Shortly after the Chris Benoit episodes kicked off Dark Side of the Ring’s season two, capturing audiences around the world and bringing in Vice TV’s best ratings for an original telecast, SteelChair Magazine had the opportunity to sit down and discuss the history of the series with the producer and co-creator of the show, Evan Husney.
In part one of our incredibly in-depth conversation with Husney, we dive into how the show came about, and how the creators developed their style for the show. In addition to this, we discuss the acclaimed Gino Hernandez episode, putting new spins on well-known stories, being turned down by Hulk Hogan, and much, much more.
You started these shows by working on the Bruiser Brody story, not thinking this would develop into a series. How did you start formulating the style Dark Side of the Ring employs, and did it come from the title?
“No, the Dark Side of the Ring title actually came at the last possible second before we had to deliver the name at the end of 2018 when we had to deliver season one as a finished product. We actually couldn’t come up with a name, we had the hardest time coming up with a name, and it was actually my mother who came up with the title, Dark Side of the Ring. So, thanks, mum. The style of the show, well, it all started with the Bruiser Brody episode. We actually kind of dreamed that maybe we would just make a documentary about the whole Bruiser Brody story, and that would be the end of it. Then, of course, it evolved into being a full series.
The Bruiser Brody story, there were so many interesting shoot interviews about it on the internet, and it had just been a story that had fallen by the wayside. You know, not a lot of wrestling fans had really known about it or had forgotten about it. It kind of fell out of the wrestling public consciousness, and also, if that incident had happened today in like a WWE locker room, that would be headline news everywhere. So it was just this idea of wanting to tell a true-crime story in the world of wrestling. We thought there was something really appealing about the mixture of those two worlds, and our favourite documentary or one of our favourites is The Thin Blue Line, that film is just a masterwork of style. It’s really one of the benchmarks of modern documentary filmmaking, where every frame of it is impeccable. All of the interviews are cinematic; the re-enactments have an incredible style to them, they’re very impressionistic, surreal, noir-ish, and they are really cool. Also, the music kind of carries the momentum of the show; the music is really what drives it.
So we wanted to kind of emulate that, and that’s what we wanted the show to feel like. Even a more modern version of that. So that was the idea of what it would be like because we always wanted to incorporate re-enactments because of films like The Thin Blue Line, and it was a way to illustrate aspects of the story that you can’t cover with footage. A lot of these stories happen outside of the ring when cameras aren’t on, so that was kind of one of the things we wanted to do. That was the stylistic approach.”
I’m always a little hit and miss with re-enactments because there was an old Hulk Hogan documentary in 2010 called Finding Hulk Hogan, and that had Hogan re-enacting things, and it just felt rather corny.
“Yeah, there’s kind of this thing with re-enactments where it’s like – we stumbled across this while we were making the show, which is, if you approach re-enactments trying to be literal, trying to actually capture and recreate exactly as if you were there – unless you have a billion dollars, you’re probably not going to be able to do justice to that. Especially in wrestling when you’re dealing with people who are so iconic looking. So we realised very quickly that we didn’t have the money to even attempt to do something like that, and Thin Blue Line kind of guided us in a way of being able to do re-enactments in more of a suggestive way. And it all kind of started with Jason and I, we’ve been wrestling fans forever, and one day we were filming, nerdily enough, we were filming these tongue-in-cheek videos for our Instagram with wrestling figures we bought. We just bought these Road Warriors action figures, and we were filming them in slow motion and using a flashlight to light them to make them look really cool. Then it was kind of our eureka moment of like, “Wait a minute, what if we just did this, but with actors, and we did it in a way where we minimally production designed everything, and we made it seem more like a dream.” So that’s when the light bulb went off, and we realised we can just film it one location, and that’s what we’ve been doing ever since.”
They also don’t take over the show to the point where audiences might say that’s not so and so.
“Yeah. Again, these are memories that happened over thirty years ago in some cases, and so we wanted to also visually show like a faded memory, and it gives the effect of viewer’s kind of filling in the blanks. I think anytime that you can do that in films, even with narrative films, any time you can give people the ability to fill in the blanks with anything, I think it just always appears to be more effective.”
Considering it’s such a big part of your shows, what was the casting like to get the right actors for it because I can imagine that was a big part of the process?
“It’s definitely a tricky process in terms of trying to find people that live up to these completely one of a kind individuals. Sometimes you’re cheating them more than others. You’re having to use smoke and mirrors to make it work. But we just bring people in, and we have a network of indie wrestlers in Canada because the shows produced in Canada. So we have an indie network of wrestlers up there, who we kind of put the word out to saying we need a Chris Jericho or Jimmy Snuka or whatever. It’s hard to find people who look like, especially like Jimmy Snuka in 2020. So we just do our best, we get suggestions, and then we do other casting outreach to people. A lot of bodybuilders, and people who are extremely athletic, which of course limits us with what we can do with them in the ring if they can work or they can’t work.
Then we bring them in and try and photograph their silhouette to see if their silhouette sells this person, and if it’s close enough, then we just go with it. But sometimes, in casting, these people come in last minute. Literally, a couple of days before we shoot, and it can be very hectic (laughs).”
What was the most difficult casting for you, do you think?
“Oh god, there’s been so many. I mean, we’ve done sixteen of these now.”
Was Benoit a challenge?
“No, because we kind of had Tyson Dux in mind early on. I’m trying to think because there are circumstances where we kind of had to settle for somebody because we actually didn’t find someone that we felt like was living up to it enough. I think Dr. D David Schultz was a really hard person to find because he’s such a one of a kind, unique type person. People don’t look like that in 2020 (laughs), and we were kind of nervous about that, but then he came in, and wow, this guy really embodied that. It worked. Eddie Guerrero was a tough one to find, because sometimes when you’re limited to Canada, it’s hard to find a Latino actor who also had the look of Eddie. In Toronto, the population is not as big as it is in other areas. So that was a hard one. But yeah, I think every episode has its challenges for sure.”
Yeah, I can imagine that. One of the things you guys have done is brought a whole new life to existing, well-known stories in wrestling, as well as telling new stories. I know you’ve heard this before, but Gino Hernandez, I had only heard of him in passing. That was a whole revelation for me. But what was the challenge like revisiting stories that had already been covered in great deal before?
“When we sketched out season one, obviously, we hadn’t done this before. We were trying to find our footing, and the original plan for season one was actually to do more episodes than we did. The number of episodes got shortened while we were in production, which at the time was a blessing because we were kind of in over our heads, I think. The Screwjob being a story that’s been told so many times, it was kind of like if we’re doing a series about the biggest controversial stories in wrestling, it made sense in that way. Especially because we always wanted to engineer the show for a non-wrestling fan audience. We wanted to try and take the fandom of wrestling, and take the environment of shoot interviews that are on YouTube and everything and bring it more mainstream. We wanted to try cross that over. The Screwjob is one of those stories that you cannot deny is part of that conversation.
I think it works well in the context of when you talk to somebody who doesn’t know anything about wrestling, or more importantly, someone who doesn’t care about wrestling. I think the Screwjob helps illustrate how the backstage politics of a WWF functions. Like, what does it mean to be a champion? I think a lot of people who watched that who weren’t wrestling fans didn’t realise how serious everyone takes it, and how important wrestling is to people. That story really shows that in the biggest way.
To go back to your original question, last season and definitely some this season, we embarked on certain stories – the Screwjob story we’ve heard many, many times, and not thinking that we’d break new ground with it. There were two instances we did, and one was when we went to go interview Jim Cornette. We basically decided to put him in the episode because he was so entertaining and it would be a good on-camera presence to help tell the story, but that’s when he decided to reveal this part of the story that he’s never talked about before because he’s at a point in his life where he doesn’t leave the house that much (laughs). So that was unexpected and fun as a fan to get somebody to open up and tell a new detail.
Then, with stories like the Gino Hernandez episode, it was wild, and that’s more the experience that’s “fun” in making the show. When you embark on something, and you don’t know how it’s going to wind up, and every day changes, and the story evolves every day. A lot of people who were working with us, a lot of people at Vice were sceptical of the episode because we were entering telling a story based on rumours. Basically based on this rumour that Gino’s death was not an accident, and it was a murder because people had heard that. So a lot of people were sceptical because we could put money and resources into this and find out there is not much of a story here. So that episode we entered in as a risk, and then, of course, it paid off in terms of being a bigger, wilder story than we ever could have imagined. So that was really exciting. That definitely happened this season and last season, so those were some of the more exciting experiences you can have working on the show.”
I think the placement of the Gino episode in the first season was very good because, by that point, you’ve potentially already hooked a large chunk of the audience. So they were going to watch regardless.
“Right, yeah, and that was the idea to try get folks on board with Macho Man and the Screwjob, and then after that, let’s explore some deeper areas of this world.”
I will say, thus far, the Gino episode is my favourite one. I really enjoyed that one.
Yeah, I think because it was so new to me. It was kind of refreshing.
“Yeah, we always try to kind of have a balance of episodes that work for a broader audience, and then some that work for the more diehard, hardcore audience like us. And there’s definitely an episode that I think will be the Gino for that audience this season.”
I look forward to it. Obviously, I’m someone that’s seen many, many wrestling documentaries, and admittedly, when I saw the episode list for the first season of Dark Side, I was thinking, “what are they going to tell me that I don’t already know?” But was there ever a fear with certain episodes of trying to be different just for the sake of being different?
“I think with the Cornette and Russo thing (in the Screwjob episode) was a little bit of that because I can totally understand that criticism, and if I could go back to the edit room, I think there’s a way I could make it work a little better. But I think that the thought at the time was really trying to prove that in wrestling, especially with the Screwjob, that’s kind of why we’re all here talking about wrestling so much because fans began to be more interested in the behind the scenes element more than they did with what’s happening in the ring.
Why wrestling is hard for me to watch today, not all of it, but most of it, especially the mainstream stuff, is because the only way we talk about it now is not, “Look at what these performers did.” It’s, “Oh, this is the choices the people in the backstage area made,” you know? (Laughs). One of the things we wanted to bring to the Screwjob episode was showing how we are more fascinated with the behind the scenes, and the storyline between Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels is completely overshadowed by the fact that they hate each other in real life. That’s more dramatic and more interesting then what’s happening in the ring, and then when you peel back the layer of the onion, you realise there are two other people who are wrapped up in this, who also hate each other, and that drama is more interesting than what’s happening in the ring on television.
That was kind of the thought, and it is trying to bring something new, a new perspective to it. I also will say as a little behind the scenes note, we did start shooting the Brawl for All episode during season one, and that was supposed to be a part of season one. A big part of that story was more the Jim Cornette vs. Vince Russo battle over ideology, which makes more sense than the Screwjob. It’s the battle over wrestling philosophy. What is wrestling at its root, right? Is it something that can evolve and become more entertainment, or should it be something that’s sacred and be more represented as an athletic competition. So it makes more sense in that context. I think when we decided to include it in the Screwjob episode, it was kind of short-sighted in us thinking we won’t get another season, so let’s put it in because it was compelling material at the time.”
On the flip side, in the Bruiser Brody episode, you mentioned Brody wanting to take over the Puerto Rico territory, which I don’t believe was mentioned in the Highspots documentary. So that was a very good inclusion.
“Yeah, that was again just a common thread coming up between the people that we were talking to. So it was definitely interesting to think about.”
The first episode of season one documented Randy Savage and Miss Elizabeth’s real-life relationship. You mentioned on Talk is Jericho you tried to get Hulk Hogan for the show, and you were unsuccessful in that. However, you did get Linda (Hogan’s ex-wife). Do you think the episode would have changed had Hogan been involved?
“I don’t know. I haven’t really considered it much. But I’m glad we got Linda because one thing in starting to make the show and figuring out what the show is back then, something we’ve always found to be more fascinating than talking to wrestlers, is talking to the family members of wrestlers. They have such a wildly different perspective on it. Every time we’ve talked to somebody – they don’t have the fan perspective that you and I have. It’s like, they’ve had to deal with this, they’ve had to put up with this industry, and the demand and toll it takes on a family. That’s always kind of been a more interesting perspective to us.
Like, if it came between getting Hulk or Linda, Linda was great because she provided a voice to Miss Elizabeth, which was somebody we were really struggling to get a voice for. Miss Elizabeth’s family didn’t want to participate in the episode, which was tough because that was the aim of the episode. You’ve heard Randy’s side of the story, and people talk about Randy so much, but you’ve never really heard people talk about Miss Elizabeth from the perspective of her. So that was really kind of what we wanted to try and do. We just did our best with what we had to work with at the time.”
Linda did great, and maybe in the future, Hulk will accept an offer from you guys now because you’re so high up on the pedestal.
“(Laughs) for Hogan, I totally understand it. At the time it was like, these guys are making this doc about Macho Man. Who are they? I think he was just looking for a bigger opportunity, and I think now with the A&E documentaries, there is one being produced about Randy. I think that may be more of an opportunity, I guess. For us at the time, we had no street cred at all, I think to try and get Hogan.”
Stay tuned for part 2, and if you’re a fan of this series, feel free to express your desire for a season three as well!
Dark Side of the Ring’s remaining episodes for season two are as followed:
Dr. D David Schultz on April 28th
Herb Abrams & The UWF – May 5th
The Road Warriors – May 12th
Owen Hart – May 19th
Dark Side of the Ring is available on VICE TV via all major satellite and cable providers; VICETV.com; and the VICE TV app via iOS, Android, Apple TV and Chromecast.