- The Washington Times - Friday, June 23, 2006

Washington will remain a Billy Wilder centennial town at least through the summer. The National Theatre has drawn on Mr. Wilder’s filmography for its annual series of free summer movie programs, held Mondays at 6:30 p.m. in the Helen Hayes Gallery. This Monday’s attraction is “Double Indemnity.”

The series, titled “Billy Wilder: American Original,” will be suspended over the Fourth of July holiday, then resume on July 10 with “Some Like It Hot.” The selections for subsequent play dates are “Stalag 17,” “Sabrina,” “The Lost Weekend,” “The Seven-Year Itch” and “One, Two, Three,” which concludes the retrospective on Aug. 14.

The National Theatre is at 1321 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. Seating is limited, so tickets are distributed on a first-come, first-served basis 30 minutes before showtimes. Please call 202/783-3372 for additional information.

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The provocative documentary feature “Jesus Camp,” which observes a summer religious retreat in North Dakota for the children of evangelical Christians, took the top jury prize at the fourth annual Silverdocs Festival, which concluded last weekend at the American Film Institute Silver Theatre. The award to filmmakers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady has a three-part payoff: $10,000 in cash, another $10,000 in services from Video Labs and $5,000 in film stock from Kodak.

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Silverdocs started with one bracing documentary feature, “The Heart of the Game,” and finished with another, “Wordplay.” Both have begun local commercial runs, and both were enhanced by personal appearances from their respective first-time directors, Ward Serrill and Patrick Creadon.

Mr. Serrill, a Seattle native, is in the process of collaborating on a screenplay that fictionalizes the six-year sports saga he was patient enough to follow in “Heart of the Game.” The same production company that developed “The Rookie” and “Miracle” for Disney is intrigued by the exploits of maverick Seattle girls’ high school basketball coach Bill Resler and his Roosevelt Rough Riders, who became contenders by emphasizing pressure defense and a happily aggressive competitive mystique.

Mr. Serrill regards himself as a remote prospect to direct this follow-up because it looms as a $10 million to $20 million proposition, probably too pricey for his track record, which begins and ends with the authentic “Heart.” He does have a new documentary subject that appeals to him: the life and art of a young tango dancer-teacher who also resides in Seattle.

Originally an accountant, Mr. Serrill branched out into culture and short film production while living in Ketchikan, Alaska, for several years. He supervised the accounts of clients who belonged to local Indian tribes, particularly one intent on developing cultural tourism.

“I went straight from accounting to art,” Mr. Serrill quips. “I got involved in public radio and theater, then made little films about foundations and nonprofits, including a number for the Sierra Club. I was still a CPA when I met Bill Resler at a friend’s house and became fascinated with his stories about taking over a girls’ basketball team. … I followed him into the gym and fell in love with the team. Just the sheer physicality and enthusiasm and passion they displayed for the game.”

At the outset, he intended to follow a single season. While shooting what he thought would be a few pickup scenes at the start of a new season, Mr. Serrill became intrigued by a freshman transfer named Darnellia Russell and stuck with her unpredictable career until its culmination. “I kept filming, without knowing where it would take me,” he recalls. “I had no funding, and I was in a fetal position four or five times. I went broke more than once while putting my own money into the project. I cursed myself for not getting footage I needed. I second-guessed myself for dragging out the experience.”

Mr. Serrill couldn’t afford another cameraman, and it was easy to find himself overextended on the court, in the stands and at practice. “They play twice a week over a four-month period,” he observes. “Then you’ve got the state tournament. It also amused Resler to call up and say I’d missed something fantastic by skipping a practice or a game. He does that. Before the Toronto Film Festival last September, I took out a $30,000 credit card advance. That paid my way to Toronto. When Miramax picked up the movie, I became a lottery winner.

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The Sundance Film Festival in January was the breakout showcase for “Wordplay,” the resourceful documentary directed and co-written by Patrick Creadon, who spent 15 years as a cameraman, including hundreds of hours shooting interviews, an indispensable part of his debut feature. Christine O’Malley, his wife and production partner, had experience organizing and supervising documentary films.

Both are from Chicago, and they even grew up in the same Lincoln Park neighborhood, though without knowing each other. Eventually they met in Los Angeles, where they reside with two children, ages 2 and 4. Mr. Creadon graduated from Notre Dame University and Miss O’Malley from DePaul University. (Both of their fathers graduated from Notre Dame.)

The Creadons were looking patiently for a subject of their own that would be at once enjoyable and feasible as a first feature. They were fond of the New York Times crossword section and decided to approach editor Will Shortz. Their nothing-ventured telephone call was returned promptly, but Mr. Shortz had stipulations that precluded anything resembling Ward Serrill’s protracted methods.

“Will was receptive,” Mr. Creadon explains, “as long as we agreed that the shooting would be concluded within a single year. He didn’t want it to go on indefinitely. He also advised us on the celebrity crossword players who might be willing to participate. There’s a shot in the film where he opens his correspondence file, and we were permitted to canvass that group of fans, which led us to Bill Clinton and Jon Stewart and Mike Mussina, among others.”

Will Shortz also suggested that the movie would profit by covering the American Crossword Puzzle tournament in Stamford, Conn., the annual competition he has supervised since 1978, years before his tenure as the Times’ crossword editor began.

“I won’t say he insisted,” Mr. Creadon remarks, “but it was a very strong suggestion. Obviously, the tournament gave us a dream finish, because the results of the 2005 finals were better than anyone could have imagined. Our conception of the movie … expanded to include all those endearing impressions of the players and their camaraderie. Now I know why there are a lot of movies about competitions of one kind or another. Drama and passion are built into the events. I think it’s easier to find a good story of that kind than write it.”

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