When professional crossword constructor Merle Reagle first appears in “Wordplay,” he’s inhaling food at a beloved, Tampa-based greasy spoon. In Seattle, where Reagle is promoting the film at SIFF 2006 with director Patrick Creadon, the bearded, bespectacled wordsmith juggles press interviews between bites of a Greek gyro. “I did a puzzle once called ‘Worst Menu Typos,’” he reveals, a bit embarrassed by the messy meal. “One entry was Maryland Crap Cakes. There are some newspapers like Seattle, San Francisco, and L.A. that really wouldn’t bat an eye at that. But other places might say, ‘For our fun page, I don’t know if Crap Cakes is really appropriate.’
“I did another puzzle called ‘Names of Foods that Should Have Stayed in the Naming Department for at Least another Week,’ like Cheez Whiz, Grey Poupon, and Sticky Buns. The one I absolutely could not use was Black Bottom Pie. That crossed the line.”
Imagine a cuddly, teddy bear of a man with the mind of a Jeopardy ace, and you’ve got some idea of Reagle’s charisma. He is to crossword puzzles what Jack Black is to eyebrow acrobatics. One of a select few crossword creators who actually makes a living from this decidedly uncommon talent, Reagle’s puzzles emblazon many of America’s most respected newspapers. “Merle has thousands of 3 x 5 cards all around his house,” reveals Creadon admiringly. “They’re neatly stacked, and consist of little daily observations. He’ll write them down, and eventually find a way to use them in his crosswords.”
“They might be re-spelled puns, like, ‘You picked a fine time to leave me, loose wheel,’” explains Reagle. “There are regular puns, like, ‘Sitting on the board of directors.’ As in, ‘This is how a fat guy gets his way.’ That’s how it’s normally spelled. There’s no spelling change. There are also letter drops. Like, ‘Ire extinguisher.’ When a person gets rowdy on a plane, you shoot ‘em with one of these. I might use an ‘add-a-letter,’ like, ‘Cast thy bread upon the waiters.’ As in, overreacting to bad service. Or, you might switch two letters around. Instead of amino acid, you have ‘Am I on acid?’”
Reagle’s quick-witted insights loom large in “Wordplay.” But the film’s central presence is Will Shortz, Crossword Puzzle Editor for the New York Times, and “Puzzle Master” for National Public Radio. “Daily Show” host Jon Stewart calls Shortz “the Erroll Flynn of crossword puzzles.” Through interviews with the smiling, mustachioed Enigmatology Major, viewers learn that over 50 million Americans put pencil (or pen, if they’re feeling cocky) to newsprint-stained paper each week, following clues and scribbling in answers. As documentary filmmaker Ken Burns reveals in the film, “I don’t drink coffee, smoke cigarettes, or need a drink at the end of the day. What I need to do is the New York Times Crossword Puzzle, in ink, every day.”
What gives crossword solving its addictive allure? Many of the famous faces from “Wordplay” use crosswords as a metaphor for their livelihoods. “You have to find some aspect you understand,” says an onscreen Bill Clinton, comparing puzzle play to solving problems in office. “Then you build on it until you can unravel the mystery.”
Meanwhile, former Times Public Editor Daniel Okrent suggests that the best crossword solvers are often musicians or math professionals. “I think it’s their ability to assimilate a lot of coded information instantly,” he explains.
“Wordplay” catches many of these gifted puzzleheads in action at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, an annual event coordinated by Shortz. Sound like a snooze? Not the way Creadon and graphic designer Brian Oakes stage the competition. Viewers virtually plunge into the squares. “We wanted to make it look and feel like you’re flying through a puzzle,” describes Creadon. “Because people hunched over a piece of paper scribbling is just not that interesting. Brian knocked it out of the park. His work is outstanding.”
“Wordplay” might be the name of their film, but the phrase also describes an interview with Creadon and Reagle. Physically, Reagle appears short, stout, and hairy. Creadon stands taller, with white-collar, clean-cut looks. Together, they’re the Laurel and Hardy of the puzzlehead world. Whatever their physical contrasts, both “Wordplay” talents share a pleasant, shrewd gift for gab, employing a diplomatic, give-and-take style of answering questions. With the types of elegant verbal choices that might fill a championship crossword puzzle, both wordsmiths share their insights, revealing how crossword puzzles bring people closer together.
Merle, I understand that you are a film fan, in addition to being a crossword fan.
Merle: Yeah, I’m a gigantic film fan. Probably older films, more than current films.
Patrick: Merle does a puzzle called “Bad Double Features,” or “Movies that Should Never Be Shown Together”…
Merle: Like “Soapdish”/”Hair.” Or “Driving Miss Daisy”/”Nuts.”
Is there a difference between how puzzleheads and non-puzzleheads react to the film?
Patrick: Puzzleheads are bowled over by the movie. They say, finally, this is a movie that appeals to use, and the way out brains work. And that wasn’t surprising. We expected that. What was a surprise was the response from non-puzzle people, who love it. They say, I’m gonna pick up a newspaper this week, and find Merle’s puzzle on Sunday, or I’m gonna pick up the New York Times puzzle and solve it.
One of the most pleasant surprises what when John Cooper, a programmer at Sundance, called and said, “Congratulations. You’re going to Sundance and I must tell you that I’ve never done a crossword in my life and probably never will do a crossword. But I love your film.” That was our ultimate goal. Not to make a crossword puzzle movie, but just to make a good movie.
Merle: So the short answer to your questions is that there’s virtually no difference between the puzzleheads and the people who don’t solve puzzles. It’s an entertaining film no matter what your background is.
Some people might wonder how crossword puzzles can possibly be cinematic. How did you create such an interesting film, knowing that your subject might be perceived as boring?
Merle: Focus on the people!
Patrick: Absolutely! It was always about the people.
Merle, can you give an overview of the crossword constructor subculture?
Merle: I think Will Shortz mentions in the movie that he uses maybe 110 constructors a year for the New York Times. There’s 365 days in a year, so that averages out to one person doing three puzzles a year. I think overall, there are 500 total constructors in the country.
Professionals who do this…?
Merle: Well, even casual ones. You say professional, but none of them make very much money. They hardly make any money at it. I think for a daily, it’s $150 dollars. Up until last year, the New York Times’ Sunday puzzle paid $350 dollars. But Will got it up to $700 dollars. Now, when you make a puzzle for the Sunday Times, you can make that. Not that it’s serious money. And it’s not like one person makes that every week, because you’re rotated out. You’re lucky to have a puzzle in once every two months in the Sunday paper. But in general, it’s not a moneymaking deal. There are probably three people in total who actually are ‘constructing people’ – puzzlemakers who make a living off of crosswords, purely.
Patrick: Merle is one of them.
Merle: I’m syndicated in newspapers. I make one puzzle a week, and twenty newspapers pay for it. They all pay what they can pay, based on circulation. After they do it, I own all the rights again. Six years later, they come out in book form, and we make money off the book. So we have a system whereby we can generate a livable income. Most constructors can’t do that. They either make a ton of puzzles for T.V. Guide, Dell Crossword Magazines, the New York Times, and other places… but unless you just love making a lot of puzzles, which I don’t think most constructors do, it’s hard to make a living at it. I’m one of the privileged few. I’m just glad I can do what I can do.
Patrick: A lot of people do it mainly as a hobby. Just for fun. Getting a puzzle published anywhere is exciting. Getting a puzzle into the Times is a big deal.
How old was Merle when he completed his first puzzle?
Merle: Sixteen, in 1966. For twenty years, I was the youngest constructor ever. I was a puzzle kid. If I had even thought about it, I probably could have submitted a puzzle to the Times when I was twelve. Now, with the Internet, there’s a web site where all the crossword people hang out. Any newbie who comes along can now go to this site and get tons of advice. You can find out what all the rates are, through all the newspaper outlets. All this stuff was unheard of to me when I was twelve. Anyone who wants to try their hand at crossword puzzles has a leg up now, with web information and books available.
Partrick: Will Shortz has been a big factor in making the puzzles young, and a little more pop culture based. Now, they appeal to a broader audience. Will – and Merle as well – have always felt that crossword puzzles should be a game. They shouldn’t be a test. They should be a game that people like to have fun with and play. I think that’s the reason a guy like Tyler Hinman does crossword puzzles. Not only does he love to do them, but also he’s unbelievably good at them.
Keep it entertaining, and not scholarly and stuffy…
Patrick: Exactly! That’s kind of boring.
Merle: It can be a little bit stuffy. Like Jeopardy on a page. You find geography on Jeopardy, but you also find tough T.V. trivia.
You mentioned earlier that the focus on people in the film was very important. There was a poignant moment involving Ellen Ripstein, talking about how much it meant to her to win the competition. She said she had a boyfriend once who put her down, and she said, “What are you the best at the country at?”
Patrick: (Laughs) We think that’s the best line in the movie!
Do you feel as though documentaries like your film validate individuals in our society who have unconventional talents? We’ve got “Spellbound,” “Akela and the Bee,” and now “Wordplay,” acknowledging talented people other than professional athletes.
Merle: And there’s also Bill Gates, being a nerd at school but being a billionaire now.
Patrick: There’s passion and drama everywhere. You have to look in the right places for it. There’s a lot of passion in the Super Bowl every year. That’s great. The problem is, there are other Super Bowls going on every single day, all around the world. The documentary filmmaker can shine a light on a group of people that maybe no one else has ever shined a light on before. My wife and I really enjoy crossword puzzles. Christine O’Malley, the film’s producer, is my wife. I think there’s sort of a normal human desire to find something special and want to share it with other people, and say, ‘Look at this thing!’ That’s at the core of what we set out to do. We said, this is something we like to do. It was almost a movie for people who don’t do crosswords, just to explain it to them.
Merle: It really does put the kebash on a lot of myths about crosswords and crossword fans.
Patrick: Shatters them!
Merle: Right. It’s not just a bunch of little nerds who solve crosswords. There’s some of that. But why do people like them? What is behind them? What makes them? It’s not computers. People actually make them. It’s not a mystique, so much, but there are misinformed ideas about what crossword puzzles are. But people walk away from this movie thinking, “This is so unlike what the stereotype in my mind was.” I think crosswords are one of the most misunderstood features in a newspaper, and this will blow the top off of what is misunderstood.
Patrick: To be good at crossword puzzles, you really have to be engaged in the world around you. You cannot live in a shell, or a cave, and be good at these. People who are good at crossword puzzles like to solve problems. They typically read a newspaper and know what’s going on in the world around them. They’re quick-witted. They have a sense of humor. And they don’t mind striking out every now and then. Every once in a while, the puzzle beats them. And that’s okay. Just those few things I’ve mentioned – if you’re a crossword fan and fit those criteria – that’s a great group of people to make a movie about. In fact, the movie is really about people and language. The crossword puzzle just happened to be a fun way of doing that.
Merle: There is a flip side to this. There are boring crossword puzzles. There are uninteresting people who solve them. These do exist. But they are not the norm anymore.
Patrick: Not with Bill Clinton solving them, and John Stewart – maybe the comedian of our time. I’ve seen the film with sold-out audiences all around the country now, and have a pretty good barometer for how it’s playing. “Wordplay” is a total crowd pleaser. People who have never done a crossword and probably never will are still interested in these people and this subject matter.
Merle: Now, they know something they never knew before!
Patrick: Which is what every good documentary should do. There are a lot of documentaries these days that fall into, “This is how I see the world, and how can you be such an idiot to not see it the way I see it?” Some of them are very good. But this is the complete flipside of that kind of movie. This is a movie for everyone. This is not a “divide and conquer” film. This is a united film. That’s why I’m so glad we got our last interview, with Senator Bob Dole. I’m really glad he was in it, because we get people from both sides of the political spectrum, all having a great time talking about a crossword puzzle.
Merle: Look at how good of friends Bob Dole and Bill Clinton are! They’re like an example of how people who disagree should be. Not the polarizing people that we are now.
Patrick: There are a lot of documentaries that have an us against them mentality. That’s not at all what we were doing. We were not trying to make a political statement. We just made a little movie about something that’s fun, and light, and – at the end of the day – not terribly important. But it makes your day a little special. It makes it fun. “Wordplay” is a celebration of that. We’re absolutely, one hundred percent unapologetic about the fact that this movie is a fun little diversion.
It seemed like each of the celebrities in “Wordplay” felt that these puzzles were a metaphor for what they do. Bill Clinton talked about running into problems, and resolving them by finding that one nugget of information that he knows something about, as with solving crosswords.
Patrick: And there was Yankee Pitcher Mike Mussina, saying that some days he wants to finish the puzzle himself, and some days he’s gotta bring in help from the bullpen. (Laughter)
Merle: He also says, “If you can do the Saturday puzzle, you can pretty much handle anything they can throw at you!” (Laughter) The Indigo Girls said, “They connect us.” That’s a perfect word for it. It’s a connecting word puzzle, for one, but it’s also something that connects people.