Philadelphia — It took 54 rounds, and to 14-year-old Angela Arenivar the competition seemed to go on forever. When she finally won the Amarillo Bee, her parents, Mexican immigrants who'd come to this country to give their children a better life and still spoke little English, wiped tears from their eyes.
Nearby, two strangers from Los Angeles were also crying. They knew, at last, that they had their movie.
"There was anxiety and pressure on us, as well as the spellers," Sean Welch, co-producer of "Spellbound," recalled over lunch at the Philadelphia Film Festival in April. He and Jeff Blitz, the film's director, had a lot at stake. Their first two attempts to tell the stories of champion spellers had introduced them to the agony of defeat, with one family withdrawing and another candidate failing to win his regional bee. "So," in Angela's case, "we didn't know what would happen," Welch says -- until she pulled out a victory.
An Oscar nominee this year for best documentary feature and the winner of audience and jury awards at film festivals around the world, "Spellbound" -- which opens in Los Angeles on May 16 -- is the unlikeliest of successes. But, then, so are some of the eight contestants, from varied class and ethnic backgrounds, whose quest to win the 72nd annual Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee in 1999 becomes a gently humorous, often inspiring paean to hope and hard work. "I've always been impressed by people who try to do the nearly impossible," says Blitz, who, along with Welch, went into credit-card debt to make his first feature film.
About a spelling bee? At first, even Welch didn't think much of the idea.
"I was dubious," he admits. "Although I have a fascination with words and the English language and Jeff does to a certain extent, I wasn't convinced that the rest of America would be all that interested." But then Blitz, who had already handicapped the best student spellers in the country, showed his friend his voluminous research. The bee would be a backdrop for telling what Welch now calls "these rich and beautifully complex American stories."
"Spellbound" chronicles "the pursuit of the American Dream," explains Angela, 18, now headed for Texas A&M University and a possible career in medicine. "We all have the same goals: to be the last one standing, holding the trophy above the head. And only one can win, but it's great just to be on stage with these people with the same interests as you." In "Spellbound," she says, "you get to know the spellers as people, not as the nerds."
It's not hard to see why all these themes resonated with Blitz, 34, whose mother emigrated from Argentina and whose father's family came from Poland. In an interview conducted by both phone and e-mail, he describes himself as "a lifelong stutterer" who, "contrary to the good sense of everyone around me, decided to become a high school debater." On his first day of debate, the worried coach telephoned his father and said, "What are we going to do here?" Blitz's father backed his son -- who became the state champion.
Blitz later earned undergraduate and graduate degrees in creative writing at Johns Hopkins University and a master's in film production from the University of Southern California. His thesis project, a David Lynch-ish short called "Wonderland," starred actor George Segal, whose address Blitz got from a teacher.
Segal "decided that we should have lunch at this very Euro-trash Beverly Hills restaurant," Blitz says. "It was a kind of audition, I'd say. He ordered some very easy pasta dish for himself, and he ordered a very difficult-to-eat lobster dish for me. I think part of the test was how [well] could I pitch this movie while I was trying to snap a lobster claw." Blitz passed, and the film "did very well at European film festivals."
Welch, who knew Blitz through a friend, had spent his 20s doing carpentry and playing semi-pro soccer in Berkeley. Eventually, he began working as a production assistant on commercials and landed a job on the movie "Crimson Tide." Blitz says he chose Welch, now 38, to co-produce because "he's nearly egoless and ... incredibly hard-working ... and foolhardy enough to gamble going into credit-card debt with me. It takes a wonderful and fearless and deranged type of friend to do that."
Eight spellers followed
Blitz had first stumbled on the bee while watching ESPN, which televises the final rounds, in 1997. He says he knew at once that there was an "American Dream story" to be told.
Beginning with three dozen spellers, chosen on the basis of spelling prowess, socioeconomic and geographic diversity, and their "great stories," the filmmakers whittled the list to 12. (The film, trimmed from more than 160 hours of footage with the help of editor Yana Gorskaya, features eight; the rest will appear on the DVD.) Traveling the country with Southwest Airlines coupons, the filmmakers found fiercely focused students, supportive (if sometimes baffled) parents and a profusion of study techniques.