You’d figure that to spend a year of your life following Bret ‘The Hitman’ Hart around to film a documentary that you’d be a wrestling fan, right?
Not Paul Jay, who directed Hitman Hart: Wrestling With Shadows, an almost two-hour look at The Hitman’s life with the WWF up until the Survivor Series in Montreal where he lost the World Title to Shawn Michaels.
“I was not a big wrestling fan,” said Jay, 47, from his office at High Road Productions in Toronto.
“I knew Bret Hart vaguely. I knew he was a Canadian, I knew he was a big star, but I can’t say that it had really ever clicked for me as a story or something to pursue.”
It wasn’t until Jay saw Hart give an interview from Germany, after he had lost the title on a previous occasion, and was publicly contemplating whether he would come back or not that he thought there was a potential story.
“That interview impressed me,” he said, and within days, he started trying to get hold of Hart.
However, the initial plan for the story was quite different than the way it ended up.
“Originally, we had no idea any of these events were going to happen,” said Jay, who also works as an executive producer on CBC Newsworld’s debate show counterSpin. “The original framing of the story was more about the Hart Family, and just behind the scenes of this weird wrestling world.”
The events to which he is referring should be common knowledge to any contemporary wrestling fan: Bret plays off WCW vs WWF to land a 20-year deal with the WWF; Bret re-forms the Hart Foundation and wins gold again; A Canada vs U.S.A. feud is established, leading up to a Bret vs Shawn Michaels showdown in Montreal at the Survivor Series; WWF owner Vince McMahon asks out of his contract with Bret, which leads Bret to calling, and signing, with WCW; Michaels wins the belt when referee Earl Hebner calls for the bell without Hart submitting; Hart knocks out McMahon backstage for the double-cross, and leaves the WWF on bad terms.
Jay continued. “We always thought a general audience was in mind. We always figured the access we had, and the behind the scenes, was something that wrestling fans had never seen.”
“We were always trying to walk this line of not insulting wrestling fans with being superficial or stupid about wrestling. At the same time, open it up to people who don’t know anything about wrestling.”
Jay still doesn’t think that he’ll watch wrestling much more, but sure knows the jargon now. During the interview, he frequently used insider terms like ‘mark’ (a fan), ‘work’ (a fixed outcome, usually for a match), but admitted that he knew little of the history of the mat game. Jay also came out of the experience with a much greater appreciation for wrestling and its fans.
“Through making the film, I started to understand how smart wrestling fans are. People who don’t get wrestling think it’s all … a mindless entertainment. And it’s not. It’s very classic, great theatre. That, I think, most of the audience is very in on the fact that they’re not only watching theatre, but that they’re part of the theatre.”
Working with the World Wrestling Federation was a slightly different matter. High Road Productions had a “very strong, iron-clad contract with WWF, where they owed us access, and they owed us footage, and they owed us privacy releases for the wrestlers,” according to Jay. After Montreal, “they would not give us footage, and they were not co-operating on releases and the other issues. Nor would they give us access to film again. That went on for some time, and negotiations went back and forth. It was quite at the verge, I would say, of the eleventh hour before it was going to go into court, when finally we found some terms of agreement that both sides could live with to some extent.
“I can’t say they were never unpleasant us, but clearly their business interests changed. Their problem was that this is a film, in their view, is going to push and promote a guy who is working for the competition. It’s as simple as that.”
Vince McMahon had agreed to be interviewed, but after the Survivor Series, he refused, even going so far as to request that TSN not release his interview from Off The Record to the filmmaker.
“I actually would have liked to humanize Vince more,” he said. “I would have liked him to be a more complex, real person because that makes a better story, a better drama, more true to real life.”
Jay believes that he was coming at the issue from McMahon and the WWF.
“Our interest in the film wasn’t to make Bret’s case. Our interest in the film was to have a dramatic film that tells a great story. And there’s no question it would have been a better story if the villain of the piece — and I say that with quotes and half a joke, because we didn’t go out to get Vince. But if he’d been bigger in the film, and had more of a presence, it would have made a better film.”
The documentary does have clips of McMahon’s interviews on RAW, but that’s all from the owner of the WWF.
Jay knows that there were many more paths that could have been followed in both the making and putting together of the product.
There was an interview with Owen Hart that never made the final cut. Brothers-in-laws Davey Boy Smith and Jim Neidhart are barely heard from. Hunter Hearst Helmsley gave an interview that “in terms of wrestling, maybe the smartest interview in the film,” yet is only on-screen for a few seconds.
“They’re just choices you make when focus a story,” he said.
The subject of Brian Pillman’s death was also an issue.
Jay explained: “Two things happened. One, we never focused on Pillman while he was alive. So in terms of actually having material with Pillman, we didn’t have anything. How to deal with the death was a big debate in the editing room. Again, it’s just one of these question, how many trails can you go down in a film? It certainly was an important event in how things unfolded for Bret. It’s true. The way that Pillman’s death got treated on television by Vince, it was one of the things that upset Bret. I can’t say it was decisive, but it one of the things.”
With The Hitman currently in WCW, the release of the documentary could really push his character into the media mainstream and into superstardom.
“I think the film does as much for WWF as it does for Bret and the WCW. All the characters, the WWF characters, it’s the whole world of the WWF. And after watching the film, I think, you’ll be as intrigued — you’ll want to know what happened to Bret, and you’ll go watch WCW to find Bret, but you’ll be every bit as interested in what’s going on in WWF.”
Hitman Hart: Wrestling With Shadows is scheduled to be shown by some pretty big players.
A&E in the States will be showing it as a two-hour Sunday night special. Said Jay: “The A&E special is a nice venue, but of course it’s going to be all sliced up for commercials.”
The film will also be shown across Canada, but it’s kind of a mixed bag
TVO will show it in Ontario, the A-Channel in Alberta, CTV/Baton will broadcast it in the Maritimes and British Columbia. Quebec isn’t settled yet, but Jay expects that it will be picked up by an English broadcaster, and has been talking to Radio Canada about a French version.
It will also air overseas on the BBC and in France, Norway, Finland, Austria.
Bigger than all the TV exposure for Jay, however, is being chosen to open this year’s Sheffield Documentary Film Festival in England.
“[It’s] kind of a coup,” said Jay, the founding chair of Hot Docs, Canada’s national documentary film festival.. “Sheffield is one of the major documentary film festivals in the world … the fact that they selected our film to open the festival is a kick!”
The documentary is also being pre-sold on their web site at http://www.brethartvideo.com and over the phone at 1-800-900-6952. Cost is $24.95 Canadian, and they have both versions for both North American VCRs, and those overseas. Videos won’t be available until November 1.
Wrestling With Shadows stories:
- John Powell: Hart documentary slams McMahon
- Greg Oliver: New Hitman video on the mark
- Sep. 25: Hitman Hart director explains choices
- Nov. 13: Documentary an insightful look at Hart and his world
- Nov. 12: Wrestling’s still got a hold on Hitman Hart
- Nov. 12: You’ve gotta have Hart
- Nov. 16: A Hart-to-Hart
- Nov. 16: Documentary straight from the Hart
- Nov. 17: Calgary screening Hart-warming experience