Dwayne Johnson is, naturally, the driving force and very raison d’être for NBC’s Young Rock, a show that details his own life story, and one which he is both starring in and co-producing. He is not, however, the only one on the production team with work in the pro wrestling industry on his résumé — there’s also his long-time collaborator Brian Gewirtz.
Gewirtz worked for the WWF/WWE for over 15 years from, 1998 until 2015, when he transitioned to a producer-role in Seven Bucks Productions, the burgeoning production company founded by Johnson and Dany Garcia. Through the company, Gewirtz helped to launch Johnson’s reality-based shows such as Wake-Up Call (2014) and The Titan Games (2019), but it was through Young Rock that all of the elements of his own career in writing for both sitcom and wrestling came to a meeting point.
He spoke with SlamWrestling.net about the long evolution of Young Rock, the give and take between authenticity and entertainment, and the joy of ending quarantine in Australia.
Gewirtz’s connection to Johnson goes back a long ways, to a time when Gewirtz was between writing jobs in his young career. “We met in the summer of 1999, which, you know at first doesn’t seem all that long ago,” Gewirtz begins, looking back to the beginning of what would become a lasting partnership. “But when you actually think about it, holy cow, it’s over 20 years ago.”
During this time, Gewirtz was starting to find his feet in the field that he’d always dreamt for himself: screenwriting. “I had always wanted to be a sitcom writer,” he continues. “When I was growing up, my uncle was a very successful sitcom writer and producer on shows like Taxi, Wings, and Larry Sanders, so it’s something I wanted to do from an early age.”
Howard Gewirtz has indeed carved out a lasting career in television (including, interestingly, a stint as executive producer on Everybody Hates Chris, whose premise of Chris Rock reflecting on his youth might have provided some inspiration for Young Rock), and although that helped Brian get his foot in the door, the younger Gewirtz soon found his career rocketing off in an entirely different direction than his uncle.
“I was writing on the Jenny McCarthy sitcom on NBC that got cancelled,” he explains, referencing the 1997 show Jenny that Howard Gewirtz co-created and produced. “In between that and the next show (Gewirtz wrote a couple of episodes of Big Wolf on Campus in 2000), I had an opportunity to work on some WWF specials on MTV for SummerSlam of ’99. That’s where I met Dwayne.”
Gewirtz can now look back to his time touring with the WWF/WWE and see the elements of what would become Young Rock forming. “There would always be this running joke of Dwayne saying, ‘Oh, you know, I grew up not too far from here,’ or ‘Yeah, when I was living in Memphis,’ or, ‘Oh, you know I grew up a Bay City boy,'” Gewirtz recalls. “We’d always kind of look at him in awe, like: is there any place in America you didn’t grow up? And that kind of became the genesis of what would become Young Rock percolating in our heads. We have a very unique formula and format, as far as telling different stories at different ages. Dwayne likes to say he’s had a Forrest Gump-like life, as far as interacting with all of these well-known, famous people in the world of wrestling, in the world of college football, and a few other things as well.”
With these ideas kicking around in Johnson and Gewirtz’s heads for so many years, it was a matter of timing and opportunity that brought together a team to turn it into a show. “Once we actually sat down with (co-creators) Nahnatchka (Khan) and Jeff (Chiang), and we had these meetings where we would tell these stories — and a lot of them I didn’t know about until Dwayne told them in the room — that’s when it actually came together. It came together really fast. It was sold as a series and immediately went into production.”
Except, of course, that the production didn’t last. Along with many other productions in 2020, Young Rock was stopped short by COVID-19 restrictions. As the wheels started turning again, the production found its avenue to start filming in Australia, which Gewirtz credits for its protocols. “We were very, very fortunate to be able to shoot down there,” he says. “They have very strict COVID regulations, and quarantining when I first arrived wasn’t like in America, (where you) kind of rely on yourself to quarantine. It was guards stationed outside our hotel rooms for two weeks. You couldn’t even open a door to get food, you waited for one minute after they knocked and they’d leave it there. They take it very, very seriously, which is great because that’s what made the shooting process once we were down there so seamless.”
Gewirtz remembers well the feeling of being released from the quarantine period, and acknowledges the part it played in bringing the whole crew together. “Oh, it was amazing,” he says enthusiastically. “I mean, just walking to a gas station and going into the mini mart after being quarantined for two weeks, it was like for a kid at Willy Wonka’s. We all quarantined at the same place together, basically around the same time, and once we were all out there were a lot of rooftop gatherings at our hotel. There was a lot of bonding and getting to know each other so by the time we were ready to shoot, it was a pretty close-knit group.”
Speaking to his role in the production, Gewirtz explains that his history with Johnson and pro wrestling allowed him to be a go-to source for the creative team as they sought to get details right. “(Johnson) put it upon me to be down there to be able to answer any questions from a wrestling standpoint,” he explains. One of the elements of the wrestling business that’s second-nature to those within it, but entirely new to those outside of it, is what Gewirtz calls the “second language of wrestling-speak.”
“Talking about gimmicks, and getting over, getting your heat, and blowing your comeback, all that kind of stuff. (Nahnatchka) and Jeff, and everyone else on the writing team were like sponges, saying, ‘Yes, tell us more. We love this and we want to put as much of that language in there as possible, keeping it true to real life.'”
Beyond the vernacular of pro wrestling, Gewirtz looked out for little details about blocking specific scenes, with attention to who would or wouldn’t be present in real life. “The extras aren’t going to be happy, but if you’re not a wrestler, the referee, or the promoter, then you’re not backstage in a 1982 wrestling locker room,” he says. “The actors playing wrestlers would come to me sometimes with questions about what did this person really do, and I tried to answer it to the best of my knowledge. But the other great thing about having worked at WWE for so long was, if there was a question I didn’t know, I’d text a Bruce Prichard or someone, and ask him.”
Through his position as a conduit for people into the inner workings of pro wrestling, Gewirtz was able to observe as people’s perceptions of the industry changed as they became more familiar with it. “Almost to a person, everyone down there became a wrestling fan, and has so much respect for wrestling that they didn’t have before going in,” he explains. “We were lucky to have Chavo Guerrero down there as our wrestling coordinator, who I’ve worked with at WWE for years. Even people who weren’t taking bumps necessarily like Stacey (Leilua – playing Ata Johnson) and Ana (Tuisila – playing Lia Maivia), their story lives were wrapped up in the wrestling world.”
Finally, if Gewirtz was really stuck for an answer, he always had an ace up his sleeve in contacting Johnson himself. “If there was something I didn’t know, despite being the busiest man on the planet, he was always able to answer a text or a voicemail pretty instantaneously,” he says with a chuckle and a certain degree of amazement. “I’m not sure when he sleeps.”
Gewirtz returns again to the fact that the production team, from the top down, was committed to what is known in writing as verisimilitude: the creation of a dramatic world that feels real. “They cared about one thing: making sure that it was right,” he continues. “So, they were very happy to adjust on the fly based on whatever recommendations we had.” This is allowing, of course, for the fact that the dramatic world presented in Young Rock is, at the very least, a semi-fictional tale.
Oftentimes, in biographical or historical treatments on TV or in film, you’ll see these words splashed across the opening scenes: “Based on a true story.” When asked about the show’s approach to telling Johnson’s story, Gewirtz was able to define a touchstone that kept the storytelling grounded, even when it seems fantastical.
“You have to balance the fact that it’s not a documentary, it’s an entertainment sitcom on NBC,” he begins. “Dwayne’s whole thing was that there needs to be a basis of truth. There’s a basis of truth when Lia is dealing with a rival promoter, and she had to deal with talent leaving the territory. When (Johnson) bought his car, infamously from a crackhead, technically speaking that took place in Memphis, not Bethlehem (Penn.). But it happened. And there was another guy in the car, that happened. Did the guy in the car eventually keel over and die? No. But the basis of story in terms of (Johnson) wanting to get a car, wanting to look impressive to his friends, buying it for $103, and finding another person in it — there’s a basis of truth in there.”
“You could pick apart that Rocky Johnson didn’t wrestle this particular person at this particular time or what have you,” Gewirtz continues, matter-of-factly. “But Rocky was on the road and was reaching the apex of success at a certain point in the ’80s, and then falling on harder times later in his career and needing to drive a beer truck. All that stuff is accurate. So, again, as long as like the basis of truth is there.”
“Whereas, I’ll say this, at one point there was an idea of Dwayne and Rocky having this tiff, and Rocky embarrassing Dwayne, and Dwayne blowing up at him at the family dinner table,” Gewirtz reveals. “Dwayne pointed out, ‘Hey, I get it, it’s entertaining, but I idolized my dad. I loved my dad, and I’d never do that — it never would have happened.’ So we can’t have that because that’s just not grounded in truth and reality.”
Gewirtz sums up the exchange by describing truth as the foundation for what they build the story upon. “Once we have that framework, the groundwork, then we can make it as entertaining as possible,” he concludes.
Helping to produce the wrestling scenes and watching them as a finished product, Gewirtz notes, was an especially unique experience given his history of writing for the WWE. “Surreal” is actually the word he uses to describe it. “I took a lot of delight in seeing all the wrestling, and to be able to see (Jade Drane) playing Roddy Piper, who was my idol.”
Of course, the show isn’t all about wrestling, and there is one sore spot that comes up as the conversation turns to Johnson’s football days. “You know, it’s unnatural for me as a Syracuse fan to revel in the University of Miami’s success on the football field as much as we did on the show,” Gewirtz sighs, with the slightest trace of built-in homerism in his voice. “I don’t remember (Johnson) specifically but I remember vociferously booing Miami and their players when they came into the Carrier Dome and beat us. We really should have won that game in my sophomore year, when Chris Gedney was stopped on the three-yard line.”
“Not that I remember it.” (You can read about that game here, if you care to find out what has been stuck in Gewirtz’s craw for nearly 30 years.)
Now Gewirtz finds himself in the position to take in the show as a viewer, which is a role he seems to relish as much as he did helping to bring it to life. “It’s been great to be able to step back and watch it when it airs,” he affirms. “You’re watching the scenes, and you are able to just watch them as a television show, as opposed to thinking about, ‘Oh yeah, that was a day that took three hours to shoot down there, with bats flying around that night.’ All that stuff goes out the window.”
“The response has been tremendous. It’s everything we’d hoped for.”
Note: Watch for a follow-up article featuring more with Brian Gewirtz, touching on his time working for the WWE.
This article was updated on April 7th, 2021, correcting Gewirtz’s years of employment at WWE.
- NBC’s Young Rock page
- Seven Bucks Productions official website
- Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson and family story archive
- Slam Wrestling’s Young Rock review and interview archive