Sure, WWE Was Scripted. Its Greatest Writer Told Us How He Made It Happen.

How Brian Gewirtz bounced from canceled sitcoms to creating storylines for The Rock at the height of pro wrestling.
Wrestler and actor Dwayne The Rock Johnston and WWE head writer Brian Gewirtz
Dwayne "The Rock" Johnston and WWE's former head writer Brian Gewirtz. Photo courtesy of Brian Gewirtz.

Everyone knows professional wrestling is “fake.” Winners are chosen in advance. Punches are thrown with the intent to thrill, not physically harm. It’s literally made for TV—the storylines have writers! But what does that really matter, in the end? Was The Iliad any less powerful because some Greek guy wrote it?

Throughout pro wrestling’s titanically popular 2000s, Brian Gewirtz was something like the sport’s Homer. For over a decade, he was the WWE’s head writer and most respected dramatist. Gewirtz has stories, as recounted in his endearing, newly published memoir There's Just One Problem..., which charts his absolutely inimitable journey from writing obscure teen wolf sitcoms to WrestleMania and beyond. 


Unlike on most TV shows, WWE writers pitch their ideas directly to the wrestlers, going face to face with people who are huge and intimidating as a job requirement—quite the office environment for, say, a smaller-statured introvert from Long Island. But Gewirtz thrived there, and even found a decades-long creative partner in none other than Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. 

Now, Johnson and Gewirtz have teamed up with VICE TV and Dark Side of the Ring co-creators Evan Husney and Jason Eisener on a new docuseries, Tales from the Territories, which goes deep on wrestling’s lesser-known 1970s and 80s, when the sport was largely divided among local territories. The series is set to premiere on October 4.

But first—how the hell did Gewirtz get there?

VICE: Did wrestling always have writers?

GEWIRTZ: It's kind of a new job. The history of the wrestling business goes all the way back to the 19th century, at carnivals and stuff. For the longest time, the wrestlers who were able to get themselves over—which means to become popular and get a connection with the crowd—it was because they were good at coming up with their own things and doing it all themselves.


Around the mid to late 90s, wrestling kind of consolidated. You had Vince McMahon's WWE and you had Ted Turner's WCW organization, and all of a sudden, you had to fill two to eight hours a week of national television. The network of wrestlers was expanding, there were more characters, there were more backstage vignettes to shoot and more off-site interviews to shoot, so writing became much more of a need. You couldn't just do what they used to do.

As a writer, what sort of things were you drawing inspiration from in wider culture? 

Vince always took pride in being more than just wrestling—to have more of that all-encompassing drama, with the stakes and the characters. The word “Americana” was used a lot backstage, in terms of how we were trying to present things. One of the cool things about WWE is that you can take something in the zeitgeist and in pop culture and essentially do your version of it—interpret it or work it into a storyline or a character—literally days or hours after something pops up online.

“If you look closely, it's always going to mirror the times, for better or worse.”

But mainly, my writing at the time was informed by my fandom that I had as a kid, and what made me jump out of my seat. I grew up right in the sweet spot of the Rock 'n' Wrestling era, with Hulk Hogan and Roddy Piper. What got me hooked through thick and thin was the highs of WrestleMania III and the lows of Sgt. Slaughter turning on America, because the Gulf War was going on and they wanted to get him heat. All of a sudden, you know, he's a traitor, carrying around the Iraqi flag. If you look closely, it's always going to mirror the times, for better or worse.


How did you win wrestlers’ trust? It sounds so intimidating.

It wasn't easy. I joined WWE in 1999 in a moment of crisis. The two writers that were there previously—and they were the first ones—had just left to go to rival WCW, leaving WWE with zero writers. Today, it's expanded to upwards of 25 to 30, including writers’ assistants and the whole staff in general. It's really, really blown up. But first I had to throw myself into the fire. 

For some wrestlers, who had never relied on anyone but themselves to get their characters over, having writing at all caused a little bit of tension: How is this person, who doesn't look like he could break an egg with a punch, going to tell me how I'm gonna kick someone's butt on television? And I’m 5'8'' on a good day, rounding up, if I have the right sneakers on. When I started, I looked like I was 16 years old, plus I’m introverted to begin with. One of the wrestlers, Chris Jericho, told me that Ron Simmons was like, “Should I get security to get rid of this guy?” And Chris was like, “No, no, he actually works here.” 

But you slowly gain a rapport with people who at least seem on your wavelength. “Oh, you're wearing a T-shirt? I love that movie,” you know, that kind of thing. I was lucky enough to already have a rapport with The Rock, based on MTV specials that I’d worked on with him. 

Signed shirt by wrestler "Rowdy" Roddy Piper. Photo courtesy of WWE writer Brian Gewirtz.

Signed shirt by "Rowdy" Roddy Piper. Photo courtesy of Brian Gewirtz.

You’ve worked with The Rock for decades now. Why did you two click?


When I first met him, he was already at the pinnacle of wrestling success. But his mindset back then—and it’s still the same one today—was always one of, “Hey, let’s give it a chance.” Whether it’s a script, whether it’s a human being, whether it’s a joke being pitched, you never know where a really good idea is gonna come from. 

Before he made it big, his life was full of failure and disappointment. He didn’t get drafted to the NFL out of University of Miami. He got hurt freshman year and missed the entire season, and when he came back, his position was taken by Warren Sapp, who became one of the greatest of all time. When he started at WWE, he was a smiling, baby-faced good guy called Rocky Maivia that the fans absolutely did not buy. You had this weird phenomenon of him being told, “You need to smile,” and the crowd chanting, “Rocky sucks,” and, “Die, Rocky, die.” So he knows that sometimes you can't judge a book by its cover, and the value of giving somebody a chance, and sometimes giving them a second chance, even. 

How do you craft those characters over time?

It's not uniform for everybody, but there’s plenty of iconic characters in WWE that didn’t start as iconic characters. Stone Cold Steve Austin was the relatively silent Ringmaster. He was specifically told, “Oh, we don't want to hear you. Ted DiBiase is your manager; he'll do the talking for you.” And it killed Steve inside, because Steve is a great promo—obviously the greatest of all time—and a great personality. Triple H was the Greenwich, Connecticut, snob Hunter Hearst Helmsley, and he’d come to the ring in a riding outfit with a cane and look down upon the common people. Glen Jacobs, who played Kane, was an evil dentist, Dr. Isaac Yankem, before he finally hit that stride. 


A lot of times, you’ll notice that when characters truly, truly hit, it's because they’re letting their own personality come out. You’ve gotta make adjustments, and really, that’s the role of the writer: to help them, like, “How do you want to express yourself? What’s the best way? What would your character do? What would you do?” That rarely happens right off the bat.

The wrestler Taz and WWE writer Brian Gewirtz, a lifelong Mets fan. Photo courtesy of Brian Gewirtz.

The wrestler Taz and Brian Gewirtz, a lifelong Mets fan. Photo courtesy of Brian Gewirtz.

What has it been like working in a documentary mode on Tales From the Territories

I was always a big fan of documentaries. I remember my friends wanting to see, you know, Lethal Weapon 2, and I wanted to see the new Errol Morris movie. And Dwayne’s a big documentary fan too. He tweeted about Dark Side of the Ring, and obviously, he’s a huge fan of it, and I was like, “I like that show too. Let's meet Evan and Jason, the creators of that show.” We clicked right away, because we're all huge, huge, wrestling fans, and we’re all huge documentary fans. 

After talking to Dwayne about it, we were like, “How do we take the success of Dark Side of the Ring and translate it into another docuseries but not focus on the dark of it?” There's also so many great, crazy, fun stories, especially with the territories in the 70s and 80s. Each region had its own empire, basically, and so many of these amazing stories are only known within wrestling circles and inner circles. With Dwayne having his dad and his grandfather as wrestlers, and having been both in the Hall of Fame, and his grandmother being the first female promoter in Hawaii, he is instilled with the stories of the territories.

“For the most part, I'm just a fan leaning back and being like, ‘This is so cool.’”

I helped Evan and Jason based on my relationships with some of the wrestlers. I reached out to one of my heroes and one of Dwayne's heroes as well, Bret “The Hitman” Hart, because we needed him if we were going to do an episode on the Calgary Stampede territory. And part of the reason he wanted to come on the show was because we got Abdullah the Butcher to be on the show—there's not nearly enough television shows with Abdullah the Butcher talking. 

There’s so many legends that I was fortunate enough to have a relationship with at WWE, and then to see them outside the WWE environment without restrictions… I was lucky enough also to be at the tapings of those roundtables. Yes, I’m on headset, and I have a run sheet in front of me and everything, but for the most part, I’m just a fan leaning back and being like, “This is so cool.”