WrestleMania week is full of major shows and events for wrestling fans every year and, this year, fans also had the release of the new eye-opening documentary 350 Days which details the life of wrestlers on the road during the territory days.
It features household names like Bret ‘The Hitman’ Hart, Superstar Billy Graham, Greg Valentine, and even stars that modern fans may not be so familiar with such as Ox Baker and Angelo Savoldi. The documentary allows these wrestlers to open up about their lifestyles in an unprecedented manner, as even the likes of Bret Hart and Nikolai Volkoff share stories most wrestling fans have never heard before.
In this SteelChair Mag exclusive interview, 350 Days director Fulvio Cecere dissects the over five-year journey of making this film. He talks about the early stages of how the idea came to be, how they managed to find rare footage of wrestlers and his appreciation for the fact that so many wrestlers final interviews came in his film.
You mentioned on Chris Jericho’s podcast that you were not a wrestling fan prior to taking on this project. Would it be fair to say you were one of those people that dismissed wrestling and perhaps looked down on it?
It’s funny, I can see how that may come across but I was not dismissive. Back in the day when I used to come home from high school, and my dad was always watching it, and Hulk Hogan would be on the TV, I’d question my dad on why he was watching this stuff. I was concentrating more on smoking pot and living my teenage years. Also, it was before I got into acting, so it would never have been on my radar back then.
You have a great range of wrestlers in 350 Days. What was the research process like, not just in selecting which wrestler’s to talk to, but also in learning about their respective careers?
That’s a great question, and I have to tell you, it wasn’t my idea; it was my partner’s idea, Darren Antola. We had many, many arguments about this because he felt a certain way and he thought specific wrestlers would bring a certain value to the documentary. But in doing all my research, I thought everybody had a story to tell. So I interviewed seventy-two people altogether. Anybody that I thought would bring some sort of value to the movie, whether it was historians, promoters, trainers, midgets, and women wrestlers. We even had the oldest living wrestler, Angelo Savoldi. He was wrestling in the forties.
So every single one of these people had something to say, and my only regret is that not everybody made the cut. I would’ve interviewed a hundred people if I could have but, at some point, you need to stop. I know I’ve got so much footage to make a director’s cut, so I’m hoping the demand is there and the fans want to see it.
One thing I found interesting was the different tones and views during the opening of 350 Days. Some had a positive view or simply an honest perspective of life as a wrestler, while people like Superstar Billy Graham and Paul Orndorff seemed to be quite negative towards the business. Did you sense that?
I don’t think it’s really a secret that Billy Graham and Vince don’t get along, and he’s got his opinions about WWE. He did feel that he was a robot, as he said in the movie, and that they’re always taking advantage of you, and I get it. When you look at them now, I mean, Superstar (Billy Graham) has had a liver transplant for sixteen years now, and that’s got to be a record. Paul Orndorff is in really, really bad shape. He can barely lift his arms; he’s got a steel rod in his shoulder. So I can see their point.
There’s the whole argument about healthcare and independent contractors. But my job wasn’t to introduce all of that; my job was to tell the story of life on the road during the territory days. That’s why I think it’s very honest and candid. There’s no Vince bashing, there’s no WWE bashing, and even when you get the sense that Superstar is talking negatively about it, he doesn’t specifically mention it. So I think that’s a good thing.
One thing I’m big on and I’ve enjoyed about a lot of recent wrestling documentaries, including this one, is how positively the business of professional wrestling comes across. There’s a great, in-depth section about the art of wrestling where Dibiase tells the story of Sylvester Stallone standing up for wrestlers on the set of Paradise Alley. Was that important to you that people get a true insight into how difficult this profession is?
I think that’s a perfect point there as to why it helps that I came into this project not being a wrestling fan. I had no appreciation for it; I didn’t know what it was about. Because my friend Darren had been friends with some of these wrestlers like Jimmy Snuka and Greg Valentine, I told him if he had access to these guys, he might be onto something. So we set up a weekend to interview these people. First one was Tito Santana, Greg Valentine, Superstar, Angelo Savoldi, and it was gold. I’m listening to this stuff, and I had no idea, it was fascinating stuff. So it went from that one weekend to twenty-one or twenty-two days. I couldn’t get enough.
The honesty of the wrestler’s in this film is shocking, and quite amazing, and it’s something fans will appreciate. When I spoke to Rory Karpf, who directed the Ric Flair ESPN 30 for 30, he told me that because he wasn’t in the wrestling business and because he admitted to not knowing certain things, people opened up a lot more. Do you think you had a similar experience with this documentary?
Absolutely. But also because I came to the table as someone in the film industry. I’ve been an actor for thirty-six years. So I don’t think they thought this was going to be some kind of shoot video. Everything I did, all my research, I came in there armed with skill. I’ve been to film school. I found out what the best cameras to use were, I hired the best people. I put them at ease telling them that this was not some bullshit student film I’m trying to do. I was trying to make a movie, I was trying to make this the best documentary ever on wrestling, and I think they believed that. They were honest, and they realised this was a chance for them to tell their story.
How many times have wrestlers told the story of having wrestled certain people and working with various promoters? But when have they talked about cocaine, the adultery, and ‘ring rats’? It got to a whole other level, and I think they did that because they felt that I was not there to take advantage of them in any way, I was just documenting their story. And this was a great story. Even Bret Hart for example, who I met through his brother Smith, I told him that I interviewed Don Leo Jonathan, and I think that was what sold him on me because he was thanking me for keeping Don’s memory alive. So right away, there was trust.
And speaking of lasting memories, you had perhaps the last interviews of Jimmy Snuka and Ox Baker as well. So maybe they also looked at it as a way of telling their story.
Absolutely. Also, Don Fargo and The Wolfman for sure. Angelo Savoldi, I think he passed away just a couple of months after we filmed him, so I’m pretty confident that was his last interview. George ‘The Animal’ Steele was not in great health, so it was likely one of the last interviews he ever did. I’m just looking at my wall, and I have all these pictures of wrestler’s, and so many of them are gone. It just breaks my heart.
It’s bittersweet, but in some weird way, it helps the movie. We were lucky enough to get some of their last interviews, and it’s in my movie. I’m pretty proud of that.
One story that I found particularly fascinating was when Bret Hart discusses ‘the boys’ not being faithful to their wives. His take was that his marriage was not a healthy one, he wasn’t getting the love he needed at home, and he needed a way to survive on the road and get through tough times. While not being a faithful husband is not an action one can support, his reasoning was quite logical and makes you almost sympathise with him. Would you agree with that?
Well, it’s not for me to pass any kind of judgement. I’ll be perfectly candid with you, I’m still single, and I don’t really know any happily married people. In Bret’s case, I can’t pass any judgement. But that’s what this story is about, it’s about what these guys did when they were on the road, and that’s what they did. There’s also Lanny Poffo, who supports the opposite viewpoint. So not everybody did it. You fall prey to temptation. But ultimately if it helps, then it helped him.
I can’t say enough about Bret. Everything he talked about was just so open and candid, and controversial. He brought up things like how he thought getting rid of weed would cause guys to fall victim to alcoholism, and people started dying off. So he was right. He didn’t sugar-coat anything. He even brought up getting into fights with fans. He was just so great.
Literally, within the first twenty minutes with Bret, I had an answer for every single one of my questions. We had a set amount of questions that had to do with the territory days, life on the road, drugs. He gave me quick answers, and before you knew it, he answered all the questions. I had read his book, and I told him that I had a lot of personal questions as well. He had no problem with it. We interviewed him for eight/nine hours, sitting in his basement, asking him every single question I can think of, and he’s just answering them.
The world that guys like Bret Hart, Greg Valentine, and Billy Graham are talking about in this film is far different from the one we live in today. WWE superstars today still travel a lot, but they all seem to live much cleaner and less reckless lifestyles now. Have you found that modern fans have learned a great deal from this documentary because it’s so different from the business they know now?
Let me put it this way, I had a pre-screening of my movie in Vancouver, B.C., a week before it came out on iTunes and all that. It was basically to thank my friends in Vancouver, and I did a bunch of interviews there, and there were a lot of film industry friends of mine. But also, a lot of women, and I can’t tell you how many women came up to me and said: “I had no idea this was what wrestling was about?” That’s exactly what I wanted to hear. I wanted people that didn’t know much about wrestling to find it fascinating, and especially the new fans. I don’t think they had a clue about what these guys went through.
That’s the other thing about this movie; I think it appeals right across the board. People who lived around that time, you have that nostalgia. People, who don’t know them, should know them because the guys that are wrestling now, those guys paved the way for them. So it will appeal to old and young.
That is great and, as someone that writes about wrestling, seeing people appreciate the sport more than they did ten/fifteen years ago is always great.
I’ll mention another thing that was nice. When I was in Vancouver, which was the old All Star Wrestling territory, I tracked down a bunch of guys that used to work for that territory. I think I had about nine or ten on stage with me at the end, and it was just a love fest. These people remembered them. People like Eric Froelich, who was super famous back in Vancouver during the seventies. He was a former gymnast, he used to wrestle barefoot, and he used to wrestle tigers. So it was just so nice. There were lots of actors, directors who were friends of mine, and this whole wrestling world that was there. It was just this perfect balance of people, some of who loved the movie, and they didn’t know anything about wrestling. And the wrestlers freaked for it. So it was a special night.
You also have some incredibly rare footage such as the video of J.J. Dillon in Japan and plenty of images to support the interviews. Considering the length of the film, are you stunned that you had enough extra content without using WWE’s library?
Oh, that’s one of the reasons it took six years to make. We couldn’t get it from WWE because it would cost a tremendous amount, and it would probably be stuff that people had seen anyway. So we got stuff from photographers, fans, museums, you name it. And that was mostly Darren and Dave Wilkins, who was the other producer, and our editor, Michael Burlingame. For example, Michael had the footage of Killer Kowalski because he had used it in some kind of production. So where are you going to see that? Where are you going to see Jimmy Snuka feeding giraffes? It was so awesome. I’m proud of that, and it was difficult to get.
There have been documentaries like the Andre The Giant one. However, they had the backing of WWE to get great footage, whereas you guys did not.
Exactly. And I loved that movie; they did such a great job on Andre. I think the takeaway from that is that it is all about one wrestler, we have thirty-eight in this movie. It is about the territory days. It’s not about one specific wrestler. I’m also very proud of that.
There’s even footage that you shot of Ox Baker cooking, which is something you wouldn’t expect, but it works so well.
It works so well. The funny thing is I met him at one of these conventions, and I mentioned to him that I’m doing a documentary and that I once produced this food and wine show that I tried to get off the ground. And he told me that when he was wrestling, he would cook for all the wrestlers on the road. So the light bulb went off in my head, and I said: “How about we interview you and you cook for us?” And he loved it.
As you can see, he struggled with it a little. Did he pull a rib on me that he was such a great cook? I don’t know. But the audience at my screening were howling when they saw that. They loved it. He was our comic relief. I think he comes across very human, even though he has that wild voice. When we finished shooting, the cameras were still rolling, and he sat down because he was so tired from having done that, and he confides in me that he had written this cookbook. It was all these stapled Xerox copies of recipes, but what was touching about it, was he dedicated every one of them to a wrestler who had passed away. So you could tell it meant a lot to him. That’s the thing; I think every single one of those wrestlers will tell you, not one person regrets it. They’d do it again in a heartbeat.
One of the shots that strike me as particularly powerful and a great representation of the entire film is the opening shot of the film of Greg Valentine’s hand by the steering wheel. Not only is it a wrestler on the road, but it’s also a tough looking hand that seems to symbolize a man who has been through a lot.
Thank you. I actually didn’t film that; it was our editor Michael Burlingame. It was supposed to be a life on the road, and Greg was the perfect guy to have in that scene because he still wrestles. He’s still around. He’s been wrestling since the seventies, almost fifty years!
My favourite moment of 350 Days has to be Nikolai Volkoff telling the story of how he managed to introduce Freddie Blassie to his daughter that he had never met. It was such a heart-warming story, and one that I think shows a beautiful comradery that people share in wrestling. What were your thoughts on that particular tale, and did you expect something like that?
No. That’s one of the great things about this thing. You have people like Bill Eadie getting choked up about missing his daughters, Bret Hart talking about missing little things like Halloween, and how you can’t get that back. Superstar talking about his liver transplant, and we even show the person that saved his life, talk about emotional.
The film flows quite nicely through various topics such as how people got into wrestling, respecting the profession, steroids – would you say the film’s structure reflects the process of how you learned about the wrestling business?
It’s funny you say that, and I think that’s an acute perception. You’re right, I did write down the narrative, and I gave all that info to Michael. It pretty much resembles what I had in mind. I broke it down like you would a movie, three acts, and an epilogue at the end. It was a three-act movie, and it pretty much follows the rise, the fame, all the temptations, and then you end on a good note.
I know you conducted a lot of interviews for 350 Days, and a lot of material did not make the final cut. What’s your plan moving forward as far as the extra content goes because you did mention the director’s cut?
That’s the thing. It’s up to the distributor, I guess. If there’s a demand for it, they’ll ask. We have so much footage; we have so much stuff on just Bret Hart alone. We could do something on that. We went to the Cauliflower Alley Club, and I love those guys. I interviewed so many people there, and they didn’t make the cut, and there are so many great stories there. I even interviewed historians, and they told me things that blew my mind. Did you know that wrestling got its start after the American civil war? That’s fascinating. It was legitimate wrestlers putting on exhibitions until someone had the bright idea that we could make money with this if we wrestle and someone loses. And that’s basically how it started.
There’s just so much footage. We could do a bonus DVD; we could do a director’s cut of the DVD, whatever they want.
Maybe you could do a sequel? (Laughs)
350 Days is now available to purchase online.
All pics courtesy of Fulvio Cecere