Wrestling movie takes on all comers

Documentary: Director Barry Blaustein got "Beyond the Mat" into theaters despite some power plays.

March 31, 2000|By Milton Kent | Milton Kent,SUN STAFF

Barry Blaustein may be one of the only guys in America who apparently faced down Vince McMahon.

McMahon, the chairman of the World Wrestling Federation, not only has taken the organization public on the New York Stock Exchange, but also has introduced his own professional football league.

However, McMahon couldn't keep the wrestling documentary "Beyond the Mat" out of movie theaters, although Blaustein said he tried with all the fury of a Stone Cold Steve Austin body slam.

Sounds like a script, doesn't it? Maybe even a ringside tale.

"I feel like I'm living a wrestling angle," Blaustein said recently from Seattle, where he was promoting the movie, which opened in Baltimore last week.

If anyone would know about scripting and angles, it would be Blaustein, 45, one of Hollywood's more successful screenwriters. He was head writer for "Saturday Night Live" during the Eddie Murphy era, where he and his writing partner, David Sheffield, helped create some of Murphy's most popular characters, including Gumby and Buckwheat, not to mention the grammatically challenged pimp-turned-author, Velvet Jones.

Blaustein's collaboration with Murphy has continued long past their respective departures from "SNL." Indeed, Blaustein has co-written the Murphy vehicles "Boomerang," "Coming to America" and "The Nutty Professor," each of which made more than $100 million. Blaustein also penned "The Klumps," the sequel to "The Nutty Professor," which opens in May.

Blaustein's Midas touch, no doubt, gave him cache with Imagine Entertainment, run by actor-turned-director Ron Howard, to film "Beyond the Mat," which has taken more twists than a wrestling script.

Blaustein, a lifelong wrestling fan who grew up admiring Gorilla Monsoon, conceived of the project five years ago as a way to explain to his friends the hold wrestling has had on him.

Wrestling, he said, isn't what it used to be.

"It's become a social phenomenon," he said. "I wanted to tell what attracted me to it."

So Blaustein spent two years traveling with the wrestlers to gain their trust and cooperation. He also initially got permission to film the WWF from McMahon, who appears in the film, along with a number of WWF wrestlers, past and present, including "Mankind," "The Rock" and Jake "The Snake" Roberts.

But right from the beginning, Blaustein said, McMahon attempted to get a foothold into the project, offering to triple the production's budget as filming began.

"He said, `Let me invest in it. You could make a much better movie with more money,' " Blaustein said.

"I explained to him that for a documentary to work, it had to be straightforward. He said, `I don't know what kind of guy doesn't want to make money.'

"I'm not doing this for money, though a little profit certainly wouldn't hurt. And I didn't work all this hard to make a WWF movie. For the film to get any kind of artistic reaction, it had to remain independent."

When McMahon was unable to either invest in the film or buy it outright from the distributor, Imagine Entertainment, he ordered his wrestlers not to mention "Beyond the Mat," or face getting fired, Blaustein said. (The federation's media relations office didn't return several phone calls from The Sun seeking comment on the movie.)

Mick Foley, who wrestles as "Mankind," is at the center of the difference between Blaustein and McMahon. Despite the ban, Foley appeared with Blaustein two months ago on "Good Morning America"; he then retired, only to come out of retirement on March 20.

In a sequence in "Beyond the Mat" that Blaustein believes McMahon finds particularly odious, Foley's young daughter is seen crying while her father is getting tossed and beaten around the ring, an image that seems to confirm the notion among the anti-wrestling contingent that it has a harmful effect on kids.

McMahon further reportedly leaned on both USA, which carries WWF on cable and UPN, whose "WWF Smackdown" is the network's most popular weekly show, not to run ads for the movie, at a time when both media companies were negotiating to extend their rights with the WWF.

"Look, the NFL didn't like `Any Given Sunday,' but they didn't tell Fox or CBS that they couldn't run ads for it," Blaustein said. "The broader implication is that a guy in his position can dictate to others. You hope that broadcasters can hopefully reach a point where they don't always chase the almighty dollar."

Ironically, the WWF's chief competitor, World Championship Wrestling, owned by Time-Warner, is running ads for "Beyond the Mat," after its officials originally declined to participate in the movie's filming.

"Beyond the Mat" opened earlier this month to the biggest weekend box office ever for a non-musical documentary.

What worries Blaustein now is Foley, who, with his best-selling autobiography about his experiences called "Have a Nice Day: A Tale of Blood and Sweatsocks" seemed to have left wrestling behind. But recently Foley has thrown himself four-square back into the ring.

"If he can do it without hurting himself, that's fine, but he's part of that group that can't walk away," Blaustein said. "It's so addicting."

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