John Philapavage and his best friend of 30 years Kevin Kiernan are not quitters.
13 year ago, the Allentown men set their sights for a documentary on a warehouse in South Philadelphia that housed a locally based professional wrestling company and never looked back.
This Saturday night, in that same venue on Ritner Street, their decade-plus journey delving into the land of ECW (Extreme Championship Wrestling) will premiere.
Barbed Wire City is a project that can be summed up in one word - passion. The film holds the passion of the filmmakers, the passion of the organization's faithful fans, and the passion for the wrestlers who turned ECW from a small independent promotion to one of the big three wrestling entities in the late 1990s (along with WWE and WCW).
I conducted an e-mail interview with John where I asked him a few questions on the film, ECW's legacy, and the big question- why should wrestling fans and (perhaps even bigger question) non-wrestling fans go see it?
Tell us about yourself
My name is John Philapavage. I'm 32. I grew up in Allentown, PA, where I met Kevin Kiernan (also 32) when we were only two years old (first friend, 30 years this summer). We've been doing creative project together since a very young age. Kevin is the Technical Director at Allentown Symphony Hall. I've worked in child care the last few years, and recently went back to school part time for Early Childhood Education. The documentary has, for the most part, swallowed our lives the last 14 months. We are the entire creative team here, sharing Co-Director titles.
What made you want to make this documentary? Are you big wrestling fans?
We made mockumentaries as late teens/early twenty-somethings. A real documentary was the natural next step. I grew up a wrestling fan, far more interested in the behind the scenes than the shows themselves (this happened gradually). It did not ruin the "magic trick" for me, it enhanced it. Kevin has never been a wrestling fan (in that he does not go to events unless we are shooting at them, and does not watch the weekly TV shows. He's seen a TON of wrestling because of this project though), but his appreciation for the art form has grown from the time we started this.
I found ECW when I was roughly 13 or 14. It was so different from the way pro wrestling had been presented at any time before it, and it was a Philadelphia product (growing up in the Lehigh Vally, I considered myself a "Philly guy"). We started this project in March of 2000, while the company was still running. I told Kevin I thought it would only take 3 months of shooting (haha). I just found the subculture of shows at the old ECW Arena in South Philly to be something that needed to be documented. It was like a bizarre carnival/shanty town outside the building on show days. The fanbase, which I was a part of, was fascinating to me. Overall, I just thought it was an interesting story to tell, especially as it grew and evolved as a narrative for us. There was good and bad - a lot of shades of gray, and looking at it objectively, not as a fan, I thought it was a fairly nuanced story.
Did you watch ECW growing up?
Yes, I found ECW on Sports Channel Philadelphia sporadically in 1993 and 1994. I became a full time viewer in the summer of 1995, and never missed an episode until they stopped running TV shortly before the demise in early 2001. I always wanted to go to the ECW Arena, it just felt like the place to be for a live show. And ECW was the "hometown sports team," so it would be like growing up wanting to watch a game at the old Yankee Stadium.
What were some of your favorite ECW memories?
Favorite memories are generally the experiences of being at the shows and talking to other people. The atmosphere sticks with me to this day, and is covered in the film. I liked some of the stories they would tell. At the time I liked the violent aspects of it because it felt more "real," like they were giving more effort somehow. It was a spectacle that was different in presentation and feel than the two large companies at the time - WWE and WCW.
Why should wrestling fans go see your movie?
This is the first film that I feel was made by a fan growing up in that Internet/Newsletter culture of the late 90s and the decade that followed, but it has the sensibilities of a documentary you'd find at a film festival. So I think for fans you are getting that extra effort and understanding that comes from following the business for over twenty years. This is a film you can show to your non-fan friend because you don't need prior knowledge. It wasn't made by a wrestling entity for promotion or with an agenda. So you are getting something from a team with a knowledge base, but without the bias.
What about non-wrestling fans?
For non-fans, this film will probably shock you, and yet many of the subjects you will find relatable or endearing. This film has nothing to do with wrestling storylines or profiling the characters themselves. We were making this with an eye for the human story. We did not want to talk to the characters, but the real people who portrayed those characters. We have an underdog story of the company, as well as why these guys would put themselves through such abuse. ECW was very violent at times, and these guys did crazy things for little money but the promise of something more. They bought in. And since the film spans from 1992 up until this past year, you get to see what became of many of them. I think it's a fascinating story of violent performance artists who very much see themselves as professional entertainers, willing to go to great lengths for their art, especially because the response to these things (because events are live in front of fans) is immediate, and they feed off that reaction and energy.
What will one see when they sit down to watch Barbed Wire City? Interviews with ECW stars?
We have roughly 46 separate interviews in this film. The participants are varied. Wrestlers, staff, state athletic commission officials, journalists, you name it. Again, we didn't look at this like a wrestling fan would, so we didn't cut this film with the idea that only the men who were positioned as "stars" were somehow valid. Their collective experiences as human beings in the industry was important, so no one gets more screen time based on status. We have names like James Fullington (Sandman), Scott Levy (Raven), Brian Heffron (The Blue Meanie), Troy Martin (Shane Douglas). We have the founder of the company, Tod Gordon, and staff members from several periods of the company (Bob Artese, John Finnegan, Gabe Sapolsky, Ed Zohn, Kathy Fitzpatrick, Dan Kowal).
The coolest thing to me was getting the wrestling journalists involved. No film has done that to this degree, and I'm not sure most people know there is a wrestling media. So we got those that covered ECW in the 90s to talk about it, and give context. And since the company and its product were so polarizing, the opinions and positions vary. There's a lot of debate, and I think we were very fair about presenting things and allowing the audience to decide.
What are some major points highlighted in film?
Major points unfold, but we don't force you to decide how you should feel as a viewer, or explicitly tell you how to feel. We want this to be a conversation starter about a by-gone era that really was like the Wild West. There is no narration. I think the build up to their coming out moment, there first national Pay Per view (which was a huge deal in the 1990s) is a big moment. I think the examination of the bloodletting, the violence, and the crazy stunts are big moments that a regular person would want to know about, and the wrestlers talk about WHY they did what they did. I think we have a very poignant moment with an involved fan named Tony Lewis. I also think the Reunion we covered last year gave us a great chance to have a duel narrative, bouncing between present and past, and I think there is a good mix of charming and heartbreaking moments presented.
For someone not familiar with ECW, how would you describe it to them? How would you describe the fans that went to see it (including hat guy)?
I'd describe ECW as this grand experiment that perhaps went awry, but was very necessary artistically for the business of pro wrestling to evolve. Its shocking, violent, and yet they employed graceful, talented wrestlers who also told stories with their bodies. It was a very varied product that could make you laugh and cringe all with five minutes. To lead to the second part, ECW was very cult-like, from the wrestlers to the fans. Its fanbase was crazy, passionate, dedicated, harsh, and yet extremely protective of "their" ECW. Paul Heyman fostered that, encouraged it, and he and those wrestlers engendered a very strong emotional buy-in that you don't find in many forms of entertainment. They were a cause, a "revolution," and embracing the Internet in its infancy helped spread that.
Talking to Paul Heyman (the former owner of ECW) at Wrestlemania, he told me that he never wants ECW to return, would you want it to? Why or why not?
I don't have any interest in ECW ever returning, and I don't know why a creative person would. I get where Heyman is coming from. ECW would have evolved within a few years anyway. Heyman would have taken the temperature of the room, figured out the hardcore aspect had diminishing returns, and would have changed. Would his fanbase have stayed loyal? That's an interesting what-if.
ECW was a moment in time. That moment is over. And that is not a knock. It is an important story. But creatively you always have to keep moving forward. You don't want your favorite author to write the same book over and over, even if his first book will always been your favorite book ever.
What are your thoughts of Paul?
I think that Paul Heyman is one of the more interesting people you can ever study. I also think Paul knows that, and uses it. I think he's charming, funny, smart, articulate, sometimes very genuine, sometimes less than honest. An amazing motivator. Prone to hyperbole. Single minded. Driven. I think he's one of the more under-rated promotional and creative minds of the last thirty years, and I say under-rated only because so few people outside of the wrestling bubble are aware of Paul Heyman.
After ECW went bankrupt in 2001, WWE bought the company. In 2006, they debuted their own version which lasted only a few years. Any thoughts on WWE's version of ECW?
I thought the first One Night Stand PPV that WWE ran was a nice moment of closure for some people. I think a corporation buying a company that was the anti-establishment/counter-culture and trying to mold it to be what they wanted was a mistake. They probably made their money, but it felt like a waste of time. People in suits in boardrooms using corporate buzzwords like re-branding aren't going to get the spirit of something like ECW.
Why do you think fans in Philadelphia and most wrestling fans for that matter (as they can be heard chanting 'E-C-Dub' at WWE events year round) have not let go of ECW and still bring it up?
I think it was a special time for people, and it was small enough, and Heyman was smart enough, that the fans and company could all bond together. I have many friends because of ECW. From doing this documentary, it is obvious to me that my story is not unique. It was a fun party for a lot of these people, and nothing has quite captured the spirit of it since, and probably won't, because World Wrestling Entertainment swallowed up the industry, and the economics and circumstances just haven't been there in the 12 years since for something underground like ECW to work.
What do you want the viewer to get out of this documentary?
I'm cautious about this question. There is a "author's intent" and "audience interpretation," and I don't know that I should force myself into that equation. I'd like people to question whether all this was worth it for the wrestlers. I'd like people to take to heart the ramifications of wrestling this style. I'd also like them to see the success stories that came out of this. I'd like them to get a feel for why it was unique and special to people. I want them to see these wrestlers as human beings, and try to understand why they do what they do. The motivations of doing these things. The passion. Why people care. There are a lot of shades of gray in this film. It's not a pro or negative piece on ECW. But I think it does justice to its story.
Wait - how long did it take you to make this?
13 years! This is the culmination of a third of my life right here. We started when we were barely 19. We moved to Philly to attend the University of the Arts in Aug. 2000, and that's the year this thing broke open for us (much of it in 2001 as the company was folding). But we were young, dumb, and trying to stay above water. Real life got involved (we were never wealthy), and we really didn't know how to get this out to people, or complete it properly. We picked it up again for short periods in 2005, 2008, and then finally we agreed to embark on the final leg of this in January 2012. With only three people truly involved, and just I and Kevin actually making all aspects of the film, this past year was a grind, but a very rewarding one. I'm so proud of this film.
The premiere of Barbed Wire City takes place at The Asylum Arena (Formerly the ECW Arena) located at 7 W Ritner St, Philadelphia, PA 19148 Saturday night.
Doors open at 5:00 p.m., the screening starts at 7:00 p.m., and a Q&A begins at 9:00 p.m.
Tickets are $15.
More Info: http://www.barbedwirecity.com/