Photography // Nathan Dreimiller + Ashley Prikryl
Storytelling is an essential cornerstone of professional wrestling, second only to the sport’s inherent athleticism.
Professional wrestlers exist within a willful suspension of disbelief. Their character’s currency owns only the value of its believability. This razor wire existence carries a pedigree that transcends the squared circle. Modern sports entertainment was born from larger-than-life vaudeville acts, traveling bards, and minstrels. However ably handled, their week-to-week triumphs and tragedies are cut from the same cloth as the Greek plays and Shakespearean betrayals that inspired them.
When the heightened reality within which these performers operate bleeds into their personal lives, the results can prove equally harrowing. It’s from this crossroads that filmmakers BJ Colangelo and Zach Shildwachter have found their inspiration for Powerbomb, the upcoming feature length from Sickening Pictures.
The two co-creators explain the film from their Lakewood home where horror and pro wrestling memorabilia compete for every inch of shelf space. “It’s The Wrestler meets Misery,” Shildwachter explains. Real-life indie wrestler and AIW World Champion Matt Cross offers a close-to-the-bone portrayal of a wrestler struggling to achieve his dreams while providing for his family as Powerbomb’s lead character, who shares the same name. The troubles for the film’s Matt Cross spiral dangerously out of control when he meets his obsessed superfan who will do anything to see Cross as a champion. Anything.
The blurring of lines between horror flick and the potential everyday occurrences these performers encounter is what makes Powerbomb so chilling. “Fandom is terrifying,” Colangelo concedes. “I’ve been doxxed before simply for not wanting to see Kevin Smith’s Tusk. I can only imagine what it’s like for these wrestlers who have to go to these conventions and be nice and smile to people who creep them out or say mean things or are being aggressive. The things we’ve seen real adult people scream at wrestlers in public is terrifying and that’s something I wanted to capture. Wrestling is a lot of fun and it’s cool, but it’s also downright terrifying at times.”
It’s no stretch to say that the horror genre is a strong influence on how Colangelo sees the world. “Horror is my favorite medium to tell stories because fear is a universal emotion, but what scares us is not universal. There’s so much overlap between horror fans and wrestling fans to begin with and no one’s ever really fed into that.”
Shildwachter agrees, “Chasing that high of trying to touch your idols, to see the face of god, and for it to fall apart in front of you—that’s real horror. When everything you believe in allows you to do terrible, terrible things to love and protect it.”
PressureLife was lucky enough to be on set for the last days of shooting and the camaraderie among the cast and crew was palpable with Powerbomb being an unmistakable labor of love for all involved. A large part of this depended on the casting which Shildwachter explains was considered controversial to some. “We knew who we wanted to work with, but other people were like, ‘Oh, you’re casting wrestlers instead of actors?’”
“I don’t care who has a SAG card,” Colangelo laughs. “I’m very much a believer that you cast who’s right for the role. I think people are going to be really blown away when they realize how talented these wrestlers are.”
AIW World Champion, Matt Cross, jokes about his foray with the silver screen: “I really have to stretch my acting chops because I have to play a wrestler and his name is Matt Cross. But on the other end of the spectrum, [film Matt] has a ten year old in the film. I don’t have any children. [Film Matt] has a wife and I’ve never been married. So those things are definitely new to me.” While a movie production may be new ground for Cross, acting is as second nature as an armbar thanks to his portrayal as Son of Havoc in the highly stylized televised wrestling program, Lucha Underground. “That show is just so cinematic. I get to work with classically trained actors and legit Hollywood directors.”
Unlike Cross, who continues wrestling as he takes on acting roles like Powerbomb and Lucha Underground, Roni Jonah, who plays Cross’s on-screen wife Amy, made a choice to hang up her tights years ago in favor of a full-time acting career. The character Amy was reluctantly forced on the shelf in order to start a family. Despite similar origins, the paths of the actress and her Powerbomb role soon depart from one another. “I don’t find us to be the same in any way. She gave it up to have kids and I gave it up to pursue acting. She wants to wrestle again, and I don’t want to. I’m fine just playing wrestlers at this point.”
Wesley Allen, who plays Cross’s obsessive superfan in the film, first conceived of Powerbomb’s central conceit. “Powerbomb was a story that I had. But I knew that I didn’t have the patience or the ability to flesh it out into a script, but Zach and BJ did. I’ve been here since day one with them on this.”
Allen plays Paul, the film’s antagonist whose increasingly unhinged behavior is even more unsettling considering how close to reality his motivations flirt. “I know Paul. I get this guy because I’ve seen this guy,” Allen explains. “I’ve seen this dude at every wrestling show I’ve ever been to. … There’s a level of intensity that separates them from being just a really big fan to ‘Wow, you may not have anything else except this.’ I’m not saying it’s a bad thing. It’s part of who they are. It may be the one thing in life that brings them joy.”
Allen is quick to dispel any sense of sympathy for Paul, however. “I don’t know if Paul has any redeeming qualities because he’s a piece of shit, but I can empathize with the rabid fandom. It would be easy for me to say that he’s just misunderstood, but he’s pretty damaged. He thinks he’s right and the only person with the answers and that’s pretty villainous.”
Despite playing the villain, Allen’s days on set were bright ones being able to witness his son, Cash, steal the spotlight portraying Matt Cross’s son. “I watch him and I get choked up because he gets it. He shows an intensity towards [his role] that I haven’t seen in anything else.”
While Powerbomb’s casting has been a success, Shildwachter can still think of a few he would have liked to include. “I would have wanted a Vince and Shane McMahon cameo just so you can have the ‘Do you love me now, Dad?’ moment.”
Apart from its cast, another unsung hero of Powerbomb has been its location. “I would make every movie possible in Cleveland for the rest of my life, gushes Colangelo, herself a Chicago transplant. “The big difference between here and working in New York or Chicago is that they’re accustomed to film. They get it. Cleveland isn’t used that yet, so there’s a lot of luxury in working in a place that isn’t quite as familiar.”
The enthusiastic response they received from Cleveland was a welcome sea change for Shildwachter. “New York, Chicago, LA—everyone is like ‘OK, this is going to be an annoying happenstance to deal with’ and will have their hand out asking for their permit fees or stealing from craft services.”
Colangelo adds, “Cleveland is so used to everyone thinking that we’re the mistake by the lake, so when people say, ‘No, we’re going to do this. We’re going to show that Cleveland is a huge force’ they get so excited that everyone just wants to help. They ask, ‘How can I help? What can I do? Sure you can borrow this.’ All the locations we’ve used have essentially been gifts with a smile and a handshake. Nobody wants money. They just want to be a part of it.”
Currently, Colangelo and Shildwachter have wrapped shooting and are beginning the edit process which they hope to have completed early this fall. To aid in the backend crunch, the filmmakers have tag-teamed with Turnstyle Films, a production company that has been voted best Cleveland filmmakers three years in a row by Cleveland Scene. “They’re Cleveland’s most established unit in that regard,” Colangelo praised. “They’re a well-oiled machine. We give them a script and they know exactly where to fall in and where they belong.”
It is this commitment to quality that sees Powerbomb not as an also-ran direct-to-DVD release film, but one that will no doubt enjoy debut screenings at festivals across the country. “The dream would be to release it and do the premiere in Cleveland. That’s something that I feel very strongly about,” Colangelo remarks.
“We’re not self-distributing,” Shildwachter explains. “The goal is to sell it and get it to a wide audience for a proper release. I think it would be a perfect fit for Netflix. With them picking up Lucha Underground and now with GLOW, I think it would be a fun home for Powerbomb. The world of wrestling is changing but the way the world consumes wrestling is completely changing as well.”
While wrestling legends like Bruno Sammartino and Lou Thesz perfected their artistry upon the same twenty-by-twenty canvas as their contemporaries today, the audience they perform before has exploded exponentially, which has resulted in increasingly diverse explorations into not only the physicality but the psychological repercussions that these performers edure for their craft. A legacy admirably continued through Colangelo and Shildwachter’s horror-tinged tale which tracks the fine line between dedication and obsession in the maddeningly entertaining Powerbomb.
To stay up to date on Powerbomb news, release date and locations be sure to follow Sickening Pictures, @sickeningpictures.