Barry Blaustein - Beyond The Mat
Barry Blaustein got his start as a writer on Saturday Night Live, he then went on to write a number of successful comedies including: Police Academy 2, Coming to America and The Nutty Professor. In 1999 his directorial debut Beyond The Mat showed a side of professional wresting that most had never seen before. Instantly controversial Beyond The Mat exposed the world of professional wrestlings and showed its effect both in and out of the ring.
With the recent release of the new director's cut special edition of the compelling wrestling documentary Beyond The Mat, what better time could there be to catch up with the film's director, Barry Blaustein?
Barry was gracious enough to take some time off from editing his latest film to talk to us openly and candidly about Beyond The Mat and the controversy surrounding the film and the issues it brought up.
Ian - Universal's ad copy calls Beyond The Mat 'the movie Vince McMahon doesn't want you to see!' Rumor is that McMahon wasn't happy with the way he came out looking in the final cut of the film. Is there where all the controversy stems from or is there more to it than that?
Barry - No, there's quite a bit more to it than that. Vince wasn't unhappy with how he came out looking in the film; I don't think that's where the unhappiness came from. When I was first putting the movie together and was trying to get permission to get access to the WWE, or WWF as it was called then, Vince wanted to be an investor in the movie and he offered to triple my budget. I said 'Vince, the only problem there is I can't have the subject matter an investor in the movie.' I didn't want it to be biased, because then it becomes more of a promo-based feature.
Then, when he saw the film, he offered me three of four million dollars outright but I wouldn't sell it to him. After that he was determined to not get other people to see it. He didn't have so much a problem with the film itself, but what he told me was he felt that the film was a downer; it wasn't the film that he would have made. He did say though that he couldn't tell me that it wasn't a good movie. He said 'Barry, you could make millions of dollars off of this' and I said 'Vince, it's a documentary.'
I've got to say though that while making the movie he never stopped giving me access. He never went back on the deal even though he said 'My business is bigger, a lot has changed, I'm a lot bigger now.' When he did I said 'Vince, I wanted to do this when you weren't so big, you're going back on your word and that should count for something.' To his credit, he said it did count for something and the film got made.
When the movie came out, he refused advertising on his show, which is his right, and he also put pressure on the networks and stations that were airing wrestling not to accept any ads at any time. Sadly to say, in this media conglomeration of a society, most of them acquiesced.
Have there been any repercussions because of McMahon's reaction to the film?
No, not really, just a lot of free publicity. It was odd, because in a weird way I felt I sort of owed something to Vince. From a wrestling angle though, it was very real and I think that a lot of the media issues that it raised were sort of interesting. Unfortunately, because the film was about wrestling, people missed the fact that there were a lot of bigger issues around it like the vertical integration of businesses.
That's something I hadn't thought about while watching it but now that I think about it, you're right.
What's interesting is, if I can make a selfish plug here, one of the reasons I decided to put out this new version of the film besides Universal wanting me to do it, is because Mick Foley at this time is totally and completely free of any and all obligations to the WWE so I think this is the first time he's really been able to speak freely about it, in conjunction with Jesse Ventura, who has never been afraid to speak freely.
No, they were all specifically chosen to different particular reasons. I spent about two years on the road, on and off following different wrestlers and getting to know them for a number of reasons. Number one was to get them all comfortable with me and also because when you're doing casting you kind of go 'whose stories would be interesting.' Originally I was thinking I'd do something a la Hoop Dreams, you know, find some of the younger guys and follow them but the reality that I found was that the young guys just weren't as interesting. The older guys have the more interesting stories in life and these three guys represent different pieces of the spectrum. The movie quickly became, even approaching it from the beginning, more about the effect that this lifestyle is having on them and their families. If you watch the movie it's as much about family as it is about wrestling, and these guys reflected different things in that regard. In Terry Funk you had a veteran wrestler who's family desperately wanted him to quit. In Jake Roberts you have a guy who used to be a really big star who is now down and out and trying to reconnect with his daughter who he hasn't spoken to in years yet brings a documentary film camera in with him to meet her again.
Yeah, that did kind of take me by surprise as I was watching the film. It was totally fascinating but at the same time very hard to watch.
Yes, very hard to watch. And then with Mick Foley you've got a guy who is raising a young family and not realizing the effect that this is having. He was bright and smart; he was like the antithesis of how people thing wrestlers are like because Mick is very bright and very articulate.
I have to admit, I was impressed seeing him as he is outside of the ring in the documentary, and he seems like such a nice guy!
He is, he's also really interesting, and I kept telling him that, 'You're really interesting!' He'd always come back with 'Yeah, yeah, yeah' as if he didn't want to hear it. My biggest challenge with him was how do I get that across in the film, that he is a smart and intelligent man, so it's relieving to hear that you feel how I feel after seeing it.
Have you ever considered doing a follow up to Beyond The Mat?
Not really, I do have extra footage but none of it really makes me want to put out Beyond The Mat II. Wrestling fans have been ripped off enough without me coming in and ripping them off too. The extra footage is there, but right now I feel like I've done my film on wrestling. It turned out the way that I hoped it would turn out and the response was really good. I'd love to do another documentary though, but I'd have to find the right subject matter. It'd have to be as interesting and compelling on film, and eventually I will find it, because I really love the documentary film. I found it very liberating. When they're good, they're incredible and far more moving than fiction, they just have a bad wrap – sometimes they can take you back to when you were in school and make you feel like you're being forced to watch an educational film.
Did you find when you were making the film that there was a stigma attached to it in that regard because it was a documentary?
Not when I was making the movie, I think it was already there because it was about wrestling! People were like 'Huh? Wrestling? How can that be any good!' I think it turned out really well though, but it's still hard to get certain people to watch it, people who don't have an interest in wrestling. When the studio, the people who put up the money for Beyond The Mat, they were worried about how the wrestling fans would react to it. I wasn't worried about that because I'm a wrestling fan. So I knew about all the stuff that as a wrestling fan I would find interesting, but I was very determined to make it interesting for those people who just don't care about wrestling, because the wrestling fans are going to watch it anyway and here's something that doesn't talk down to them.
I think most fans have a sort of love/hate relationship with it, I once heard it compared to like when a guy has a porno tape, in fact I read some article from a newspaper in Vancouver where they compared being a wrestling fan to having a huge porno collection, in that you don't want people to know you have it. I read that and thought, haha, thirty dirty movies doesn't make a huge collection, haha!
Anyway, the stigma with the documentary is that it's hard to getting funding for one that was the really hard part. People assumed it was going to be really funny and were surprised when I said that, no; this is going to be a serious film.
There are some deeply personal moments in the film - most notably when Jake The Snake meets with his daughter and when Mick Foley's kids watch in terror as their father takes a brutal beating from The Rock. Would you say these were the most difficult moments as a filmmaker to capture? What was going through your head as your were filming all this?
The thing with Jake and his daughter was really uncomfortable. What happened there was he said 'You can meet my daughter' and what you see is very much the way it happened. We saw her for a minute and then she left. Jake said 'Barry, you go talk to her' and she did agree to talk to me, and we were going to go visit two of his sons, because he has like five kids. When I talked to her she said 'I'll talk to you but you've got to agree not to take my dad to see my brothers because emotionally, they're just not ready to deal with it.' I agreed to that and went to her apartment, she was still in college then, and she was really nervous and I didn't know if I should setup the lighting or not. Then I figured if I'm going to go for it, I should just go for it so I began talking to her and all this stuff just sort of started coming out. You know, sometimes you just get lucky and there's a thing where she shows this book, and really we just noticed this coffee table book in her apartment and we said 'What's this book?' Then when she took out this book my reaction was just like 'Oh my God.' Then the next day when Jake came it was like 'I wonder if I can get them talking?' Well, they started talking instantly and the daughter really did understand her father really well and was really brave for doing that. I have to admit, I have a lot of admiration for her for doing that.
It sure does take some guts to go on camera and do that…
You know, my big question was, and I've never met her mother, was, well she must have been incredible because given her upbringing, really I don't know why she wasn't screwed up. Then there was the night when Jack was on crack, I remember saying to my cameraman at that time, if we're in focus we have a movie right here, this is powerful footage. I totally did not expect that, you know you can prepare for stuff all you want but sometimes you get surprised. A big mistake a lot of people make is just going in with the attitude that you just go in and film what you film, then you get what you get. There really is a lot more planning and involvement that goes into it, but then there are times where you do just catch something.
It's pretty powerful footage.
Right, well I'd never been in a room with someone smoking crack before! He was pretty open though. I chose not film him smoking it though, even though before he did it he had talked about smoking crack and what not. There were some things he was wanted for though, in a few different states. There were a few times where he said 'Oh I can't stay here because I'm wanted on such and such a charge.' Of course, he'd then tell me that it was all a setup job, with him everything was a setup job. So I didn't film it in fear that the footage would be taken away from me and confiscated as evidence or something. I'm not even sure if that's what would have happened but that's what I was worried about at the time.
I was backstage when that happened. That was the one time in the film that we used multiple cameras. My line producer for the film, she went out and I said 'Just keep the camera on Mick's kids.' I was backstage getting reactions from wrestlers and things like that during all of this, and when Mick came off, his wife came through the curtains and she just grabbed me and pinched my arms asking 'Is he ok? Is he ok?' She was always very sweet, I'd know them both awhile but that time I was like 'Ow!' because she was really grabbing on to me that time. Mick though, he was very calm. He had no idea that the kids were watching that until I showed Mick that footage. He called me up a week or two later and asked me how does it look? I told him, Mick, it doesn't look so good and he said 'But they seemed ok back there' and I told him that it was hard on them. I'd heard some stories before that he was worried about his kids' reaction to this. I decided to show it to him first of all because I felt he needed to see it, not that I'm the world's greatest parent but I felt that we need to catch him watching that to see his reaction to it, because he's a great father and I didn't want people thinking he was a horrendous human being because he really does love his kids.
I think that comes through in that scene.
Yeah, I think so and I wanted that opportunity to show it to him even though it felt like I was punching someone in the stomach that I really, really liked.
You approach the film not only as a director, but obviously as someone who is very much a fan as well. After spending so much time on the film and dealing with so many headaches getting it made, are you still able to sit back and enjoy professional wrestling like you used to or has the film sort of spoiled it for you?
No, I still have a love hate/relationship with it, well more of a love/embarrassment relationship, haha. I just did my first fictional film, I was filming it in Austin, and in the hotel I was staying in they didn't have Spike TV, which shows WWE Raw. So one night I went down to the gym because they had these little TVs that for some reason did get it, so I was working on the exercise bike watching it. When one of the girls who I was working on the movie with came down and started working out next to me I quickly changed it because I was too embarrassed and I didn't want her to know I was watching it. So I still like it, I even still feel the same love for it that I used to, but there are parts in each show where I really can't believe I'm watching it, and there are parts where I just go 'I can't believe other people don't get it!.' It's sheer entertainment.
Now that the director's cut has surfaced on DVD, is there any other footage out there in the way of deleted scenes or outtakes that you wish could have been put back into the film or is the version that is currently in stores your preferred cut?
I'm happy with it the way it is. You know, to be honest with you, except for one thing, which is the prologue, I was happy with it the way it was released a few years ago. You can always put in more footage here and there and there are some scenes that are good that aren't there but you only want your movie to be so long and you don't want it to veer away from the main story too far. I didn't want it to feel like it was padding, or 'hey, look what else I've got' – just throwing it in to have it in there. I don't think I've ever walked out of a movie thinking wow, it was great, but I really wish it was much longer.
Were you ever intimidated by any of the people you came into contact with while making the film? Some of the guys like Mick Foley and Terry Funk come across as really nice guys outside the ring but what about New Jack? Were you ever taken aback by some of these guys?
Most of the wrestlers, once they got to know me, were really kind and considerate guys. But, some of them are not. They're big guys and they can be scary guys. But, particularly with having Terry's approval, because he's so respected in that community, getting his personal okay meant a lot. That doesn't mean that I didn't run into problems, but I always told the guys, if you're just wanting to be in the movie I'm not going to film it. I also told them all if I asked them a question that they didn't want to answer, to not answer it and I wouldn't put it in. Out of all the interviews I did, and I think I shot over sixty hours of footage, no one once refused to answer a question.
You seemed to carry an air of respect through it all though…
That's right and I did have an air of respect for them. The only thing I promised them was that it wasn't going to be a joke and that I'd treat them with dignity, because it was being done by someone who appreciated their work. One of the nicest things I can say about the film is that I haven't met anyone in wrestling that doesn't really like it and doesn't think it's extremely accurate. I loved doing the movie, even years later. The only bad thing is the re-releases get to my family, they're all like 'Oh no, not wrestling again' haha. Otherwise though it was great dealing with all of them.
Since the films release, have you had any contact with Jake The Snake? Rumors continue to abound about him, last I heard he was in England!
I do still speak with Mick quite often, and Terry Funk. Actually, I put Terry Funk in The Ringer, my new film, he's got a small part in it as it was shot in Texas. New Jack too, he occasionally calls me and I very carefully return his calls, haha. Every once in a while I hear from the younger guys too. You know though, I haven't gone to a wrestling match since doing the movie. I haven't gone to a WWE match. I'd like to go though.
Have you just not had the time or is it something else?
Well I'd only want to go if I could go backstage and see some of those guys because I spent a lot of time with some of them. I'm always like 'I don't know, am I still persona non grata there?' A couple of times I've said to myself 'I'm going to go the next time they're in LA' but I always seem to find an excuse not to go. I really would love to go see those guys again though, I feel a certain kinship with them.
How was it different going from the WWF to the ECW for interviews and footage. ECW looked like they were more than happy to talk to you whereas with the WWF, I've heard stories of how they're very tight lipped about a lot of the backstage activities and will go the extra mile to protect their image.
In all fairness, Vince did give me total access. He never said 'you can't show this' and there was only one thing that he asked me not to film and it wasn't even an important thing. They always wanted to watch what I was doing though. WCW was very advantageous for me though, because at the time they needed and wanted publicity. There's a really homely feeling there in that league. They felt like they were all in this together, that they were all the underdogs. Paul kind of inspired that feeling there. I'd always put a wireless mic on that guy and he'd always shut it off, he didn't need it. They were very welcoming to me there, but so were the wrestlers in the WWF. Once they got to know me, it was great. The reason I wanted to spend so much time with them was to build up familiarity so that when I brought in the cameras it wasn't like 'Who's that guy with the cameras' it was more like 'Here's Barry, and he's got a camera.' They knew me by that point. They could feel comfortable with the kind of person I was and the kind of movie I wanted to make.
If you were to see outtakes from the movie you'd see that in the beginning you'd see me talking to them saying 'I don't want your stage persona, and if I feel you're giving that to me I'm just going to shut the cameras off.' You'd actually hear me saying 'cut the wrestling crap' because I wanted more than that.
Right, you didn't want to see them acting.
Exactly, I didn't want that. Haha, I was like 'you're not that good an actor anyway, you're not going to get by me!' They'd say 'Brother just show me some respect' but as soon as they threw the word brother into it, I knew they were acting again. It was weird, I got to the point where if I heard that word, I'd be like 'shut off the cameras!' I didn't want what we see on TV.
You got your start writing for Saturday Night Live and have since made the move into professional film writing and worked quite a bit with Eddie Murphy. This has obviously got to be very different on so many levels than following wrestlers around the country making a documentary. Which do you prefer, writing or directing, and why?
You know what? I prefer directing. As a director, you really feel like you get to sit at the adult's table. The great thing though about a documentary is that you're writing and directing at the same time, you get to use both of those muscles. Part of how I got the money to do Beyond The Mat was that I agreed, with my writing partner, to do the sequel, Nutty Professor II. We'd done the first one, we were offered the second one but initially turned it down. I felt the first one really answered all the questions and I didn't think that there was anything else we could do with the character. I did understand financially though why they'd want to do a sequel and it was then that they explained to me why financially, I might want to write that sequel, haha. So then the deal was struck with them that I would do it but I'd still have the ability to go and shoot my documentary when I wanted to and that that would be my first priority.
So I'd got from working on a big budget movie, a hundred million or whatever the budget for that movie was, to working on the documentary that had a budget of five hundred thousand dollars where I had to think about things like 'If I take a stop over here and wait catch this plane I can save thirty dollars' and we really did have to worry about things like that. We'd travel by van and pass by places like the Hampton Inn and think 'yeah, one day, we're going to stay there!' haha.
One of the things I liked was that although I wasn't able to really pay my crew much of a salary I was able to give them a piece of the film. At the time I thought it probably meant nothing but since then, although it hasn't meant a lot of money, it has meant some money and so I'm able to write out a check to them anytime I get a profit statement and that's a good feeling.
You're currently slated to direct a film called The Ringer. What can you tell us about this project?
The Ringer is a movie that is being produced by the Farrelly Brothers, and it stars Johnny Knoxville and it's about a guy who pretends to be mentally challenged so that he can win the Special Olympics.
Knoxville is really good in it and the movie actually has the approval of the Special Olympics. They approved the script and they were there while it was being made. They haven't seen the finished product yet, but I have no doubt that they'll like it. It's very, very sweet. It has a combination of regular actors and mentally challenged people in major roles. In fact, half the actors in it are mentally challenged. Usually if you see the mentally challenged in movies they have like one line or two lines but they don't have major parts. The message of the movie is really significant too. Before we started filming the movie I spent a lot of time with them, talking to them, and one of the things I asked a lot of them was 'how do you feel about the way you're portrayed in movies?' They'd always answer and say they didn't like it. When I asked why they'd say 'because people feel sorry for us.' They're never shown having a good time, and you know what? It's true. Most of the time in movies you either say 'Awww, that poor person' or they have incredible wisdom beyond anyone else in the movie. I realized that when you do that in movies you might make yourself feel good, but you're really not making them feel good at all. So the scriptwriter did a great job but this would have been a hard movie to get made without the perseverance of the Farrelly's who really went out on a limb to get this made.
I've just finished editing it and am showing it to them this Friday. I'm personally really happy with it, and response has been good from the few friends that I've shown it to as well. You have to expect a bit that it's going to be funny, and it is, but it's really different too, people aren't going to see it and say 'oh, it's that kind of movie' because it's pretty unique.
Right, I can't think of another movie off the top of my head that mixes the cast up like that.
And that's what made it really interesting for me. Half of all the actors and actresses and even the extras on the set at any given time would be mentally challenged people. That made for a really interesting set. I've talked to some of the people who worked with me on the movie and tried to find out if they're good, bad or indifferent and it's been a really interesting sociological experience. It really did change people's perceptions and that's the part I walk away from the experience with, it really changed me.
Barry, thank you so much for your time, it's greatly appreciated!
Thank you, it was my pleasure!
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