WEEKEND WARRIORS: The Resilience of Joe King
Updated: Feb 3
A documentary film created in Norfolk, Virginia to showcase the journey and struggles of hopeful, professional wrestlers
Recently, I completed work on the second documentary in a series of pieces called, “Weekend Warriors.” The idea of these works was to follow the day to day lives of independent professional wrestlers. These folks are the backbone of their industry. They wrestle for small promotions during events that happen every weekend in towns across the United States. Hundreds of people file into gymnasiums, masonic lodges, churches, and even breweries to witness a few hours of fun up close.
Talent from these smaller promotions toil in hopes of making their way up to the grandest stages with companies like the World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) or All Elite Wrestling. They spend their time and bodies on countless hours of training. It’s a unique lifestyle in entertainment and sports.
The Vision: Celebrate the Underdogs
Our idea was to follow the underdogs. The people that you didn’t necessarily see on national television, yet. We wanted to tell the story of the wrestlers who worked 9-5 jobs then had to spend their hours after that training for their match that weekend. We also wanted to show the culture that surrounded these companies. Professional wrestling is an incredibly rich subculture with a knowledgeable and well-traveled fanbase. In the same way that music lovers know every band in their town, wrestling fans know all of the performers and stories of the various circuits.
We wanted this to be less of a sports package piece and more of an ethnographic documentary. To give a point of reference to our vision: influences consist of Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations, and Guy Fieri’s Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.
The Initial Approach: John Kermon
Our first subject was an accomplished mixed martial arts (MMA) fighter and wrestler in Northern Virginia named John Kermon. While he was an excellent subject, our handling of the material left a little to be desired. The documentary did well enough at festivals but we missed the mark. Our team failed to embed the viewer and instead presented a piece that was more of a standard sporting news package.
Still, it did well enough that Channel 757 commissioned another documentary in the series. This time we stuck with a wrestler closer to our home base in Hampton Roads, Virginia. The idea was that we could work within our proposed budget and still get the multiple shooting days needed to somewhat embed ourselves in this person’s life.
Documentary shooting presents different scheduling challenges when compared to narrative shooting. You can schedule a block of time, you can interview your subject, you can follow them in an event or during their training, but you can’t “make” the story. You have to follow it and capture it in hopes that you’ll be able to communicate it later to the target audience.
Take Two: “Joe King” and a Fresh Production Model
For this installment, we chose a local wrestler named Jason Register. At the time, he wrestled under the moniker, “Joe King.” Jason was an excellent subject because of the breadth of his experience. He was gracious enough to give us a few days of his time during the week leading up to the match.
We streamlined our production model for this one out of necessity. Our original host, Kris Shrader, stepped into an advisory and producer role. Instead of a host on screen asking questions, I would interview Jason from behind the camera with questions provided by Kris. We operated with a two camera set-up for the majority of the segments. My 2nd camera was operated by Nick Albertson and sound was recorded by Eric Pace, and Eric Jewell respectively. Tom White produced and coordinated our efforts from the Channel 757 home office.
Our camera profile was lowkey as well. We utilized a Blackmagic Ursa Mini Pro 4.6k as our A Cam with Canon DSLRs as our B Cams. Lenses were mainly documentary staples like the Canon 24-105mm and the Canon 70-200mm. Our goal with this kit was to operate light and unobtrusively. We wouldn’t just be in large event halls, we would be in people’s homes and training areas.
The lighting package was similarly efficient with smaller LED panels and assorted on-camera fixtures, as needed.
Every Masterpiece Comes with it’s Own (Lighting) Challenges
The challenge we faced in two of our major locations, the training gym and the gym for the event in Elizabeth City, Virginia was lighting control. These people were gracious enough to allow us to film at their locations, but they still had their own, operational events ongoing. We couldn’t bring in a large lighting package or ask them to turn lights off. We had to work with the natural environment in these spaces.
In the case of the gym, we either relied on gels, punchy daylight LEDs, or bi-color fixtures to attempt to match the various fluorescent and halogen bulbs overhead. The range and latitude provided by the Blackmagic Ursa Mini Pro still allowed for a pleasing documentary look. I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention this was prior to the current color science enjoyed by Blackmagic cameras. I’d be even more confident now using the Blackmagics with their current color science.
We had extremely good fortune in that the lighting set-up for the match itself was properly theatrical and well done. Again, the dynamic range of the cameras came into play, allowing us to find details in the shadows with an allowable amount of noise on the image for “live” sports documentary. The lights also allowed us to shoot at a high frame rate and capture dramatic slow motion cinematography without flicker.
To Frame a Good Fight
Next Evolution Wrestling allowed unfettered access to the event and the space. This allowed the freedom to not only find physical camera perspectives, but the real “behind the curtain” feel that documentaries need to reach their projected audience. Our wrestler had to deal with a few challenges on the day of the match, not the least of which was being assigned his opponent shortly before match time. We were able to capture that, apparently common, occurrence in real time. You see him planning out the match on camera back-stage while other matches go on. This gives the feel of what this business is really like for these performers.
Post-production took some time to execute. Editing documentary content is often more laborious than narrative filmmaking, just by the nature of the process. Professional editors go in with a framework and find new stories and threads as they comb through the footage. The story we found was of a true underdog. Jason is a gifted performer who has worked with elite competition. In the business, he’s considered a “Carpenter” in that he’s often paid to help other wrestlers look good in victory. His versatility and willingness to do the work means that he’s a busy talent but that his breakout success hasn’t happened yet. But, he’s a vital part of the industry. Every champion in WWE reached their status because somewhere along the way they performed with someone who was talented enough to help them find drama and athleticism in their matches.
I was not an ardent fan of wrestling when this work began. I didn’t have an appreciation for the folks that HAVE to lose to make money, pay their bills, and hang onto their passion. Meeting Jason and then going through this footage helped me find a slightly more nuanced story than I had originally planned for. My hope is that it’s a story that will resonate with anyone who watches this documentary, regardless of their level of fandom.
Weekend Warriors: The Resilience of Joe King is currently beginning its festival run. It recently won third place in the “Best Film” category at the Seven Cities Showcase. Check out the video below and let me know what you think.