Wrestling is an art form. To many, that statement would annoy them, but it’s inherently true that sports and entertainment clash to tell stories. One person who has always tried to show this is documentarian Kenny Johnson. Over several years, Johnson has documented the highs, lows, and characters of indie wrestling in search of stories, and with the release of his latest, Life After Death, he has gone all-in on his exploration of deathmatch wrestling. We did a full review of the documentary that can be found here and now, got a chance to sit down and talk with Johnson one-on-one about the documentary, what he looks for when making his films, and so much more. Enjoy part 1.
Documentaries & film making and storytelling brought to life within the work of the lens from someone’s vision is always inspiring. I have been a part of the process a few times, Mr. Kenny Johnson was one’s work I’d always pay attention to. I always had hoped to tell my story in some capacity with him but never knew it would come to life. It did and the process and seeing the time and effort he put into telling mine and others’ stories is something I’m grateful for. I watched the doc he did “Life After Death” and it gave me new life! – Matt Tremont
Since it’s your first time being interviewed for SteelChair Magazine can you tell us a bit about yourself?
“I am Kenny Johnson. I’m a documentary filmmaker, editor, little bit of a producer and writer. I’ve been in or around the film industry for about ten years now. I went to film school, and I’ve always been a big fan of professional wrestling. In fact, I made a documentary around 2009/2010 about independent professional wrestling that starred a very young Adam Cole, and I’ve been around the independent wrestling world pretty much ever since then. It’s been about ten years on and off. I’ve gone off and made other projects here and there, but I always seem to come back and find some stories within the independent wrestling world.”
I think the first one I ever saw was the one on Joey Janela…
“Ah yes. I can’t remember when that was exactly. It was when Janela took that horrible bump off the top of the roof via Zandig…”
That was 2016, I think…
“That’s when I made that one. Another one that got me more into it was I made one in 2014 on Johnny Gargano. I drove up to Ohio and interviewed him there about his connection with a fan named Kayden. That was another big one that took me back into the wrestling world. That’s how I met a lot of people in EVOLVE and Gabe Sapolsky. But yeah, Joey Janela: Please Don’t Die, Joey, I think that is the big one that a lot of people will somewhat remember me for.”
So, what is the process when it comes to deciding on a topic you want to do? What makes you pick a subject?
“What makes me pick a subject is I’m going out and trying to find some type of universal story that fans outside of the wrestling world can appreciate. People that know nothing about wrestling can sit down and hopefully watch and enjoy parts of my documentary. I try to keep that in mind when making them. I’ll go out and try and find a story that resonates with me as just a person. A lot of the time, wrestling is just a piece in the puzzle of the story that I’m trying to tell. With Johnny Gargano for example, I remember seeing online, him bringing this fan in who has had a lot of medical issues, had been to the hospital multiple times for scary surgeries, and I think he even put off a surgery for something really intense. This little boy put off this surgery, so he could go see a Johnny Gargano wrestling match at an independent show. Johnny heard about that, and it took his breath away. So, I found that story interesting and wanted to learn more about that.
“When I go talk to guys like Johnny Gargano, I want to get their stories about how they got into wrestling, and more importantly why. What about it makes it interesting to you? What stories speak volumes to other people outside of wrestling? That’s, typically what I go looking for or, I have a question in mind. I’ll watch something. The one I did recently on Matt Tremont with all these deathmatch wrestlers putting themselves through incredible physical torture, bleeding, cutting up, having awful injuries. Yet, they love it so much. It’s such a passionate group of fans and wrestlers around that whole subculture within wrestling. I want to know why, why do all this? What’s the end goal? Are you going to make it to the big leagues? To WWE? Are you going to be on television? Is that your goal? For a lot of them no, it’s not. It’s very much living in the moment. Their bodies are going to be damaged and scarred forever. They’re carrying this stuff forever. Is it worth it? Can they walk away from this satisfied? That’s how I went into this Tremont documentary.”
My next question was going to be why Matt Tremont…
“Well, it’s funny, I had met Matt several times because whenever I go to independent shows, I’ll usually run into everyone because everyone’s there. When I was making this documentary way back when with Adam Cole and a couple of other wrestlers. One of them was Greg Excellent. Both Greg and Adam worked for CZW. I was always within that world, and by the time I was getting out of that CZW world, Matt was on the rise. I’d met Matt, and Greg had said he’s one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet. Pretty much everywhere you’d go, that’s what everyone would say. Matt is incredibly nice, he’s one of the nicest people you could ever meet in or out of the wrestling business. So, I’d always been intrigued by this guy. How is a guy so nice that can go and do these gruesome awful things to people and to himself? What’s the story there? There’s got to be a bigger story. That was another reason why I wanted to do this thing on him. He was retiring, and I thought this could be my last chance to work with him in some capacity. So go for it, take a stab. I’d been to H2O before as I’d made a documentary on Maria Manic, and he’d come up to me and said: “I’d love for you to make something on me doing the day-to-day operations on running a school.” There was that and a couple of other things that made me think, okay, there’s something here with the retirement thing.”
How did you decide on the approach? There’s the eight-part structure. You had the idea; how did you choose to materialise it?
“I wanted to have a really slow build to this. It had been a while since I’d made a documentary myself that wasn’t for a company like EVOLVE or someone else. A lot of those were structured like a documentary and shot like a documentary, but they’re not at all. They’re “fake” documentaries. I wanted to do something that was a longer form that had a nice long slow build. I wanted to capture a lot of these quiet, strange moments because whenever I went to a wrestling show, I’d capture these strange little things y’know, visuals. For example, at the beginning of the Tremont documentary, I kind of get you into the world, right? He’s getting thrown off, people are screaming, there’s blood everywhere, and then we go to a show for his fourth to last match, and it’s in October, this weird show at I think it’s a horse barn. It’s ICW, they do it outside, and it’s still the middle of a pandemic, freezing cold, and I’m just walking around looking at these weird things. Here’s a horse, we’re in a barn, there’s this weird old mansion that’s out in the middle of the Jersey woods. It was just this surreal atmosphere. You’re going to see things like this whenever you go to an independent show. Like, we’re at a church somewhere, there’s going to be some weird things or in the middle of a flea market maybe. This is the atmosphere we’re in. So, I wanted to capture little weird, intimate moments that was juxtaposed to the extreme violence that was about to come. It would be quiet moments, then extreme violence, then back to the quiet moments, then more extreme moments. Just that back-and-forth. That’s how I got the whole structure idea.
“In the middle of it, I wanted to pivot and focus on these other wrestlers to showcase and explain what deathmatch wrestling is. So, I had this segment in there, I think it was part 2 or 3 where I go to a GCW show, and this was after Matt had already retired. I wanted to get moments of him enjoying the show and hear from other people like Jimmy Lloyd, G-Raver, Atticus Cogar, RSP to ask these people, “Why do you do it? What are some of the secrets here?” to give people a bigger picture. To make you appreciate Matt in a different light and hear from other people. Then end it with this gruesome battle between him and RSP, that’s crazy violence to go to well, what’s next? It’s back to the quiet moments. He’s at his school, but then he always keeps getting roped back in. The structure was show the contrast between the two worlds and make it a very slow burn. Almost like the Onita/Terry Funk match that I had in there from 93, the no-rope exploding ring match. If you watch that match, it’s very slow. It’s a slow, slow, slow build, then a crazy moment will happen, and someone will get thrown into the barbed wire. There’s that countdown at the end, and you know some shits going to go down, the rings going to explode. That’s another structure I wanted to explore. It’s like how are these matches typically put together. Is it just violence for the sake of violence, or is there a story there? That’s what I wanted to do with Matt because he’s all about story. Telling stories, slow-builds, not violence for the sake of violence. At the same time, it kind of is.”
That is quite poetic. You built a deathmatch star documentary in the style of a well-told deathmatch…
“That’s why it takes me so long to make these things. This one took me like 8 or 9 months because I had an idea, I shot some stuff, and I took it all back and thought, what can I do here? How can I structure this better? I’d much rather take my time and make something, as opposed to just making a documentary about someone who became a wrestler because “I’ve always wanted to become a wrestler. Everyone else wanted to be a fireman, I wanted to be a wrestler. Then I wrestled, and that’s why I love it.” There are so many documentaries out there like that now. It’s kind of boring. So, it’s like what else can we do here that digs a little bit deeper?”
I think you’re one of the only people to catch Eddy Only not being his sleazy biker self. That was surreal for me to see…
“I’ve also captured Orange Cassidy being Orange Cassidy a long time back. I guess I put off a nice and easy-going vibe where people won’t be nervous and willing to talk to me about anything. They also know I’m not going to take advantage of you, I’m going to protect the footage and make sure everyone looks good. I have a very interesting story about how Orange Cassidy got into the wrestling business, and it’s not how I ever imagined it. It’s just him telling me straight-forwardly, “It’s like this.” I never actually used that footage in any way, maybe one day I will, I don’t know.”
That ties in nicely with what I wanted to ask next. What is it like being backstage at these shows trying to capture the footage you need?
“For the most part, at most of these shows, everybody’s in it together, so they all want to work and make the show do well. People are there to do a job, but also be with their friends. I don’t want to invade anyone’s personal space or privacy. I’m very cautious, and I’m not going to be running around with my camera on filming everything. I’m always very respectful. I try to go up to every person, shake their hand, say hello, introduce myself if I haven’t met them before. Thankfully, through the years, I’ve met so many people, I don’t have to keep doing that, but I still try to be respectful and follow some of the locker room etiquettes. I’m there to do a job too, so I’m focused and a little bit in my own world. I’m not looking for any type of drama. I’m not looking for any type of stupid stuff. That’s just me in general in life. Thankfully, I’ve built up enough trust over the years that people feel comfortable with me around. They know Kenny’s cool, he’s not going to do anything shitty, he’s not gonna film anything inappropriate. He’s cool. Everyone always vouches for me in some capacity, from Nick Gage to anyone who is working hard cam. Most people know who I am or have seen some of my work in some capacity. So yeah, I carry myself like a professional, and I try to treat everyone professionally. I stay out of everyone’s way and I always say, if I’m in your way or don’t want me to film something, just say, “Don’t film this.” I’ll just walk away, it’s as simple as that.”
You went to several different companies over the span of the retirement tour as Matt did different matches at different places. You had the same goal, how did the companies differ as the time scale went on?
“How does each company differ? Well, with GCW, it’s like a collection of so many different people with so many different personalities. They have a smorgasbord of the type of matches they’ll have on there. They’ll have a Tournament of Survival then they’ll also showcase a lot of the up-and-coming high-flying amazing talent you’ve never seen before. There’s kind of this youthful energy in some of their shows then in like ICW, it’s a little bit of the same thing just with more of this hardcore/deathmatch style wrestling. It’s just a different type of flavour with the same type of energy, hey we’re here to put on a good show, we’re here to do work, we’re here to make the fans happy. Same with H2O, with Matt’s school. It’s a lot of young, hungry talent. They’re all working really hard, they don’t want to step on anybody’s toes, and his school is kind of cool because it has a mix of veterans and kids who are like 17-18 who are just starting out. So, it’s cool to see that collective of talent from different backgrounds, age ranges, but they’re still coming together to put on a show. It’s cool to see, and I definitely appreciate it. Hopefully, other people appreciate it too.”
Kenny Johnson YouTube Channel
All images courtesy of Screenshots, Kenny Johnson Wrestling Docs, Videos courtesy of Kenny Johnson YouTube