“Wicker Kittens” Luminates The Competitive Sport of Jigsaw Puzzling

Credit: Emily Reas
Wicker Kittens Marquee Credit: Emily Reas

Interviewer: Emily Reas
Interviewees: Amy C. Elliot & Mike Scholtz

Credit: Emily Reas
Mike Scholtz & Amy C. Elliot  Credit: Emily Reas

Wicker Kittens Interview

Three…two…one. Go! And the race is on in at the St. Paul Winter Carnival in Minnesota where some of the fastest puzzlers come to compete. It was here that director Amy C. Elliot filmed the fast hands of four teams in particular and to capture this quirky, yet competitive sport. After premiering at this past SXSW, I was able to discuss the development of this documentary with Amy and producer Mark Scholtz. How though did they come up with this inventive film idea?

Mike: Well, this is my fault, in a way. The woman I date is an avid jigsaw puzzler. She’s been a competitive jigsaw puzzler for, like, a decade or more. And I’m so used to it, it didn’t occur to me that this would be something that would make a good feature film. So one day we had dinner with Amy, and we were just talking about competitive jigsaw puzzling as if it was the most normal thing in the world. And then, I think her eyes got very large, and she said something like, “we should probably make a documentary feature about this…duh!”

And they started filming; however, before they could get to the competition, they first need to find the competitors. Amy explains how they picked which teams to follow:

Amy: What we did was we contacted the organizers of the event at the St. Paul Winter Carnival, it’s the largest one in the country. And we didn’t want to follow teams that were probably, you know, gonna finish 50th. We did want to have a little bit of drama, so we tried to self select, and we picked the teams who had done well in previous years. We knew we wanted The Champions, the reigning champions. We had to have them, if we didn’t land them, I don’t think we would’ve had a movie. We picked The Challengers, Mike’s girlfriend Val is on The Challengers, but they also place every year, so we knew it would be a good match. And then we wanted to pick a family team, wanted a little cross-section as well of people. We also picked a team that was kind of like a dark horse team that does it more for fun, and that’s a bunch of older women who really enjoy more paling around.  

Credit: Emily Reas
Mike and Amy at the Q&A  Credit: Emily Reas

And once they got to the jigsaw jamboree, Amy was pretty… shocked:

Amy: I was shocked. I was shocked….I was absolutely shocked!

You were shocked that this was a thing?

Amy (cont.): I was shocked that this was a thing, certainly. I was shocked that it was so organized and the rules were all codified, and they were very strict about the rules. I was shocked that everyone took it so seriously. I was shocked that there were practices. I was shocked that people had to tryout to get on the various teams. I was shocked that people showed up wearing matching shirts and uniforms. I was shocked by the volume of people. I was shocked about how seriously they took the prize baskets. There was a lot about it that I found, on a very sort of micro level, very…shocking!

Mike: When you put it that way, it does sound shocking.

And this was actually Amy’s second time at SXSW. She competed with her other documentary World’s Largest in 2010; therefore, I asked her if we could expect to see a third documentary at SXSW in the future:

Amy: The thing that I love about SXSW is, it is such a premiere stage, and so many resources and national level press and is a world class festival, but they are still commited to giving filmmakers-many of whom are on a shoe-string budget, really doing innovative, different, truly independent work- a platform. There’s nothing else like it, so I would love to be back again. We think it’s just a perfect fit.

And speaking of perfect fits, I was curious if there were any secret moves that Amy or Mike learned that made fitting the pieces together easier or a faster way to puzzle:

Amy: There were a couple of strategies, the teams did go in with game plans. I mean, they weren’t the most sophisticated strategies on some level, you know, “who does the edge”, “when do we sort”, “when do we break off from sorting one and start to put stuff together”. One comes up a lot in the film, and that’s the Mallory Move -named for one of the competitors who came up with it- and it’s basically a way to move chunks of an assembled puzzle around. When you have something together, you pull on the North-South grain diagonally, very hard, and you can just literally move an entire chunk of the puzzle around. And that’s really helpful because in the contest, you’re not allowed to use puzzle aids or tools, like a spatula, to move assembled partitions around.

And lastly, I was curious if either of them would consider competing in the competition. There was an agreeable consensus:

Mike: I did enter a contest about ten years ago. It was a small local contest, and my partner just carried me along, and I think I was embarrassing, so no. Never again.

Amy: I..I…no.

So a no to competitive puzzling, but maybe they’ll still do it in their free time. I’m Emily Reas, and this has been an interview with director Amy C. Elliot and producer Mike Scholtz for the movie Wicker Kittens.

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