The decision to make The Life And Death of Owen Hart was an easy one.
The directors had interviews with Owen on tape from their previous documentary, Hitman Hart: Wrestling With Shadows, about his older brother Bret Hart. They also knew that the public wanted to know more about ‘The Blue Blazer’, who fell to his death in May during a WWF pay-per-view in Kansas City.
Paul Jay and Sally Blake are the co-directors for the Owen Hart documentary, which debuts this Wednesday on TVOntario at 10 pm ET and airs on A&E Tuesday, November 16 at 8 pm ET.
“Our first reaction was not to try to cash in” and make the film right away, explained Jay. “We wanted to respect what the family wanted, and so we didn’t jump to anything. But once I was at the funeral, once the lawsuit was launched, it became clear that the family wanted the story of Owen told. So that’s when we got serious about it.”
Both Jay and Blake conducted interviews across the continent with people who knew Owen — everyone from his family, to Stampede Wrestling stars like Bad News Allen and Ed Whalen, to old family friends like Harley Race. In the edit room, the two co-directors split up, and each cut part of the film.
Blake called the process “unorthodox” but after working with Jay for five years at his company High Road Productions, the two have a level of trust and understanding that allowed them to work separately on a single project during the short five-week turn-around period.
The lawsuit that the Hart Family has filed against the WWF and other parties they believe responsible for Owen’s death did pose a problem with the pair of directors.
“The family was not allowed to talk specifically about what they thought happened and who was at fault,” said Jay, 48. “There’s a Missouri kind of gag law, gag order that comes in part of Missouri law when you launch litigation like this. So there was quite a bit of complicated discussion with Martha Hart’s lawyers, and trying to get clear on how they could participate — Martha and other family members. Essentially, what it came down to was they could talk about Owen’s life, they could to some extent talk about how they felt around the time of his death, but they really couldn’t talk specifically about the accident itself.”
The litigation was also the reason that WWF owner Vince McMahon declined to be interviewed for the documentary.
In the end, The Life And Death of Owen Hart doesn’t really take sides or argue why the accident happened or who is to blame.
“We just had to be careful to try to be balanced and fair about how we presented it,” said Jay. “The film doesn’t really get into, or take a position on exactly what happen, because I guess we don’t know either. I think that one can say some things about why did he go up there, and the film does. But what actually happened once he got up there, we don’t really say anything about it.”
The most moving parts of the documentary come from the home movie footage obtained from Owen’s widow Martha. There’s Owen with his two children, the family swimming in a pool, Owen and Martha at the start of the construction of their dream home — nearly finished at the time of his death.
“Martha had locked [the tapes] away in a closet … and couldn’t bring herself to watch [them],” explained Blake, 26. “And I think when she sees the film the first time, she’s going to see Owen come to life again. Really painful stuff.”
The Life And Death of Owen Hart was much easier to sell to television stations for Jay and Blake this time around. Hitman Hart: Wrestling With Shadows won a number of awards, much praise, and drew great ratings on TV. According to Jay, “the Hitman film has probably received as much recognition as any documentary ever made in Canada.”
The Owen Hart documentary will air in the U.S. and the rest of Canada on A&E on Tuesday, November 16 at 8 pm ET. It’s actually billed as wrestling week on A&E, and new Biographies will air on Stone Cold Steve Austin and Mick Foley, as well as replays of the Andre The Giant and Jesse ‘The Body’ Ventura specials.
“A lot of the A&E push … is because wrestling is so hot. It’s just such a big pop phenomenon right now,” said Jay, adding a warning. “There’s a point where, if you’re not a wrestling fan, you’ll tire of the biographies of wrestlers. On the other hand, there’s a lot of wrestling fans.”
Neither Jay nor Blake say that they would consider themselves wrestling fans, yet there they were talking to some of the legends of the mat world.
Blake found former WWF world champion Mick Foley, aka Mankind, to be the best of the interviews that she conducted. “He was immensely moved by Owen’s death. I think it shook him. He was almost in tears throughout most of the interview. He and Owen shared a lot of things, values about wrestling. He had this one line where he said he went out about two times a year on the road, and Owen was the only guy that went out less than he did. … I guess it was touching to see that Owen had made such an impression on his colleagues.”
Knowing the wrestling audience, and its insatiable appetite for all-things ‘rasslin, High Road Productions is planning once again to sell a video tape of the documentary on a web site, as was done with the Hitman Hart video. The tape will be longer than the version that airs on television, and contain footage of wrestling personalities like Chris Benoit, Hulk Hogan and Gene Okerlund that didn’t make the cut for the TV version.
Down the road, Jay hinted that there is talk of a Wrestling With Shadows series that would focus on different themes, not just the Hart Family. “We’ve actually started some conversations with one of the most, or more famous, well-known … maybe someone who’s about to [retire].”