Hanging Out With the World’s Pinball Wizard, Who Just Wants to Level Up in Life

Fresh off his first world title victory, we caught up with Gagno and the filmmakers behind Wizard Mode, a documentary about his rise to the top.
April 26, 2016, 1:43pm

All photos courtesy of Nathan Drillot and Jeff Petry

Watching world champion Robert Gagno play South Park pinball is like zoning out to a really intricate fireworks display, only with fart noises. He guides multiple balls to the far corners, occasionally nudging the machine to float them back to his flipper for an impossibly soft landing. This makes Terrance and Phillip dance and defecate on a flashing dot matrix screen.

I meet Gagno at a Vancouver skate shop that has some of his favourite games in the city: Metallica, NBA Fastbreak, and Terminator 3. They're also some of the games he played to secure his first-ever world championship title in Pittsburgh earlier this month. "It felt amazing to finally take it home," he says, "it's a really big trophy, like 35 pounds."

Gagno tells me pinball is making "a comeback of the ages"—a theory gamers have compared to the resurgence of vinyl in music. (I.e. stranger things have happened.)

For Gagno, it's been a long road to the top—six years competing in world competitions, and a decade more practicing on his own collection of machines at his home in Burnaby, BC. For the last two years, he's had the extra challenge of sharing every step of the way with filmmakers Nathan Drillot and Jeff Petry.

In the resulting documentary Wizard Mode, which premieres at Hot Docs in Toronto May 2 and hits DOXA festival the following week in Vancouver, Gagno doesn't just open up about the ups and downs of competitive pinball, but also his personal quest for independence as a 27-year-old with autism. More than anything, though, the film is about this innately human hunger to improve, succeed and win—evoking a sense of excitement that is really, really contagious.

Gagno's style of play immediately earns friends and spectators. When he's playing well, he flips his jacket halfway down his arms and goes silent, even as arcade regulars lean over to cheer him on and ask questions.

"I try to think: Can I really play for multi-ball? Or do I try to find I another way I can keep the ball in play?" he says of his completion strategy. He also wears signature headphones to ward off distraction. "Whichever shots I'm making comfortably, I see how I can maximize and get that to work."

I fire up a game beside Gagno, but inevitably waste all three balls before he's finished with his first. My attempt at a nudge—to keep the ball in play by lightly rocking the machine—manages to get the thing stuck behind an Addams Family armchair. I'm still a long way from clearing what Drillot and Petry call the "survival mode" stage of pinball play, something I need to work on to properly appreciate Gagno's big-picture, methodical approach to the game.

"When we first started doing the movie, I hadn't played more than a few games in my life," Drillot says. "You start to realize the games have really complex rules and goals, and there's an order to how you should do things... Once you start to figure that stuff out, even if it's just the very beginning it starts to become very rewarding."

In the film you can see some of the same strategy and problem-solving skills in action, at times applied to getting a job, making friends, or striking out into the unknown in a new city. In these moments you can't help but feel the rush of a level-up or bonus multiplier every time Gagno unlocks a new achievement.

I especially relate to one of Gagno's small but important gains: laying out his own rules for when to hug, how to hug, and when to shake hands. This is something that can still mysteriously confound me, and when I relate this to Petry and Drillot, they share their own stories of missed social cues. "I've always related Robert's grappling with the complexity of hugs to my first time living in Europe and trying to figure out when to kiss people twice, or once, on the mouth, hug, or just shake hands," recalls Petry. "There were more than a few awkward moments."

Filmmakers Drillot and Petry say it's those kinds of shared experiences that helped to clear the air and get beyond the label autism and the weird misconceptions and stigma that come with it. "It wasn't like we had a ton of experience when it came to the subject of autism," says Drillot. "The more time we spent with Robert, the more we realized we didn't have to worry about that. What Robert really cares about is people interacting with him and meeting him as an individual first."

It took the filmmakers a long time to gain that kind of perspective, but Petry says one of the aims of the film is to share that experience more widely. "What we hope for the film is the audience will be taken through the same trajectory we did, which was encounter this person as a label, then slowly sift through that and realize there's a person on the other end of it," he says. "And a friend, because he's super charming."

Petry and Drillot will have their own level-up moment, premiering a feature-length film at a festival for the first time. But it's this friendship, says Petry, that's the real takeaway. "We realized as soon as we started the project we weren't just going to shoot this and walk away from it and not know Robert. We were going to develop a relationship both creatively and very personally with him," he says. "That's been a really rewarding aspect of it."

Now that the pinball world champion title is under his belt, Gagno can focus on clearing levels in other aspects of his life. "I want to live in my own place one day, maybe have a roommate too," he tells me. "And also cooking my own things, doing the laundry by myself."

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