Tribeca Interviews: Talking ‘Bodyslam: Revenge of the Banana’ With Co-Directors John Paul Horstmann and Ryan Harvie, and Two Surprise Guests
GALO: In another interesting decision, the film begins with Paul “The Banana” giving his backstory. This builds sympathy for him instead of vilifying him. John Paul or Ryan, can you tell me a bit more about that decision?
John Paul: To me, Paul is the main character. He’s the hero of the movie. Unlike most heroes, he just makes a choice you wouldn’t expect.
Ryan: This was not a situation where we had a lot of planning. There’s no right or wrong person. Everyone has their area of gray. For all his troubles growing up and everything, Paul still joined this troop and they accepted him, and then he made a decision. He could have gone either way, but he chose to take the villainous route. He made himself the villain. [Josh and Bill] were open with him, tried to help him, but he didn’t take it that way.
GALO: Was Paul as open as Josh and Bill when you first approached him?
John Paul: Paul was really interesting. He was very open to meeting, but he didn’t open up until two years in.
Ryan: I shot him for nine hours in one day, and then we shot him a bunch more times.
John Paul: One time, we were actually shooting b-roll at his house. There’s a shot where he’s looking up the stairs. That’s because I was at the top of the stairs. Ryan was downstairs. He just started talking about how his mother was an alcoholic and all these really dark stories. And we just got our camera guy, Shea, to turn the camera on him. And he just came out with all this stuff.
From then on, he really trusted us. It’s really hard to open up about that stuff and make it so public. I think it’s really brave of him, because I don’t think many people who went through that abuse would be able to [talk about it].
Ryan: I can’t really thank him, but I’m glad he felt comfortable enough with us as filmmakers to say these personal things.
John Paul: And [Josh and Bill] didn’t know about any of that.
Bill: We learned all about Paul through the film.
Josh: Paul only said “yes” and “no” to us. That’s all he ever said. When the entire crew would hang out, he was just the quiet guy in the corner. We all tried to get him to open up and to be friendly with him, but he is just so shut off. If he would have told us this stuff about himself, maybe we would have understood him a little better and learned how to communicate.
It’s part of being a wrestler and a trainer. We have so many people in our group and everybody has their own way of communicating. Each relationship is different. We could never find a way to open lines of communication with him. He was just a brick wall.
GALO: You guys are pretty open to anyone that shows interest in the group. Is that still true?
Josh: We never turn anyone away.
GALO: So you haven’t been burned by this experience at all?
Josh: No, we’re not going to let this jade us. We might be a little more careful. Anyone can come in, but we might be a bit more careful about who gets on stage. For us, it’s simple: if you put in the work and come to practice, then you earned a spot on the show. When it came to the physical [and] athletic part of it, Paul was more dedicated than most. He was at every practice early and stayed late. The communicating and the theatrics, [those] he didn’t get. But on the physical aspects and the commitment, he was 100 percent.
GALO: It’s very clear during his interview in his gym that physicality is very important to him. Another interesting aspect of Paul’s interview comes when he is seen watching the news coverage of SSP winning the legislative battle for new regulations. What was that scene like? He’s clearly shaken there.
John Paul: I don’t think Paul tried to show much.
Josh: But [his reaction] showed on camera. You can see it in his eyes.
Bill: Yeah. There was something going on.
Ryan: He put up a little wall for us, but I think [in that scene], he was realizing the consequences of his actions in a way. I think he had the idea to shut them down, but I don’t think he realized these guys would fight as hard as they would. He assumed they were lazy and drunk.
John Paul: You know, what’s funny is that he’s actually happy that they were able to make a change. He’s moved past it all. He’s happy for them. He doesn’t want to be a part of it anymore. He really put it behind him. Now he’s biking across the nation.
Ryan: And he still likes watching wrestling in Seattle.
GALO: About that decision to fight the new regulations. It seems like a snap judgement, because it all happened very quickly.
Josh: We got an e-mail at 6 p.m. on Sunday night. Someone sent it like, “Did you guys know this is happening?” It was the next day at 8 a.m., but it was a two-hour drive to Olympia. We knew we had to do this. I got off at 3 a.m., slept for two hours, and we left at 6 a.m. We just went and did it. I wrote my statement while doing lights at a gig. I wrote it between bands. If it doesn’t work, then fine, but let’s just go try. There was nothing to lose.
GALO: Clearly the people there recognized your dedication.
Josh: At first, they were laughing a lot. They were making jokes like, “You mean wrestling is real?” And I was like, “It’s not funny to me. On paper, wrestling is real in Washington State. Some people play softball. Some people are in a bowling league. But I can’t go do my thing because you guys think wrestling is real on paper. Stop laughing about it and fix it.” And they are [fixing it]. They’re being really good about working with us.
GALO: Right. And they’re clearly learning that there’s more to you than what’s on paper, beyond the crude jokes.
Josh: Well, they didn’t know about the anal fisting when we went in there [laughter]. It also helped that Jake is so charming. He [joked] and broke the ice. I get so nervous in front of people, especially under florescent lights in a chamber.
Ryan: Well, I feel like it’s the same with this movie — it’s the seriousness of the characters. They don’t see it as a joke and it’s not a joke. Once you get over the wrestling “ha ha” stuff, they’re telling an honest story, making an honest case, and I think these legislators really took to that. Representative Hutchins really took on this case. They worked very hard.
GALO: Josh or Bill, do you think that commitment and deeper meaning is evident at every SSP show, or do you think the documentary revealed something new?
Josh: Not so much at the shows, I don’t think. But even with the fans, we’re a big family. I know 75 percent of the people in the audience. I see them every day at the bar or at the corner store by my house. They all know the story and they all know the work we’re putting in to make these shows happen. At the shows, we’re just there to entertain and have fun for the night.
John Paul: And that’s the thing: no matter how ridiculous or silly, there’s real love there, underneath it all. And you can’t replace that or fake that or make a gimmick out of it.
Ryan: We literally just put on a camera. All we asked [of the wrestlers] was, “Can you just tell us if we’re going to get hit with a chair?”
GALO: John Paul and Ryan, have you always been interested in finding these stories of buried meaning? Were you planning all along to plumb some deeper meaning out of this story or did Bodyslam surprise you?
John Paul: Well, it did surprise us. It grew out of a smaller project. At the time, I was thinking maybe we could make a short out of this. It grew, and so [it] surprised us in that way. But for me, I’ve always had an interest in telling working class stories of real people finding beauty in the regular. “People eating breakfast” — that’s interesting if it’s done right. Paul eats breakfast alone, on his stoop.
Ryan: Because he doesn’t have a table.
John Paul: Right. And Josh gets an Egg McMuffin at night. Those two scenes juxtapose really interestingly. They say a lot without us having to do much to them.
Ryan: And we went into it not knowing a lot about these guys. Obviously everyone has emotions and feelings, but when you learn more about these guys, their stories are so compelling, there are deeper meanings there. That is something we’ll be striving for in the future. If we can [get] subjects like these guys for every other movie, we’d be the happiest people on earth.
John Paul: You can interview people, and they’ll tell you and tell you. But when you can just watch people, there’s stuff you can’t even say.
Ryan: Which is why we put them in their elements — to elicit a different reaction rather than a standard talking heads film, because then you’re going to get a stock answer.
GALO: Josh and Bill, do you think this film will affect the SSP performances at all? Do you think you’ll get a bigger crowd?
Josh: It would be hard to. We had a show on Saturday and we had to turn people away.
Bill: Saturday we were stuffed. It was standing room only.
Josh: We’re still in the legal process, so right now, we’re doing shows for free. It’s a loophole. If you don’t charge a cover charge, you don’t have to follow the same state laws. Within six months or a year, we’ll be able to go legal. And I work at every venue in town. We’re at a gym now, but we want to do a big show again — at a bar, with a ring, and with sponsors. In the meantime, we’re doing these free shows at a little space that doesn’t charge us to use it. But with this movie, at least people in Seattle who didn’t know about [SSP] before are going to hear about it.
Ryan: They can dig up to a bigger audience, and they’re working with the department of licensing and everything.
Josh: And not just us. There’s “Lucha Volcanica” and a lot of indie wrestlers in Washington State. But they go to Vancouver or Portland every week to work. As soon as we make this more legal, then other promoters can put on their shows. I don’t want to just change the laws so we can do our thing. I want it so that when I have a Sunday off, I can go watch a wrestling show. I want to open it up.
GALO: Just one last question: Ryan and John Paul, what’s next for you guys?
John Paul: Well, we’ve got a movie about an apple and an orange.
Ryan: God, that sounds horrible [laughter]. No, we’ve got a bunch of scripts in development, and we’re trying to figure out our next project.