Interview With ECW Documentary Filmmaker John Philapavage
In the mid to late 1990’s, a professional wrestling organization based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania named Extreme Championship Wrestling (ECW) developed a cult like following that still resonates to this day. Some of the biggest names in wrestling passed through ECW at various times during its heyday, and under the direction of Paul Heyman the promotion managed to build a niche that left an indelible mark on the industry. Offering a product with rich storylines and memorable characters mixed in with its own unique brand of violence and physicality, ECW’s influence was noticeable in both the WWF and WCW during the famed “Monday Night Wars”.
I recently interviewed filmmaker John Philapavage, who along with Kevin Kiernan is currently working on a comprehensive documentary about the history, legacy, and impact of ECW (the trailer for it looks amazing). Having conducted roughly 60 different interviews over the course of ten years, this film promises to offer a fresh perspective on a wrestling organization that created a cultural phenomenon and galvanized an entire generation of people in the process. We discussed the genesis of the documentary, the extensive cast of characters interviewed, the impact ECW had on the wrestling craze of the late 90’s, and what exactly differentiates this film from other ECW documentaries.
PAC: What was the driving force behind your decision to make a documentary about ECW?
John Philapavage: Well we originally started this project in March 2000. At the time ECW was still in business, and both myself and my partner on the documentary (Kevin Kiernan) had filmmaking aspirations from a very young age. We did all kinds of creative projects together, and I roped him in thinking this would only take three months as it wasn’t initially intended to be a serious critical documentary. At the time I wanted to do a fan journal of the experience of going to the ECW Arena, and I wanted to interview a very short list of people about the Arena itself.
By the time we got an interview with Todd Gordon (first owner of ECW) I had a month to prepare. I was 19 years-old and had bugged him for six months until he gave me an interview, and I spent that entire month preparing because I really wanted to do a hell of an interview. And to his credit, he sat with me for over two hours and he answered all my questions. The interview with Gordon got the ball rolling, and based on that meeting we got a lot of other interviews. He helped us get in touch with a few people, as having the founder of ECW in this burgeoning documentary gave us a level of credibility. And some of the things he said during the interview I wanted to give people a chance to rebut, so I went out and found those people and said “this is his side of the story, what’s your side?”. From that point on I really wanted to take a very holistic approach and build an accurate oral history of the promotion; in our film we have fans, wrestling media, the wrestlers, and a lot of people who worked for ECW behind the scenes.
PAC: What is the scope of the film/timeframe covered?
John Philapavage: Most of our interviews were conducted in 2001 when ECW was closing, so it was fresh in the minds of those involved at the time. We then went back this year and spent three days at the Extreme Reunion event and did a bunch more. At the event we got to catch up with a lot of people we had already talked too, so we have interviews spanning 11 years and the differences are kind of stark. The mood of it and what people say is kind of different and what became of them is very interesting. So I think we will be using that reunion as “tentpoles” as I like to say; the documentary will bounce back and forth between the history of the company and present day.
At the moment, we are currently going through the editing process so I don’t necessarily know what is going to make the final film. Our first cut should be done within the next few weeks and it’s going to run a little over two and a half hours. The reason I bring that up is because we cover TWA (Tri-State Wrestling Alliance) extensively, which is kind of the forefather to ECW; in narrative terms it is the inciting incident. And how much TWA gets into the commercial cut depends on how much time we have.
PAC: It looks like you guys interviewed a lot of interesting people. Did you get different versions of stories? How difficult was it to determine the truth of events?
John Philapavage: That’s the fun of being in the editing room right now, but we were kind of mentally prepared for this type of thing occurring when we would have an interview. We’d be on the car ride home or airplane home where we’d just kind of digest it and go “interesting he said this”. And you know the story well enough at this point where it’s like you know when people are lying to you and when they are not. I don’t even know that necessarily our people lied to us so much as they told their version of events, which in some cases aren’t necessarily the consensus version of events. When we had diverse opinions - first I think that is good for any film or any documentary in which you are trying to present arguments. And two, we just gave everybody a platform and in the editing room we said ok, we are going to edit stuff out that is just ridiculous. We tried to focus on and differentiate between what are the key facts and what is opinion. An opinion can stay in sometimes, but lies can’t.
PAC: Out of the people you interviewed did anyone really stick out or making a lasting impression?
John Philapavage: Yeah, and it would be people that you wouldn’t necessarily think of. I think wrestling fans tend to think in terms of perceived “star power”, but I am making a documentary and trying to reach an audience that might not know who any of these people are anyway. Which isn’t to say that I don’t want a wrestling audience; I think that whether you’re a wrestling fan or longtime ECW fan you will really enjoy it because we went out of our way to really get the story.
But my favorite interviews are people like Tony Lewis, who was a fan organizer up in New York and was just an amazing guy. We did a tour of ECW’s New York venue the Elks Lodge with him which was really interesting because it had been turned into a church at that point. Ted Petty was a great interview; he just jumps off the screen. I dare you to not like Ted Petty after you watch this movie. Johnny Grunge is another one. Unfortunately those guys aren’t with us anymore, but they were really cool. And I don’t mean to cut anybody out because 95% of the people I interviewed were great and it was interesting to talk to them. Even New Jack was nice to me, very professional. We were nervous; he did the interview with a machete on his lap. But it turned out to be a good one.
I also think that the media adds another dimension to our documentary. I went out of my way to get a lot of the media that covered ECW in the 1990’s. I think they add a lot of context and in some cases I think they have the most interesting perspectives. Whereas wrestlers really live in the moment and worry about the next payday, it’s the job of these guys to present context, opinion, and perspective. So those were all really interesting interviews and they were all really nice guys.
PAC: is there anyone that you didn’t get to interview or participate that you regret? I know when most people think of ECW they think of Paul Heyman.
John Philapavage: There is, but he’s not the one though. I hate to be totally cryptic because I have had this question asked in interviews. I don’t want to call out the person, but it is someone who worked in ECW that a lot of people don’t know of that I had discussions with. I thought he would’ve have added an interesting perspective, and it ended up not happening. It would’ve been exciting to interview Paul, but I don’t think we necessarily needed him.
PAC: You mentioned that it was ten years in some instances between your meetings with individuals in your documentary. Was what that like for you guys seeing things at different ends of the spectrum?
John Philapavage: Sometimes it was really neat. I got to see Tony Lewis again at the Extreme Reunion and he gave me a big hug. I got to see John Finagan again and talk to him, along with several of the backstage people. It was more difficult with Axl (Rotten) and Balls (Mahoney), it was a lot more real. Their 2001 interviews are two of the more charismatic interviews that we have, and not that they aren’t charismatic now, it’s just that wrestling and its lifestyle has really taken a toll on them. And I like those guys. We don’t go to Thanksgiving dinner together or anything, but I want them to get out and have happy lives. I worry for them.
PAC: Did you find that some of the wrestlers are still caught up in the mystique of ECW and are still living that lifestyle?
John Philapavage: I don’t know if you have heard the stories from Extreme Reunion, but it seems so. I think it was the atmosphere of all those people getting back together. I don’t know if that is typical, obviously they are getting indie bookings elsewhere and you don’t hear about incidents every day. Perhaps it was back being in that environment together that made for what happened.
PAC: Did ECW reap any of the monetary benefits of the late ‘90’s wrestling boom? Or was it always a struggle for them to survive?
John Philapavage: From everything that I know of they were pulling in money, but putting out money much faster. I know that the wrestlers were not getting rich. I talked to people in the front office that said 1998 was a good year financially for ECW, but ‘98 was also the year they started bouncing checks. The company had a lot of loans to pay off, and the talent ended up being the last ones paid which led to trouble. They had to pay for TV in a lot of markets up until the TNN deal in 1999, and even that deal didn’t go so well. They were losing money on the TNN deal because they didn’t have production paid for. Dave Meltzer says in our movie that from 1995 on it was always a struggle for them to stay in business, and this is probably relatively accurate.
PAC: I am not sure if you cover this in your documentary, but did ECW diverge to the path of extreme wrestling in order to try and stand out in comparison to the other promotions of the era?
John Philapavage: To steal the words of Mike Johnson in our film, the wrestling industry was a buffet in ’94 or ‘95 where you had a little bit of everything. And I think that violent niche kind of found its way and became a calling card that took on a life of its own. As talented wrestlers went by the wayside and new fans came in, a lot of the new fans wanted to see the car crash. Not everyone, but a good amount of the younger 16-25 year-old males came out in groups, pregaming with some beers before the show. They were rowdy, they wanted to see craziness, and in some cases wanted to start fights. That’s not everybody, that’s not the whole crowd. But I do think that as Heyman got burned out that violent aspect, that extreme violence really seeped to the top of the card where it hadn’t quite been. And then you would just see people like a Jerry Lynn going through tables, and Jerry Lynn doesn’t need to go through tables.
PAC: Is there a romanticized view of what ECW really was and its impact?
John Philapavage: You hear diverse opinions in our documentary. Some of these people who were bitter in 2001 are now singing the praises of what they did when we talked to them in 2012. Some of them are the opposite way, where they were blindly following the company at the time and now they have the differing opinion. There is some romanticization to it, but I do think ECW was a cultural phenomenon at least within wrestling and really led to the wrestling boom of the late 1990’s.
I think Raven says in one of the clips that “wrestling grew up and we were the first people that took them into adulthood”. That adult perspective so to speak really led to that wrestling boom, a piece of it at least. The NWO came along in 1996, and WWE started turning things around in 1997 and saw the fruits of their labor in 1998, but I do think that ECW exposed a lot of talent on a national level that ended up getting taken by the other promotions. It seems like WCW took all of their talent and the WWF kind of took their strategy in terms of presentation, and there you have your boom.
PAC: Did you get to go to old ECW Arena?
John Philapavage: Oh yeah, it was a big deal for me to finally get there. I started watching ECW religiously in 1995 and I really wanted to go to that arena. It was fight club before there was fight club. It seemed like it was just this mystical place and it was in Philly. I lived an hour outside of Philadelphia, and I don’t think you can idolize a town but I definitely thought Philly was the coolest place. I finally got there in January of 1998 and I saw a bunch of shows at the tail end, but I really wasn’t there for the glory days. There are people in the wrestling industry who think of 1998 as being ECW’s glory days, but to me ’95 and ’96 are like the years I would’ve wanted to go as a fan.
PAC: What makes your documentary different from other ECW documentaries?
John Philapavage: For one thing the presentation is different. We are not wrestling people; we are working as observers who are trying to document an oral history of ECW. There is no narration. There is no spin. There is fact finding and presentation. We interviewed over 60 people and like I said it’s holistic in its approach; we really went out of our way to get people to tell a full story. There are people like Ted Petty and Johnny Grunge in it who never did shoot interviews and they just jump off the screen; their wonderful and give some interesting opinions. You get a lot of diverse opinions in this and I hope it’s fair. And the last thing I’ll say is we cover things that other documentaries didn’t in real world terms, like the violence and why these guys put themselves through that stuff. We cover the “Mass Transit”/Erik Kulas incident and the fallout from that a lot better than I think were covered in other documentaries. You know people we went out of our way to get people that just aren’t in other documentaries. I think people see something and go “oh there are no stars in it” or what they perceive to be the stars, and those people don’t always tell you the best story. We were looking for the best story, and by “best” I mean the “most accurate”.
ECW was a shooting star, it was punk rock. One of the things we cover is it hit right when the internet really started coming into people’s houses. Their marketing strategy, you know the whole “join the revolution” thing fit perfectly. And it’s amazing that Paul Heyman got all these alpha males to kind of fold into this team atmosphere which is so antithetical to being a wrestler. You know, to be a cog in a machine is not what you’re supposed to be trying to do as a wrestler. Somehow he got all these guys on board with that and that’s amazing, and he should have some credit for that.
It’s weird because I am doing a documentary about ECW, but for me if you like documentaries and are interested in the subculture that’s what it’s about for me. I think it’s important to put it out there because people will say “oh, another ECW documentary”. Well I don’t think that there’s really been a true ECW documentary. I think WWE is a wrestling company that put out a semi-propaganda piece (The Rise and Fall of ECW), which don’t get me wrong entertained me because I was an ECW fan. And the other one (Forever Hardcore) you had to be a wrestling fan to understand what was going on; it’s very confusing if you are not deeply into wrestling. I am trying to put something out there that your parents can watch, and that you can also enjoy as a wrestling fan. And hopefully it spurs on some semi-intellectual discussion about why these guys were doing what they were doing. I think people that follow wrestling take a lot of things for granted, as if these actions are normal. ECW was not normal. It’s not normal to jump off a balcony or go through a flaming table for an extra $50 or something. That’s not really what a wrestler does as far as an artistic endeavor you know what I mean?
PAC: Can you tell us a little about Kickstarter and what we can do in order for this film to be released?
John Philapavage: We have our project up on Kickstarter, and if we don’t get the funding for this movie I am not sure how it’s going to get out to the general public. We are trying to get the word out, and if you go to kickstarter.com and search “ECW” you will find our documentary. On Kickstarter, the title of our project is simply “A Documentary about Extreme Championship Wrestling”; we haven’t released the title yet, we are still waiting on a few things for that.
Pledges for our documentary are handled through Amazon payments, and if you make a pledge to our project your credit card doesn’t get charged unless we hit our goal ($23,200). By pledging you are saying that if this gets funded then you are ok with being charged the amount that you agreed to. There are tiers tied to the amount you can pledge, and depending on how much you pledge you are entitled to different levels of gift packages.
We really appreciate the people who have put money towards it. It means a lot to us, it’s a voice in the project. For the full list of gift packages available for donors, please check out our site at http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/bwcfilm/a-documentary-about-extreme-championship-wrestling.
Although no release date is set at the moment, John and his team are shooting for some time in December 2012. We thank him for his time and are looking forward to seeing the finished product.
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