Welcome back to part 2 of our interview with wrestling documentarian Kenny Johnson. In Part 1 we went into detail about his early career and why he chose Matt Tremont as a subject as well as scratching the surface of backstage etiquette and his deathmatch themes. Now we dig in a bit deeper as we talk about deathmatch wrestling, the big question of the documentary, retirement, and more as we break down themes and the technical side of the documentary. This gets quite deep, so read on as we pick up where we left off. Enjoy.
What was it like going to so many of those final farewells for Tremont?
“I wasn’t there for his final GCW match against Alex Colon at the Collective, but I got footage of it and I heard and saw the match. It was nuts. His ICW show was very much by the books, it was the main event, he told a story, and then he was out. It was very much like, “Hey guys, let’s have a last good match.” The crowd was into it and love seeing him, he said his goodbyes sort of and said I’m still going to be training kids. They’re going to be doing stuff, so I’ll still be around in some capacity. From what I heard, the GCW show was more emotional with more people there to see it. It was a crazy cool match, and I’ve actually known Alex Colon too since probably 2010 too. I met him alongside Adam Cole and Greg Excellent and all these guys in CZW way back when in the day. So, it was really cool to see him again. Matt was looking forward to the end, but he was treating it like just another match, like I’m going to go out there and do my work. I can’t do as many cool things as I used to, but I’m still going to put on the best show that I can. It’s very formal and very much to the point.”
With H2O, you got to film that last entrance. That last match. What was the atmosphere like in there? I imagine it was quite something to be in there for those final moments…
“By that point, I’d still been looking for like why are people into this type of thing? What is the deal with deathmatch wrestling? I’d never been the biggest fan. I’ve always respected wrestling in every sense and every degree and style because it takes a tremendous amount of skill and hell on your body. I finally began to see it, the fans there that night were really into it. I know if he’d waited and picked a bigger venue, it would have probably been huge, but the fans were into it there, just loving every aspect of it. It was a loud, surreal moment. Coming through the curtain and watching him take it in the last time. The crowd was there for it. They were all about it. I’ve been to countless wrestling shows and moments, and it was just cool to be there for that. It was intense, the whole atmosphere was intense. The last match, especially as he was sitting there saying his goodbyes in the middle of the ring.”
Did you actually manage to answer your question?
“Why do hardcore/deathmatch wrestling? It’s like the rawest emotion you can get from wrestling. Like so unbelievably raw. You’re bleeding and sharing blood, a lot of blood with another person. It’s like this raw nerve that you’re exposing to the world. I can definitely see the appeal in it, and I understand why wrestlers do it. But at the same time, there’s a warning I have with this documentary, where it’s life after death, where it’s like even in death, your name and legacy will still be a part of wrestling in some capacity. Take, for example, Danny Havoc, his legacy is still attached to that school, and it’s still there, he’s still living on. That can be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on how you look at it. Even with Matt, the documentary ends with, “I’ll probably come back. Everybody in wrestling always comes back.” I kinda don’t want him to, to be perfectly honest. I just want him to stay retired and enjoy that and find the peace in it. I don’t know if deathmatch wrestlers can do that because it’s such a high. It’s such an incredible high having those matches, and it’s hard to walk away from that until you physically can’t anymore.
“Take, for example, Edge coming back, I always look at that like, man, why are you coming back? Isn’t he like 50 and won every title possible, he’s done everything? He’s main evented Wrestlemanias, made a crap-ton of money. I get it, you want to come back, but you don’t need to. Stop, just stop. Just enjoy retirement, ride off into the sunset, be with your family, enjoy that aspect of life. It’s kind of a mixed bag for me why people do it. It’s hard to let go. It really is. If someone was like, hey, you can’t make movies anymore, it’d be hard to be like, I don’t know if I can stop, but hopefully I’d have the strength to do it. It took a lot of strength and a lot of courage for Matt to even broach this topic and to try and retire. Hopefully, he stays retired. I don’t know if he is or if he’s going to come back. Who knows?”
I feel like Atsushi Onita is desperately trying to break that…
“Right. But then Onita has admitted in this he came back seven times. Hopefully, that’s not lost on him, that someone who has come back seven times is asking someone to come out of retirement. Almost when Onita said, “I’ve come back seven times,” there’s this air of regret in his voice at times. You want to push that on someone else? It’s hard to walk away. God, it’s hard to walk away.”
I get what you mean. Sometimes I’m watching matches and it’s especially with the older guys and I wonder why they’re still doing it…
“It’s interesting, though, when I look at people like Ricky Morton. The dude is still going and seems to have adapted to it. He has a lot of fun doing it. He’s being relatively safe. He’s still got it, that Ricky Morton charm. That’s cool to see. He doesn’t need to be the star of the show. I think he just likes wrestling. He just enjoys doing it, and hopefully, isn’t damaging himself too much. He’s 64 years old at this point, so he must be okay. I keep going back-and-forth on this. If it’s a good thing to come out of retirement or stay retired, I don’t know.”
I feel the same way, Onita is 63 and I saw the FMW-E show. So many explosions…
“That’s a different style of wrestling. It’s a lot harder on your body, so you just can’t go as long. With guys like that, I think it’s okay to stay retired, they’ve already given so much. I have to go till the wheels completely fall off is cool, it’s definitely cool to see them do it, but do you really want to?”
That is definitely one of the strongest parts of your work. Even within the context of this interview, you’ve made me question some of my ideals. Is that something you’ve always strived for or just something that’s come about from this project?
“That’s always what I’m striving for. I want you to appreciate this stuff, but also to question it at the same time. You need to take a step back and look at it. That’s why I always encourage people within the wrestling world to get out of the wrestling world in some capacity because when you’re outside looking in on it, you begin to appreciate it more and see it in a different light. You’re not so caught up in it that you miss what’s right in front of you. That’s what I wanted to do with this, why I wanted to find these quiet weird moments. Does anyone ever stop and look at these things in a wrestling show? Do you ever sit back and appreciate a match from this angle or in the crowd? That’s what I wanted people to do with this.
“On the surface, it’s kind of a positive documentary, and looking at it, it’s also a bit negative. You have to look at it both ways. If you don’t appreciate the good and the bad then you’re missing some aspects of things in life and in wrestling especially. It’s hard to talk to some people in wrestling because all they want to do is talk about wrestling. After a while, I’ll be like, “Okay what else is going on in life? What else are you into?” They don’t really have much. So, when they try to perform, it looks like they’re just pulling inspiration from other things in wrestling or another small weird circle they’re from, like the Marvel Movies or Disney stuff. That’s it, that’s all they watch, wrestling and Disney Plus. It’s like okay, expand your horizons a bit because it’s going to help you excel as a performer and appreciate things a little bit better.”
With me, I was into horror movies before I was into wrestling, that probably explains why I love deathmatches so much. I get what you mean, it’s nice to pull from the other things you’re into…
“When I look at wrestling for what it is, it’s storytelling, and I like a range of things. I like comedy, deathmatch, super-serious technical stuff, I can see and appreciate that. I think that’s super important to do. It just makes you appreciate things way more. How can you just watch one type of movie? I feel like you’re just missing out on everything in life if you’re just watching this one thing. You just won’t appreciate things as much.”
To go back to the technical side of things. There was one thing I was curious about. The documentary is just over an hour-long, how much was actually cut out? Because across that journey, I imagine there’s probably enough for a 3-hour director’s cut…
“For the most part, I included most of the B-Roll I shot because I knew exactly what I wanted. The ratio is probably cut down a bit more. The longest part was Matt’s interview, and we talk for about an hour and forty-five minutes, a lot of it about his early stuff. Some of it helped, but it had been documented before, and he’d covered it in other subjects. This isn’t too important; I want to focus on this other aspect. By this point, I’ve been doing this for a while, and I knew what I wanted to get. I don’t know how much I shot, total hours wise I have no clue. I included a fair amount of almost everything. Before, when I was doing things in my earlier career, I would shoot way more stuff. I would be shooting all the time and that makes it so much harder to edit because you have to make more decisions and pick more things. If I know exactly what I want to shoot, I go in with a list of ideas. That opening montage at the barn in ICW, I had an idea that I wanted to get like ten shots or so of various little moments. Here and there are little snapshots throughout the show. I wanted to do that a few times throughout the documentary, so I knew that going through. I probably got like 20 shots and only used 10. It left it, so there’s less decision to make in editing to just go right in. I’d be working in conjunction with production and post-production as I’m doing it all. So, I’d be able to see the big picture and had notes for what I wanted to get. I have these themes picked out in my head when I’m writing the questions. I’m incredibly specific on what I want.”
How hard is it to be a one-man unit with these types of projects?
“It’s extremely hard because I’m trying to direct and talk to the people I’m interviewing whilst trying to shoot and make sure shots are right. I’m also running sound too, so I have two microphones here and there. I’m doing five jobs at once, all the time. Then also driving and transporting myself to the locations, so I’m mentally and physically burned out by the end of these shoots. I can only do so much. A lot of the time, I show up 2 or 3 hours early to these shows to get myself ready, start talking with everybody and say my hellos. I try to leave as soon as a show ends because I’m tired, I’ve been going non-stop for 6 hours on-top off driving 2 to 3 hours, and I have 2 to 3 hours to drive home. It’s a full 12-hour plus day of doing this stuff. I also have to eat and drink and do basic things like that. It’s hard, I wouldn’t recommend this. You need two or three people to be with you. It’s so much easier with an extra pair of hands. The older I’ve gotten, the more I just can’t keep doing it like this. I’m just getting tired.”
Has the reception to the documentary made it all worth it?
“Yeah, of course. People loved it; people really liked it. I know it struggled a bit on YouTube because the algorithm flagged it as 18 and over viewing audience, so it doesn’t come up on search or recommended unless you’re signed into an 18+ YouTube account. It’s getting lost in the shuffle, but at the same time, I made this because I was curious, and I wanted to make something I was really proud of. I am very happy with the end product that I’ve made, so I think it’s some of my best work. This is the one that I’d show to a lot of my friends who know nothing about wrestling. This would probably be the first thing that I’d show them. Check this out, this is an extremely in-depth example of an extreme world inside independent wrestling. It would be the first one I’d show somebody.”
Funnily enough, I’ve shown it to some of my friends who aren’t deathmatch fans and they were just as enthralled as I was…
“That’s great. That’s exactly what I’m looking to do.”
What’s next then?
“I have a couple of little projects in mind, but I’m still trying to decide. Do I want to try and do another documentary like this, or am I just like, I’ve done it, I’ve covered the world of independent wrestling, done 100 plus shorts for EVOLVE, made 10 or 20 of these other short documentaries that I put up on my YouTube channel? I’ve made other things for a couple of other companies like the NWA. I’ve done things here and there, what else is there for me to do? Sure, there’s a couple of little stories here and there might be something I want to work on with EFFY or Hornswoggle, who reached out to me and wanted to do something for a little bit. I want to do something with Allie Katch one of these days and Jimmy Lloyd and more on G-Raver and a couple more of the deathmatch guys that I interviewed. I’d love to do more stuff on them, but it just comes down to timing and if I can find an interesting story that I can craft around them. That’s what’s really important. I don’t want to keep making the same documentary about wrestlers because there are so many. Everyone has a documentary about everything. I’m still trying to figure it out, I have no idea what’s next.”
Kenny Johnson YouTube Channel
All images courtesy of screenshots, Kenny Johnson Docs, Chris Grasso, Videos courtesy of Kenny Johnson YouTube