By Jim Phillips, Senior Editor
Hello, Bruthas and Sistas, and welcome. This year marks the 10th Anniversary of a landmark in not only the wrestling business, but in the lexicon of modern pop culture.
The Wrestler, took an introspective look at the long and winding road of the life of a man that gave his body to the profession he loved, and peeled away the the layers of misconceptions. To expose the core of how this can take it’s toll on the lives of the people living it.
The Wrestler, along with the new release 350 Days, present the best representations of how the realities of this business can be distilled out of the myths. I sat down with one of the associate producers for both films last week, Evan Ginzburg, and we talked about this misnomer that all professional wrestlers lived the high profile lifestyles of a Ric Flair or a Hulk Hogan, and stacked the big paydays every week at the arenas and coliseums across the country. The stories told in these two films is far closer to the truth than many fans out there may realize, or want to believe. There is another story to be told here as well, and that one takes us back to East Flatbush, Brooklyn, New York in the mid-Sixties.
Growing up as the odd kid out, is something we both have in common. Evan was one of the only white faces in his neighborhood, so he quickly learned how to navigate the labyrinth of streets that surrounded his house to avoid any altercations. This also led him to become a bit of a television kid. One day as he gazing into his pre-cable black and white television, he stumbled across a sight that took him a minute to process. Up until this point he had never been exposed to professional wrestling, and he wasn’t sure what he was seeing. He described it as this:
“I’m on the UHF one day, this was back in the Seventies. I’m turning the dial, and I see this Indian getting pummeled in a ring. It was Chief Jay Strongbow, in a WWWF ring, and I didn’t know what I was watching. I was hypnotized by it.”
Only two years later, he would attend a show at one of the great arenas in the country, Madison Square Garden. His father had hustled up the money working his taxi, so that he could take his young son the “tha Gah-den” to see his favorite wrestlers live and in the flesh. He watched Chief Jay battle with lead McMahon gladiator of that time as his partner, the Italian powerhouse, Bruno Sammartino as they faced the team of Nikolai Volkoff and “The Hollywood Fashion Plate” Freddie Blassie.
“It was like walking into a new world, and almost like seeing the Marvel Super-heroes and Super-villians. The co-feature was the Valiant Brothers against Dean Ho and Tony Garea. The building was shaking, and back then, you know, there was no blaring entrance music, or pyro, or anything like that. I was just,…hooked.”
In the days before the Internet, everyone was a mark. That wasn’t a term of derision, saddled on the shoulders of people that choose to be informed, sometimes overly-informed, about the product. The wrestlers sold the storylines and lived their characters, sometimes to the point of taking it home and not even letting their families past the fog of mystery that surrounded the “kayfabe”. People believed, and hated the villians, and loved their heroes. Sammartino was like Superman to the youth of NYC during the Seventies.
“People loved Bruno. They cried when he lost the title to Koloff.”
It was this passion that all of us fans that grew up in those times carried with us. Evan carried it with him as well and as time passed, he became more ingrained with the product, until in 2008 an opportunity presented itself that he had been working towards, and living his life to be a part of. I’ll let him take us back to the point that he first became aware of the project that would become The Wrestler.
“As an agent at that time, I had Nikolai Volkoff and Johnny Valiant doing an autograph signing in Queens, New York. I was sitting there with them, and the best friend of the Executive Producer of The Wrestler happens to come in. We started chatting, and we hit it off. He says, ‘How would you guys like to meet with Darren Aronofsky one night to talk about a script that we have for a film on wrestling.’ So I said sure, ya know. I didn’t really think much of it at the time, because when you’re at appearances, people inevitably take your business card. Sometimes things happen and sometimes they don’t.”
Only a short time later they do call however, and before he knew it, he was sitting in a meeting with Nikolai and his manager, Nikita Breznikov, Johnny, Tiger Khan, the Executive Producer Scott Franklin. After picking their brains, Ginzburg was later offered the job of being an associate producer on the film. He told me about the capacity he served on the film in his producership.
“I was basically the wrestling guy. The Executive Producer is the money guy. I was in charge of all things wrestling. I brought in Necro Butcher, Ron Killings, Romeo Rosseli, many Ring of Honor guys, Mickey’s stunt double, the ring, and I did the casting calls for wrestlers. So many of the guys that you see in the movie are guys that I brought in. Afa trained Mickey, so some of his guys came in as well. It was a great, great experience”
I know a few of the wrestlers that were in the film and I reached out to Dimitrios “Greek God” Papadon to ask him about his role in the film, and how it was working with Evan.
“I knew Evan from before and when he got the chance to do the film he called me and asked me if I wanted to be part of, and at first I didn’t want to. I’m not an actor, I’m a wrestler. I went down anyways and read for a part but they gave that to someone else and had me come back and read for another. I got that part and you can see me in the locker room scene with Randy.”
He went on to talk about his respect for Evan, by saying:
“Evan is an old school wrestling guy that knows the history of things and he’s not shy about telling you how he feels that wrestling should be. I love that. Evan’s a good dude, and if more people were like him in the wrestling business, it’d be a much better place.”
During the filming, the actors, and some of the crew wanted to get a better feel for what a real indy wrestling show was like. Evan gave them a wide-eye full when he took them to see the Cage of Death show put on by one of the top local promotions at that time, CZW. The promotion gave them open access to the entire show, and backstage area. Let’s go back there with them:
“Now, we’re not filming, we’re just there as fans watching the show. They’re going through glass, and getting slammed onto thumbtacks, the whole nine yards. So, after it’s over, we go into the dressing room in the back, and it’t like a M.A.S.H. unit. These guys are covered in blood…it was insane. It was absolutely insane. *chuckles* I go up to Mickey to ask him what he thought about all of it, and he said he thought it was great. Mickey’s a tough guy, ya know.”
I turned our conversation towards the new documentary, 350 Days, that Evan was also an associate producer on. We talked about that new landmark film, and how his wrestling knowledge helped bring a masterpiece to the screen.
“Because of my credit as associate producer on The Wrestler, the producers of the film, Darren Antola and David Wilkins and the producer/director Fulvio Cecere, approached me. They knew I had many years of contact with wrestling as an agent, and as a radio/tv host, and publicist. They spoke with great sincerity about the project. They described the idea behind 350 Days, and I was intrigued.”
The concept behind the film, as we talked about in my interview with Fulvio Cecere, is that 350 days a year, these men and women were out on the roads, every year, working in the ring or traveling to get there. The toll that the road demands, and the price that it takes is one that few can really understand until they are out there, living it. He talked about some of the wrestlers that were interviewed for the film and gave glimpses as to the little bit of themselves they not only left on the road, but aspirations that had to be let go of in the pursuit of it’s bounty.
“Wendy Richter in the film says, I’m paraphrasing, ‘How could I have a baby? Where would I put her… on the turnbuckle? Who’s gonna watch her when you’re never home…..never home’.”
He talked about an interview he had done with Sherry Martel years earlier as well and recalled her emotional words, “I was on the road fifteen years, and I didn’t get to see my kid grow up.”
There was a lot of pain in her voice, you know the sacrifice. Sacrificing for your art. Wrestling when done right IS an art. In 350 Days, we have some of the greatest artists of all time. Bret Hart, Billy Graham, George Steele, Greg Valentine, Ted DiBiase, Tito Santana, Ox Baker, The Wolf Man, Paul Orndorff, and Nikolai. We have about a dozen legends that are connected to the movie that have passed….passed! I was shocked recently when Nikolai passed. He was a close friend. I just talked to him the week before he died.”
I love films like these and preserving the history of the business is one of the things that I am very passionate about. Evan was very gracious to me and spoke at length about not only these films but our shared interests in seeing the rich history of the business preserved. I look forward to working with him further, and possibly establishing a roundtable of great minds for the classic era of the business. I’d have to get my good friends Mike Mooneyham, Jack Lord, and Sheldon Goldberg in on that! I want to urge all of you to get out and see this film as we enter the Fall and when it becomes available for widespread release in the Spring of 2019.
I wanna leave you with a quote from Evan that sums this up better than any closing paragraph I could come up with. Peace Bruthas and Sistas, I leave you with this:
“When I think of The Wrestler, I think of the scene where he’s pouring his heart out and Randy the Ram says, ‘I’m just a broken down piece of meat.’ I mean, wow. That says it all. I’ve seen legends that went from headlining arenas, and being on covers of magazines to pushing a broom and having low level jobs. I’ve seen promoters trying to rip them off. You know, a lot of indignities.”, and he continued to finish our talk by saying, “We’re very proud of the film, and these guys, poured their hearts out to us, and a lot of ’em aren’t here today to do it anymore. We feel it’s important, and we wanted to do a film that would not appeal to the wrestling fan, but to someone that is not a fan. You didn’t have to be a wrestling fan to enjoy The Wrestler, and you didn’t have to be a boxing fan to enjoy Rocky. I think that you could take your eighty year old grandmother to the film, and she would enjoy it and be transfixed by the stories and how charismatic these people were.”
It has been nearly a year since 350 Days held it’s one night screening, and the journey from there, to getting a copy for purchase on the store shelves was a long road full of hard work and sacrifices, both financially and personally. In their own way, the makers of the film have lived their own near 350-day journey to seeing this film through to it’s anticipated conclusion.
I reached back out to Evan as well as Executive Producer David Wilkins to get their thoughts on that road traveled and what they wanted people to take away from the film. David Wilkins had been with the film since before it’s inception, and worked with fellow Executive Producer and creator, Darren Antola closely on other projects as well. The two were in the midst of putting together a wrestling match between professional boxers Riddick Bowe and Andrew Golota, in Poland. Hurricane Sandy put a stop to all that and Antola shifted gears and brought the 350 Days idea to the table. Emboldened by his passion, Wilkins agreed to come on board the new venture as well. They left the Rivalry Championship Wrestling (.com if you’d like to go check it out), brand in stasis and began working on the film straight away.
The two contacted Evan Ginzburg, and once he became involved, the gears started to move on the project. Over the next three years plus they labored away in the production of the movie for it’s limited one night release in four hundred theaters nationwide, and the buzz about the film was almost instant. David talked a little about the reaction of the fans, and people in the movie industry and how the project was received:
“There were a lot of things that developed over the years, and I have to say that Darren and I have been very lucky with the people that have taken a liking to us, and really helped us put this whole thing together. Many people were involved trying to help us with it. Bobby Riedel really helped us a lot with getting everything organized also. When we got with Fathom and released it , we got five star reviews from all over the place, and even with the Andre the Giant film that was coming at out at that same time, everybody raved about the film. We got lucky with Fathom. For first time film makers to be put into four hundred theaters, even for one night, was something.”
The appeal of this film goes beyond just that of the wrestling fans as well, and crosses over to people who may not be fans of wrestling, but who are drawn in by the stories of these wrestlers. The grueling editing process took ninety plus hours of video and whittled it down to two powerful hours of film, containing some never before seen footage and pictures shared by the families of the wrestlers who are highlighted. Both Evan and David had shining things to say about the editor, Michael Burlingame, and the job he took on:
“Our editor wasn’t a wrestling guy. He’s worked with HBO, Showtime, Mariah Carey, Sting, Paul McCartney, ect. So when he was watching the footage, he was seeing what was touching, moving, or powerful as opposed to looking at the guys for the careers they had inside the ring or the fame they garnered. I said from the beginning that the last thing we want is a series of shoot interviews. That’s not what we’re doing.”–Evan Ginzburg
During my conversation David Wilkins, he too touched on the way that Burlingame kept his scope on where he wanted to take the film:
“Michael is exactly what we wanted to find in an editor. Somebody that wasn’t a wrestling fan that knew the business, because we wanted to make it a human interest story, and not soley a wrestling film. That’s exactly what he did. He told us that he put a big sign over his computer that said, ‘This is not a wrestling movie’. It shines through in the finished product.”
A movie like 350 Days – for me – is like Christmas morning when I was a little kid. The things I desire to hear about and learn form the men and women that lived the business don’t come from in between the ropes while the bright lights are shining, but all the things that happen because of their involvement with the business. For me, it’s always been about the journey, and not the destination and wrestling is no different. The level of respect I have for them who were, and still are, out there grinding away to get to the diamond through the coal, goes without measure.
Evan spoke straight to the point about the toll that it took to keep up a schedule like that:
“Some of these guys, throughout the movie, they were telling you that they were always in pain…..always in physical pain, to entertain you. They’ll say that they don’t like the word fake; because their hip replacement wasn’t fake, their knee replacement wasn’t fake, their bad backs aren’t fake. Nor are the fact that their divorces, missing the lives of their families growing, or their kids not talking to them not being fake. It’s not all grim, but making this movie was like sitting in a therapist’s chair while these wrestlers poured their hearts out to us, willingly mind you. We didn’t have to coax them to talk. They wanted their stories told.”
And, that more than anything is the essence of what this film is about. The grittiness of not only the business, but how hard it is to try and hold together the semblance of a life rooted in some normalcy, while the whole time being caught up in a whirlwind of chaos can be felt in their words and seen in the depth of their eyes as they tell the stories of these lives that they’ve lived.
I want to close this article with a few words from both producers, and leave with what their thoughts were when I asked them about the legacy of 350 Days, and what they would like to see from the film, besides a modicum of financial success, and the personal satisfaction of a job well done. Get out to purchase the film or go online and find it at I-Tunes. You can view it today online, and DVD/Blue-Ray of the film will be hitting the shelves this week. This is a milestone movie for this business, and the preservation of it’s true history. I can’t wait to own my copy, and I plan on hitting all these Bruthas up for signatures on it. We will return next week to talk more with Director Fulvio Cecere and Editor Michael Brulingame, and get their thoughts on the film. We will provide a link below so you can get yours today. Peace Bruthas and Sistas.
“I thought the best thing that I got out of it was actually meeting these wrestlers, and hearing the amazing stories they had to tell. Billy Graham talking about Katie Gilroy who he had received a kidney transplant from especially touched me. We’re also hearing the same thing from a lot of people, in that they didn’t realize, and this was a real eye opener as to what these wrestlers really went through to bring entertainment to the audience. J.J. Dillon also said, at the question and answer period after the live showing, that this movie preserved the history of wrestling, and he told us that personally a number of times. I can say that sitting in the audience and seeing the reactions, that we did something really good, and I got Darren to thank for that. He’s been my best friend for twenty years, and he’s like a brother to me.”
— David Wilkins, Executive Producer
“I’m a kid from the streets of Brooklyn, New York and I’ve watched documentaries coal miners, and Tuskegee Airmen and things that I know nothing about that are so far removed from my reality. A great documentary is going to involve you, and move you. I can tell you for a fact that you don’t have to be a wrestling fan to enjoy this film, but if you are a wrestling fan then you’ll appreciate it even more. This is no different than a rock’n’roll lifestyle, for example, or any entertainer that is on the road, away from their family and the insanity that goes with that.”
— Evan Ginzburg, Associate Producer
1 Hour 48 Minutes (
In “350 Days, ” pro wrestling legends Bret Hart, Superstar Billy Graham and dozens more peel back the curtain on the severe toll working on the road 350 days a year took on their bodies, families, marriages and psyches.