Wizard Mode doc crowns Vancouver's pinball wizard

Wizard Mode is filled with flashing lights and bright colours, but the documentary's affable, shaggy-haired protagonist is its most dazzling feature. Robert Gagno is a young man with autism and a passion for pinball.

Robert Gagno, who has autism, has become a force on the competitive circuit

Robert Gagno, the subject of the documentary Wizard Mode, is an exceptionally talented pinball player. (Salazar Film)

Wizard Mode is filled with flashing lights and bright colours, but the documentary's affable, shaggy-haired protagonist is its most dazzling feature. Robert Gagno is a young man with autism and a passion for pinball.

Friends of ours deep in the pinball community would speak about Robert as though he were a legend.- Jeff Petry , filmmaker, on the subject of Wizard Mode

Articulate and keenly self-aware, Gagno leads Vancouver-based filmmakers Nathan Drillot and Jeff Petry on a journey through the world of competitive pinball. And he takes his own steps towards independent living along the way. The film will have its hometown premiere Wednesday, May 11 as part of Vancouver's DOXA film festival, and is also available to stream via Vimeo on Demand.

You met Robert through friends, is that right?

Jeff Petry: Yes, two friends of ours deep in the pinball community. They would speak about Robert as though he were a legend. He's got his initials on all the machines. And he'll walk into the local tournaments and just destroy everyone and walk out.

What was it about him that inspired this documentary project?

JP: To be honest it was when they said, "Oh, and Robert has autism." And we were, like, "Oh, that's interesting. What's that all about?" And then when we met with the family we quickly realized that there was a beautiful story there. Because at the time that Robert was diagnosed with autism there wasn't a lot of information out there for parents. They were told by doctors, "Your son will probably never speak, never read, never write." And they were sort of defiant about that, and that really created a situation that allowed Robert to flourish.

New documentary Wizard Mode focuses on the journey of pinball champion Robert Gagno. (Salazar Film)

Nathan Drillot: Robert fit into an archetype that Jeff and I look for in a lot of our work — which is somebody who is causing social change or calling into question established norms, but doing so in kind of an unconventional way.

How concerned were you with representing Robert the way he wanted to be represented?

ND: The golden rule throughout the whole project was that we really were honest with Robert around what we were trying to do and our intentions. We had a lot of conversations with Robert off-camera where we would talk about why we thought certain things were important. Robert was really enthusiastic to do this because he wanted to give people a clear idea of what it's like to live on the autism spectrum. One of the things that Robert told us early on is that his biggest hope in life is that when people meet him that they just meet him as Robert and that they don't meet him with the label of "autism" first.

JP: It was important to us that the film always had the spirit of being a gentle challenge to all of the stereotypes and assumptions. But we also didn't want to represent the autism community with the film. Robert's experience is his own — a very specific experience. So we just tried to represent Robert. 


Robert was named world pinball champion at the Professional & Amateur Pinball Association circuit championship just three weeks ago. Was that a last-minute addition to the film?

JP: Absolutely. Both Nathan and I were unable to be there. We had already locked the film in anticipation of playing it at Hot Docs. And [Robert's father] Mauritzio called Nathan and said, "I think he's going to win."

Jeff Petry (left) and Nathan Drillot, the filmmakers behind the documentary Wizard Mode. (Salazar Film)

ND: I just told him to start filming everything. And then he ended up winning it. So we unlocked the movie and were able to get it in there at the last second. In some ways, we were glad that Robert didn't win the world championships previously because I think it would have led us down the road of having a more kind of conventional sports documentary-style ending, where the hero wins the big trophy. But because we actually didn't get that during the filming, it really made us think more about what a real victory means in Robert's life.

Wizard Mode. Directed by Jeff Petry and Nathan Drillot. (PG) 102 min. Screens Wed., May 11 at the Cinematheque, 1131 Howe, Vancouver, and Thu. May 12 at Vancity Theatre, 1181 Seymour, Vancouver, as part of the DOXA film festival. Filmmaker Q&A to follow the screenings. Wed sold out. Thu $11.The film is also available for rent and purchase on Vimeo on Demand

This interview has been condensed and edited.


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