A (Stone Cold) Stunner of a Picture

An Interview with Pedro Vasquez about his wrestling drama, Slow Dancing with Your Demons

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in Pop Studies • Illustrated by Esther Lee

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Despite only recently breaching his 20s, director and writer, Pedro Vasquez, a 2024 Drexel University graduate, completed an ambitious project: a film that marries existential anxieties, action-packed sequences, and challenging counterpoints to those with preconceptions about the life of professional wrestlers. Within this interview, we talk about his road to completing the film – the luck, logistics, and bumps of following through with your passion projects.   

Melinda Lewis: Let’s start with the logline for your film. 

Pedro Vasquez: Living your lifelong dream to become a pro wrestler never gets easier. The one thing they’ll never teach you in training is that wrestling is a dangerous drug. A penniless prodigy in the independent circuit wrestles his beaten and battered coach and mentor in the hopes of a victory that will turn his financial situation around and catapult him further in the wrestling business.  

ML: Ooooooh, that’s really good. How did you come up with the story or how did the story come to you?  

PV: This story has seen its fair share of revisions, rewrites, structure changes, because at the same time I wanted to craft a story about pro wrestling, showing my film audience and my wrestling audience, how cool this world is. I needed to find a balance to make this relatable for a film audience who doesn’t know or understand this world like I do.  

How well do I want to balance real life, meaning the out-of-character and out-of-body experience of being a wrestler and mixing it with the “kayfabe” world of professional wrestling (which is pretty much how these characters fight, perform, react to the crowd from the ring)? It came together from conversing with a bunch of different types of wrestlers from across all ages. I got lucky with this one promotion in South Jersey who, luckily, answered the phone and agreed to work with me. They gave me access to their facility, their dojo, as well as their talents on their roster.  

Hearing their stories about how, yes, this is their lifelong dream. Yes, this is all they ever wanted to do because they were inspired by John Cena, CM Punk, Adam Cole from the 2010s. What kind of really hit home for me was understanding the sacrifices they had to make in order to make their dreams become a reality.  

The biggest takeaway that I’ve got is that wrestling is a drug for these guys and while it could be a good type of drug where it allows them to stay out of trouble, to stay focused, determined to stay in shape, maybe take better care of themselves, there are consequences [like] missing key family events, birthdays, milestones, relationships. Maybe you’re losing the love of your life to accomplish this bigger part of your life. The sacrifices they had to make to become wrestlers, to accomplish their dream, and me, as an artist, pretty much taking a similar gamble on myself to become a filmmaker, a writer, or storyteller.  

I wanted to tackle a few things: 1) peeling back the mask and showing that my superheroes are human beings; 2) showcase how wrestling can be and always will be a dangerous drug because once you get hooked in it’s impossible [to get] yourself out of it; and 3) the last thing is somehow, some way, making it relatable for an audience of other aspiring artists, wrestling fans, or common moviegoers.  

ML: While this is a fictional story, it’s representative of the challenges we hear from wrestlers (some more horrifying than others). Were there any particular stories from real life that you kept in your mind as you were working on the script? Any wrestlers who you feel left their imprint on the work?  

PV: I pulled inspiration [from] my favorite wrestlers either growing up or right now. Coming to my mind right now are Edge, Bryan Danielson, and Roman Reigns. Their match at WrestleMania 37 a few years ago kind of brought me back into the sport and allowed me to realize that there is more to wrestling than meets the eye, especially when it comes to a character’s emotional standpoint.  

One thing I really took away from is that all three of those men sacrificed something in one way or another. Edge with his neck injuries. Danielson with his concussions. Roman with his cancer. They had to step away from their drug for an extended period of time. My film asks, how do we find a balance between the two? How do we show that wrestling has a lot of benefits? It’s cool for the audience, the people who pay hard-earned money to go watch these people put their bodies and their lives on the line for our entertainment. How do we show that the money they pour in doesn’t always affect the wrestlers in [a] positive manner? Because they don’t all make a lot of money and it’s very unfortunate, especially with independent wrestlers who are trying so hard. Every day, working as hard as the next person. I want to show that my superheroes are human beings.  

Specifically, within my film, Nicky, wants to be a full-time pro wrestler. The thing standing in his way from doing the work [is] training his mind [not to wander] about not having money to provide for his wife and their home. That conflict bounces over to Nicky’s opponent and coach, Logan, and that while he looks young, (he’s in his early 30s) his body is more like a 50-year-old or 60-year-old man and [he] risks his life each time he enters the ring due to his injuries.  

I think I did a pretty good job with showing that my superheroes are human beings and that they sacrifice a lot. They risk a lot. And the consequences of pushing for your dreams are very, very real.  

ML: Yeah, Superman doesn’t need insurance. Superman’s mom is making his costume. I don’t think we really consider the costs associated with wrestling, like paying your medical bills, the costumes, the labor of putting all of this stuff together. The labor of like emailing promoters, the travel. 

PV: Travel is a big one, especially for those who have to carpool together or who road trip together. Sometimes they live out [of] their cars. Sometimes they don’t even have the opportunity to live month-to-month in an apartment and they’re still living with their parents. Granted, I’m happy they have housing. Even traveling from Philadelphia to Baltimore or to D.C. or to the West Coast. It’s a lot, and many can’t even afford hotels or motels, so they have to live out of their cars and then, like, go to work the next day. 

ML: And it must be hard, because at a certain point, people don’t admire that gumption. Or there is a sense of becoming “too old” for that life and the pressure to get “a real job.” 

PV: They do try to make this their full-time job, and especially if they go into bigger and better promotions like GCW or MLW which are like the independent wrestling scenes on the East Coast, but at the same time, a lot of them do balance a full-time job. Some are car mechanics. Some work in construction during the day and then wrestle at night. Like, you have to risk a lot when it comes to being a wrestler. You just hope that this paycheck, this gig, can help sustain food for the next few days. There’s more than just getting over with the crowd. It’s more than just winning a championship. You’re also thinking about, “Can I afford food the next day? Can I afford rent the next month? Can I make sure I have time to spend time with my niece on her birthday?” You’re on the road all the time and that’s something that I didn’t really notice when I was a kid going as a teenager.  

ML: While there hasn’t been a great cycle of professional wrestling films, necessarily, they never quite go away. Whether it’s fiction like All the Marbles, The Wrestler, documentaries like Beyond the Mat, or even, The Rock’s Young Rock, there seem to always be a return to professional wrestling films. Why do you think the films, not necessarily the wrestling, continue to resonate with filmmakers?  

PV: That’s a question that I need a lot of time to really think about. To be honest, I think it’s a mix of nostalgia, because they were around during the ’90s boom. I was born in 2002. When I go back, I see why people wanted to collaborate with wrestlers. You know these larger-than-life muscle heads. You got Hulk Hogan. You got Goldberg. You got Big Show. It took a little bit of a plateau into the 2000s and in the early 2010s.  

I give a lot of directors and writers props for tackling wrestling films and understanding the emotional elements that come within the scripted piece and making that resonate to an audience who may not know or understand wrestling. With The Wrestler, it’s about understanding why wrestling is a drug for this person and how he can never be accepted into society, into a normal job. With The Iron Claw, if you’re born within the industry, wrestling is also part of your family. If you’re born into this business, then it’s a part of you —it’s another sibling, another family member. It’s part of the lineage. 

I think now writers, storytellers, directors are becoming more creative when it comes to storytelling within wrestling. They’re trying to find relatable meaning but also a very hurtful and truthful meaning to really show a casual moviegoer that this world might seem very cool from the outside but it’s very dangerous and ugly on the inside. And once you get into it, you can’t escape from it.  

ML: What films did you watch and take notes from? 

PV: I pulled a lot of inspiration from films like The Wrestler and The Iron Claw, especially with The Wrestler’s character structure. How do you really tell a story of this fictional world of wrestling and make it relatable to an audience? The editing structure, too, because there’s a specific moment within The Wrestler where Mickey Rourke’s character Randy the Ram is wrestling over at Combat Zone and it’s an extremely brutal and bloody match.  The way they edit the story, that scene, is so fascinating. Showing bits and pieces of the match as well as the aftermath from those bumps, whether it’s a small clip of like Ram getting his blood cleaned up, or just like his opponent getting checked out by the medical team. We pulled inspiration from that within Slow Dancing with Your Demons because we told the story around the match, which is the primary structure, and then we found moments cut back to where we tell the story.  

If you can’t tell by the title, it’s not a happy story. As much as I wanted it to be happy because wrestling is a really cool sport, it’s hard. It’s real and the kinds of sacrifices these wrestlers had to make were hard.  

The last thing we pulled inspiration from The Iron Claw is how wrestling is shot. It came out at a perfect time during our holiday break, and I had all this time in the world to really figure out how I wanted this film to be shot cinematically. Collaborating with my director of photography and my camera operators, I would send them clips from The Iron Claw, from The Wrestler, even the TV show Heels or GLOW, like they’re just all really great inspirations, tools, and resources to pull inspiration from.  

I guess I have to thank the other visionaries in their shape or form because, without their ideas, without their concepts, this 22-year-old wouldn’t have this dream come true. 

ML: It’s interesting, because in-ring narratives draw upon wide-reaching themes. There’s an interesting parallel between The Iron Claw and Von Erichs and Cody Rhodes’s run this year. Rhodes is trying to live up to Dusty Rhodes’s expectations and to be, you know, a champion and take on like the mantle of the Rhodes’s family tradition in a different kind of father/son narrative than the von Erichs in The Iron Claw. The idea of sons living up to fathers’ expectations, the rugged individualism of wrestlers pulling themselves up by their bootstraps to complete their vision and finish the story. It’s really interesting that we have these kind of art films exploring wrestling and utilizing these kinds of universal threads for a medium, professional wrestling, that is thought to be so niche.  

PV: I think wrestling is starting to get really good at making it relatable for the common viewer. That’s what brought me back into the sport. I never stopped watching wrestling, but there were times where I tuned out of it because there might have been other priorities going on in my life. In the 2010s, I was in high school getting ready for college and it was during COVID when everything was shutting down. My high school closed up. I “graduated” and I all I had was wrestling. Then, I’m starting to pay more attention after learning two years of high school filmmaking.  

Yes, wrestling is scripted by this team of writers, producers, the bookers, and wrestlers. Kayfabe, their world, is now bleeding into our world and I think that’s just a fascinating turn of events. Especially [at] this past WrestleMania in Philadelphia. People come up to me, saying “Oh my God, you’re the wrestling kid.” This is what I’ve wanted ever since I was 11 or 12 years old. Who always got made fun of because I was a John Cena fanboy and always wore my bright red shirts, preaching hustle, loyalty, respect. As a kid annoying my peers in fifth grade, but I was hooked into this world by my cousins, my uncles, my dad. They all got me into wrestling.  

I’ve finally seen acceptance. It feels like I’m in a timeframe like the ’90s where you see people walking around wearing wrestling merch. You pointed them out. You have a conversation with them. I saw a postman wearing a Bullet Club shirt! I’m like no freaking way! It’s just really amazing to see how wrestling is becoming a phenomenon again. 

Wrestling feels like a safe space for me. It allows me to feel freedom. Allows me to be expressive. To cheer or boo for whoever I want and be immersed with a bunch of roaring fans who just want to be taken away. They want to escape their nine-to-five job. They want to escape whatever problems they have. They’re immersed in this world for the next two to three or even four hours depending on if it’s a tv show or a Pay-Per-View. It’s what I think I love about wrestling that it allows me to escape what kind of issues I may be dealing or whatever obstacles I may be facing like this week, this month, this day. Because that’s what wrestling can do for me. It can allow me feel-good emotions. It can allow me to feel sad. It can allow me to feel happy, angry, or whatever kind of emotion. I think that’s what people are finally understanding about wrestling. It’s not all about scripted choreography. What really matters is the storyline, how they show it in the match, and how it resonates with the audience member. 

ML: Going back to choreography, you used professional wrestlers as primary actors and not just stunt actors. I had a vision of films like Black Swan or action movies where faces are placed on those doing the work or where editing helps bridge together the performances. Why was it important for you to use actual professional wrestlers as the primary actors?  

PV: The more I live in Philadelphia, I realize professional wrestling was partially born here, especially with ECW. Wrestlers are around Philadelphia. I’m in the right place, I’m in the right time. I’m in the right pretty much timeframe when it comes to being a wrestling fan to make this project possible. Luckily, I was able to find a promotion. I was able to find the wrestlers who wanted to help make this vision come to life for me.  

It was important for me to use real wrestlers. Everyone in this film is professional wrestlers and they all really showed their passion. They helped me with the scripts, the pacing, the structure of the story and what is realistic to their world. They provided feedback about changes to make it feel a little bit more relatable to their world for common moviegoers. They helped me with the choreography and picking out the spots and what kind of moves from their arsenal they could use to help propel this story of real-life tribulations and complications.  

ML: What was the hardest part logistically? 

PV: There is no easy answer to that. I came up with this idea when I was 19 years old. Fast forward, I’m 21 years old and now I’m sitting in a senior project classroom filled with other filmmakers who have great ideas, all of them had their own creative, ambitious ideas. No one had an idea about sports entertainment involving stunt choreography, action, and all that stuff. So, one of the hardest parts was pitching this to a crowded room and you’re 21 years old and you want to make a wrestling film under 15 minutes, too.  

It was also hard finding the wrestlers, but in time, that actually became the easier part. The wrestling promotion came at a perfect time. I met with them, saw this great facility for me to use, and they had access to wrestlers.  

I think I mentioned this earlier but making it relatable to my casual film audience. The saddest part was cutting back a lot of the wrestling. We shot a lot of wrestling. It was hard to say goodbye to some of those shots, but at the end of the day, it’s for the story. It was hard to do, but it was also rewarding. 

ML: What are the next steps for the film? 

PV: I showed it at our senior showcase on June 16th, 2024. It’s truly something that I’ve always ever wanted — to sit down in a crowded room and show what wrestling is really all about.  

Next is doing more research on film festivals within the area. I found a couple of festivals I would love to actively submit this project to and get the story told. The ultimate goal is to get this into the hands of WWE or AEW because I want show what a talented filmmaker wants to do within the world of wrestling.  

I have to thank all of my team who helped me along the way because I could not do this on my own, and I’m glad everyone was able to sit with me, be patient with me. Of course, I got to thank my parents not only for taking me to my first wrestling show way back but also just being always supportive of me during the sleepless nights, the stress-filled nights where I’m just like overthinking this project. They were always there for me through every script revision. They’ve always been so supportive of me. Also, the film faculty and staff over at Drexel Film and TV. They’re all amazing. They saw this idea and didn’t say no. They said let’s see how we can work on this together. This is a bold and ambitious project, but we know that you’re the person capable of doing this. They were willing to work with me to see how we could make it as good as it can be so. Lastly, thank you to pro wrestling for saving my life when I needed it. Wrestling took care of me, and, in its simplest form, it always showed me there was more than meets the eye. It allowed me to turn off my brain and just sit back and immerse myself in this amazing world that we call professional wrestling.•

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Melinda Lewis has a PhD in American Culture Studies. She knows more celebrity gossip than basic math and watches too much television.

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