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For him, good movies aren't rocket science

The moral, not the hook, drives Jeffrey Blitz's films

Jeffrey Blitz understands why nerds compete. A childhood stutterer who became the New Jersey high school debate champion before becoming a filmmaker, Blitz found his voice through intellectual competition, literally. Like the brainiac spelling-bee contestants in his 2002 documentary, "Spellbound," Blitz gained more from debate than just trophies. He also learned a life lesson: that lunchroom bullies can't always prevent the world from applauding intelligence.

"There's something about the age of junior high and high school, where things are felt in such a raw way," Blitz says. "You have to learn to protect yourself from your emotions and from other people's."

It's a moral that drives his films. In his second movie, "Rocket Science," which opens Friday, Blitz returns to the genre of nerdy youth competitions with the same humor and sympathy that earned "Spellbound" an Academy Award nomination and loyal, pocket protector-wearing fans. Fictional but heavily autobiographical, the film portrays Hal Hefner (Reece Thompson), a chronic stutterer who joins his high-school debate team.

Unlike many high achievers, Heffner does not foresee debate paving his path to praise, prowess, and college admissions. Instead it's an opportunity to spend time with a girl -- the hyper-verbal Supreme Court justice-in-training Ginny Ryerson (Anna Kendrick), a.k.a. the team president. Hal can barely speak a sentence without stuttering, let alone articulate a complex legal argument. But he is desperate for Ginny's affection, and winning a debate seems like the only way to crack her icy, careerist veneer.

In "Spellbound," Blitz tracked eight brilliant teenagers to the National Spelling Bee. "Rocket Science" is different. Less about debate than "Spellbound" was about spelling, its real subjects are love, awkwardness, and adolescence. Blitz rolls them together in Hal, a sweet, scrawny, puppy-love-struck teen.

Unshaven, Blitz wears a rumpled shirt, blue shoes, and black socks in a Boston hotel conference room. He looks something like a college professor or, yes, a rocket scientist. But the film's title stems not from Blitz's disheveled appearance but from a Hal quote: that understanding love shouldn't be rocket science.

Yet for Hal it is. He has the intelligence -- if not the voice control -- to succeed in debate, but his smarts get him no closer to understanding women. In one memorable scene, Hal, overcome with frustration that Ginny has betrayed him, drunkenly throws a cello through her window. The instrument is nearly as big as Hal, and it's a perfect metaphor for his unrequited love: a large object under whose weight he is buckling.

Hal is not a young Jeffrey Blitz, the director insists. But they would have been friends. In 10th grade, Blitz joined his school's debate team and failed famously. The coach partnered him with a girl who was both claustrophobic and agoraphobic; there was literally no venue where she felt comfortable. "I think the coach thought that rather than having the stuttering kid destroy one team and the agoraphobic-claustrophobic girl destroy another team that we could just sink as one," Blitz says. "In the first round, I got stuck on the first sound. For eight minutes, I was too pig-headed to just move on. So for eight minutes, I made the sound 'Agh.' I left the opposing team to respond to 'Agh.' " In one scene, a similar fate befalls Hal.

By senior year Blitz miraculously beat his stutter and acquired an auctioneer-caliber speaking voice. He could unload a briefcase full of arguments in several minutes. He became president of both the debate and public-speaking teams and won the New Jersey debate championship and three public-speaking events. Although his impediment still recurs occasionally, he credits his near-total success to hard work and numerous speech lessons.

Overcoming a stutter is not normally that easy. In the movie, Hal pursues two home remedies for stuttering: using a foreign accent and singing every word. Neither works, except as a form of humiliation.

When Blitz was a child, his father purchased something called a Scottish Collar for his son. (Blitz admits it "sounds more like a sex toy" than an anti-stuttering device.) Worn around his neck, the collar was designed to send a blaring tone to a pair of earphones whenever Blitz stuttered. This was supposed to help him fit in at school, he jokes.

"I tried it during a public-speaking round," he says. "I had to explain to the judge that I wasn't getting secret advice from my coach or getting beamed signals from outer space." It didn't work.

To learn Hal's stutter, Thompson underwent the process in reverse. "They brought in a speech pathologist. He thought it was really weird that he was teaching someone to stutter," Thompson says. Hal sounds somewhat like Porky Pig but more like a person trying to dislodge a word from the back of his throat. That's what it's really like to stutter, Blitz says. "It's the weirdest thing in the world to have the word that you want to say in your brain but your mouth won't let it out. It's such a bizarre breakdown of something that ought not break down."

After the success of "Spellbound," Hollywood and independent filmmakers produced a raft of films about brainy competitions. Blitz calls them "movies about nerdy people doing X." The X factor has been Scrabble ("Word Wars"), crossword puzzles ("Wordplay"), and chess ("Game Over: Kasparov and the Machine"). Although both of Blitz's films fit this description, he is wary of the genre. "The people who take [this formula] and use it as a window into bigger social things are making the movies that are more interesting," he says.

On the set of "Rocket Science," cast members say, Blitz was light-hearted and sympathetic to his young stars. "He's a very witty guy, always cracking jokes," says Nicholas D'Agosto, who plays a former star debater. "It got stressful on the set, but Jeff never pushed that on us."

Kendrick could sense a special connection between Blitz and Hal's character. During one audition, the director knelt beside her and whispered directions tentatively, as Hal might. "That's when I realized, 'Oh my gosh, you're Hal,' " she says.

Indeed, Blitz says, he still suffers moments of Hal-esque awkwardness. During a recent trip to Africa, his stutter began acting up. He was trying to order over the phone from a hotel menu and couldn't produce the word "hamburger." The hotel employee read the entire menu into the phone, accidentally skipping hamburger, before she realized what Blitz wanted. "In the end, I forced out this malformed version of 'hamburger.' It sounded something like a death moan," he says. "She said, 'Oh, hamburger! Of course!' Then she sent it up and it was terrible."

Another place where Blitz's stutter returns: the director's chair. "He can't call action or cut," Reece says. "He uses a gesture. He waves his hands." It's frustrating, Blitz concedes. "Even when you're speaking fluidly, you're constantly conscious that the whole speech mechanism could fail on you," he says. "Any conversation is like skating on ice, and you don't know whether it's thin or not."

But when you're making a movie about a stutterer, he says, the actors are sympathetic.

Robbie Brown can be reached at