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Filmmaker Interview: Stephen Palgon, ‘Fantasyland’

March 21st, 2010 by Rebecca Harper Editor

In many ways, the documentary Fantasyland is a David-and-Goliath sort of tale: What happens if you pit a little guy — in this case, an interloper (and rabid fantasy baseball fan) Jed Latkin — against the big guys: one of the most revered fantasy leagues in the country. Cameras were following as Latkin tried to trade, cajole and even harass his way to the top ranks of the Tout Wars, a league for the upper echelon of fantasy baseball bloggers, commentators and experts. To learn more about this documentary — which premiered on Hulu and SnagFilms on Friday — Hulu spoke to filmmaker Stephen Palgon. — Rebecca Harper (), Editor, Hulu

Your documentary was based on Sam Walker’s book of the same name. How did the book serve as a starting point for your film?
Stephen Palgon:
During the summer of 2007, I was working on another project. I saw an interview with Sam about the book and I just found it really intriguing. I thought, “Oh, this could be a really great documentary, if only someone was following Sam around when he was doing it.” It just came to me as an idea to check to see who had the rights to the book. I reached out to Sam, and he responded. Then I got in touch with John Limotte and Doug Bernheim, who had the rights, and started on the adventure. But the one holdup was that they were looking to do a feature film based on it. And then the writer’s strike happened and they started looking for non-scripted material and came back to me about the documentary and off we went from there.

Much like Sam’s book, the film was an experiment. Can you explain what that experiment was?
The experiment is basically this idea that in the world of fantasy [baseball], there’s sort of these two separate worlds. There’s the guys who are the experts who tout all the advice and tell all these people who to draft and stuff like that, and then there are the people who play. There’s sort of a divide there. The idea was can we take somebody who plays and is highly into the game — in our case, Jed Latkin, who is seriously obsessed with it. Can he go in and take on these people and win or do really well? That was sort of the idea, like a regular player versus these guys who earn their living doing it. But what came up a lot with Jed was, like he was always saying, “I’m a fan who loves this, and this is what these guys do for a living.”

What are the Tout Wars?
Tout Wars is a league of all the experts in the industry. It gets its name because these are the guys that tout information. All of them have websites or newsletters or things like that and put out various sorts of information about fantasy sports, about the statistics, all that sort of stuff. They do three different drafts. One is American League only, another is National League, and the other is American and National league. Tout Wars was started by a guy named Ron Shandler, who is highly revered within the industry. He’s the guy who’s sort of Jed’s main focus in the film.

What about Jed Latkin — who is he, and how did he fit into all this?
Jed is — and I think he knows this — Jed is kind of a lunatic. We actually had this big audition and this big call to find out who would be this guy. As it turned out, Jed was the first guy that we interviewed. I remember that day, we were shooting and after Jed left, my camera guy was like, “Is this guy for real?” Jed is like his own separate species of fantasy player. He only sleeps two hours a night; he will do anything to trade with you. He works in the financial industry and trading is part of his DNA. He used to, as a kid, sort of trade and rip off other kids. He’ll just pursue you to no end. He’s traded apartments in his building, and he’s just unlike anybody I’ve ever met. He’ll even outwardly come out and say, in front of his wife, “You know, she’s definitely in the top 10 of my priorities, but fantasy is very close to first.” He’s really a kind of amazing character. He’ll quote random movies like the Devil’s Advocate and he never turns off. It was sort of a crazy thing to toss him in these waters with these fantasy guys who have a real routine. Jed really shook it up because, between the hours of 1 a.m. and 3 a.m., he could send somebody 200 emails. We really lucked out in finding someone like him.

And it probably didn’t hurt his story to have twins on the way, either.
No. I think some people might watch this and think that we prodded him to do these things. The reality is that we didn’t. We walked in there and he started talking about how his plan was to use the fact that he was having twins to try to get people to make a trade with him. He openly was like, I can say to my twins that on the day they were born, I traded for Carlos Gomez or whoever. He literally almost missed the birth of his kids. I mean, he didn’t take the call from the doctor upstairs telling him to go to the delivery room because he was on the phone with Sam, trying to make a deal. And also, right after the birth, he and his wife were talking fantasy. It wasn’t like we told them to say it. It’s all-encompassing with him and it’s kind of amazing to watch. He’s open about saying he’s totally addicted to it, right after the birth.

How did Tout Wars feel about being filmed? Were they at all protective?
I think they weren’t. Ron Shandler was great with us, and Lawr Michaels and Sam. We had a lot of cameras there at the draft. Everyone was great. I think what they got more sensitive with was with Jed, because he just plays the game so differently. For these guys, how they draft players is looked at by all the other fantasy players out there. But Jed wanted to make trades right after they’ve drafted players and these guys are like “we can’t do that.” There was a bit of a clash between old school and new school and expert versus amateur, definitely between Ron and Jed. They’re sort of oil and water to the extreme.

Jed obviously rubbed some of them the wrong. Was his technique typical of what you’d see among amateur players, or was he just above and beyond that, too?
He’s definitely an amateur player on like every kind of steroids out there. He’s just insane, but I think that most of the guys who play fantasy sports … the exciting part is making trades. Nobody likes to hang on to their players. I think in that respect, he’s sort of normal, but the fact that he wants to trade every 10 seconds is different. Ron and those guys, I feel like, in some ways are very distanced from that. They’re doing this for a living, and like I said, when they draft a guy or bid on a guy and say that guy is worth $20, all the other competitors, the amateur competitors who are doing their draft are saying “Ron Shandler bid $20 for him, so that must be what he’s worth.” Jed didn’t care about any of that stuff. Also, Jed at times, he’s basing all his stuff on their information, so it’s also strange in that way. I think if other amateur players tried this, they would do the same thing, though probably not to the extreme that Jed did.

Do the people in the Tout Wars league actually fly around the country like we saw Jed do in the film?
I think that a lot of them sort of look down on that. I feel like the players aren’t going to give them any information. Sometimes they’ll talk to coaches but I think a lot of people in that industry feel like the players are never going to reveal to them any sort of information that they can use. That’s also the thing about Jed — he’d also go up these players. He’d say the sort of thing like “I’m the kind of guy that likes to go to the games and watch the games, and a lot of these Tout guys don’t even watch the games, they just look at the scores and stuff like that.” I think Jed likes to present it in a way that these guys are about the numbers and he’s about the love of the game. I think the stuff that he did, I think some of the Tout players would never even think about it.

And what about you, do you participate in any fantasy leagues?
I do fantasy basketball. I’ve begun referring to it all like this: fantasy football is like dating somebody. Fantasy baseball is like being in a long-term relationship. It’s a big commitment. You’ve got to be willing to hang in there. I’ve never really successfully done baseball. And these guys, they know every single every player on every single team. It’s hard to hang in there on that level.

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