Exclusive Interview: Director Collective SALAZAR on Pinball Player Documentary WIZARD MODE

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SHOCK talks to filmmakers SALAZAR about their mesmerizing document of pinball champ Robert Gagno.

There are 40,000+ registered competitive pinball players in the world, and Robert Emilio Gagno (high core initials: “REG”, if you’re hanging around the pinball machines in Vancouver bars) is one of the very, very best. Robert is 27 years old, from Burnaby, BC, Canada. He suffers from autism. WIZARD MODE is his story.

A remarkable insight into the particularly niche (and overwhelmingly male) culture of competitive pinball, WIZARD MODE gets deep into the reflexive world tournament circuit, but the focus is unwaveringly on this one pinball wizard’s day-to-day struggles with life and its strange details. Through direct interviews with Robert and his supportive and understanding parents Kathy and Maurizio, home video from Robert’s childhood, and just hanging back and observing at world-class battles like Pinburgh, in Pittsburgh, PA, and other stops on the PAPA (Professional & Amateur Pinball Association) circuit, we get a scope of what life for & with Robert means, its complications and victories.

WIZARD MODE follows a year and a half of Robert training, competing, analyzing, obsessing, upping his mastery of the game. Meanwhile, Robert struggles to accomplish some basic life steps, like getting a job, driving a car, building friendships, grocery shopping and living with greater independence. It’s an inspiring family saga that’s often squirm-inducing and awkward. Scenes with a job counselor, or having to watch Robert on a losing streak, are intense.

The artistry is in the way the filmmakers – first time feature directing duo Nathan Drillot and Jeff Petry, collectively known by their company moniker SALAZAR – illustrate Robert’s condition. Robert is able to clearly, intellectually verbalize his own condition, even if he can’t always alter it. The filmmakers pair Robert’s lucid narration with dizzying vertigos of Robert and his pinball machine tumbling to blackness, as Robert describes the spiraling sensation of a loss of control, or of seeing the world in color schemes dependent on his mood. We feel Robert’s anxiety when struggling to read confusing facial expressions and non-verbal cues. WIZARD MODE changed my understanding of life on the autism spectrum, and on top of that the pinball action rules. The experience is heightened enormously by the music of talented BC composer Edo Van Breeman (of Brasstronaut).

WIZARD MODE takes its name from the ultimate pinball level-up, unlocked only after completing a plethora of other complicated tasks – unlocking all the multiballs, all the super jackpots, and so on. The hardest ‘Wizard Mode’ to crack is The Simpsons Pinball Party, a game fabled for its difficulty. It’s so damn grueling that no one has ever actually quantifiably confirmed unlocking its ‘Wizard Mode’. So Robert’s dad purchases a unit, which Robert works at it every day for six months, finally achieving the impossible (somehow calling his dad in the middle of the game to hurry home and film it for posterity). This laser beam focus is Robert’s approach to life.

As recounted by Maurizio, Robert’s first pinball experience was a Twilight Zone cabinet at Wally’s Burgers, the iconic (now demolished) burger joint, for many years the final bastion of the old main drag that led into Vancouver before the highway was built. By ten years old, his parents bought him a machine of his own (Whirlwind). At first they didn’t realize his obsession and evident talent with pinball and videos games had any connection to his diagnosed autism.

WIZARD MODE follows an obsessive male outsider in a culture of obsessive male outsiders, and many of the film’s best moments contrast life with Kathy and Maurizio by his side versus Robert forging out on his own. Compare the tournaments where Robert has his supportive father’s thoughtful words of encouragement when a ball falls wrong, versus the tournaments where Robert travels alone – happy to be independent – but his anxious analysis of a bad game falling on deaf and indifferent ears, leaving him in a convention centre of pinball machines and ace players, totally alone.

A surprising, sometimes distressing, informative ride, and evocative of MARWENCOL (2010), another remarkable doc about a genius of his art wrestling with very real mental blocks, WIZARD MODE is a great road trip/mental health/subculture emersion. If pinball is your thing, obviously it’s a smorgasbord of blinking, clinking stimuli and essential viewing. On the eve of the film’s world premiere at Hot Docs in Toronto – interestingly, the city where Robert competed in his first pinball competition at the age of 19 – SHOCK TILL YOU DROP speaks with co-directors Nathan Drillot and Jeff Petry about what it’s like to hang with a wizard.

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SHOCK: How did you become acquainted with Robert and his family and be allowed such personal access to their lives over the course of a year? And when filming Robert on his first solo trips to international pinball competitions without his parents, did you act as his chaperone of sorts?

SALAZAR (aka Nathan Drillot and Jeff Petry): We learned of Robert through a friend who had read about him in an article from a local paper. Then after some asking around we heard stories from friends who would see Robert play at the Cobalt or the Library Square or Pub 340, and they’d really talk like he was legend: “His initials (REG) are on most of the machines,” “He destroys everyone he comes up against,” “He’s the best in the city/the country,” and on and on.

Soon after finding all this out we went to meet Robert and his family to talk to them about what we wanted to accomplish with Wizard Mode and they were immediately receptive to the idea of the film not only following a champion on the rise, but also a portrait of this time in Robert’s life – essentially his journey into adulthood. Kathy and Maurizio have always been such forward thinking, determined parents in the way that they‘ve approached Robert’s autism (with a certain defiance) and what they were told he may or may not accomplish in life, that I think its in the DNA of the family to challenge stereotypes and perceived norms. Robert himself wants nothing more that for you to just see through the labels of autism and encounter him as the warm, personable, extremely funny, interesting person that his is.

Once we started filming with Robert and hanging out with him, we both realized that we weren’t going to just walk away from WIZARD MODE after it was finished, but that Robert was going to be a friend in our lives for a good long time. We’ve done many trips together now, and we think it’s really great that we were (and the film was) a part of some of those first steps, but we never considered ourselves chaperones, it was really just traveling as friends. It was only challenging when we would go to tournaments and we would be having to film and act as coach, a job Maurizio usually does, the pressure was incredible and really speaks to the bond those two have.

SHOCK: ‘Pinball Wizard’, the song – a version is used at the end of the film, and of course it’s referenced in most articles about Robert. How does he feel about the almost unavoidable association to The Who’s “deaf, dumb and blind kid” who is a pinball master? And was PINBALL WIZARD an original title choice, or was it always going to be WIZARD MODE?

SALAZAR: The title was always WIZARD MODE. It’s just such a great metaphor for Robert in this stage of his life. I can’t really speak to Robert’s feeling towards the association, but when we first started working on WIZARD MODE we’d be telling people about Robert and inevitably someone would bring up the ‘Pinball Wizard’ reference, truth be told it came to our minds as well. It’s an innocent cultural association. But when we went back to the song and read the lyrics, we quickly realized that this association is counter the message of our film – that each person has the right to be seen beyond the label of a disability, each person’s experiences are unique, and not lumping disability into one big pile, etc. So we approached Dave Hartley (from The War on Drugs) who is a big pinball fan about doing a cover of the song and we all worked to change the lyrics to ‘That half jacket whiz kid’ something specific to Robert and something only the pinball community would know the meaning of. We saw it as an opportunity to gently challenge that association.

SHOCK: Robert always has headphones on while playing a serious game. What is his music of choice for getting “in the zone”?

SALAZAR: Robert always likes to joke around when people ask him this question and tell people that it’s for him to know and them to guess! But we’ll share a bit of insider info and let you know that he’s partial to Bryan Adams, ABBA, and Queen.

SHOCK: The film is structurally interesting in that within the first 20 minutes you’ve already wrapped up a huge competition that could be the film’s climactic battle. Later victories are almost a blip compared to the more mundane milestones, like getting a job. Can you discuss this a little bit? How you started with pinball action, then get more personal? Is the edit of the film more or less chronological from when you began working with Robert?

SALAZAR: One of Robert’s biggest challenges in life is figuring out how to balance the rigorous demands of professional pinball with his quest for independence and adult responsibilities. In order to maintain his high world ranking Robert on average plays tournaments 25 to 30 weekends out of the year. That’s a massive commitment. From the very beginning, Robert expressed how important it is to him to not just be a pinball success but to be successful in life. The difficult part is life and pinball don’t always play well together. Our hope was to show these challenges and how Robert has to overcome them in the same ways everyone has to find balance in their lives. It’s almost like becoming a pinball champion was the easy part for Robert and now the true challenge is the real life stuff like getting a job, meeting friends, and becoming independent. We chose to start with IFPA and Pinburgh 2014 to because the tournaments allowed us to introduce pinball in an exciting environment with real stakes and emotions. The majority of the tournaments and the events in the film happen in the same chronological order that they happened in real life. The first tournament we went to with Robert was Pinburgh 2014.

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SHOCK: This film was particularly insightful about the nature of a certain form of autism – really lasting stuff for me was the section on appropriate hugging, and Robert’s internet hug research, about the vertigo that comes with a loss of control, about trying to read facial expressions for details that make little sense, and also Robert describing seeing the world in different colors based on his mood. How did you decide on the visual/audio ideas to illustrate these, and what do Robert or other people dealing with autism (and professionals) feel about the way the condition is represented in the film?

SALAZAR: Before we even started filming WIZARD MODE we knew it was going to be important to create visual metaphors to help the audience understand and empathize with Robert’s descriptions of what living on the autism spectrum feels like.  In order to illustrate these we spent a lot of time talking to Robert over and over again about how he perceives the world and listening to his perspective. The void, the scene where he’s playing pinball in the blacked out room, came directly from Robert’s description of what being in the zone while playing pinball felt like. We realized that his singular focus can be both a positive and negative feeling. That’s part of the reason why it’s used both at positive points in the film as well as intense, stressful scenes. In regards to facial expressions and social cues that was an area that we knew had to be included in the film. It was really important for us to give the audience an accurate example of how Robert feels when he’s interacting with people socially. We chose to use slow motion to help elongate each action so that it would be easier for the audience to really think about what is happening on screen.

We’ve yet to show the film to anyone on the spectrum besides Robert. So I can only tell you what his reaction was. Robert likes the film and is excited to share his perspectives on life. One of the things that Robert has said to us over and over again is that he wishes that when he met a stranger that they would engage with him as Robert first instead of immediately placing a label on him. Often he feels people engage the autism label before he even has a chance to open his mouth. I know that Robert is optimistic that the film will encourage people to move past labels and experienced people for who they are.

SHOCK: Is it fun to play pinball vs. Robert? Seems really intense! And do you know what are some of his favorite games (maybe a Top 5 list)?

SALAZAR: Playing pinball and trying to win against Robert is an exercise in futility. It’s best at our skill level to watch and learn from the master. Robert has been coaching us on our pinball skills since the first night we met him and I’d like to think that he’s seen an improvement over the last 2 years. He’s a very accurate player that likes to control the ball so in particular he’s help us with our flipper skills and drop catches. We feel really lucky to be able to play with the World Champion of Pinball all the time!

Robert’s Top 5 games are: Whirlwind, Dirty Harry, Metallica, Medieval Madness, World Cup Soccer

Nathan & Jeff’s Top 5 games are: Blacknight, Addams Family, Arabian Nights, Game of Thrones, Jungle Lord

WIZARD MODE has its world premiere, Monday, May 2nd as part of the 2016 Hot Docs Film Festival in Toronto, with additional screenings on Wednesday, May 4th, and Saturday, May 7th.

POST-SCRIPT:

If WIZARD MODE has a failing, it’s that the ending is loose, the last section feeling more like snippets, general updates rather than a cohesive wrap up to a propulsive narrative. But a few weeks ago, the climax happened for real. In April 2016, Robert Gagno won the Professional & Amateur Pinball Association (PAPA) World Championships, making him top of the world and the current holder of the grotesque and amazing 30-pound, four-armed Martian Trophy, modeled after a figuring from the Attack From Mars pinball cabinet.

For more on the film visit the official WIZARD MODE website and TWITTER page.

Robert Gagno can be found on TWITTER here.