INTERVIEW: Violence and Consequence: Beyond the Mat vs. The WWF
by Amy Goodman
"Beyond the Mat" is the movie that made World Wrestling Federation head honcho Vince McMahon tremble in his tights. Produced by Ron Howard and Brian Grazer's Imagine Films and directed by first time helmer Barry Blaustein, the documentary goes behind the pile drivers and special effects to explore the very real human stories of its members. So much so, that McMahon had all advertising of the film banned from the USA Networks. Why? For fear that discovering wrestlers were human beings would somehow damage the franchise -- and, as Blaustein, suggests, because he did not have the control.
A New York screenwriter ("Coming to America," "Boomerang," "The Nutty Professor" and the upcoming "The Nutty II: The Klumps") who partnered with writer David Sheffield to create such memorable Eddie Murphy characters as Buckwheat, Gumby, and Mr. Robinson's Neighborhood, Blaustein is not your average wrestling fan - nor is he an obvious match for Murphy. But just as he was able to capture the talents of the famed comedian, his sense of the pains and pleasures of professional wrestling is credible and insightful. As he goes inside the corporate, closed doors of the WWF and deep inside the homes and hearts of the wrestler's families, Blaustein proves that he's as keen a documentarian as he is humorous a screenwriter. Amy Goodman spoke to Blaustein about McMahon, violence, and the tongue-in-cheek entertainment of his guilty pleasure.
indieWIRE: So what was the controversy between the WWF's Vince McMahon and the film?
Barry Blaustein: Lions Gate put money into buying ads on wrestling shows, which they feel is the core audience for the film, though I do feel there's a much larger audience. They were accepted and two hours before they were supposed to go on, they were pulled by USA Networks. I can understand Vince not wanting these ads, even though the film was certainly complimentary to Vince and to wrestling. The fact that Vince was not allowed to buy it upsets him, that he can't control it. What's bothersome to me is that he has put pressure on USA Networks, not only not to accept advertising for this movie during his shows but on any shows on the network.
iW: Why is he doing this?
Blaustein: I think Vince is doing this for a number of reasons. One is that while I was making the film, when I first came to Vince, seeking permission to shoot in the WWF, he offered me triple the budget to do the film. I explained to him that I certainly could use the extra money, but it was important to me that the film remained independent. I didn't go into this film to do a WWF film product. I do have a lot of respect for the production quality of his stuff, of his shows; certainly from a production standpoint, they're state of the art. But I wasn't interested in doing a slick film about wrestling and I wanted it to be my point of view. I didn't want to compromise the integrity of the film.
What happened then is that while making the film Vince also offered to buy the film - again for three, four times what was being spent on it. It would have been a clear profit. Again, I explained, I wasn't doing this for money. I have a career as a screenwriter. This was a labor of love, a film in which I wanted to explore something I've always been interested in all my life. I'm somewhat embarrassed that I've been interested in it, but to explore and show it the way that I saw it as an interesting social phenomenon, and to explore the effects that this violence has on these wrestlers' families.
iW: Did he seem to get that at the time?
Blaustein: I told him from the beginning, I said, "Vince, I'm gonna make these guys seem human. I'm going to show them as real, hardworking people who've got to go through a lot of pain and balance family responsibilities in order to succeed." I said, "I'm going to make people respect what these guys do or are trying to accomplish - or at least try to understand it." When I just reminded Vince of that recently, he said, "I could care less. That's not what I'm selling these days." And the amazing thing is that the response from the audience of non-wrestling fans is even better than wrestling fans. So many non-wrestling fans come up to me and say, "You know, I could care less about wrestling, but now I look at it differently." Or, "I like the film because it's really about family, it's really about these people as human beings."
iW: I'm watching this deeply personal film. It's autobiographical and is also the personal stories of these wrestlers. And I'm watching them be personally, physically obliterated. This is a film about depersonalization, dehumanization. These people are made into action figures and cartoons.
Blaustein: Yeah, it's really strange. Ted Turner owns the other big wrestling organization, World Championship Wrestling. And they wouldn't sign my release and that's why they're not in the movie - because they wanted editorial control. Yet when they saw the movie - it ran in Los Angeles for academy qualification at Century City and a lot of these guys happened to be in town -- it shocked everybody because it was something about wrestling getting good reviews. And we were in the smallest theater and just with an ad in the LA Times we were the highest grossing movie of the week. And for a documentary...
Anyway, I got a call from people at the WCW and they said, "Our biggest regret is that we're not in this film. You should be very proud of yourself. You really have done this industry a great thing by doing a film like this." I think they liked the film. They're not even in it and they're willing to run the ads and they've talked about it on their shows. I think they think it's good for the image of the industry; it'll bring more fans in an ironic kind of way. I think it will force people to look at it differently. And I think it's a shame that Vince doesn't feel that way and I think it's a shame that these networks are succumbing.
iW: It seems that there is a big divide between the characters that the WWF creates and the actual people behind them, so this film is THE challenge to that divide. It's incredible that McMahon is so concerned that presenting these people as three-dimensional will hurt his business.
Blaustein: I think that's a front that he's giving. I actually think that this film makes them much more accessible to a much wider audience. And if it does, that's great. That's certainly not my total point in the movie. Vince is about control. In wrestling, he controls everything. He controls the storylines, he controls these guys' lives in and out of the ring. Because there are very few places where these guys can make money. After the movie, he called the manager and he said, "I'll pay you whatever you want for the film." And they refused, which I gave them a lot of credit for because they could've walked off with a profit. But that's not the spirit that the movie was done in.
iW: What is it that offends McMahon?
Blaustein: I think what disturbed Vince very much is Mick Foley and his children watching. When you edit a film, after a while when you see the same film hundreds of times you sort of take it for granted. And that's one of those scenes that no matter how many times I saw it, it was always uncomfortable for me to watch. And it should be uncomfortable for people to watch. That's the goal of it.
iW: You got great music clearance in that scene, too - Stand By Me.
Blaustein: I spoke to the composers of Stand By Me and they usually charge quite a bit of money - six figures - and they were kind enough to give me the music because I explained, it's a documentary, it's a low-budget film, it's a labor of love. And they gave it to me for next to nothing and they didn't have to give it to me at all. I was able to get a lot of things like that, just by appealing to people's better nature.
iW: Yeah, that's the job.
Blaustein: People asked me, "How'd you get into the WWF?" and I told them, "I wore out my knees." It's a lot of begging and coercing, any way you can. Making documentaries teaches you determination, if nothing else.
iW: So you think it's Mick Foley that really messed with Vince.
Blaustein: I think that Vince wants to sell wrestling as fun and games. And a certain amount of it is fun and games, but there's a certain reality and guys are getting hurt and taking risks. And Vince said, "Well, now children aren't going to want to go see the WWF," and I go, "Vince, you yourself have said that it's not for little kids at times."
This is also a situation of someone seeing their father being beaten up. That's one of the reasons I wanted to do this film - you meet wrestlers and most of them are fairly normal. They'll talk about kids and family problems, the same thing everybody else goes through. You think they're like you, but they're not. I don't go around bashing my head against a steel post. I thought, wouldn't it be interesting to see what effect it has on families, growing up with these images around you.
iW: It's inevitable in a movie about wrestling today, since the grotesque violence in the industry is escalating, to mention the long history of violent, lethal sport in our civilization. After spending time with these people and getting to know them personally, what is your stance on this kind of violent sport? You obviously like it.
Blaustein: I still like it. There's a lot I don't respect about it. It's sort of a guilty pleasure. The things that disturb me - the objectification of women is a terrible thing. Some of the other stereotypes are so tongue in cheek, most of the fans get it. It disturbs me now, though, that there's this extreme violence without consequence. Is it too extreme now? Yeah, it probably is. One of the things I like about wrestling is that you're not supposed to like it. I liked it when it was more underground. There are consequences to all of these media images and I think adults and children - especially children [are affected by it].
If you watch certain new shows, you would think that certain minorities in our country are either rap singers or criminals or star athletes. I remember watching the Anita Hill trial years ago and I remember that the most fascinating thing about it is that it was the first time you saw the media portray African-Americans that were intelligent, articulate, and educated. And this is something that's totally left out of the spectrum. My partner, David Sheffield, and I wrote a movie called "Boomerang." There are things I like about that movie and things I don't like about it. But what shocked me is that we got some review that said, "What sort of science fiction planet is this movie from?" Because he worked for a cosmetics company, because there were all these successful black people - as if this was some sort of fantasy. And I'm going, "What world do they live in?" We are bombarded with certain media images, so we have to educate everybody on how to watch media.
iW: How would you suggest people watch wrestling?
Blaustein: With their tongues firmly in their cheeks. If it offends them, they should change the channel. It's not for everybody. Don't become dehumanized to it. You do become dehumanized if you watch too much of it. These guys would be bleeding and spouting blood from their forehead and after a while, you come to accept it as normal. You have to watch it with a sense of absurdity, and you can't take it too seriously, and I think most fans don't take it too seriously. You should watch wrestling the same way you watch everything else - with an open, skeptical eye.