An Exclusive Interview w/ Tony Lee of In The Ring

Is pro wrestling on an upswing? Is another boom period looming?

If the upcoming slate of pro wrestling movies is any indication, the answer is a resounding ‘maybe!’

After years of less than stellar offerings (2008’s The Wrestler a notable exception) there has been a recent explosion of high-profile film and television projects in development based on pro wrestling, with the Netflix GLOW series becoming a smashing success last year.

In addition to season two of GLOW other projects currently in development include the STARZ original series Heel, the Rock produced Fighting With My Family based on WWE superstar Paige and her wrestling family, and In The Ring, a comedy written by UK scribe Tony Lee based on a story by Lee, “The Fallen Angel” Christopher Daniels, and Frankie Kazarian.

Per The Hollywood Reporter–

The film is described as a “Major League-style ‘underdog’ comedy,” in which a group of misfit wrestlers, led by Sledgehammer Sullivan (Angle), takes on a multinational corporation and a rival, “extreme” federation headed by Matt Manson (Dreamer) to gain a network-TV contract in a winner-takes-all pay-per-view.

I’ve had some great conversations in the past with other creators of our pro wrestling movie favorites including Kayfabe co-director Michael Scully, and The Naked Man’s J. Todd Anderson and Jeff Barklage, and most recently I had the privilege to speak with Tony Lee about the development of this upcoming pro wrestling comedy.


First off, thank you so much for taking some time to speak with me. I really appreciate it!

No problem John!

Tell me a little bit about yourself.

I’m Tony Lee, a British writer of TV, film, comics and audio plays among other things. I’m best known in comics for the IDW DOCTOR WHO series of comics, but have also written licenses like SUPERBOY, SPIDER MAN, STAR TREK and BATTLESTAR GALACTICA among others. In the last six or so years I’ve moved into film and television, and this year had my first BBC One Drama episode air for the TV show DOCTORS, and I have two other movies in production in 2018.

You’ve got a very diverse portfolio in graphic novels, specifically in science fiction and fantasy. Is that something you find yourself drawn to most?

It’s definitely what I read growing up, so there’s always been an interest there for me. That said, I’ve also had a fascination for folklore tales like ROBIN HOOD and KING ARTHUR, so it’s not a hard and fast rule. Looking at my ‘to do’ list at the moment (just before New Years Eve 2017) I can see I have three comic pitches in, all fantasy / sci fi hybrids, and four TV pitches – all of which are crime based with some kind of fantasy or sci fi twist. So yeah, I suppose I am drawn to it!

Nothing wrong with that! On a personal note, I love that you wrote a MacGyver series.

I grew up with a love of MACGYVER which was really hard for someone in the UK as the series was sporadic and hard to find back then. Because I had to ‘earn’ an episode by hunting it down (I had the whole season on recorded VHS at one point, and that’s a lot of tapes) it became more important for me. And over the years whenever I was a guest at a comic or Doctor Who convention, whenever someone asked the question ‘what license would you love to write’, I’d always say MacGyver.

Then one day my (then) US manager mentioned that she could probably get me a meeting with Lee David Zlotoff, the creator of the show – and the man that owned the license. After a Skype conversation with him I’d convinced him enough that I was a fan and not someone looking to milk the license, and he agreed to co write a five part comic with me. Which in actuality was more me writing the script and Lee agreeing or disagreeing to it. And the rest of the team were all MacGyver fans also. It was truly a great time in my career.

Are you a fan of professional wrestling?

I am indeed, and have been since about 1990. That said, I used to watch the old SUPERSTARS OF WRESTLING in the UK when I was a kid, watching Giant Haystacks and Big Daddy etc, but it wasn’t until I started watching the WWF around the time of the 1990 Royal Rumble that I really started to enjoy it. And over the years I’ve enjoyed them all; WWF / WWE, WCW, ECW, TNA, Japan Pro Wrestling, Lucha Underground, ROH – the list goes on. As much as I enjoy the theatre of WWE, I’m just as happy, if not more so hitting a ROH show in the UK or an IGW date when I’m in LA.

Who’s your favorite wrestler?

Now that’s a leading question! I get this with Doctor Who, when people say ‘who’s your favourite Doctor’ – and I can’t really answer because I now know them, and it’s hard to make that choice now – and it’s the same with wrestlers. As I’ve gone through life I’ve changed my ‘favourite wrestler’ many times, from Undertaker to Edge and Christian to The Shield. But over the years I’ve always found myself enjoying the mid carders more than the main eventers – mainly because I’ve always felt they have something more to prove. In recent years I’ve really enjoyed watching Damien Sandow, Cesaro, Austin Aries, Bobby Roode, Rockstar Spud, Chris Daniels and Kaz (I have to say them), Marty Scrull etc among the many others – even Matt Hardy once he became ‘broken’ – and there are upcoming future stars like Dalton Castle, Candice LeRae or the Singh Brothers that I just can’t get enough of. Main eventers? Currently AJ Styles is top of my list – but he’s been there since the early days of TNA. Jericho, The Miz, And probably Asuka and Charlotte Flair, although I’ve always been a Mickie James mark.

I love some of these choices, and I’m with you on veering toward the mid-card talent over ‘the main eventers.’

Did you watch any previous pro wrestling films to help guide you, and show you what’s been done before?

Oh I think I’ve seen them all over the years, even the one with David Arquette *shudder*. Some are good, some are god awful.

Ahem, that would be Ready To Rumble! Any particular favorites that jumped out at you?

Probably BODY SLAM – I was a fan of Dirk Benedict through Battlestar Galactica and The A Team, and when I found this a couple of years later, (about 1990) in my local video store I just had to watch it. I think I was a bit of a Piper mark at the time too, having recently watched THEY LIVE. It was a relatively enjoyable film, but it wasn’t until about three years ago that I rewatched it and truly realized how forward thinking it had been for the genre.

Over the last year and a half we’ve tackled many movies based in the world of professional wrestling. A lot of the films we’ve reviewed are older, but in the last couple of years there has been a resurgence in pro wrestling movies and TV shows with GLOW and the upcoming Stephen Merchant film Fighting With My Family about WWE wrestler Paige and her wrestling family. What drew you towards a story about wrestling?

Well first of all, IN THE RING has been in existence in one way or another for over three years now, before either of these projects were announced. At the time it was a case of ‘nobody’s done a BODY SLAM for the new generation’, and working out what to do about it.

Interesting…

In fact, it was a twitter conversation with Chris Daniels that started it. As a comic fan, Chris has always been very good with comic folk, and I’d met him during his TNA run when he’d agreed to write an introduction to a graphic novel collection of my series THE GLOOM, which had run on MTV for a couple of years. It was in the middle of a conversation about the lack of an underdog wrestling movie – all we had was THE WRESTLER which, although great was still bloody depressing a lot of the time, and he jokingly suggested we should do one. It had been ruminating around my head for a while – as I’d said, I’d recently re-watched BODY SLAM, and I DM’ed him and said ‘okay then, let’s do it.’

I love that that the synopsis released earlier this year talked about the film being a Major League ‘underdog’ story. It’s a universal tale, and I can’t wait to see the rag tag characters band together to face off with the incredibly evil wrestling promoter. It’s kind of fantasy in its own right, considering Vince McMahon won the wrestling wars and controls most of mainstream wrestling today.

When we started to work out how to do it, we knew from the start that it had to be that MAJOR LEAGUE / DODGEBALL vibe of the scrappy underdogs going up against ‘the man’. Add some STEP UP, maybe a bit of MYSTERY MEN auditions and you start to gain a skeleton to hang things off. And when we looked at how to do it, we realised that ‘The Man’ needed to be one of their own, a wrestler that has become the enemy, so to speak.

So the script was written by yourself, based on a story from wrestling journeymen Christopher Daniels and Frankie Kazarian, two guys who have made a name for themselves outside of the WWE banner. Did you get to spend some personal time with them, and get into their frame of mind while developing the story?

As I said, I’d known Chris already for a while, so we bounced ideas back and forth, and Frankie (Kaz) came into it around this time. I knew I wanted to have a tag team in it that they could play, but more importantly have them as the good guys in the film. And as we continued we knew that many of the wrestlers could be played by actual wrestlers – it’s a very fine line between the two mediums, so a couple of years ago when I was in LA, I sat down in Soho House West Hollywood with Chris and Kaz for an afternoon / evening and hammered out a wish list of wrestler characters that could work in the story. In addition to this, Chris and Kaz gave me some great anecdotes that I could use in the script, as well as telling me if I’d gone too far / not far enough with the things that happened to the characters.

After I’d written it I pitched it to BoxFly, a UK production company that I was working on other films with. Mark Kozlowski (BoxFly) met Chris and Kaz when the Addiction were at a Southside Wrestling UK event and instantly hit it off, and then about 18 months ago at SDCC Haydn Pryce-Jenkins (BoxFly), Kaz, Chris and I sat in the Hyatt bar one night and focused the wrestler character list down to a smaller number of people we could work with. We always wanted it to be wrestlers that would enjoy working together – we had no time for egos.

What’s happened since then?

I’m in LA probably two or three times a year doing meetings, and usually I manage to catch up with Chris or Kaz during this time, and the last two ROH tours in the UK have also allowed us to catch up, each time building up the roster – often causing the script to alter! For example we were backstage at a ROH event a year or so back and Chris and Kaz introduced Haydn and I to the Briscoe Brothers, in relation to playing a cameo in the film – after half an hour chatting to them, we’d not only agreed to put them in but even added significantly to the parts so that they could have some fun. While we were doing this Dalton Castle came by, and after talking to us I realised that if I changed a particular character in a particular way, Dalton would be perfect. And after I explained what his character would be, he agreed on the spot.

That’s awesome!

We even had the Young Bucks asking about being in the film – and if we can work out a way to get them in…

I know that we’re still a long way out from production, any direct updates you can tell us about the film?

Well, here’s the thing about movies. They take time. And a wrestling comedy isn’t a slam dunk like Marvel movies. So currently it’s still in the stage of a lot of meetings to get the right director. And then once they’re on board it should be pretty much off to the races. We need to cast the non-wrestling roles, and we might have to re-cast a couple of the wrestling parts too, as some of the wrestlers that were attached a year back have now gone to the WWE, and we’re not sure if the McMahons will let us keep people like Kurt Angle or Mickie James in the film. But this was something we expected, and we have some great alternatives as well as some brilliant cameos lined up, once it starts filming.

I was definitely curious about the status of talent like Kurt Angle and Mickie James. Any idea on filming?

Personally, I’d like filming to kick off sometime this year, and we’re about to talk to ROH about working with them on some scenes which would be amazing. And now Billy Corgan owns the NWA we’re looking to reach out to him, as the NWA (and it’s involvement in the creation of pro-wrestling) is mentioned heavily in the film. After all, the NWA is the ultimate tale of scrappy underdogs banding together.

Any final thoughts?

To be honest, having a massive star sign up for one of the main parts would be the kick in the arm we need as well, and would definitely guarantee the budget – we know Gerard Butler is a massive Indie Wrestling fan, so if any of you out there have a direct link for him, we have the perfect role for him… Or if Mickey Rourke wants to get back in his Randy Ram spandex… *laughs*

RAM JAM!

Tony this is great, thank you so much for the answers! Three Way Theater will definitely be keeping our eyes on the production of this film over the next year. Hope you had a wonderful New Year, and good luck with all your work!

You can find more information about Tony Lee, his projects, and his workshops all at http://tonylee.co.uk/

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