A chat with the producer of ‘Spellbound’

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    By Lauren Masters

    During his visit to campus Thursday, Oct. 23, “Spellbound” producer Sean Welch sat down with The Daily Universe”s Kyle Monson and Lauren Masters to give the inside scoop on the making of the remarkable documentary. Here”s the word on spelling bees:

    DU: How many kids did you have to follow around to get the footage you wanted?

    Welch: We actually show you eight kids, and we ended up spending time with 12. The kids that we didn”t show you will be additional chapters on the DVD. We would have followed more, but there are regional bees that happen simultaneously throughout the country, and with just two of us on the project, it was logistically impossible. It required us picking and choosing. We feel really fortunate to have had those twelve families say yes to the project. If there had been twelve different families, the film would have been completely different.

    DU: There were just two of you? Were you guys the camera team and everything?

    Welch: Yeah. Prior to this project, neither Jeff (Blitz, the film”s director/co-producer) nor I had ever operated the equipment. We brought the equipment to my apartment and started tinkering with it, and had a friend come over and teach me how to record sound in a day. We played around with it and two days later we hit the road and started filming. It was baptism by fire.

    DU: Did the families know you were beginners?

    Welch: Oh yeah, we told them. So they thought ”yeah, a couple guys out doing a project, OK.”

    DU: What are the odds that one of the kids you were following would make it so far?

    Welch: Well, Jeff did a lot of research leading up to this project. He contacted spelling coaches, regional newspapers, past winners, and asked them for as much information as possible. With all that research, he narrowed the pool down to about three dozen that we were interested in covering. He also took into consideration geographical, economic and socio-economic backgrounds, because there is a wide range of those things represented at the national bee.

    DU: With the success of “Bowling for Columbine,” “Capturing the Freidmans” and “Spellbound,” documentaries are exploding right now. What factors played into such a successful year for documentaries?

    Welch: I”m not sure what I can attribute the success of documentaries this summer to. I”ve certainly thought about it a lot. You never know what you”re going to get. In the case of “Spellbound” and “Capturing the Friedmans,” unlike reality TV, there is no script. The stories are allowed to unfold. When I watch reality TV, there is that formula there.

    DU: What about the chance you”re taking that the twelve kids you took might not make the finals and you end up with a film about semi-finalists?

    Welch: Sure, we knew that was a possibility, but we were committed to the project. We”d always talked about the idea that our spellers would last into the late rounds. If that were the case, by luck, it would make for dramatic, interesting filmmaking. If it had turned out disastrous, we would have come home and looked at whether we felt a film could be made out of this. There was a lot of dumb luck.

    DU: The film”s success has been slowly building up to this point (“Spellbound” had the fifth-highest-grossing theater run for a documentary). How does it feel to be on top?

    Welch: As first timers, we never even figured we”d see the inside of a theater, let alone be number five after some real important, heavy-hitting documentaries.

    DU: Any funny stories?

    Welch: Yeah. Angela from Texas, her parents don”t speak any English. Jeff and I had gone out to spend five days with the family leading up to the regional spelling bee and got some great footage with the family. After the other kids had been knocked out, Angela began to battle with one other speller for 54 sudden death rounds. Jeff and I kept looking at each other and rolling our eyes, thinking, ”What”s going to happen? We have hours and hours of footage, what”s going to happen to the film?” She ends up winning, and there”s part of the documentary the public will never see, because Jeff put down the camera and I put down the microphone and we embraced and began to sob. Her parents were crying and her father came up to me and in Spanish said ”That was really sweet that you two were crying because my daughter won.” I told him in my best Spanish, ”Sir, that is definitely part of the story.”

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