I recently spoke to John Philapavage, the filmmaker behind the "Unauthorized ECW Documentary." You can support the project on Kickstarter by clicking here. You can check out the entire interview in its entirety below:
WrestlingINC: Were you a wrestling fan growing up?
John Philapavage: Yes. From the time I was about 6 or 7, my earliest memories are probably the Hulk Hogan Rock 'N' Wrestling cartoon. I was a kid, so I was like, 'Wow. Hulk Hogan is cool.' I distinctly remember seeing the magazines -- the Apter mags as they're called -- from the PWI family. They always had big wrestlers on the covers with bloody photos.
I always tell people it was like the first time you go to New York and you see a prostitute in Manhattan somewhere. You're scared by it but you can take your eyes off of it kind of a thing. So, yeah, I was a fan from the time I was very young.
WrestlingINC: With ECW, when did you start watching?
Philapavage: I found it a few times. Their flagship channel was Sports Channel Philadelphia. We get a lot of Philadelphia media here in Allentown, where I live. I was kind of waning on wrestling at that point, Wrestling was kind of at a low point in the early '90's. I wasn't sure I was that interested anymore. Then, I found ECW.
I would say that sometime in '94, I saw pieces of it here and there. I became an avid watcher, week to week, in the summer of '95.
WrestlingINC: Basically, when Paul Heyman took over is when you really became a fan?
Philapavage: Yes, yes.
WrestlingINC: At that time, there was nothing like that. WWE, WWF at the time, was very PG at the time. It was borderline G at the time. WCW was using a lot of WWF old ideas but not really doing a lot on their own at that time. Did you feel like ECW was on the verge of something big?
Philapavage: You nailed it. That TV show completely broke the paradigm of wrestling for me. I was born in '81, so when I first saw it, I would have been 13 and I was 14 when I started watching every week. Their presentation was just so different, so interesting. The promos that were outside of a wrestling venue. The length of the promos, now it's common place, but at the time... They had lengthy promos and they would reference people from other promotions which you just didn't do.
They would curse. Their characters were different. You didn't even know they were necessarily wrestlers other than that they were cutting a promo. So, that kind of clued you in. [Laughs.] But, they didn't look like cookie-cutter wrestlers, they didn't have cookie-cutter gimmicks.
The whole presentation was mind-blowing and I've always been into niche products, anyway. Essentially, in the end of it, ECW was sort of a niche product. Just, it's influence spans greatly throughout the industry by the end.
WrestlingINC: How did the idea of the documentary come about?
Philapavage: Well, it was a poor idea at first. Not a poor idea, but a fluffy idea. I was obsessed by the ECW Arena. I had to get there. Three years when you're a teenager is a really long time. I watched ECW for nearly three years before I got to the arena in January of '98.
I had been to ECW when they would come near me, but I had never been in the actual ECW Arena. So, once I started going -- there was a whole culture there where people camp out all day and drink beer, get wasted and act stupid. [Laughs.] They'd do cook outs. I wanted to kind of document the Arena experience.
That was the first idea. I've learned since then that your original idea for documentaries are just seeds that grow into something. In this case, it grew into something a lot more serious and a lot more objective. It wasn't just a fan thing anymore.
WrestlingINC: Was that the first documentary that you'd ever done at that point?
Philapavage: Yes, that was the first one I started. I believe that summer, we did our first mockumentary. We went through a faze where we had fun doing fake documentaries. We ended up producing two -- one, I think, was an hour and ten minutes, which was cut down to an hour. The other was feature length.
This was the first. When we started, we were 19. I mean, we were pups.
WrestlingINC: You started in 2001, right, this particular documentary?
Philapavage: No, March of 2000 actually. The company was still around. We actually shot at their internet fan convention in April of 2000.
WrestlingINC: How supportive were they of you making the documentary?
Philapavage: It's hard to say because they were out within a year of us starting. Really, at first, we had no momentum. We were just so young. We didn't get a major interview until Tod Gordon and that was January of 2001 and the company was falling apart at that point.
Then, the flood gates kind of opened with access to people. I mean, people in the company knew that we were doing stuff. But, it's not like I got Paul Heyman on the phone or anything. [Laughs.]
WrestlingINC: What most surprised you while you were filming and making this documentary back then?
Philapavage: How many people contributed. There's this generalized idea that Paul Heyman did everything -- and he did a lot -- but it's amazing how rich the history of the company is. Both positively and negatively.
But, I mean, Paul didn't start the company, Tod Gordon did. It came out of the ashes of TWA and there's a whole story there. Then, Eddie Gilbert was there for a while booking and then he brought Paul in. There's just a lot of people that helped out along the way. A few fans, but always just front office people.
I was also surprised that I didn't realize when I started how much Paul's family was involved in it, his mother and father. it was kind of more of a family business than I had realized.
WrestlingINC: What were some of your favorite moments from that era?
Philapavage: A lot of stuff in '95 and '96. That was the golden age for me. It's also when I really started watching. I went back and I watched from the beginning years later on VHS tapes. But, that fall of '95 really sticks in my head. Again, it was fresh. When Steve Austin came in and you still had the Public Enemy there. The Sandman character was just so over. The Raven vs. Tommy Dreamer feud.
There were just a lot of interesting things that were weaving -- the Taz turn, he turned heel at that point. The state athletic commission angle with Bill Alfonso was brilliant, to bring a guy in and pretend he's part of the state athletic commission and he won't let people do hardcore things. Then, of course, they do them anyway. You had the Mick Foley heel turn there, too. There was just a lot of stuff going on.
Heyman was kind of a weaving the angles together. The Pulp Fiction promo stuff at the end of shows was just brilliant for it's time.
WrestlingINC: They got on pay-per-view in '97 and they got the TNN deal in '99. Did you think at that time that the company was going to another level or did you think that the writing was on the wall by them?
Philapavage: On, no, I thought it was going to another level with the first pay-per-view. The TV show... I was a fan up until the last day but, for me, there's a clear mark sometime in the summer of '97 where I felt things kind of changed. I was still a fan and they had great moments but it was never quite the same as it was from '95- to mid-'97.
But, I was always too young and not clued in enough to know the background and that they were always losing money and whatnot. When I saw the first TNN show, I thought that would be a big deal. Then, pretty quickly, I was unimpressed with their performance on national TV. Later on, I found out there were a lot of factors for that and you learn that in the documentary.
WrestlingINC: What were your thoughts when the promotion folded?
Philapavage: [Sighs.] Mixed, because I did realize that as far as the documentary, we'd probably get more access and we were in the middle of covering a story that was active. That's good. By the time I got the Tod Gordon interview, which was within 8 months of starting, it had become a very serious project as far as looking at it journalistically and objectively.
I knew we would get more access and people would become more available and people wanted to talk. At the same time, it was kind of sad. In my heart of hearts, that was kind of like the home team. That was the promotion I really followed and rooted for. So, slightly mixed.
WrestlingINC: So, you were planning on continuing the documentary back then even after it folded?
Philapavage: Absolutely. 2001 was one of our biggest years for the documentary as far as getting material and getting content in terms of interviews and footage.
WrestlingINC: What made you decide to stop filming it back then?
Philapavage: Money. Money. Real life got in the way. Myself and my partner Kevin [NOT SURE] have never been wealthy. [Laughs.] We were going to school and then when we came back home, we had to get real jobs. Real life got in the way. We wanted to finish, but we didn't quite have the access.
WWE kind of jumped on getting a lot of those guys under contract and different things. So, there was a window where we were doing really well and then it really slowed down. The original idea was to put it out in 2002. We didn't it have a complete film and we didn't have connections to get it out to the public.
All the things that I'm using this year that have really helped the project didn't quite exist at the time. From Kickstarter to Facebook to even cell phones. I mean, I couldn't afford a cell phone back then. It was just really difficult. We tried to start it up a few times because people would say, 'I can help you finish it.'
We had some deals on the table and it just never worked out. We had to support ourselves and real life got in the way. I thought it was going to happen a few times and I also thought it was dead forever several times.
WrestlingINC: When did you decide to start it back up?
Philapavage: January. When the Arena closed, I got a few calls from people. One in particular that wanted me to finish the product. We had a long conversation and he's an old friend of mine. He said, 'What would it take for you to do this?' I outlined ten kind of demands that I would want because I was kind of settled on it not happening.
I was like, 'If it does, there's like ten things. He's like, 'Well, tell me.' So, I told him the ten things and he said, 'Well, if you'd be willing to finish this, I would be able to try to help you reach those ten things that you want.' Again, he was my friend and he said, 'Do this for yourself. I know this is the number one thing on your bucket list. It bothers you that you didn't finish this.'
So, I went back to Kevin, my partner, and said, 'Hey, do you want to finish this?' He and I hadn't worked together in a while. We still had a great relationship, we'd been friends since we were 2 and thankfully, he agreed.
We shot 15 more hours this year, ended up with over 50 hours of footage and over 60 hours -- some people twice and over a decade apart. So, it really worked out. I'm actually glad it happened this year. There was a long time where I thought that maybe we missed our window. But, it wouldn't have been as good of a film, honestly.
WrestlingINC: What can fans expect from the documentary?
Philapavage: It's very honest. It's made with an eye on your neophyte being able to understand it. This is something that we wanted to make that a wrestling fan can be proud of and proud to support. It's hopefully very intelligent and asked very penetrating questions about the style, the blood letting and the violence.
We talked to the wrestlers about why they did these things. It was very holistic. We talked to wrestling journalist who covered it at the time for context. Office workers, a lot of wrestlers -- and not just "stars" -- just everybody. Anybody who had the best story which is the most accurate and penetrating stories as far as the details of it.
We cover a lot of things more in-depth than have been covered. It's a very human story. The other thing I should announce and this probably hasn't gotten out there yet. [Laughs.] We realized that we want to do a commercial cut for film festivals to get it out to the public. That's probably going to be about 90 minutes to an hour and 45 minutes, tops. Probably 90 minutes, though.
We're also going to have an extended cut that's going to be over 2 hours and they'll both be on the DVD that we put out. So, if you're a wrestling fan and you want more in-depth bits of the story, you have that. Then, there is a shorter version that can be understood by everybody.
WrestlingINC: That's a cool idea. So, once again, how can fans help?
Philapavage: That's the big thing -- money, man. I'm stressing every day about this. We took our project to Kickstarter.com which is just an awesome site. It's sort of the brand name for this sort of thing. It's a fund-raising for artists and helps artists of all kinds. It takes a while to get it up there because they're very professional and they check everything and make sure you're a legitimate project.
Thern, you offer people gifts. Basically, if you help us get funding to finish this film -- because we're so close. It's so frustrating to be this close and not have the money to get it out there to people essentially.
But, if you pledge $10, you get access to our backer page on Kickstarter which already has a bunch of exclusive clips for people to see. If you pledge $20, you get a movie poster plus the access. If you pledge $30, you get all that plus the DVD which now will have two versions on it. If you want to pledge more, it gets into t-shirts, it gets into coming to the premier which will be in the Philadelphia area.
Stuff like that. So, if you go to Kickstarter.com and search ECW, we have videos up there. We actually have a segment on violence in ECW that kind of shows that we're doing things a little differently. The movie is not about story line, angles and characters. It's a lot more about the business of ECW, the marketing, the human story of these wrestlers coming together trying to fight this up-hill battle against these two giant corporations and wrestling promotions.
It takes a critical look at the mistakes they made as well as pats it on the back for the things it did right in it.
WrestlingINC: When are you looking to have the DVD released?
Philapavage: I really think we can hit December. That's the goal. The worst case scenario is January, you know?
WrestlingINC: Best of luck to you and thanks for taking the time to speak with us.
Philapavage: OK. Thank you, Raj.
You can check out a trailer for the new documentary below: