• slideshow image

The following questions and answers are excerpted from a conversation that followed the NBR screening of Pinball: The Man Who Saved the Game.

I want to start out by talking about how you got the idea to do this. How do you collaborate to come up with this incredible work that we just saw?
Meredith Bragg: We’re not entirely sure where we first learned that pinball was illegal in many cities, and that there was this man in 1976 with this insane mustache who helped legalize it in New York City. The idea sat on a Google doc that we have just full of embryonic ideas. And we… cold-emailed Roger. I’ll do this occasionally. I’ll just cold-email people who I think I may want to pull the thread of a story that may may be interesting. And I, I got on the phone with him for about three hours, and when I was done, I texted Austin and said I think this might be a feature because he had told us about all of the other things that were happening. We’re not pinball people. But I had read enough about the story before I talked to him that I sort of knew the basics of what was happening at the time. But he told us about GQ, about Ellen and about Seth, about writing the book. He was very candid, very early on about who he felt like he was when he first got to New York and who he became around the time of this sort of first scene. Pinball is a very selfish thing: he just wanted a machine for himself and he didn’t care about anything else. And then through the process of writing a book and opening up and meeting these people, he felt he felt like he wanted to be in the game. And so that was that was the genesis, I think. And then we pitched it with a number of other ideas to MPI films, and they initially pitched it with a number of other film concepts. They had told us no biopics, no period pieces, because this is going to be a tier zero film. So a low budget entity. But they gravitated towards it just as much as we did. And we proceeded to spend, cumulatively, days on Zoom with Roger, because this was during covid… early covid: I had emailed him in February 2020. So we we spent a lot of time with him, with Alan and Seth, with James, the photographer, with other people around who knew Roger or knew GQ or things around that time… and out of all that came this!

We end up creating something that’s much better than I think one of us could do alone.

Can you talk a bit about how you collaborate, as co-directors and co-writers?
Austin Bragg: Oh, it’s awful. We have, I think, what is probably one of the more inefficient writing processes you’ll find. I say this because both of us will walk away after we have come up with our basic outline and write an entire script independently. And then we will sit down with a physical copy and hand it to the other person with our stack of highlighters. So I will take Meredith’s script and he will take mine and we will go through and highlight all the things that they did better than me, write everything that Meredith did better than me. I will highlight and I’ll grumble a little bit because it’s still a competition. And then we’ll actually trade it back. And so I now have my original scripts with all the things that he highlighted, and I will go in with a different highlighter and highlight all of the things that Meredith didn’t realize were brilliant.And after we’ve done that process, then we fight. And depending on how close together the scripts are and when our deadline is, sometimes we do that again, and sometimes we’ll go immediately into creating a single hybrid version. Again, not an efficient process by any means, but so far it seems to be working for us and it gives us a little bit of an out, right? When something is not working; when I hit a scene and I’m stuck, or I just don’t like what I’ve done. There’s a good chance that Meredith has already figured out, and vice versa. If both of us have stumbled at the same point, then usually that means there’s something wrong with our outline, right? That there’s something wrong with the structure of it that we have to go back and address. So, not a great process, but that’s where we are.

Meredith Bragg: Yeah, we we outline heavily before we do this so that it’s not so we’re not diverging greatly. I mean, occasionally you’ll diverge in the writing process. You may, as you combine a scene or something just to get things smooth. But most of the time we know, okay, we’re going from this scene to this scene to this scene, so we can play around within that scene and not break the whole story. So it becomes… that highlighting becomes sort of, “oh, I want to steal that from what Austin did…” or, “I really like that line,” or, “I like that scene description,” or, “you know… that is a funny way to get into the scene, and it’s better than what I did.” So when we get the chance, it’s always great to steal the other person’s good ideas and then try another draft as often as we can. We do that, and we end up creating something that’s much better than I think one of us could do alone.

Did you actually have a pinball machine with you, as you were writing? Did you spend a lot of time playing, and did you find that helpful, if you did?
AB: So neither of us own a pinball machine, but we did – through Roger and some connections – we met up with Joe Said, so he runs an arcade in Maryland called Spinners Pinball Arcade, and we actually brought our families to Spinners in the middle of lockdown and, you know, bought the place out for a few hours so our kids could run around and play games… and we went into the back where the first thing I saw was a giant “Sharpshooter” machine, which is that machine with Roger as the cowboy. And we talked to Joe for a while about the machines, and everything about the maintenance of the machines, and all of the inner workings. He actually he let us walk home with a playfield, just the top playfield and some pinballs – a little tube of pinballs. And we took them to Meredith’s place and set up our camera and started playing around with, you know, how to film inside these machines in a way that, you know, we weren’t going to have time to mess around once you were on set. We knew that. So we had it in our head how exactly we wanted to get it through shooting, but we still don’t have pinball machines. We threatened to, but our wives, I don’t think like that very much. These are loud machines!

Is it hard to be a pinball wizard?

AB: It’s impossible. I mean, we’ve been on the circuit with Roger, and Roger’s in his seventies now, and, you know, he’ll tell you that he’s not the player he used to be. You know, it’s insane watching him play. In fact, some of the shots that you see in the film are Roger. Because we need somebody who can hit that shot on the pinball machine, you know, with a camera right in his face, and him down in a weird angle. He’ll do it in one, right? It would take me all day.

MB: We were told that real pinball players would know just by the spin of the ball, whether you’re throwing it or whether there’s a magnet underneath pushing it. And we knew we didn’t… we wanted to make a movie that the pinball community could embrace, but that anyone could watch. That wasn’t just… there’s been a lot of documentaries that the pinball community has embraced. But they’re very much geared for that community. We wanted something with wider appeal, but so one of the things we did is we said, “well, we’ve got to actually have someone making these shots.” And we didn’t have the time to set up a shot and insert and try twenty times and hit it once. So Roger happened to be on set that day and we thought, “Roger, come on over here.” So there are these great photos, behind the scenes photos, of this camera set up, this huge rig, and Roger’s just sort of somehow gotten his body in a position where he can hit it, and he just nails it. It was… he’s really, really good. We did a newscast hit – where was that? And Roger and I were on local news and they had set up a pinball machine there. And so they wanted to start playing as a teaser. So he starts playing. And then the commercials are done, and they’re back with us. He has to… he basically has to lose on purpose because he’s still playing that first ball! After you know, ninety seconds, or two minutes or whatever. So, I mean, he’s excellent. Whereas if we were doing it, the whole entire game would be done in about twenty seconds.