both are still in touch with the families, who often attend festival screenings. “Over the course of four years we have developed strong and compassionate relationships with all the subjects of our film.” says Welch. “They love the film and are elated at their new celebrity.”

Once production was complete, Blitz set up Final Cut Pro in his apartment and brought on editor Yana Gorsky, while Welch turned his attention to fund raising. Welch, who lives in the same apartment complex as Blitz, would check in occasionally but firmly believed in his friend’s ability to tell the story and knew the team didn’t need a third cook looking over their shoulders. “[Jeff and I] have a unique relationship in that there is no struggle for creative control. Jeff is a masterful storyteller. He has a compassionate ability to show the human side of each person and each story in general.” Such egolessness and trust isn’t often found during the filmmaking process. In fact, the belief that Welch has in Blitz is part of what drives him. “It’s fun for me to see my close friend achieve his goals and for me to facilitate that — I’m going to be pleased,” he explains.

Eventually the 12 Welch and Blitz followed would be narrowed to the eight featured in the film. “Early cuts had all 12 and it was too difficult to follow all the characters. And then there were less than eight – and a different eight,” says Welch. “It was painstakingly difficult [but] Jeff and Yana felt the eight that we feature really was comprised of the mosaic as they felt it coming together. It was just a gut feeling.”

“One thing interesting to me,” says Welch, “is our how our story as filmmakers parallels that of the spellers. With dedication and hard work and focus – it doesn’t guarantee you an Oscar nomination – or the championship – but it does allow for more possibility of creating those opportunities.” At a time when image is often put before substance, it is comforting to find a story of the American Dream in the creative realm of cinema that isn’t make believe. Even more hopeful is the fact that it is present both in front and behind the camera.

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