Any great wrestling event needs a great opening match, and Dark Side of the Ring, VICE TV’s documentary series about wrestling’s most controversial stories, has always succeeded on the back of that logic. The show’s first season premiere told the story of Bruiser Brody’s murder, and season two kicked off with an intimate two-part look at the shocking Chris Benoit story. When Dark Side returns on May 6, season three is introduced with a two-part epic about the gun-wielding “loose cannon” Brian Pillman. It’s the story of the high flying Hollywood Blonde who broke the fourth wall on screen, let his larger-than-life character impact his life at home, and had his rise to stardom sidelined by tragedy. The episodes include interviews with Pillman’s family and his peers in the wrestling business, including his friend, tag partner, and on-screen rival Stone Cold Steve Austin.
In addition to the look at Pillman, producers and co-creators Evan Husney and Jason Eisener have been working on 13 stories about wrestling’s biggest controversies for the show’s third season. They sat down with the Ultimate Warrior’s first wife to offer a grounded portrait of the chiropractor she married before he became a bodybuilder and wrestling icon. Their conversations with Chris Kanyon’s friends paint a portrait of a closeted gay man struggling with mental health in an industry that exhibited little tolerance for gay “characters.” There are episodes about infamous events (like the WWE Plane Ride From Hell, the steroid trials of the mid-’90s, and the professional wrestling summit in North Korea) and harrowing profiles of less-heralded wrestling icons (including Luna Vachon, Dynamite Kid, and reigning deathmatch king Nick Gage). Both Husney and Eisener are still understandably giddy over their interview with deathmatch legend Atsushi Onita for an episode about the Japanese cinematic hardcore wrestling promotion FMW. “He’s so cool,” Eisener said.
On a recent Zoom call, Husney and Eisener sat down to discuss the Pillman premiere, focusing their cameras on wrestlers’ families, breaking new ground in season three by telling recent stories, and what surprises await viewers.
VICE: The season opens with two episodes on Brian Pillman. What made you feel like his story hadn’t been fully told?
Evan Husney: I knew the Brian story, but I just didn’t really get the full breadth of it. I knew all the “loose cannon” stuff, but for lack of a better term, I didn't know about all of the loose cannon stuff that was happening at home. We're always fascinated by the convergence of the fictional aspects of wrestling merging and bleeding out into someone's real life. This story pushes that to the next level because Brian Pillman committed himself to this kind of Andy Kaufman-like character. He pushed that boundary, and you really see the consequences of that.
The Pillman episodes don’t end with his death; it spends time showing what his family went through. Is that one of your goals with Dark Side of the Ring—to show what happens to survivors after their loved one is gone?
Jason Eisener: Yeah, it’s kind of what Evan was talking about—what are the ramifications of living a gimmick and how does that impact the family? It was such a powerful moment to hear Brian Pillman Jr. talk about how when he was a kid and his dad passed away, he thought it was just part of the angle and he was just waiting for the cameras to pop up and for his dad to come back. I can't think of any other sport or art form where families have to navigate those blurred lines. When you watch our shows, you're seeing people grieve in different ways, and I think that's really important.
Given that the show is often critical of WWE, it felt surprising to see Steve Austin on these episodes since he’s still actively involved with that company. How did that come together?
EH: You cannot do this story without Steve—their careers are just so linked. [Wrestling commentator and behind-the-scenes linchpin] Jim Ross is so hospitable to us every time we come down to Oklahoma, and he concurred with us: “I don't know how you can do this without Steve.” So one day I'm watching TV, and I look at my phone, and now I'm on a text chain with Steve Austin and JR. As a wrestling fan, that was pretty big, and then I went to talk to Steve a few days later.
Pillman Jr. is on the come-up as a wrestler. Do you think Dark Side could help his career by going so deep on his story?
EH: I definitely hope so. We have a story about Nick Gage, and with that episode, you're really seeing his story happen in real time. That's not really something that our show normally does. I think it is a little bit like that with Brian Jr., and I think it adds weight to him as a performer, knowing the hurdles and challenges and things that he's navigated in life.
Thinking about other recent stories in wrestling, have you considered addressing the Me Too-style “speaking out” reckoning that led to ramifications across multiple wrestling promotions?
EH: We were definitely paying attention when that was happening, and it's definitely something we're interested in covering. In fact, there's one story that I was quite passionate about that exemplified aspects of that movement, but the access to that story wasn't there yet. It might be something we could possibly do down the line, but there are a lot of stories that we do pursue that don’t work out for access reasons. You don't want to make a talking head piece that's impersonal. For us, it just wasn't the right time.
Do you feel like there’s someone in season three who’s primed to become freshly notorious because of their episode of Dark Side?
JE: That could be Nick Gage.. I believe in Nick Gage. People talk a lot of talk in the wrestling world. He says he’s willing to die in the ring and he did. He actually died wrestling and they brought him back.
EH: Let’s see the Undertaker do that, man.
Aside from Steve Austin, are there other interviews people will be surprised by?
EH: Oh yeah. There's one that will be really surprising. I know, I'm sounding like a big old tease here, but there's someone behind the scenes that we interviewed for the second part of season three that I think will be quite surprising. I think it kind of crosses a new threshold for us in terms of access.
JE: Yeah, it's such a tease, but I never would have thought this person would have sat in front of our camera.
It’s not Vince, right?
EH: Well...even though he says you got no chance, there might be some chance. [laughs] No, no, no, no, it's not Vince. But we’ll take him!
Which episode are each of you most excited to air?
JE: I’m really obsessed with the Grizzly Smith story. In [the wrestling documentary] Beyond the Mat, there’s this moment where Jake “The Snake” talks about spending time with his father Grizzly, and he mentions that his sister when they were younger was kidnapped and was possibly murdered. We thought, “That has to be a source of trauma that’s probably leaked its way to the ring as well.” Jake comes from a family of wrestlers, and people forget that. This is the first time they’ve ever come together to tell their story.
EH: Right now I’m really pumped on the Dynamite Kid, but also, I’m really excited for people to see Johnny K-9 and Bruiser Bedlam. I’m always really excited about the deep cut stories. We are hardcore fans that know about the stuff we go in to make, but some stories like this, you only know a teeny bit. It was kind of mind blowing, someone who’s ostensibly a jobber has this story that’s a sweeping biker gang epic. It’s amazing.