Puzzling it out: Local filmmaker Mike Scholtz focuses on competitive jigsaw puzzling
A local filmmaker didn’t have to look too far for a subject to follow his award-winning documentary about a big scheming endurance snowmobiler with a head for crime.
Fodder could be found on a flat surface of Mike Scholtz’s home.
Still, it was his eventual co-producer, Amy C. Elliott, who had to point it out to him.
“She said ‘Are you stupid? Why haven’t you made a movie about this?’ ” Scholtz said.
Four years later, the feature-length film gets its regional premiere Friday at the Free Range Film Festival in Wrenshall. The two-day festival includes more than 20 shorts and feature-length films.
“Wicker Kittens,” a documentary about competitive jigsaw puzzling, follows teams as they prepare for the 2011 St. Paul Winter Carnival, host of the largest jigsaw puzzle competition in the country. The contest draws more than 70 teams, which compete to most-quickly assemble a 500-piece puzzle.
One of those teams, in fact a favorite, includes Scholtz’s longtime partner, Valerie Coit.
“I live with competitive jigsaw puzzling in my house all the time,” Scholtz said. “There are puzzles set up all over my house. I didn’t think of it as anything noteworthy.
“I was just too close to it.”
Documenting this ‘bizarre phenomenon’
Scholtz is one of the organizers of the annual Free Range Film Festival, which screened Elliott’s film “World’s Largest” in 2010. Her documentary looked at the over-sized statues — turkeys, Paul Bunyans, fish — that small towns claim as attractions. This is exactly the kind of slice-of-life, regional fare that Scholtz digs.
“We liked the movie quite a bit, so we inadvertently became friends,” he said.
The friendship led to the information about Coit’s hobby.
“It was Amy’s idea that we document this bizarre phenomenon,” Scholtz said.
“Wicker Kittens” follows the highly competitive foursomes that could potentially win the annual competition in St. Paul. Coit’s crew includes her niece and two friends — including Duluth Art Institute director Annie Dugan.
An early scene finds Coit and Dugan, who both live in Wrenshall, trading in a stack of puzzles at Second Look Books in Duluth before combing the shelves for more practice material.
“I’m loathe to give up Wicker Kittens,” Coit says to the store owner, referring to a puzzle with cats in a basket.
Throughout the film, competitors talk sorting strategy, whether to consider the wave technique and how to move a completed chunk of pieces without a spatula.
They deconstruct the rumor that there can exist different cuts, with varying degrees of difficulty, for the same puzzle.
Serious puzzlers, the competitors say, don’t bring snacks to the competition.
And there are charming glimpses of gift-shop goodies for the avid puzzler: jigsaw puzzle broaches, ottomans, necklaces and license plates.
The climax of the 52-minute film is game day at the Landmark Center. Teams battle, first, for best table. There is a sport-flick level of tension as the teams fill in the puzzle’s kitschy winter scene.
“It’s a subject that (Scholtz and Elliott) could have made fun of everyone for because it’s a pretty nerdy pastime,” Dugan said. “Instead, the audience can sort of identify with these characters and feel a part of the competition. They treated everyone with kindness.”
“Wicker Kittens” premiered earlier this year at SXSW — which Scholtz called one of the top festivals for documentary filmmakers.
“Many were about actual issues affecting people around the world,” Scholtz said. “Then, there is us with a jigsaw puzzle movie.”
Coit said she was regularly recognized by Austin, Texas, movie-goers.
“People would walk up to us and say ‘You were in that jigsaw movie’ and want to get their picture with us,” she said.
Dugan has been friends with Scholtz for a long time, which made it easy to be in one of his documentaries.
“I’m kind of used to Mike having a video camera and asking silly questions all the time,” she said. “So, it didn’t seem like anything out of the ordinary. I think he got some pretty natural interactions because of it.”
Coit calls her jigsaw thing a fun hobby, though if she pulls out a puzzle in the morning, she will complete it quickly — during the time it takes to watch a movie or certainly before she goes to bed.
Dugan said puzzles were a winter sport when she was growing up in Michigan.
“We’d always get a puzzle for Christmas and spend the holiday doing puzzles,” she said. “It was a pastime I could do with my sister. It was the one pastime where we
wouldn’t fight. It was a collaborative thing.”
But when it comes to competing, the team — which includes Twin Cities-area puzzlers Misty Havens and Robin Decaire — gets serious. There was, for instance, puzzle domination at an event in Mora, Minn.
“I never did competitive sports in high school or college,” Coit said. “This is as close as I’ve come to being good at something that is a competitive thing. I love doing it and will continue to do it forever.”
The team holds practice sessions to get in competition shape.
“When we first started doing them, Val had us do the same puzzle, and we were timed individually,” Dugan said. “That determined who would do the edge.
“Edge assembly doesn’t matter as much as we thought it mattered,” she said.
Since then, they’ve tried sorting and not sorting, sorting by shape and by color. They’ve tried working from one side to the other.
‘I thought it had been done’
Scholtz’s last film, “Wild Bill’s Run,” is a travel-adventure-crime caper that uses 1970s film footage to tell the story of Bill Cooper, an adventure-seeker who initiated two failed snowmobile expeditions that were planned to run from Moose Lake to Moscow.
Afterward, the fact and fiction of Cooper’s outlaw lifestyle of drug smuggling, robbery and rumored involvement in crimes that captured a national audience gave him folk-hero status.
“Wild Bill’s Run” had an extended run in the film festival circuit, ultimately screening at about 20 minutes. It won an award at the Seattle True Independent Film Festival and was an unusual pick for the Banff Film Festival World Tour, which tends to eschew movies about motorsports in favor of the natural world.
It is now available on DVD.
Scholtz said “Wicker Kittens” — which has played a handful of festivals — has been more successful, he said.
It’s not completely true that Scholtz hadn’t considered the topic of jigsaw puzzling in his films. In the mid-2000s, he created the mockumentary “The Jig is Up” for the 48-Hour Film Project in Minneapolis.
The movie is set in the late 1970s and has, at its center, a former champion returning to the tabletop after a two-year hiatus. Her puzzling partner’s mid-contest death still looms large.
Incidentally Dugan, who plays the returning champ, won a best actor award for her performance.
Before that, Scholtz made the short puzzling doc “Toots and Horns,” which played just for local audiences.
“I have done a couple short goofy movies about jigsaw puzzling,” Scholtz said. “I guess I thought it had been done.”
Go see it
What: Free Range Film Festival
When: 7 p.m. Friday, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Saturday
Where: 909 County Road 4, Wrenshall
Tickets: $10 suggested donation
Puzzle swap: This year’s festival includes a puzzle swap during Friday’s intermission.
Some of this year's top picks.
Free Range Film Festival lineup
“Cowpokes Livin’ on the Edge” by John Akre, 3 minutes
“Rabbit and Deer” by Peter Vacz, 17 minutes
“Wicker Kittens” by Amy C. Elliott and Mike Scholtz, 52 minutes
Break: Music by Portrait of a Drowned Man
“The Morning I Almost Died” by John Akre, 4 minutes
“Random Stop” by Benjamin Arfmann, 7 minutes
“Surviving Cliffside” by Jon Matthews, 65 minutes
“Pilgrim” by Johnathon Olsen, 10 minutes
“Changeover” by David Ketterer and Connor Lynch, 11 minutes
“AJ’s Infinite Summer” by Toby Jones, 8 minutes
“Mr. Plastimime” by Daniel Greaves, 10 minutes
“La Buche de Noel” by Vincent Pater and Stephane Aubier, 26 minutes
“Arlo and Julie” by Steve Mims, 80 minutes
“The Alligator” by Alexandra Barsky, 3 minutes
“Albert Einstein” by John Akre, 3 minutes
“Richard Rosvall” by Steve Ash, 5 minutes
“The Hammer and the Axe” by Greg Carlson, 6 minutes
“Stumped” by Robin Berghaus, 11 minutes
“Sticky” by Jilli Rose, 20 minutes
“The Master’sVoice” by Guilherme Marcondes, 10 minutes
“Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared, II” by Joseph Pelling and Rebecca Sloan, 4 minutes
“Unicorn Blood” by Alberto Vasquez, 9 minutes
“The Overnighters” by Jesse Moss, 100 minutes