Dark Side of the Ring returns to Vice tonight with a two-part episode on the life of Brian Pillman. It’s another tragic tale of a troubled wrestler dying young and unexpectedly, and the impact it had on his family and the wrestling business. If you’re familiar with Pillman’s story, you know it’s not a happy one; if you aren’t, get ready for an examination of the politics within the industry, the widespread abuse of painkillers by wrestlers, and the thin line between fact and fiction that they regularly straddled up until the late ‘90s, when Brian Pillman kicked off the ultimate downfall of kayfabe.
As Evan Husney and Jason Eisener, the creators of Dark Side of the Ring, explain to Paste, it basically took two full seasons of the show to get to the point where they could make an episode about Pillman’s life. It took that long to build the respect necessary to get access to the people needed to tell this story. “When we started we just didn’t really have much street cred in this world at all,” Husney says. “And it’s something we’ve been amassing, and we’re still amassing.”
You can’t really do a comprehensive documentary on the career of Brian Pillman without including Stone Cold Steve Austin. Before he became perhaps the most popular pro wrestler of the modern era, Austin was a mid-card heel working for Ted Turner’s World Championship Wrestling. WCW put Austin and Pillman together as a tag team in late 1992 with no fanfare and little expectations; they excelled as the cocky heels the Hollywood Blonds, and after that run ended unceremoniously their careers crossed again a few years later in WWF. Austin was one of Pillman’s closest friends in the business. He’s also a fantastically wealthy and successful pop culture icon who doesn’t really need to sit down and dredge up what must be some painful memories for a TV show. If Dark Side of the Ring hadn’t thoroughly established itself not just as Vice TV’s most popular show, but also as a serious and thoughtful documentary series that treats its subjects with respect, the odds of Husney and Eisener landing an interview with Austin would be slim.
The two saw that reluctance from wrestlers all too often when they were first trying to launch the show. “In the very beginning it was tough because wrestlers have a complicated relationship with the media,” Husney says. “Especially wrestlers of the ‘70s and ‘80s era, because it was so protected back then. So I think for us it took a long time, probably the better part of a year, to get the access for our first episode. And once we made that episode it opened some more doors for us to be able to tell more stories in season 1. It was only after we made Season 1 I think we were able to do the Chris Benoit story, or something that requires a little bit more access to an inner circle. We’ve just been kind of growing that and evolving it over the seasons. And now to be able to talk to someone like Stone Cold Steve Austin for our Season 3 premiere, that’s just awesome. Something I don’t think we would’ve been able to do before.”
It speaks to the quality of their work that Husney and Eisener have been able to earn the trust of a business built on a foundation of lies. Husney’s experience as a documentarian and Eisener’s history directing horror and exploitation films (he directed Hobo with a Shotgun and a segment in V/H/S 2, among others) have combined to make a show that’s compelling and thrilling without being lurid or sensationalistic. Probing, candid interviews with wrestlers, family members, historians, and law enforcement are interspersed with stylized recreations full of neon and shadows, echoing Jules Dassin’s classic wrestling noir Night and the City as filtered through Michael Mann’s glossy aesthetic. Those recreations might be eye-catching, but the interviews and the show’s journalistic approach to storytelling are what make Dark Side of the Ring so powerful.
The seeds of the show were planted when Husney and Eisener first met at Sundance around a decade ago. They bonded quickly over their lifelong love of wrestling, with Eisener sharing memories of the time a wrestler named Skinner threatened to skin him alive at a house show he attended as a child, and Husney recalling the time he went to see Sgt. Slaughter wrestle because he was a member of Husney’s beloved G.I. Joe, only to wind up rooting for Slaughter during his time as an Iraqi flag-waving Saddam Hussein sympathizer at the height of Operation Desert Storm. With their filmmaking experience and their deep knowledge of and respect for wrestling’s past, the two figured they could help bring the industry’s deep reservoir of fascinating and tragic stories to a new audience.
“We just knew from all of our research and our fandom that there are so many amazing stories in wrestling that would translate to an audience that isn’t necessarily a fan of wrestling,” Husney explains. “It has the craziness of the sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll world of the ‘70s and ‘80s, plus this fascinating human side of the business that really hasn’t been uncovered. Most of the wrestling documentaries you see are either part of the WWE or a fan doc. You don’t get to see the whole story from the humans behind this world. So we decided we wanted to do that, but also try to elevate it, to present this world in a way that it’s never been seen before.”
Those three letters—WWE—represent something of a stumbling block for anybody trying to accurately depict wrestling history. Vince McMahon’s company owns most of the wrestling footage that has ever been televised in America. It’s also devoted to perpetuating an unhistorical account of the business’s past that essentially credits McMahon and his family for everything noteworthy that’s ever happened in wrestling. Almost everybody who makes a living in wrestling tries to stay in WWE’s good graces, meaning it can be a little difficult for filmmakers and journalists to get people to go on the record with anything that contradicts WWE’s official narrative. And it’s rare for anybody who currently works for WWE, either on screen or in the office, to be made available for documentaries that aren’t officially produced by the company itself. That was another potential hurdle for Dark Side booking Steve Austin, and remains a constant issue for the show. As Husney notes, “we do encounter a lot of hesitancy, or sometimes people who just outright turn us down, because of relationship concerns they have with the WWE. It’s something that we encounter with a majority of, if not every, episode.”
It’s that commitment to getting the true story out, no matter how unflattering it might be to any particular person or company, that makes Dark Side of the Ring stand out in the increasingly cluttered world of wrestling documentaries. Comparing an episode of Dark Side to an official WWE documentary on the same wrestler or topic is like comparing legitimate investigative journalism to a press release.
WWE has dominated the wrestling landscape for decades. The most popular wrestlers in modern American history all worked for them at one time or another. It’d be very easy to make a wrestling documentary series that never even considers that other wrestling existed and still exists to this day; just check out the current Biography series running on A&E that focuses exclusively on WWE stars. To their credit, Husney and Eisener realize there’s so much more to wrestling than this one company and its one official company line. Several Dark Side episodes have focused on wrestlers that never had a substantial relationship with Vince McMahon or WWE, including Bruiser Brody, Gino Hernandez, and promoter Herb Abrams. The second episode of Season 3 is about Nick Gage, an indie legend known for extreme deathmatches.
These more obscure stories are among the show’s best episodes, not just because they expose viewers to something they maybe didn’t already know, but because it gives Dark Side the chance to actually break news. Perhaps the most widely acclaimed episode so far was the one about Gino Hernandez, an incredibly talented wrestler and top star for Fritz Von Erich’s World Class Championship Wrestling promotion in the ‘70s and ‘80s who died mysteriously in 1986. Hernandez was a heel whose promos were on the level of a Roddy Piper or a Ric Flair, and although he was a little small for the era, if he had ever made it to WWF or WCW he’d probably be remembered as all-time great today. Dark Side’s episode didn’t just help restore some of his legacy for today’s fans, but it actually helped answer questions Hernandez’s family has had about his death.
As Eisener explains, “working on the Gino Hernandez episode in Season 1 was a big deal because that was a story where we didn’t know a lot going into it. There were just a couple podcasts that we could listen to for research. To be able to go down the path of meeting Gino’s family and his mother and to be able to help give her some kind of closure with that story, as she’s been haunted by what happened to her son for 30 years, was a big deal for us. It felt like every day there was a new discovery. I just remember being in the office with Evan and our team and there’d be days where Evan would call everybody in to gather and be like ‘you won’t believe this new piece of information that we got.’ That was a thrilling experience.” And it made for a thrilling episode.
“One of the heaviest experiences I had in this whole thing was on the Gino episode,” Husney adds. “The family had always been wondering what had happened to Gino, because they were never allowed to see his body, and they had all these unanswered questions, and it had kind of spiralled into a lot of conspiracy theories about what happened to him. As soon as we got a hold of the crime scene photographs, something that they hadn’t had access to previously, and now I have this really heavy responsibility to share them with the family, and to think about that, as a wrestling fan, is really… you just never think you’ll be in a position like that.”
Whether you’re a fan of wrestling or just interested in unusual stories about people who live in extremes, the sense of discovery and intimacy in Dark Side of the Ring can be exhilarating. It is also routinely, unflaggingly tragic. It never exploits that pain, though. You’ll see that tonight in the Brian Pillman episode. It’s a depressing two hour tale about Pillman’s rise and fall and how his passing still impacts his widow and now-grown children today, but it ends on something of an upbeat note. It’s an emotional experience, whether you watched Brian Pillman in WCW and WWF back in the ‘90s, or know nothing about pro wrestling.
Husney’s summary of tonight’s episode serves as a description of the whole show. As he puts it, tonight’s Dark Side of the Ring deals “with a lot of raw family emotions, a very complicated family relationship. It can get very heavy, and it transcends being a fan in those moments. You’re not only learning about these people but you’re learning a lot about, not to be pretentious, but humanity and people and relationships.” That might sound like a lofty goal for a show about wrestling, but the fact that Husney and Eisener realize this often-mocked form of entertainment has that amount of power in it is exactly why Dark Side of the Ring is so special.
Dark Side of the Ring airs on Vice TV tonight at 9 p.m.
Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s also on Twitter @grmartin.
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