Posted on Wednesday, December 12th, 2007 by Peter Sciretta
I just got done reading a October 14th draft of Robert Siegel’s The Wrestler, which is being brought to the screen by Darren Aronofsky, the filmmaker behind Pi, Requiem For A Dream and The Fountain.
Before I go any further, let me first give you a little background: I use to be a hardcore professional wrestling fanatic. Before I created /Film, in an earlier life, I ran one of the first pro wrestling news sites on the internet, called WrestleNet.com. I mainly enjoyed the interesting behind the scenes politics. I was a junkie, I loved hearing about everything and anything that was behind the scenes.
It’s actually a very interesting world, far more interesting than the stuff you see in front of the camera. And I’ve always believed that this world would be the perfect place to tell a great story. But until now every movie that has been made around the wrestling has treated the sport, the people involved in it, and the fans that love it with much disrespect (go watch Ready to Rumble for a prime example). Barry Blaustein’s documentary Beyond The Mat is one of the only films to do it right. And off the top of my head, I can’t think or a fictional film that even does it half right. So that brings us to The Wrestler.
A fan asks Randy “The Ram” Robinson to sign an old 80’s era poster while reminiscing about seeing his first wrestling match, Robinson vs. Davey Diamond at the Spectrum. “You were awesome,” the fan tells Randy. WERE being the key word.
Robinson is an aging professional wrestler has been. Imagine someone who was once on the level of Jake the Snake Roberts or The Iron Sheik, selling out Madison Square Garden in the 70’s and 80’s, and now works shifts at the Shop-Rite supermarket to make some extra cash, in between weekend independent wrestling shows on the weekend in front of a couple hundred people in High School gymnasiums and the occasional sad autograph show. This is not Hulk Hogan. Robinson finds himself living in a van after being locked out of his junk-filled trailer by his landlord.
Robinson’s hardcore match against Hellbilly Cannibal (whose description makes him sound like a cross between Cactus Jack and Terry Funk) at an ECHW (East Coast Hardcore Wrestling, an obvious homage to ECW) show might be his biggest payday in years ($300), but when the wrestling legend suffers a heart attack during the bout, a doctor tells him that he needs to make some changes if he wants to live much longer. This includes no smoking, no cocaine and… no more wrestling.
Lonely and depressed, Randy makes friends with a 36-year-old tattooed stripper named Cassidy (who quotes from Passion of The Christ: “It’s, like, so inspiring,” she explains), and starts working weekend shifts at the deli-counter at the Shop-Rite.
Cassidy, real name Pam, convinces and helps Randy reconnect with his estranged 22-year-old daughter Stephanie, who is also a recovering alcoholic. Randy was (of course) the father that was never there (I know, cliche, but this is one of the few in this story). Meanwhile there are some funny Clerks-ish type scenes at the Deli-counter, which includes a run-in with the meat slicer. Randy confesses his feelings for/to Pam, who resists.
Refusing to listen to the doctor’s orders, Randy gets the urge and books a match at a Fanfest event in Greenville South Carolina. And not just any match, a rematch against The Ayatollah (an Iron Sheik type, now age 52), who Robinson fought 20 years ago at 1988 WrestleSlam IV, in front 20,000 people and another million and a half at home on pay-per-view. But this isn’t pay-per-view, this is a small indie event in front of 700 fans. It’s a suicidal match for little glory.
What happens? Does Randy die? Does Cassidy realize her feelings for him? At this point does he even care? I really don’t want to spoil it. I will say this, the match is almost fully choreographed step by step over the corse of seven full script pages. Think Rocky, which is a very apt comparison. And the ending is something you would never expect. It’s not an obvious choice. I’m sure some people will leave this movie really angry, while others will love it. One thing is for sure, I can’t wait to see it on the big screen.
Aronofsky knows how to tell a story cinematically, and is sure to bring a lot to this project. Nicolas Cage was originally attached to the film as Randy, but mysteriously left the project during preproduction. When I originally reported this news bit, I was more than a little worried for the project. But after having read the screenplay, I can happily reveal that Cage was clearly a horrible choice for this role. Sure, his name value might have helped the box office or release size, but Mickey Rourke is a perfect fit. In fact, I can’t think of a better actor to take on this part. I also can’t wait to hear who Aronofsky hires to play Cassidy and Stephanie.
I do wonder if Aronofsky will reteam with composer Clint Mansell on this project. Mansell has done the score for all of Aronofsky’s films so far (including the epic Requiem score which has been reused in numerous trailers and commercials). I mention this because there is a lot of music written into the script, which is very unusual. The musical cues written throughout include: Def Leppard’s (Rock Rock), Cinderella (Don’t Know What You Got and Fire and Ice), Great White (Once Bitten Twice Shy), AC/DC (Back in Black, If You Want Blood), Motley Crue (Girls Girls Girls), Def Leppard (Pour Some Sugar On Me), Warrent (Cherry Pie), Guns ‘N Roses (Get In The Ring), Black Crowes (Hard to Handle), Skid Row (I Remember You), Khia, Pitbull, Celtic Frost, and Lil’ Kim. There is also a hilarious conversation at a bar about how Kurt Cobain ruined music and kick ass 80’s music.
I’ve read a lot of screenplays, and many of them are unreadable. You’re lucky if you can make it to page #10 without losing interest.
The Wrestler treats professional wresting with a respect and realism unseen previously in fictional films… Wrestlers talk through their match in the makeshift backstage (aka The cafeteria) and common in the ring practices like Blading (using a razor blade to open a gash on forehead) are seamlessly worked into the script.
If you search the internet, you will find compilations of slang words which are used behind the scenes in the wrestling lifestyle (from “mark” to “ringrat” to “pop” to “heel”). I once heard that the lingo was something that wrestling adopted from its carney days. Siegel has done his research. These terms are integrated into the dialogue without sounded inserted (something I find all the time on tv – Chuck for example has a lot of geek references, but they are inserted into the dialogue, and the show sometimes feels like actors reading a script, because no real geek would ask his friend “Do you want to go play Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare?” Siegel gets all the details right. At one point Randy collects a $5 bill from a fan at an autograph show and puts it into his FANNYPACK! Any real wrestling fan knows that wrestlers and old people vacationing at Disneyland are the only people who wear fannypacks.
Other wrestling characters featured in the story include: Randy’s friend Lex Lethal (a play on Lex Lugar), a big black wrestler in full pimp gear named Booker D (a play on Booker T), and Shawn McPride. Oh, and a couple sleazy promoters also make appearances.
The screenplay also deals with drug abuse, including steroids, which will likely prevent future cross promotion from the WWE or any other major wrestling promotion.
Darren Aronofsky starts production on The Wrestler in January 2008.