In the mid 1990s, director Michael Paszt was cutting his teeth in the film business in Toronto, while Ian Hodgkinson was revelling in his star power wrestling for Consejo Mundial de Lucha Libre (CMLL) as El Vampiro Canadiense in Mexico. Neither knew anything about the other.
Fast forward to 2020, where Paszt and Hodgkinson were set the bring the documentary Nail in the Coffin: The Fall and Rise of Vampiro on a publicity tour in March before events around the world were shut down. Now, with a limited theatrical engagement set for September 4th, along with a digital and On Demand release date of September 8th, the wheels are turning again and they’re both getting the word out about the film.
Both Paszt and Hodgkinson joined in on a call to discuss how the vision for the film developed and what they hope people will take from it.
Just for full disclosure, I have known Michael Paszt since those days of independent film production in the 1990s because I worked on two film sets with him. While he was learning all of the ins and outs on his way to becoming a managing partner of Raven Banner Entertainment, through which he produced Nail in the Coffin, I was more like a temp worker.
I did coffee runs, delivered film stock, photocopied scripts, and made sure to park my car where I knew it would show up in the opening scenes of Red Blooded American Girl 2. Bucket list: check.
Paszt and I discovered a shared enthusiasm for wrestling, so it was no great surprise to see his name pop up as he penned an article for SlamWrestling.net in 2004 about a TV broadcast of CMLL in Canada. Paszt, who was spending time living in Mexico and writing for a weekly magazine called Super Luchas, was providing a sort of primer for those that might be new to Lucha Libre.
In the article, he refers to El Vampiro Canadiense as “a major player and dominant force in Mexico’s lucha libre scene.” Speaking ahead of the documentary’s premiere, Paszt remembers thinking to himself back in 2001: “I had to meet this Canadian guy. He was at the height of his career there, and then a few years later, Lee did the documentary on him.”
“Lee” is Lee Demarbre, a Canadian filmmaker that Paszt has known for years, who had directed a documentary titled Vampiro: Angel, Devil, Hero that Paszt says, according to both Demarbre and Hodgkinson, never quite turned out the way either had hoped.
Then, all roads seemed to converge. “I had brought a few Mexican wrestlers to Toronto for a Harbourfront fan event,” Paszt recalls. “I met with Vampiro, and as we sat talking I found out that he was working for Lucha Underground and AAA, and he was living in Thunder Bay. I said, ‘What do you mean?’ He would fly out for the week and get back to make lunch for his daughter. I said, ‘You’re commuting to Mexico!’”
This was Paszt’s first glimpse into Hodgkinson’s tug-of-war between his life as a wrestler and his commitment to his daughter, Dasha. Both were strong and often at odds for his energy and attention.
“Ian called me a couple of days later,” Paszt says. “He asked would I be interested in doing a doc. I had no interest in being a director, but he said, ‘C’mon, c’mon, think about it.’ Then I get a call from a friend at SuperChannel who said he’s looking for sports docs, and if I had anything.”
So, Michael Paszt became a director.
In telling the story of their first day working together to capture footage, however, Paszt recalls wondering if the production would grind to a halt on day one. “I had a bunch of questions already laid out,” he says, “but his answers were getting shorter and shorter. We’re at a park, and he was in such a bad mood.”
Seeing the potential for a disastrous beginning to the shoot, Paszt decided for a straightforward approach. “I asked him ‘Are you difficult to work with?’” he chuckles. “‘Right now, at this moment if people ask me, I’ll say you are. Right now I can’t work with you.’”
That seemed to push things in the right direction, according to Paszt, as Hodgkinson began giving him a little more back in response. “But I see out of the corner of my eye this guy walking with his daughter on her tricycle,” Paszt continues. “They see that we’re filming, and they walk right into our shot. We pause, and Ian looks at me and says, ‘You know, I just fucking hate people so much.’ And that was it. We started to laugh, and that was the icebreaker.”
For his part, Hodgkinson acknowledges his prickliness, particularly during the time that Paszt was shooting. “I was so grateful that Michael had the patience to deal with me on a day-to-day basis,” he says. “When I watch the movie now I knew me, so I see how bad I was. When I see it I think I could have dropped dead any second. Why I didn’t, I don’t know.”
The state to which Hodgkinson refers to is the breakdown of not only his physical health (thoroughly documented in the film as his doctor encourages him in no uncertain terms to stop wrestling), but also his mental well-being. Hodgkinson is open about the social and psychological struggles he has long endured, with the film also capturing him not long before a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s Disease in 2019.
“I’m grateful that I have a testimony to look at how far I’ve come in life,” Hodgkinson continues. “I’m very aware of my sickness and what it did to me, making me so insecure and non-trusting. This was an opportunity to be there in such an important period of my life when I was so lost and so sick.”
“The movie is amazing,” he says. “It’s powerful.”
If it sounds a bit strange for the subject of the documentary to heap praise on the telling of his own story, you’ll have to take into account that Hodgkinson considers himself to be the least important part of the film – after its creator and its message.
“I’m grateful that Michael saw something,” Hodgkinson admits. “I’m just a guy, there’s nothing special about me. There ain’t nothing new about my story and it’s been told a thousand times – rags to riches, get knocked down get back up again – but if I can show this to somebody who may really be about to give up on life, I can show them to believe in yourself, do the right thing, and fight for your life.”
“Yeah, we get it – Vampiro is famous” he continues, again dismissing the notion that the movie needed to show much about his professional accomplishments. “I don’t need to show you that 20 times in an hour and a half movie. The point is look at what your daughter’s telling you and your doctor’s telling you. I was told in 1997 that if I got one more bad head shot I would die, but the moment I listen to it and believe it, I’m done. You think Evel Knievel listened when somebody said don’t jump those buses? People on the outside don’t get it. They say if you don’t stop, you’re going to die. But when you’re an extreme artist and give yourself to your craft, if you listen to somebody about the headshots, then I’ll be in the ring protecting my head and then I’ll hurt myself.”
So what was it, then, that changed and led to Vampiro announcing his retirement? Well, not much, it turns out. “It hasn’t changed, brother,” he laughs. “I’m going on tour in October. I have 40 matches booked. Every time I try to change and do things 9 to 5, I fail. My life falls apart. I can’t relate to those people, and I have nothing to talk about. It’s not better or worse, it’s just that I live a different life. I’ve found people like me and I’m happy. I can’t do things like everybody else. It would kill me.”
It’s a marked break from the tone presented towards the end of the film, as the conversations that Hodgkinson alluded to with his doctor and his daughter seem to be pushing him out of the ring for good. Instead, he admits that Dasha still carries the same fears of losing her father to wrestling-related injuries, but that maybe there has been a little softening of his approach to his craft.
“She hates it,” he admits in straightforward fashion. “But I’m smarter about it. For example, if you book me on an indie wrestling show, now I’ll do a seminar, a meet and greet, and I’ll book myself in a way where I can protect myself. “
This push and pull between his career and his life as a father is a focal point of the film and hard to imagine not being there, but Paszt describes how this idea developed organically during the production, while Hodgkinson himself was unsure about how it would work.
“Michael said, ‘I have an idea, I’m telling a story about you and your daughter,’” Hodgkinson recalls. “I said, ‘I don’t know how you’re going to do that.’”
“I was looking for that one thing to tie the story together,” Paszt explains. “We’re telling a story about Vampiro and all of this craziness, and every time we met he was always talking about his daughter. It became a natural thing.”
In another twist of good fortune, Paszt received a welcome surprise from Demarbre as he spoke to him about the focus of the new film. It turns out that Demarbre had something of a gift for him – a ton of archival footage. Demarbre told Paszt, “I still have all of this footage of him and Dasha and it didn’t fit into my movie, do you want it?” Paszt says he responded with an enthusiastic Austin-style “Hell yeah!” and suddenly found himself with a much more complete picture of Hodgkinson’s journey as a father.
Paszt also lets me in on the behind-the-scenes set-up of an important scene in the film, which featured Ian and Dasha at a diner where they hashed out their feelings about Vampiro continuing his work in the ring against the advice of doctors and the wishes of Dasha.
As mentioned in the film review, that scene became something of a lynchpin for the whole story, one which appeared in small segments throughout. According to Paszt, though, it was another scene that very nearly didn’t happen, with Hodgkinson not at his best and Paszt pushing him to capture the important segment.
“I said to him, ‘We’ve got to do it, and I know you’re not feeling well,’” he explains. “I felt really bad afterwards, because when we showed up at his place, he could barely walk.” You can see this in the film as Hodgkinson hobbles into the parking lot after leaving the restaurant. His immobility, however, actually added to the scene and Paszt found a way to increase the stakes of the conversation.
“They sat down, and we sat in the back corner and filmed it and let the camera roll,” he says. “At one point I told Dasha, ‘Look, you can ask him anything. He can’t walk, he can’t run away. Ask him the questions you’ve always wanted to.’ She said, ‘Oh, you’re right,’ and she put him on the spot.”
It’s an excellent example of how a documentary director can’t create dialogue as if it were a fictional movie, but they can create a situation to try and draw out some emotion. It’s not guaranteed to work, but sometimes you strike gold as in the diner.
Hodgkinson, who had been initially unsure of how a movie focused on the relationship between himself and Dasha would work, now loves the way that their story was captured.
“When saw it the first time it was very scary because I didn’t know what tomorrow was going to bring,” he recalls. “It was very difficult for me because I felt like I was saying goodbye, it was really hard. And what you’re seeing is a fraction of what I was going through. Yet there’s one moment in that movie where you can see the look in my daughter’s eyes where she completely trusts me as her dad, and that told me that I’m doing my job. That kid knows she’s loved, and she can fall down 200 times and I will always be there.”
“I don’t know how Michael put two and two together, but he got what he needed.”
In getting what he needed, Paszt also had to decide which storylines to follow and which to set aside. “There are a whole lot of crazy stories,” Paszt explains, responding to whether he tried to explore the truth of much of Hodgkinson’s life story, from being kidnapped, to the suffering of a broken neck in the ring against Mike Awesome, and the real-life feud that developed between him and Chris Jericho in Mexico.
“For me, I was pretty scared of Mike’s reaction,” Hodgkinson explains. “He came into a world where he had no business to be in. Talk about jumping in the deep end; I’m a hard-core motherfucker. When I tell you I was in gangs, I was in gangs. When I tell you people got thrown off of buildings, people got thrown off of buildings. I would tell Michael ‘That guy in the front row, he’s cartel, don’t point the camera at him.’ I’m used to that, but I’m thinking to myself, What is Michael thinking?”
Many seemingly tall-tales, Paszt says, weren’t explored as they didn’t fit into the film, but for his part, he trusts his gut on how much truth there is to them. “As I’m listening to him talk, I think, I’m pretty sure he was kidnapped.”
The road behind for Ian Hodgkinson is built with such wild stories and the lightning in the bottle style success story that he himself is reticent to give much attention to. The road ahead is laid with brand new challenges as he moves inevitably out of the ring and into head-on confrontations with physical and mental challenges. None of that really seems to weigh on him, though, as he sounds like a man living exactly in the present.
“I love my life right now,” he explains, with great enthusiasm. “When you see the guy on screen and he looks like a different person, it’s because he is a different person. Now the brand of Vampiro allows me to enjoy it; I have a certain level of respect from the guys, and fans, and I don’t have to kill myself.”
Nail in the Coffin, though it directly references Vampiro’s finishing move in the ring, may be too final-sounding a title for a story that has no plans of wrapping up. To give Hodgkinson the final word: “I’m not going back in the womb. I might as well keep going 100 miles an hour until I hit the wall.”
That may be Ian speaking, or it may be Vampiro. And it may not matter.
- Raven Banner Entertainment’s official site
- SlamWrestling.net Vampiro story archive
- Archive of stories Michael Paszt wrote for SlamWrestling.net