EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW WITH ALLAN HOLZMAN: DIRECTOR AND EDITOR OF GRUNT! THE WRESTLING MOVIE
NEON MARQUEE EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW WITH ALLAN HOLZMAN: DIRECTOR AND EDITOR OF GRUNT! THE WRESTLING MOVIE
Interview by Mark Vanselow
Back in April, I interviewed Allan Holzman, director and editor of one of my favourite films, Grunt! The Wrestling Movie (1985). What follows are extracts from my conversation with Allan, who was extremely gracious with his time, as he clearly enjoyed reminiscing about one of his earliest feature film projects as a director. The notes in parentheses have been added for the sake of clarity.
Allan Holzman, director and editor of Grunt! The Wrestling Movie, explains how he landed the job, came up with the story, and why the film was done in a "mockumentary" style:
"New World Pictures…said that if I could come up with an idea about wrestling, they’d give me another movie, because wrestling was starting to take off and it was the very beginning of "Rock’n’roll and Wrestling." The budget was $600,000. I was a big samurai buff…Goyokin (the Japanese samurai film starring Tatsuya Nakadai)… I’d seen it a while ago, and I really loved it. So I took the plot of that movie…a samurai, upset that his lord is committing atrocities, drops out. Later, when the lord does it again, he (the samurai) comes out of hiding and tries to stop it. Spinal Tap had just come out, so that was a whole new way of making movies…where you do a pseudo-documentary. So shooting it in that style, we could make the budget work. We could shoot in 16mm (it was then blown up to 35mm)…so we got the money (to make the film)."
New World Pictures, alas, was less than impressed with the film:
"The original (aspect) ratio was 1.85:1. New World was really, really quite pissed at the movie. They were upset that it was a hip comedy, and they just wanted an action film. They never got it. They were angry, and they released it as a sports video. They didn’t control on the aspect ratio. When you shoot 1.85:1, you still have the top and bottom, but you matter off the top and bottom… but you’re shooting the full 35mm frame, so it’s natural for (video) audiences to want 4:3, that’s why they (the distributors) put it out that way. That’s what happens when distributors take over and throw the director out."
Rather surprisingly, the director was not a wrestling fan:
"I grew up in Baltimore and wrestling and TV wrestling was always a very popular thing to watch. I was aware of it, I always thought it was fun, but I didn’t really have a particular interest in it. When the film was over, my interest in wrestling was over, too. But while I was making the movie I was really interested in it."
Andy Warhol got behind the film. Mother Nature did not:
"Nelson Lyon (Saturday Night Live writer and trailer writer for New World Pictures) was friends with Andy Warhol, and I absolutely adore Andy Warhol and his work. So I was really excited, and he (Nelson) got the film to Andy. Andy liked it, and said he would sponsor a screening at the Waverly in New York with Cyndi Lauper. But New World said they couldn’t make any money on that, and they distributed it in the southeast, when they suddenly had an opening. There wasn’t even time to get trailers on the screens, and there was a tornado that weekend, and no one came. I pleaded for a one theater L.A. opening, and they finally gave it to me. And it was at a theatre…a retrospective theatre that they’d turned into a theatre that only showed films from Yugoslavia, which was before the war, this was in ’85. So no one ever came to the theatre…so I staged a live wrestling event outside the theatre on the opening night, which featured Queen Kong versus Killer Tomato (Debi Pelletier). We sold out that night, and that was a great night with about 400 people in attendance. But New World didn’t care. They wouldn’t continue it for an additional week.
Casting the movie, beginning with Greg ‘Magic’ Schwarz as Mad Dog Joe De Curso:
He was a weightlifter at Gold’s Gym who was interested in starring in it. The WWF (World Wrestling Federation) wouldn’t let us cast any of their people (later in the interview, Allan mentions that ‘Rowdy’ Roddy Piper wanted to be in the film). So we cast it with Mexican wrestlers, British wrestlers and weightlifters.
On Exotic Adrian Street, pro wrestler, one of the stars of the film (Street, with his band The Pile Drivers, also contributed several songs to the soundtrack):
"(Laughs) He was outrageously great, we had so much fun. We just adored him, he was just a trip, we couldn’t give him enough…and he really loved doing it. (Golden Greek) John Tolos just couldn’t deal with him (laughs)…he couldn’t take it! He wasn’t faking it (being nervous around Street)."
On Dangerous Danny Spivey, pro wrestler, as American Starship Eagle:
"We just met him for the battle royale, so he was fun. He was actually I think the strongest, most athletic guy there…he was a monster. We had to shoot the battle royal in one day, really one afternoon, because, you know, they couldn’t fight that long. It was a wild shoot, and he was great to work with, and he really whacked people. People, you know, they say it’s fake, but they (the wrestlers) get hurt, they really hit each other, they hit each other in spots that won’t damage them permanently, but they do endure pain. I don’t know if you’ve ever felt the actual mat or wrestling ring, but it’s really hard!"
On Victor Rivera, under the mask as Skull Crusher Johnson:
"The Mexican wrestler who plays the champion (Skull Crusher)…he was a great wrestler…he could barely walk, but once he got in the ring, he was amazing. That thing where he gets caught in the ropes (at the beginning of the film), that was his thing…he didn’t learn that skill (for the film), that was a skill he brought."
Armando Guerrero, part of the legendary Guerrero wrestling family, played El Toro, and was responsible for assembling the wrestling scenes:
"He was the stunt co-ordinator as well, and we even used his ring for most of the shooting, and he was fantastic, my buddy. He taught me about wrestling and everything. That movie came from his heart, he was great. When the Mask slams him in the back with the wooden staircase, that was real blood."
Allan reflects upon the hazards of filming a pro wrestling match:
"I had this 16mm Bolex. It was a wind-up camera…I shot it as second, third or fourth camera depending on how many cameras we had. I was getting angles from the ground or some kind of weird angle or slanted angle, you know, so I would always have an interesting cut. And during the break, when we were shooting the El Toro scene, the main camera was Eddie van der Enden, he was from Amsterdam, he actually had a body rig where he kept the camera. When they were changing the main camera, I lay down on the canvas, and I asked (the actor playing) Mask, "Give me a dropkick into the lens." He did it but missed getting close to the lens by about a foot or so, so I asked if he could get closer. He bent down and said to me in a deep voice, "You want me to get closer?" And I said "Yeah," so he did it, and he dropped kicked with gusto and slammed into the lens, which crashed right into my eye. I can’t believe how stupid I was. I could have been blinded by it. But all I could think about was "keep your finger on the trigger" to get the shot and I did, and when I got up, my cheekbone was full of blood, and I had to go to the hospital. But the wrestlers loved me after that, because they said I bled with them."
On The Grunt Brothers (Dick Murdoch and Richard ‘The Destroyer’ Beyer) and their dialogue:
"Yes, that was theirs, it was all improvised, it was their schtick."
On naming a character after singer-actress Leslie Uggams (as odd as this may read, this was the question for which I most desperately wanted the answer):
(Laughs and becomes excited): "When I grew up, Mitch Miller (musician) was always playing on the TV, and there was always that moment when he says, "And now we’ll have a song from Leslie Uggams." So, you know, I came up with that name. This is the first time anyone, really, has ever said any appreciation of that name…no one knew who she was."
On the late Wally George, talk show host, the pioneer of "combat television" in the 1980s:
"Yes, he’s Rebecca De Mornay’s father…she wouldn’t talk to him. He was wonderful to work with, but he really could turn his character on. I feel he believed those things (his politics), but he really knows how to make himself into an exaggeration. It’s all about working the audience…it’s all staged, but then everyone gets carried away."
The Swedish Egil, a disc jockey from KROQ, appears opposite Wally George in the film, and got in on the act as a referee at the live wrestling event between Queen Kong and Killer Tomato outside the theatre:
"We worked out a bit between Queen Kong and Killer Tomato, where they would pants him in the ring. And he kept saying to me "is this going to be real or is this going to be fake?" With wrestlers, no matter what you’re planning in the beginning, they improvise, and go out of control. So, Queen Kong wound up sitting on his face, in front of a huge crowd on Lincoln Boulevard in Venice. And the first he thing said to me (after he came out of the ring) was "She really sat on my face!" We tried to get Charli (Charli Haynes, Queen Kong’s opponent in the film) for the live bout at the theatre, but she wasn’t available"
On Lydie Denier, the French actress who played Angel Face (I must confess, for many years, I thought she was only pretending to be French, because her character in the film seems like a deliberate parody of French womanhood):
She auditioned from the casting call. We needed a French actress. She was great, she came in, and was perfect.
On the Human Pyramid:
"Those guys were so much fun. They pretty much worked out what they could do (in the film)."
The interview wouldn’t have been complete if I didn’t ask Allan about Robert Glaudini and his character, Doctor Tweed:
"Oh, he’s fantastic…he’s great. He was just great. By the way, Doctor Tweed, the character, was based on Doctor Reed, who was the head of the Academy of Science Fiction and Fantasy in Los Angeles…he’s not a real doctor, he just calls himself Doctor Reed."
On Marilyn Dodds Frank, the actress who appears as Lola:
"She was actually my girlfriend in college. She was a theatre actress when I was the theatre director…she was out here (in Los Angeles) trying to get work. There’s one additional scene that I wanted to do but we couldn’t afford to do it…with Lola where she’s interviewed at a motorcross speedway and, because of the loud noise, we can’t hear anything she says."
On Steve Pudenz, the actor who has a scene as a doctor explaining unorthodox methods of tattoo removal:
"The doctor who recommends how to remove the tattoos…he’s a friend of Duck’s Breath (comedy group)…he’s like the (Duck’s Breath version of) Steve Martin of Saturday Night Live…he didn’t really join the group (Duck’s Breath), but he appears with them."
On the amount of footage and editing:
"We just barely had enough…we had a three week shoot…we didn’t really…have full takes, we had just a lot of partial takes from many different angles. The biggest challenge was the tight schedule."
On the opening sequence of the film:
"The film I actually studied was the film that Raging Bull studied, which was Body and Soul…I discovered while watching that movie that if there’s a camera flash at the same time as a punch…it looks more violent. Raging Bull did that too…so I had cameras flashing all the time. We couldn’t afford to have many people, so if you look at the film closely, there are actually cardboard people in the audience (mixed with real people)…and every third person had a flashing light…with flashing lights, it looks like there’s a crowd."
Interestingly enough, Allan was an avid roller skater and would roller skate to work each day. James Wong Howe, director of photographer forBody and Soul, filmed the boxing scenes on roller skates.
Allan Holzman mentions a couple of his favourite films:
"My actual two favourite samurai films… Kill! and Sword of Doom… fantastic."
On the wrestling commentary in the film:
"One thing we did, and I did this with Jeff Scheftel, who has a co-writer credit in the film…he wrote the opening narration for the decapitation bout…when he first came out here (Los Angeles), he worked at UCLA archives. We went down there because they had the TV footage from that time, so we studied the ‘50s bouts, and all the actual narration that went on. So the narrations for the bouts, also in Georgia (the El Toro versus Mask match), are inspired by that."
Did Roger Corman (legendary film producer who gave Allan his break as a director) ever see Grunt! The Wrestling Movie?
"I don’t think he ever saw it. No one really has seen that movie…I don’t know anyone who’s really seen it over here (United States), only a couple of people…it’s really a tragedy, in a way."
"My films are so cult they don’t make cult, because they kind of have a commercial edge to them, but not for cult status."
On Leonard Maltin and his Film and TV Guide book and critical response:
"He generally hates everything I’ve ever done. I always look (in the book) to see if I’m there, when he’s critical and condescending I just close the book and walk away. Really, no one got "Grunt!"…it’s not that complex (laughs)."
"I got a rave review and Pick of the Week in L.A. Weekly (from film historian and filmmaker F.X. Feeney)."
"The L.A. Times critic (Kevin Thomas)…liked my first two films and gave me great reviews for Forbidden World and Out of Control…(he said) Grunt!didn’t make it because "you can’t satire a satire"…but so what? It’s funny!"
How could people not get it?
"Those were my thoughts exactly. I got it (the L.A. Weekly with the Grunt! review) in a drop in Santa Monica at like, 6.30 in the morning, when all the free newspapers were dropped. I got the first drop, and I read the review, and I walked home and I actually, you know, had tears, because I had those exact thoughts. This guy (Feeney) got it, and the film would not be seen by anybody (laughs). But I had that...moment, you know, knowing that somebody did appreciate it, and that’s what I had…all alone and I felt alone, but you know…someone liked it."
If you’re interested in watching the director’s cut of Grunt! The Wrestling Movie, you may do so by clicking HERE (password: maddog). Many thanks go to Allan Holzman for the interview and the Grunt! memorabilia from his collection.