One wrestler picks up another by his spandex shorts, muscles bulging as he tosses him across the ring. Another dives from the top of the post. Kicks and clotheslines are exchanged until slowly the wrestlers realize their victim isn’t the enemy they thought but a long-haired man in a white robe. The man is Jesus, come to offer salvation, and the event is not WWF but Ultimate Christian Wrestling, a one-of-a-kind combination of religion and professional wrestling. In Ultimate Christian Wrestling, directors Jae-Ho Chang and Tara Autovino follow the group’s leader Rob Adonis in his attempt to gain recognition from the mainstream Southern Baptists. Meanwhile, fellow wrestlers Billy Jack and Justin struggle with financial problems, divorce and finding a calling in life. I sat down with Chang and Autovino for The Christian Science Monitor to discuss the challenge of portraying these universal stories and the real, relatable characters that emerge in this very strange setting.
FC: How did the film begin? Did you conceive of it as a story about Ultimate Christian Wrestling, or about the lives of the characters outside the ring?
Autovino: When we were shooting, we were just shooting. We probably shot about 150 or more hours, but we had no idea if we had enough to make a movie. We started out with all of the wrestlers, meeting their families and doing interviews, but the important parts emerged as we taped more. Some of the stories became more interesting, and it was a very organic process. It’s called Ultimate Christian Wrestling, and in some ways I wish there was more wrestling, but the drama is in the stories outside of the ring. We don’t have control over that story, really, if we want to reflect honestly.
Chang: It started as the bizarre concept of wrestling and Christianity together. That’s what drew us into it initially. We didn’t think it was going to be a feature, we just wanted to film the events and go from there. But Tara and I talked about how it would be too easy to do a caricature piece about this event. So we decided to portray these people in a way you wouldn’t expect. Like how we first encountered them and slowly developed an understanding. We wanted to achieve that, to have people approach the film with preconceived notions and then change that over the film.
FC: Sometimes filmmakers who create heavily character-based documentaries are accused of mocking their subjects, but I always find stories about eccentric people fascinating and very truthful. Did you struggle with this at all as you were shooting? How do you approach the responsibility of honestly capturing someone’s personality?
Autovino: We always have to think: what are these people going to think if this footage is in the film? What does this look like to them? There are some goofy moments in the film, but it depends on how you cut it. But this has always been about protecting our subjects for us, not giving a judgmental audience what they want. At the beginning we might give them a little bit so they can see where they’re wrong about these characters. But we always asked ourselves: is this going to hurt them? Because they know it’s ridiculous what they do, the definitely laugh at themselves and have a sense of humor.
FC: That’s part of their characters too. The goofy things can still be truthful.
Autovino: Right. You can feel it in your gut when you’re editing the film if we’re making fun of them. We don’t want that.
Chang: It’s about striking a balance. Our film can be serious and funny because people aren’t black or white. It’s about finding that grey area.
Autovino: They are flawed human beings like everyone else. So that’s what we wanted to portray: them as themselves. So when you first see Justin, he’s very slow-speaking and he’s very awkward. If that’s the only time you saw him, it might be difficult not to pass judgement on him, but he’s not the way he appears.
Chang: That was our strategy. We initially portray the characters as we first saw them, but then like an onion you begin to peel back layers and get to see how they really are. So that informed the order of the material. In life, you slowly get to know people, you don’t understand them immediately, so we kept it that way in the film.
FC: How do you capture your characters’ lives filmically? How do you create that balance between comedy and drama? Does it happen scene to scene, or is it more about the tone of the film overall?
Chang: To me it’s the overall rhythm of the film, and where a moment is placed and what comes after. So front-loaded we have a lot of offbeat funny stuff and then we try to balance it out later. That balance was something we tried to achieve, but it took a while.
Autovino: It took a long time to get that balance and get the structure right, much more than cutting an individual scene. If you move one scene that’s primarily comedic over a few scenes then it messes with the whole structure and mood of the film. It was really tricky.
Chang: Another technique we use is to let scenes play out dramatically and then end it on a funny note. So the drama brings out the comedy more.
Autovino: Yeah, they balance each other out.
FC: Maybe that’s just how it works in life too when there aren’t cameras around.
Autovino: Right, and I’ve had that complaint about my work before: is it funny or is it sad? Well, it can be both and it is both. Life is never just drama, it’s never one tone or one mood. A lot of films are one tone, but that’s boring to me. That doesn’t reflect my reality at all.
FC: Are there ways to capture a comedic or dramatic tone within an individual shot, as opposed to the overall rhythm of a film?
Autovino: Sure, a shot can indicate comedy or drama. Wide shots can be a bit awkward feeling.
Chang: Symmetry too.
Autovino: Getting very close during an emotional moment can obviously heighten the drama, but as far as shooting for documentary is concerned, you get it any way you can!
Chang: That’s the beauty of documentaries: you never know what you’re going to get.
Autovino: When you get that moment, if you were to put it in a narrative, no one would believe it. Like at one point Justin says “Failure is worse than death.” If you put that in a narrative, people would be like “Oh, come on!” But it fits! And then right after that, he’s talking about hot dogs. [laugh] So that’s life.
FC: Right, and I think there were moments in the film that contain both emotions in the same scene or the same shot. For example, at one point you ask Billy Jack where Kody’s mother is, not knowing that they’re divorced, while he’s in full costume and face-paint!
Chang: I come from a divorced family so I should have known, but I just asked the question. It was at the beginning of shooting and it was a scary moment [laughs].
FC: You capture some very emotional, intimate moments with your subjects like that one. How did your relationship with them develop? Was it difficult to get them to open up?
Autovino: They were very kind and welcoming, but also very protective. Some people were very suspicious of us, as I probably would have been. It took them almost a year to really start to let us in. Over time, we spent so many holidays with them and we became very close, to the point where the camera didn’t seem like it was there.
Chang: That was also a hard part about this project. They don’t owe us anything. So the first month we were there, it was hard to get in touch with people. Billy Jack was afraid of being portrayed as a negative person because there was so much going on in his life. So we had to talk to him and tell him this is a part of who you are and how you deal with life. From then on, we got much more access.
Autovino: So there’s a balance there too in how we portray people. I think they realized over time that we were on their side and we weren’t going to sell them out no matter what. Towards the beginning of the project, we had some opportunities to work in a reality TV setting and we turned them down because the most important thing for us was to protect them. We earned their trust, and trust is a hard thing to earn.
FC: Did your subjects view you as outsiders to their culture and their religion when you first arrived?
Chang: They never asked us if we were Christian. They weren’t concerned about that.
Autovino: They’re really just people who are trying to help other people. They have a specific way of doing it, but it’s not their business what other people think. If somebody is interested in what they believe and what helps them, then they’re willing to share that, but they don’t judge people based on what you do or don’t believe.
FC: And besides, they’re very different from the mainstream Christianity in the south. If you were outsiders to them, then they’re definitely outsiders to most Christians in the area.
Autovino: They’re renegades! They know they’re different and very outside the box in terms of religious practice. They have tattoos, they were spandex, they’re into wrestling: no way! You don’t do that in Baptist churches in the south. Rob wanted to provide a place for people who were into Christianity to go without feeling self-conscious, like ex-cons or bikers. People who wanted spirituality without the members-only jacket.
Chang: I hadn’t been to the South much so I had a certain thought about Christian down there. I was very surprised to see that Ultimate Christian Wrestling was the renegades of the Bible belt. Being raised Christian and being Korean, that changed my perspective. Wow, these guys are outsiders as well. Seeing that clash between traditional Christianity and Ultimate Christian Wrestling was hard to get my mind around.
Autovino: We tried to avoid the black and white thinking that comes with media and religion. What do you hear but the liberal dismissal of Christianity or the religious Right? That’s all you hear is the extreme perspective. I’m not interested in participating in that. How does that help us at all?
Chang: That’s the power of working with someone else: you have a different approach to the subject matter. As opposed to Tara, I was raised Christian and it was a positive environment for me. So there are those two opposing views of religion. And also aesthetically. Tara’s more into the awkward humor and I’m into the serious drama, so having that other voice when we were editing helps us balance those two poles as well.
FC: Speaking about balance, since Ultimate Christian Wrestling is a film about the event itself and about characters, how do you shape the film into a complete story? How do you structure it?
Chang: Because this is a character piece there’s no goal that they’re reaching, so we knew it was going to take a long time. In order to find somebody’s life interesting we knew we were going to have to spend 2, 3, 4 years filming to have a narrative arc, so we had that extra patience.
Autovino: We had to wait and let life develop, and that’s really hard. We’re both narratively-trained, so it’s just a process of crossing your fingers and hoping. It’s a huge leap of faith to dive into a character-driven piece. Thankfully it kind of came full circle and they realized their dreams or they didn’t realize their dreams, but it all fit together pretty well. Still, we had no control over that.
FC: You revisit the characters a year later in a coda to the film. Was it important for you to continue their story? Is there ever really an end to an story? Is there ever really an end to a film?
Chang: It was a happier ending if we didn’t shoot the next year. But it fit our aesthetic and how we see life. It can be disappointing sometimes.
Autovino: Right, even if you realize your dreams it can be not what you thought it would be. Or giving up, that thing we all go through. It’s just life. We tend to portray life – I wouldn’t say bleakly, but pretty honestly. I’m not a sugar-coater. There’s an honesty to it.
Chang: But the film is also positive. When we were editing the film, I realized that it had to with a fear in my life: taking a risk, and risking failure. And witnessing these people go through that – sometimes they fail, but for me it was encouraging to see that other people do this, so why can’t I?
Autovino: The film really paralleled what we were going through at the time. Financial fears, understanding your motivation, why am I getting up in the morning, how am I going to better my life? It’s the same stuff that we were dealing with.
Chang: Right, this happened through film school and then after film school, so there was that fear as well.
FC: In the case of your characters, their motivation in life is very clear, and you can see it in their performances. It was really interesting seeing how they set up the events and practice and literally direct each other like actors.
Chang: Imagine trying to portray Jesus.
Autovino: What pressure!
Chang: The guy in the film, Kevin, is a very quiet guy. And a little bit pushed around, but he just does it, he’s a good sport. Well, he got chosen because he has long hair [laugh]. We spent holidays with Todd, the director, and he directs these plays in his church that are very modern.
Autovino: They’re epic! He writes and directs them, he does the choreography. They’re incredible! Man, if he were born in New York, he’d be very successful up here. His talent is impressive.
FC: In many ways religion and wrestling seem totally opposed, but something about the performative aspects of both brings them together.
Chang: Right. Rob was really smart about his concept because when you go to a wrestling show, people are revved up! So you channel that energy into religion and people are already very emotion and have heartfelt conversations with the wrestlers after the show.
Autovino: It’s all about moving people. Being in church, a pastor does that, but performers of all kinds do that as well. More than anything, people are looking for an environment where they can be loved unconditionally. You are OK just the way you are. And for a lot of these people, Ultimate Christian Wrestling provides that.