In 2021, professional wrestling fans have enjoyed a host of incredible wrestling inspired content. There was NBC's Young Rock, Starz's Heels, A&E's WWE documentary series, and, of course, the third season of Vice TV's acclaimed Dark Side of the Ring series. However, Vice TV was also the home to the slightly under-the-radar wrestling film, Vice Versa: Chyna, which is undoubtedly one of the best and most powerful wrestling-centric films of the year.
In 2015, a documentary titled The Reconstruction of Chyna was being made and steered by Joanie Laurer's (Chyna's) controversial manager Anthony Anzaldo, director Eric Angra, and producer Rob Potylo. Problems consumed the film, and ultimately, Chyna passed away during the filming. The footage from that film eventually ended up in the hands of editor, producer, and director Marah Strauch, who used the footage to create Vice Versa: Chyna. The documentary tells the tale of Chyna's rise to wrestling superstardom during WWE's Attitude Era and her tragic fall.
The documentary debuted on June 17, 2021, and it had an emotional impact on numerous big-name professional wrestlers, including Hulk Hogan and Mick Foley. Now, as the year comes to a close, SteelChair Magazine takes a deep dive into Vice Versa: Chyna with our two-part exclusive interview with Chyna director Marah Strauch. In part one of our interview with Marah, she discusses how the project came to be, the unique style of this film, her reaction to Triple H's controversial comments about Chyna on the Stone Cold Podcast in 2015, and so much more.
Going back to the beginning, how did this project come about and how did you get involved? Because you're not really a “wrestling person.”
“Yeah, I think I'm a found footage person, meaning, I think a lot of projects come to me that have a lot of archival footage that people don't know what to do with. So Daisy Hamilton, who's the producer, executive producer of this film, and Mark Myers, approached me. They knew that I had an editing background – I had made Sunshine Superman, which was a sports film, sort of. So I think Chyna's in that grey space of sports film vs. it's her life story, so I think it was a really good fit. Basically, they brought me the footage that Eric Angra and Rob Potylo had shot, and it was like, here take this and make something (laughs). I came on before Vice came on. Daisy, Mark, and I created pitch material and took it to Vice, and then we made it with them.”
In 2015, Chyna and her management made plans to create a documentary called The Reconstruction of Chyna.
Tragically, Chyna passed away during filming.
This reclaimed footage was salvaged to finally tell Chyna's story.
CHYNA premieres tonight at 9p. pic.twitter.com/rcuAQTH8sE
— VICE TV (@VICETV) June 17, 2021
Did you take it to Vice because of what they had been doing with Dark Side of the Ring?
“I don't think any of us knew about Dark Side, to be honest with you (laughs). It was the beginning of the pandemic, and I met with some of the people from Vice, like at a Starbucks and thinking, “should we be here.” They then told me about Dark Side. I think a lot of outlets hadn't heard of, you know, the people were kind of like, “Wrestling?” I don't know, I think people don't think of wrestling as a highbrow topic, so it was a hard thing to find partners for. Although I could have seen it playing in a lot of different places because I think it does crossover, and it could play to non-wrestling fans. But I think it's hard to convince people of that. Vice was a great home.”
I think even Vice have only recently come on board, as Evan Husney previously told me it was a struggle to convince them about Dark Side of the Ring.
“Yes, and he's [Husney] great. He helped me creatively on this project, and he's just a fantastic individual, who I'm super grateful to for his help and advice.”
I believe you said in another interview that the Dark Side team helped you with the wrestling knowledge to fill in some of the gaps. So what kind of things did they give to help you create Chyna?
“I mean, here's the thing about Evan and Dark Side of the Ring, which I'll give a big compliment to them, I think Evan's a filmmaker. So it was great to be able to talk to him about this film because Dark Side of the Ring doesn't just have all of these – it's very filmic in a way. I think it was nice to have somebody to talk about wrestling with, in a way that was kind of intellectual and smart. It was nice because there was also a lot of support for telling these two storylines, which when I first started presenting this, and I was like, “No, no, no, we're gonna have this documentary within a documentary. We're gonna explain that it's a documentary,” people were like, “what?” So it was nice because Evan was an advocate for a lot of my wacky ideas.”
Yeah, and I can see how he was because Dark Side does the re-enactments, which I think is only more recently becoming a popular element of documentary filmmaking again.
“Yeah, and there's no re-enactments in our film, but I think what's great is we had all of this stuff that was fly on the wall footage that had been shot. You know, to me, it was the most valuable footage that we had, so to get rid of it would have been a nightmare. So I think during the whole process, he was an advocate for keeping it. I really wanted to keep it. I thought it was very important to her story. It's not easy to watch, and there was worse stuff, but I think we skated a good line between it being shocking or kind of disturbing and it exploiting her further. We definitely didn't want to exploit her further.”
Going back even further, before you ever started this project about this once huge wrestling superstar, what was your impression or thoughts of professional wrestling?
“Honestly, I don't think I had a real opinion about it. I'd probably put it with like monster truck driving (laughs). I didn't grow up watching wrestling. I didn't grow up with a lot of TV, to be honest with you, so for me, it was very foreign. But as soon as I saw Chyna doing her thing, like wrestling men and just some of the stuff that I saw her doing – I didn't realise all of the stuff about storylines, so I didn't really understand that until I started to get into the world, and then I was like absolutely fascinated. I would definitely say that I'm a wrestling fan now, but not of current wrestling (laughs), the wrestling I should have watched as a young person. It feels like it was a part of my cultural identity, but I didn't experience it as a young person.”
Were you aware of certain names, for example, The Rock?
“Oh, yeah, I definitely knew about The Rock, but I was like, “Oh, is he a wrestler?” Probably Hulk Hogan, guys like that. So for me, Hulk Hogan, when he tweeted that this movie made him really sad, that was a big moment. I was like, “Oh, that's huge!” (Laughs) Hulk Hogan's talking about the movie, so that was a big deal because he's a wrestler I've heard of. But to me, it was really silly, but I find it a lot less silly now. I definitely have a lot more respect after interviewing wrestlers and spending time with people. There are some really intelligent and interesting people in the wrestling world. I loved that they let me interview them. It was really a great experience for me.”
Very sad doc about Chyna
— Hulk Hogan (@HulkHogan) June 19, 2021
The style of the film, that was really fascinating, a documentary within a documentary. I can only imagine the stress that went into putting it all together. Was the style of the film a big draw to you?
“I'm realising more and more about myself, my background is in editing, and I love solving puzzles. So this was very much a puzzle, and we worked with a lot of editors, so it was not just me solving the puzzle, it's also a team of editors going through this hundred hours of footage or whatever. Yeah, I mean, it was a huge draw. I don't think I would have set out to make that documentary about Chyna, but finding that footage of the documentary was really compelling. It was like a found art item or something, it was fun.”
Some people found it difficult to decipher what was you and what was Eric. I don't know why. But was that ever a concern for you when people watched the film?
“Yeah, it was a concern because we definitely didn't want to be like, we're the exploiter assholes. I mean, if you watch the film and really take clues, there are times when I'm talking off-camera, and there are times when Eric is talking off-camera, so if you were to really boil it down, it's pretty clear. It probably doesn't matter that much, and there are a lot of unreliable narrators. That's probably a big theme in the film, nobody's reliable. I think it's a little like wrestling itself, there's nobody really reliable telling you these stories. They're stories where it's this part and then something behind it. That was really interesting to me about the film.
“Eric did an amazing job of capturing a lot of stuff. These guys did a really interesting job capturing this, and I think people are like their assholes. Joanie-Chyna really let them into her life and, this was the footage they were getting, and they were definitely filming Anthony as he was doing his thing. I think they did a really interesting job as well.”
I guess it's the ethical side of what they were doing, which is the problem.
“Yeah, I mean… yeah (laughs).”
It's shocking to see what they did to her, and you even told me there were things you didn't even put in the documentary. What was your reaction when you watched all of this for the first time, especially because you've seen footage we have not seen?
“And I watched it over and over and over again. My first reaction was, and it was great because Rob Potylo was the first interview I did, and I think he put a lot of things in perspective for me. He was super helpful, and as I was watching the footage, I had done that interview, and that was even before Vice had come on. You know, I had this sense of, this is what is actually going on, because if you don't know who these people are – I mean, I literally just had a hard drive. No names, it just felt very random. So my first reaction was confusion, to be honest with you (laughs). What am I watching? This is really weird. It was really hard to have a connection to it, so he really helped contextualise it.”
Was the footage all over the place, or was it organised A-Z?
“It was a mess, and if you can imagine people, you know, some of them were on drugs. There was not a lot of cohesiveness, and also, this film was not finished. She died. It was not totally finished, to the filmmakers credit. She died in the middle of their filming. I think I had the professional hat on from the beginning because it was literally my job, but I was also, as human, as a woman, there was a lot of pain, and I think, unlike wrestling, none of the characters are black and white. I think it was important to me to not paint any of them that way. Even Anthony, I think has some good parts to him. All of the people around her were not just out to get her. There is a certain amount of sweetness with all of them, and she definitely cared for all of them. She didn't have a lot of people. Anthony, to his credit, nobody else gave her a memorial, right? Everybody's dissing all these individuals, but we're all flawed. So that's what the footage to me really was, we're all flawed.”
You wanted it to be Chyna's voice, as much as possible, because that's the story that has never really been told. How difficult was that because she passed away, so you were essentially relying on this footage to do that?
“Yeah, I mean the hardest thing was we were taking stuff from Chyna's whole life, you know, all of these different interviews, and there wasn't enough of her talking. Even in the documentary, nobody let her talk. So it was like, we had very little to choose from. When she was in the WWE, at the beginning especially, it was her not talking, so doing it in her own words was actually really, really hard. I think it was a lot more limited in terms of what we had, and I will say, I really fell in love with Chyna while making this film, but one thing I will say is, she's not the most reliable narrator. So, we could've really done a lot more with that. It would've taken a long time to explain – that's a three-hour version. But she's all over the place.”
What really struck me is this documentary is almost the perfect definition of don't judge a book by its cover, on both ends, I think. On the wrestling end, where she's this huge, indestructible woman, but internally, she's seeking validation from everyone but herself. And in the end, where she's a “screw up” on the surface, internally, there's a lot more there, and she's actually inherently not a bad person.
“Hundred percent, yeah. She had a big internal life, that's for sure. And she was really smart. She was not the person people would think she was. She was a very unusual person to be a wrestler.”
Documentaries are versions of the truth, of course, and because this is strictly Chyna's perspective, topics like Triple H – he really comes across as a pretty bad guy in this. Was there ever a thought to try and give him a little bit of a voice about their relationship?
“We asked him if he wanted to be interviewed, so he certainly could've been. He certainly could've told his point of view. I think a lot of people within the WWE could have. We reached out, but there was no response, particularly Triple H, there was no response. He knew we were making the documentary, I think. I'm not a journalist, I'm a documentarian – it's a different thing. To me, his perspective, I had so much less interest in, to be honest. I don't think we would have used much of it, to be honest. I mean, obviously, people fall in love, and Joanie, she says things like that. I'd rather hear what she has to say because this is her film. It's not his film. I'm not really into point versus counterpoint because I'm not a journalist.
“When I saw that footage of him [Triple H] talking about – this to me was the biggest moment in the movie. When she was in Japan and she sees Triple H talking about the porn thing and how he doesn't want his kids to see her and Google her, to me, I found him a villain at that point. That had also been hidden on the internet. Like, we had our archivist – somebody told me about it, and then I couldn't find it, and it had been wiped from the internet.”
“Yes, that little bit had been wiped from the internet and was not intact anywhere, except for some Reddit board that she was able to find it on. So the fact that it ceased to exist, but we found it – to me, it was so offensive on every level. Just so hurtful, and truly mean, mean-spirited, that you would say that about a woman that you spent that amount of time with. I'm going to start crying because it makes me so mad, but it really made me angry. I never met this woman, but as a woman, I found it completely offensive. I don't know what his point of view could be, or the stuff he did on Howard Stern, where he's talking about an upgrade with Stephanie McMahon, like, that's offensive. So he speaks for himself publicly a lot. He had years and years to speak publicly, and he didn't support her.
“After she died, there was this huge thing from the WWE like, “Oh, Chyna,” and we're gonna put out her products and all of this stuff. But she wasn't treated well, and it's really important to put that out there, more than caring about people who really did try to humiliate and erase her after she left. I really think Triple H is one of those people, and I think Sean Waltman's a different case, and there are different kinds of people. From watching the footage, he [Triple H] was so not good to her.”
That's fair. I came out at it from one perspective, but that's a more than fair argument.
“Yeah, that's the side I am coming from, and I think if there were to be an essay that would almost be a headline to my essay, that this guy was really not good to her. And the WWE, I think, didn't do her quite right.”
Apologies, I didn't mean to get you emotional there.
“(Laughs) No, no, I think it's important. I realised I was really passionate about that. And again, I don't think he is a bad person. I think he's inside this system. I mean, obviously, he was one of the loves of her life. I think she would have said that as well. So he couldn't have been all bad, and I've heard great stories about him too. I think his outward stuff about her was unkind.”
Stay tuned for part two of this exclusive interview.