By Danny Peary
Bodyslam: Revenge of the Banana fits my category Movies That Should Play in Sag Harbor. But after its successful world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, it has moved to the west coast. In fact, this Thursday at 9:30 p.m., John Paul Horstmann and Ryan Harvie’s uplifting, sweet-spirited wrestling documentary is playing at the very cool Seattle International Film Festival, with post-screening surprises promised.
I urge every Seattle movie fan–wrestling expertise is not required!–to attend the screening at the Cinema Egyptian because it is actually set in Seattle. The directors found their story and its intriguing cast of social misfits at the Re-bar, a gay-friendly club on Howell Street, where once a month this intrepid and talented troupe of performers with outlandish monikers and wild costumes put on a raucous show that mixes wild, over-the-top wrestling with burlesque, parody, soap opera, and even political satire–if you want to see “Senator John McCain” manhandled by Ronald McFondle, this is where to go! In the documentary, Ronald McFondle, played by Josh Black, and Eddie Van Glam, played by Bill Bates, are the two Seattle Semi-Pro Wrestlers the directors focus on, in and out of costume. The other main figure is Paul Richards, who wrestles as The Banana, until he is exiled for not making an effort to become part of the very tight SSP wrestling family–becoming instead an outcast among outcasts. A woman scorned is nothing compared to a Banana out for revenge, and the spiteful Paul cleverly uses the law to shut down the SSP. And the movie moves from the ring to the Capitol. I saw Bodyslam at the TFF out of curiosity and it turned out to be a nice surprise, not at all what I expected and one of my favorite documentaries at the festival. Going in, I figured I’d cheer the wrestling onscreen, but I ended up sincerely rooting for the fascinating underdog characters in the movie in regard to their personal problems and for the SSP to come back from extinction. Also, I was thankful to the directors for bringing an entirely new subculture to the screen. Who knew? So of course, I was delighted to be able to have this conversation with Horstmann, Harvie, Black, and Bates. The wrestlers even let me try on their championship belt!
Danny Peary: Ryan and John, in your Directors Statement, you say that for your film to work it “had to be funny as hell.” For me, it’s the poignancy of your film that comes across more than the hilarity. There is humor but it comes from your characters, who are funny but are just as often serious. So I’m wondering if you still tell people first thing that this is a funny movie.
John Paul Horstmann: That Directors Statement was written a while ago, before we realized Bodyslam would turn out to be a much more serious film than we expected it be. It really surprised us that once we started cutting the scenes together, we kept finding these poignant moments and we exploded them and we explored them and found more heart than in the jokes. So you hit on something. I always think that in humor there’s a lot of pain and consequence, and I really like the juxtaposition of the two.
Ryan Harvie: Yeah, I think this movie is funny-serious. It’s about family, and family is always funny.
DP: Tell me about the tone of the movie. How did you structure it so you always keep it bit humorous even when the characters are talking about sad things?
JPH: We used humor as a hook, and we placed all the interesting stuff underneath it.
RH: No one wants to be depressed for eighty minutes, so we structured the film so that there is always something else going on when it’s too serious. For example, when Paul is telling a sad story, you’re seeing on the screen the wrestling he watched as a child and there’s a feeling of nostalgia and happiness. So while you’re getting some sad information and learning about all these people, you’re not depressed for the whole movie.
JPH: You get inside the person, then you understand him, then you develop great empathy, and then you feel a lot better than you would if he were just to look into the camera and deliver a long speech about how he was once abused or something else like that.
DP: Ryan, I read that the origin of your documentary is that you were told about the wrestling show in Seattle by a college friend who wrestles in it as the Second Banana. Where were you at the time?
RH: I was in Los Angeles and my friend Lucas and I met up for drinks when he came down from Seattle for a video game conference. He started telling me about this wrestling show he was in, saying “I dress like a banana and other guys dress in zany costumes and there’s all this crazy stuff.” And I was enthralled. It seemed amazing so I told John Paul about it and we both became obsessed with the idea. So we went up to Seattle, where we’d never been, and started shooting, and from watching the wrestling show, meeting these guys, and seeing their dynamics behind the stage, we realized, “There’s something here, something beyond these wrestling characters.”
DP: Bill, or Eddie Van Glam, when you guys found out that Ryan and John were making a movie about you, did you say, “Why are they doing this?” Or were you saying, “This is a really good idea!”?
Bill Bates: When they first approached us, we didn’t quite know what to make of it. They were saying, “We want to tell your story.” And we were like, “Cool, if that happens, great! If anything we’ll have footage of our shows.”
DP: At the beginning, was the idea for you to tell your stories or just for them to see the show you put on?
Josh Black: I think at first they came to the show just to check it out. They’d heard about our shows and what we do, and they just wanted to see it for themselves and get a feel for it and see what we were about. The story kind of evolved after the fact.
DP: Do these shows take place at a gay club?
JB: They take place at the Re-bar, and in the ‘80s and ‘90s, it was very much a gay club. They still have gay dance nights and house nights, and they have the Dina Martina Drag Show, and a lot of theater.
DP: Are any of the performers in the drag shows also wrestlers?
JB: No, I don’t think any of the drag people have ever wrestled, but Ronald McFondle does a lot of drag shows. McFondle’s “mother” is Jackie Hell, who is a local drag queen, and she has come out to the ring with me a couple of times to be McFondle’s manager.
DP: How many SSP wrestlers are there?
BB: Right now it’s about 22 guys.
DP: Who writes the scripts for the shows?
JB: It’s not one person who writes all the scripts. Everyone gets to tell their own little stories, and one person—which was me for a long time—must oversee those stories and make sure everything fits. It’s a three-ring circus, and you want comedy and violence and physicality, and technical wrestling. Also you need to make sure everyone’s doing their own things, but you want to make sure you’re not doing the same things all night long.
DP: Are the storylines like soap operas, as they are in the WWE?
JB: The most ridiculous soap operas ever.
DP: Does the audience care who wins?
JB: I’ve been champion a few times but I lose a lot, too. The audience understands we’re telling stories that last six months to a year, so match by match they’re not too much concerned with who wins, because they know we’re telling this story. When it comes to the final match of the feud between characters, then you have them invested in the outcome.
BB: We have season finales…
JB: We have shows once a month. People come back, they come early and grab front-row seats and load up on beer cans.
DP: Which they used to throw at the wrestlers.
BB: A lot of people bring their friends, and once they’ve seen it, they tell their friends. This past Saturday we were standing room only.
DP: Did you guys have a mission statement when you started out?
JB: Not really. We started in 2003, with us wrestling for fun between girls at burlesque shows. It all grew so organically. And then all of a sudden we’re selling out the Re-bar every month.
DP: Are you becoming better wrestlers as the years go by?
JB: Yeah. Well, when we started we didn’t have a lot of physicality, and it was really goofy and theatrical. There was a lot of rolling around and slap-fights, like The Three Stooges. We now have a ring, and we’re a lot of closer to actual wrestlers than when we started.
DP: Are you curious about how you’d do in the ring with professionals?
JB: I’ve done some indie stuff, some more traditional wrestling. It’s not an aspiration for me to wrestle professionally for a living, but it’s a fun thing to do once in a while.
DP: I grew up watching wrestling. Did you guys?
JB: When I was a kid, wrestling was on Saturday mornings, and my grandpa and I would fight about it all the time, because he was an NWA guy who loved Ric Flair and I loved “Macho Man” Randy Savage, who was in the WWF. He hated the pageantry and he still thought it was real and believed NWA was more raw and realer. All that WWF stuff he couldn’t stand–he thought the wrestlers were clowns–so we argued about it all day long.
DP: Did you know wrestling was fake as a kid?
JB: My mom was at the screening the other night, and she told me that when I was 8, I used to just scream at her when she told me it was fake. I didn’t believe it for a second. By the time I was a teen I obviously knew.
DP: What about you, Bill? You’re not a huge guy but growing up did you have aspirations to be a wrestler?
BB: I originally did. I found out about wrestling when I was 9 years old, I saw a magazine with Papa Shango on the cover, and it was so amazing because it was like a real live-action comic book and there were these over-the-top characters, and they were real–I could touch them physically if I went to the show. So I fell in love with the theatrics of it and the storylines, and then as I got older I appreciated the athleticism and the drama that it provided. I remember being a junior in high school, and thinking, “You know, I could actually pursue this. If I go to the gym and start eating right and look into it, I could actually do it.” My family did everything in their power to make sure I didn’t do it. My mother died when I was 22 and I had lost my family by then so I just dove straight into work because that’s all I had and I had only me to take care of. Then when I was 25, a friend said, “Hey, there’s this wrestling show I heard about. I’m not a wrestling fan but I know you are so do you want to go?” “Yeah! If there’s live wrestling in Seattle, I want to experience this!”
DP: Ryan, after you met the SSP wrestlers, did you think that 100% of these men had troubled lives before they found this home and makeshift family?
RH: Some guys did and some guys didn’t.
DP: I am not asking insultingly, but was anyone completely together?
RH: The Second Banana had a troubled history, and so did some other guys, but the way the organization is, with its open-door policy that lets everyone in, if you’re looking for a family, then you have found the place to have it.
JPH: A lot of the guys say they don’t have anybody else, except for the other wrestlers.
JB: A lot of the wrestlers are people like me. I didn’t have a horrible past, I just wanted to get out of North Dakota because it was too small for me. All my family is back there and when I moved out here I was all by myself. A lot of us are just transplants from the Midwest who didn’t have anyone in Seattle. And we found each other.
DP: Ryan, do you see the bonding theme, the brotherhood among the wrestlers, as being the main thrust of your film?
RH: It comes across in their shows and hopefully in our footage that they love each other beyond anything else, and that I think is a really beautiful thing.
DP: The wrestlers in the movie have become a family, but do any still have strong connections to their own families?
BB: My dad is my best friend, I love my father, but there’s no way in hell I’m moving to Atlanta. He finally came to a show and he saw what I built and what I have with these guys. My dad’s actually in the movie, in the front row at a show. He had a blast, and he “got it”—finally when he saw the show and he met everybody, he was like, “OK, I’m not going to ask you to move to Atlanta, because I get it.” Because he knows I love him with all my heart.
DP: Was he impressed by how athletic you are?
BB: Yes and no, because I had always tried my hand at various sports. I just didn’t really keep to one sport to see how good I could be. I was like, “I tried it, so it’s time to move on.” But I always loved wrestling, so for him to see me wrestle for the first time was very special. He he finally got to see me live my dream.
DP: In the Directors’ Statement, you say, “Basically this film is about truth in even the most ridiculous moments.” Please elaborate.
JPH: As we also say in our statement, there is beauty even in the most ugly or ridiculous moments and the most banal situations can have deeply interesting subtexts. Even though we may chuckle at our characters’ eccentricities, we can also identify with their situations.
RH: The truth always comes through. When someone totally believes in what they are doing, whether it’s jumping off a ladder or rubbing clown paint on themselves, that is who they are and it’s their true self that shines through in this film. What I found is that these characters live such interesting lives and are so compelling that you can identify with their situations and feelings even if you don’t dress up like a clown and bodyslam people. There are universal concepts that everyone experiences.
DP: The story takes a really weird turn when Paul, the original Banana, is let go and gets his revenge by alerting the authorities about minor code infractions at the wrestling shows. The result is your show is shut down and the wrestling stops. Josh, after testifying before a surprisingly sympathetic legislative panel, is SSP wrestling functioning in the same way as before at the Re-bar?
JB: Well, if we don’t charge for admission or require a cover charge, we are allowed to do the show. So right now we’re doing that and basically paying out of pocket. But I’m working with the Department of Licensing, and we’re co-authoring a bill to change the laws that need to be changed, hopefully by 2016.
DP: You have always been billed as semi-pros, so were you getting paid before the shutdown?
JB: Before we were shut down we had a cover charge. Mainly it would be to pay the bar tab for all of us to drink after the show, and to promote the show with handbills and posters. Also it paid for making costumes.
RH: You guys didn’t take a salary. You put your money back into it.
JB: None of us ever walked away with cash. We do a lot of charity stuff, too.
BB: Donations to homeless shelters. If we have anything extra.
DP: Let’s talk about Paul, The Banana. He was a really quiet guy yet John Paul and Ryan you were able to befriend him enough so that he was honest with you in the film.
RH: We had to earn his trust. He opened up as a villain just not so emotionally.
JPH: It took almost two years before he opened up. One day, he was on the steps of his house, where you see him in the film, and he just randomly started talking.
DP: Was most of that interview in which he spoke about mother filmed in one day?
JPH: We were interviewing him for a whole day, asking about his house, and then he came out onto the steps, and we turned the camera around.
RH: He’d been rebuilding the house by himself, and we said, “Just show us what you’ve been doing,” and then he started talking about how his mother died on the front porch that he was repairing. It was like a valve opened up and we were very happy he felt comfortable and honest with us.
DP: When watching the movie, Josh, were you hearing Paul’s story for the first time?
JB: Yeah. I had no idea about his past and his mother and all that. He really never said anything much to us except for hello and yes and no, and often he just nodded his head. He never opened up to us. He tried to hang out with us but he’d come to the bar and stand awkwardly to the side. We tried to pull conversation out of him, but he just never opened up with us. I think it’s because he didn’t like that we drink and whatever. So when trying to get him to open up to us when we were all at a bar, we had no idea that drinking bothered him so much. And that was probably a big barrier to him getting closer to us.
BB: It really felt like he was always passing judgment on us.
JB: I’m the type who if I’m busting your balls is saying, “I like you.” But I think he took a lot of the in-jest, busting balls things I said as Josh being an asshole.
BB: I wasn’t the nicest guy back in the day, either.
DP: Ryan, if the wrestlers admit that they blew it with this guy, what do you think Paul’s reaction would be if they asked him to return to the show?
RH: I actually don’t know what Paul would say. I think he would love to wrestle again, but the thing I’ve learned about wrestling is that it’s about trust, and when that trust is broken, it’s hard to rebuild that back. He would have to rebuild that trust.
BB: Wrestling is about trusting your opponent to protect you and about protecting each other. And without that trust, you don’t know if someone is going to get hurt…
DP: Is the anger you have toward Paul too much ever to overcome?
JB: I haven’t seen him since he walked out of that last show, but on a personal level I’d love to shake his hand and bury the hatchet. I don’t want to hold hate and grudges. As far as being back in the show, what stands in the way is the trust issue and not knowing if someone could be hurt. I don’t think I could ever let him back in to perform, but I’d love to be OK with him.
BB: If he ever wanted to come to a show– like Josh, I’d love to just bury the hatchet, shake hands, and apologize for anything I ever said to him.
DP: Would you want an apology from him, too?
BB: Yeah, I think he definitely owes us one, too.
DP: If you watch westerns or war movies, it’s usually about an outsider coming in and eventually learning how to conform to the group. The rare exception is when the group conforms to the guy. Looking back, did you give Paul what he needed, or was he a hopeless case?
JB: We gave him a million opportunities to talk to us, he just doesn’t talk. Communication is key in any relationship but there was no communication with him. He thought I was bullshitting about taking the banana suit off him. I loved what he was doing as a heel, and with his wrestling, but it just didn’t work with that Banana suit on. If we just gave him cheap shades, a vest, and the blazer, he could have acted the way he wanted to as the Banana and he would have been an awesome heel. But the character of the Banana wasn’t supposed to be a heel. Paul wouldn’t listen to us about this, so we had to tell him to leave.
RH: For me, this movie is all about family, and a guy who’s looking for a family, Paul, who finds a family and doesn’t know what to do once he has that family.
DP: So he blows his opportunity and loses his family. Poor guy.