For the longest time, Bill Bates couldn’t tell people about the sudden disappearance of his semi-pro wrestling league.
“A lot of our audience would ask, ‘Hey, how you doing?’ And all we could tell them was, ‘We’re dealing with some stuff right now,’” he says. “So I’m very excited to finally share that story with them and be like, “Alright guys, this is what you wanted to hear.”
And boy, what a story it is. After four years of filming, “Bodyslam: Revenge of the Banana” will debut at the Seattle Film Festival this week, bringing co-directors Ryan Harvie and John Paul Horstmann back to the place where Harvie’s buddy Luke Keyes had tipped them off to the wild “fight cabaret” he had joined for kicks, a lighthearted show put on by friends at an Emerald City gay bar where they’d relish reinventing themselves as such characters as Eddie Van Glam and Mascara Generico and grapple in staged matches where snorting fake cocaine and strangling an opponent with fake testicles were part of the act. Appropriately enough, the film opens with a quote from Andy Kaufman, a nod to the fact when the L.A.-based Harvie or Horst would call their subjects in Seattle, they’d often open with Kaufman’s famed “I’m from Hollywood.”
However, Harvie and Horstmann find a story even crazier than the Seattle Semi-Pro Wrestling founders could ever imagine with when they meet Paul Richards, a reserved former military man with a troubled past who clearly isn’t in on the joke of the league and uses it to take out his aggression. Although it would be criminal to spoil what follows, let’s just say Paul’s anger at being chosen to play the titular Banana leads him to pursue action outside the ring and regardless of whether he’s right in thinking that the rest of the league is suggesting he resembles a phallus by making him don a yellow suit, it turns out to be a slip for the SSP, which finds itself threatened with being shut down.
“Bodyslam” is every bit as colorful and entertaining as its subjects, but it captures something truly special when it moves from the small stage of Seattle’s reBar all the way to Washington’s State Legislature, detailing a battle that becomes very real for a group of fake backroom brawlers. Telling the story of a group of outcasts that band together at first for fun, then for something greater than themselves, it’s surprisingly poignant for a film that involves finishing moves largely revolving around buttplay and shortly after the film made its world premiere at the Tribeca last month, Bates, Harvie, Horstmann and Josh Black, one of the league’s founding members who goes by the stage name Ronald McFondle, spoke about the many twists and turns they endured during the making of “Bodyslam,” creating rules to capture this most unruly of subjects, and the scenes they were sorry to lose as part of the final film.
How did the Seattle Semi-Pro wrestling league start out?
Josh Black: In 2003, WrestleMania was in Seattle and my friend wanted to go. I didn’t watch wrestling anymore, but he was like, “You’re the only person I know. If I buy you a ticket, will you come to WrestleMania with me?” Then I started going to the neighborhood bar downtown that showed Raw every week and I ran into some old friends that I hadn’t seen in a while and we were all wrestling fans. Someone that had come to Raw every Monday, was like, “I’m throwing a warehouse party and we’re building a cage and we’re going to have fake wrestling matches.” So we were like, “Cool. Let’s train and learn how to do this.” We went and put on a show and we met a bunch of other guys who wrestle, then we started doing matches between girls at burlesque shows and it grew out of that into doing our own monthly show.
How did the film come about?
Ryan Harvie: John Paul and I went to college with The Second Banana, and I was having drinks with him one night. He was telling me about this organization he joined and how he dresses as a banana, so I told John Paul and we both became really obsessed with it. We went up to Seattle to shoot some shows and as we learned more about these guys, we realized that there is a movie there. Then everything happened with Paul and the banana and it just seemed like a right movie to make.
Had you been wanting to make a film together?
John Paul Horstmann: [Ryan] just annoyed me into it. [laughs] No, I loved the concept right from the beginning. We actually thought it was just going to be a short, but the second we got there and we saw a guy flip off a ladder and land on another guy and then hug him, we were like, “This is great. Let’s shoot more of this.”
Did the fact that it was like theater make it easy to shoot?
Ryan Harvie: We would ask when the matches were and then we would just say, “Can you just tell us if we’re going to get hit by a ladder or a chair?” And we didn’t know [in advance] who would win, but we were just compelled by these guys and the behind the scenes stuff of them showing just so much love to each other. They’re really a family and that’s the thing that really is compelling for us in making this movie.
Was it an easy decision for the wrestlers to let filmmakers in?
Josh Black: We were all doing this on a shoestring budget and very DIY, so any time other photographers [asked], “Can we come and document this?” we’d think, “Awesome,” because we don’t have anyone doing that and we can’t pay anyone to do it, so we were like, “Yeah, come over and film the shows so we can watch our matches.”
There does seem to be some archival footage, though. Did you actually document yourselves before these guys showed up?
Josh Black: When we started this stuff, it was before everyone had cameras in their pocket, so we had to shitty Hi-8 shitty video footage that we just put out. Some shows we’d have camera people, some we wouldn’t. It was a lot to organize and we didn’t have any money, so [we really thought] we’re just going to do this for fun. We make enough money to make costumes and print flyers for the next show and that was it. But we gave [John and Ryan] everything we could.
How many hours of footage did you ultimately end up with?
John Paul Horstmann: Hundreds and hundreds. And Ryan had to watch all the matches, which I tricked him into.
Ryan Harvie: Yeah, I watched all their previous matches. Then when I went up to Seattle, I met up with some of the guys who hadn’t met me before, but I knew them, so they were like, “Who’s this crazy person who’s like, ‘I’ve seen you do this [move]?’”
Josh Black: It weirded some people out.
John Paul Horstmann: But you feel like you know all the guys once you watch every intimate detail of their lives.
Ryan Harvie: And that’s what we wanted to get across. These guys are very compelling and likable. Even Paul is compelling and likable and everyone has these feelings and emotions in this story and it’s up to the viewer to be able to decide who’s right and who’s wrong and talk to your friends and discuss the movie.
John Paul Horstmann: It’s a good conversation piece.
Did you have any idea where the story would take you?
Ryan Harvie: We went up wanting to see a wrestling show, but then once you see the wrestling show you realize that the guys behind the wrestling show are really where the story is — their love for each other and then a guy who’s searching for love, we realized we can put those two together and it will make an interesting story as it did.
John Paul Horstmann: They just happened to be wrestlers, but they were interesting people. We also wanted this to be entertaining and not sad. [Most] documentaries are usually really boring and depressing and we were actually talking about a lot of sad stuff, but we used jokes to cover it up. There’s also so many gimmicks in documentaries like graphics and slow motion. The first thing you would think of is, let’s film a guy in slow motion, falling through the air …
Ryan Harvie: …With opera music.
John Paul Horstmann: Yeah, with opera music and graphics and funny titles — we actually do have a funny title, but just one. We had to tone it down. People kept sending us these banana titles and they were really nice and they worked …
Ryan Harvie: …But we just wanted it simple. We didn’t want to have opening credits, we didn’t want to have a whole lot of fanfare, we just wanted to be able to get in and tell their story.
John Paul Horstmann: We had a set of ground rules. Avoid talking heads, those kind of things. One thing you might notice is we don’t have any type [or on-screen descriptions of the person speaking]. Eventually, we had to because people got confused but until about 40 minutes into the movie, I don’t see why you would need them. When Batman comes on the screen they don’t say, “Batman, superhero.” We also treated this like it was a narrative film as much as we could, and there are some talking heads, but we tried to put people in a situation that’s real where they’re actually acting out what they’re talking about.
Ryan Harvie: Right. And put people in their elements to make them comfortable because otherwise they’re just going to say some stock answer, like [we filmed] Bill where he works [at a salon], because he’s going to feel comfortable there and he’s going to talk because he’s a hairdresser and hairdressers talk.
John Paul Horstmann: Yeah, everybody lies to you in interviews. You don’t get the truth in an interview.
I love that we’re doing this now then.
Bill Bates: [laughs] The jig is up.
Was it an interesting experience to film these two sides that were at war and go from one perspective to the other as it was unfolding?
John Paul Horstmann: First off, we didn’t tell each other that other side what we had seen.
Josh Black: I didn’t know anything about Paul’s history or any of that until I watched the movie the other night. They never told me. AlI knew was they were talking to Paul.
Ryan Harvie: That was intentional to keep what we learned in interviews [to ourselves because that’s] privileged information. If someone’s telling us a story about their childhood, I’m not going to go share that with anyone else because that’s their personal history and we wouldn’t want to betray that trust. Paul is very open and honest, but it took a little bit of time. We shot him for awhile and I can’t thank him enough for his honesty because learning about who he is, it helped [us understand] the story much better because if he was just this guy who did this one act and you don’t know anything about him, there’s no story. But you see he’s a human being with feelings and emotions, just as these guys are, and I can’t thank Paul enough for opening up to us.
John Paul Horstmann: It was very brave to do what he did.
This is the only time I’ll say this, but in Paul’s defense, there’s such a sophisticated setup to the wrestling league you’ve created that I could at least somewhat see how he could take it as seriously as he did. Did you ever feel like you gave him the wrong impression?
Josh Black: We never gave him the impression that it was competition. It is wrestling, but we all know when we go out there who’s going to win and who’s going to lose. As a matter of fact, you know who you’re going to wrestle next month and you spend three weeks training with that person, working out what you’re going to do out there. So he knew that from the get go. On our Web site, it’s like, “Do you want to come do a theater wrestling show?” Every time he won, he knew how he was going to win at the end of that match.
What was it like seeing him in this film?
Josh Black: I learned why he is the way he is. Now I know his motivations, it makes sense why he’s so shut off, but I didn’t know before why he didn’t communicate. It was like a light bulb went off, I’m like, “Oh no wonder I couldn’t get him to say a sentence.”
Bill Bates: I’ll be honest, I had a lot of anxiety last night going in knowing that I was going to see Paul. I didn’t know if I was going to be angry or sad, or [even] happy to see him. It was a longshot I was going to be happy [laughs], but I did not know what to expect.
John Paul Horstmann: How’d you feel when you saw him gloating on the screen?
Josh Black: By that point, I’m just sad for him.
Bill Bates: I thought he was being a bit of smug asshole, but you can’t hold how someone feels about something against them. Paul had his own feelings and he has a right to feel that way based on his upbringing.
I’m not going to spoil the film, but from what I understand, you had a different ending on the film as recently as a week before its premiere at Tribeca. Was it a scramble to finish this?
John Paul Horstmann: Yeah, we just did the ending three weeks ago, but we had shot it all. The final stuff you see [in the film] happened in November. We just never had any time to edit because we’d start work at six o’ clock at night.
Ryan Harvie: We were working our normal day jobs and we were doing this as a labor of love. Seeing these guys as family really inspired us to really keep going forward, make some sacrifices and take time out of our nights and our weekends to be able to have the responsibility to tell their story.
Was there anything you were disappointed didn’t make the final cut?
John Paul Horstmann: A lot of great characters. So many good ones.
Ryan Harvie: There’s Mr. Fitness, there’s Domestic Violence…
Josh Black: Domestic Violence came out because he was this white trash character and someone saw a bumper sticker that said, “Domestic violence hurts everybody.” That’s a wrestling name. [laughs]
John Paul Horstmann: There were side stories — Josh became a rapper at some point with [another wrestler] Billy the Fridge and we had to cut that storyline out.
Bill Bates: I actually became a burlesque performer because of wrestling.
John Paul Horstmann: They couldn’t wrestle anymore so they found other outlets.
Josh Black: We’re all creative people and we’ve got to get it out. Wrestling is just our preferred way, but we found others. I don’t even consider myself a wrestler, but a performance artist and I have different palettes I like to paint with. I do a million things, I make toys and draw. We’re all just really artistic people.
So what was the premiere the other night like?
Ryan Harvie: Fantastic. Some bananas showed up.
John Paul Horstmann: The Banana fan club showed up out of nowhere.
Bill Bates: Your mom was there. [looking at Josh] All our mothers [were].
Josh Black: Yeah, my mom… that was interesting. She came to the wrestling shows, so she knows, but every time McFondle comes on the screen, she starts to wince, like, “Ahhh.”
Ryan Harvie: This is [Josh’s] first time in New York too.
Josh Black: Yeah. It’s pretty weird flying into New York for the first time to watch yourself. Everyone’s always like, “How have you never been there?” And I’d have to say, “I don’t know anyone there. I only travel to places to go see someone.” I never had a reason to go to New York [before], but this is a hell of a reason.