”The word is hellebore.” You’re standing on stage in the ballroom of the Grand Hyatt hotel in Washington, D.C. Hundreds of people — including five furrowed-brow judges and the poker-faced ”pronouncer” who has just given you this doozy of a word — have their eyes and ears fixed on you. TV cameras are rolling. Reporters’ pens are scribbling. The room is silent except for the sound of your breath nervously sputtering into the microphone in front of your face.
No, this is not the naked-in-front-of-the-entire-class nightmare that you had last night, but a scene from Jeffrey Blitz and Sean Welch’s Oscar-nominated ”Spellbound,” a documentary chronicling the journey of eight youngsters to the 1999 Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee. Picked up by Manhattan-based indie distributor Thinkfilm at the 2002 Toronto film festival, the movie had a sold-out opening weekend in a single New York theater last month, drew in equally impressive crowds when it expanded to Los Angeles mid-May, and will likely continue to perform strongly as it opens wider through the summer.
”I spent a lot of time fretting over what my first feature would be out of school,” recalls the 34-year-old Blitz, who earned his master’s in film production from the University of California in 1997. ”One day, I happened to catch the final rounds of the National Spelling Bee on ESPN. I’d never seen a spelling bee, never been in one, but I was rapt. That instant, I knew the bee was the perfect backdrop for the kind of great, big American story I wanted to tell.”
Anyone who’s witnessed the suspenseful Nationals can understand Blitz’s fascination. For two grueling days each May, some 250 of America’s most hyper-focused, overachieving preteens (in full-blown braces-and pimple-adorned awkwardness) wrestle with stumpers like opsimath, cabotinage, and kookaburra, praying on each trip to the mike that they won’t hear the dreaded ding! signifying an error, and with it, instant elimination. The kid who utters not a single false letter throughout all the rounds is the champion — taking home an engraved trophy and a $12,000 cash prize.
Moreover, few traditions epitomize the American dream as dramatically as this retro-flavored test of orthographic dexterity — largely because each year’s group of competitors represents a mosaic of racial, cultural, and socioeconomic backgrounds. ”One of the wonderful things about the spelling bee is that it’s kind of a blank slate that each kid projects his or her own meaning onto,” says Blitz. ”For some, it’s a purely personal quest, but for others, the bee suggests a bigger kind of success, a mastery of an American way of life.”
Through extensive research and a little help from Scripps Howard, Blitz tracked down about 30 spellers who had placed high in the 1998 Nationals and were returning in 1999, when, he hoped, they would again make it to the final rounds. (Spellers are free to compete through the eighth grade.) Blitz then set out to hire his producer Welch, whom he’d befriended while working on the 1997 short film ”Wonderland” with George Segal. Persuading him to come on board took some effort. ”I wasn’t convinced initially that this documentary would be all that interesting,” Welch, 38, says. ”Yet once Jeff described the patchwork of stories and I saw his commitment, I said, ‘We’re going to do this, whatever it takes.”’