The films of documentarian Igal Hecht have previously focused on Israel – 2011’s The Hilltops centered on West Bank settlements, while 2013’s A Universal Language covered Canadian comedians on a trip to the Holy Land. An Iranian pro wrestler might not have immediately seemed to be the next logical step, but it will probably become the film he is best known for. Self-described as a huge wrestling fan, Hecht was hired to assemble many, many hours of footage of the Iron Sheik that his managers had shot – and somehow turn it into a feature.
He has, and it’s a good one, documenting the erstwhile Khosrow Vaziri’s career in Iran as a bodyguard and wrestler, the reasons why he left, his early career and marriage, his success as the Iron Sheik, and the tragedies after he fell from WWE’s good graces the first time, and had to suffer the pain of a daughter being murdered. These days, of course, he’s a must-follow on Twitter, where he tells everybody reading to go fuck themselves.
I spoke to Hecht to find out what it was like working with the self-proclaimed Legend.
Luke Y. Thompson: Igal? How are you?
Igal Hecht: Good, Luke. How are you?
LYT: Very good. So I’m going to start with the question I think most people want to know: how many times have you been told to go fuck yourself?
IH: [chuckling]And add the jabroni part, as well. Uh…a few times. Quite a few times. Actually, no – you know what? The Sheik really was very, very nice. He was very kind when I interviewed him. When we filmed him, a few scenes – there were definitely a few times where he told us to go fuck ourselves, but when we did the one-on-ones, he was very gracious, very kind. We sort of wanted – we brought him out of his Sheik character, and there was Khosrow Vaziri, as opposed to the Iron Sheik. There were a few times where he just wanted a break and he told us to go fuck ourselves. But it was done in a pleasant manner, so that was great.
LYT: Was this your project originally, or did the Magen brothers [Iron Sheik’s managers, Page and Jian Magen] come to you with it? How did that all work?
IH: No, this definitely was the Magens’ project. I think they started filming it – I think originally it was supposed to be a documentary/reality show. They really didn’t know exactly how to go about it, and I joined the project began in 2010, basically. Not so much as a director, but I was putting things together with my documentary experience and background. A mutual friend sort of brought us together. Then the project fizzled a little bit, and when it was back up and running, I think I basically said – we had about six years’ worth of content, about eight hard drives – and I said “Just let me go through it. Give me six months, just let me go through everything.”
Once I figured out what the story was, myself and Jian Magen and Page and Jake [Neiman], who was another executive producer – sat together, sort of framed out the story, and started shooting more interviews, interviewing the Sheik again, and doing a few – shooting for another three or four months – five months – to really get a solid story and a solid movie.
LYT: I’ve noticed as a follower of the Sheik’s that before this movie came out, he used to insult Hulk Hogan almost daily. After you got the Hulk Hogan interview for it – nothing. Was it tense trying to get the Hulk Hogan interview? It seems like it ultimately ended up smoothing things over between the two.
IH: Um – no. Well, the Hogan interview – again, a lot of the entries, a lot of the credit should go to Jian and Page. I think they contacted Jimmy Hart, and Hogan was in Toronto at the time, and they managed to secure that interview. Basically, the Sheik was there as well, so it definitely smoothed out a few of the things. I can’t really speak to actually why Sheik has stopped insulting Hogan online. I would assume that meeting the Hulkster again – I think they also met in 2013, at some convention, but that’s in the film as well, when they embrace. So I think having met the Hulkster face-to-face and them talking, I think that definitely smoothed things out.
LYT: I don’t know if you can speak to this, but I think the last time we ever saw the Iron Sheik on a WWE program, he went off script and started talking about Hulk Hogan, and they cut his mic. It seems like they’ve been afraid to use him again. Do you get that sense? Did you contact them and have any idea sort of what their attitude is towards having him on TV again?
IH: I have no idea. I have no idea when it comes to what the WWE – how the WWE feels about the Sheik. From the film’s perspective, though, approaching the film and seeing how we wanted to approach the WWE – the Sheik, rightfully so, he says it himself, he owes a lot to the WWE. He owes a lot to McMahon, and he really respects Vince McMahon. I think there is that mutual feeling from the WWE and McMahon, as well. If you set aside that incident, but actually look at the Rumble [Gimmick Battle Royal – LYT] – I think it was Wrestlemania 17 – I can’t remember exactly offhand – but when he won the Rumble. They definitely appreciate the Sheik.
They know that the Sheik was instrumental when it comes to the launching of Hulkamania. He really helped solidify Hulkamania and what Hulkamania would become. He was there in the launching out of it, so I think there is that deep appreciation from the WWE towards him, because of that.
LYT: Did you try to get a current comment from them? Did they refuse? Was there any interaction there?
IH: I believe we tried. I don’t recall if they refused or not. I don’t think they did. I think we definitely wanted to interview Vince McMahon. I think that just didn’t – unfortunately, that never really happened, but it seems that they really haven’t come out against the film in any way. To me that suggests that they’re pretty happy with the film. Some of the criticism of the film, which I think is definitely not warranted, is that this is not like Beyond the Mat, or Wrestling with Shadows – it’s definitely not. We didn’t set out to make a film about that. This wasn’t a film about that. This wasn’t a film so much just about wrestling. It was a film about this man’s life. And yes, WWE plays such an integral and huge part of his life, but there’s much more to him than just wrestling.
So that’s sort of the film that we wanted to make – myself and the Magens and everybody else involved wanted to make. So when it comes to WWE, from what I understand, from the feedback that’s been related to me from people who are intimate with the WWE, they’re fairly fine with the film. They definitely see that we’re going out there – we weren’t going out there to defame them in any way. So I think they’re quite happy with the film. I guess we’ll know if they ever put it on the WWE network.
LYT: Aside from Vince, was there anybody that you wanted to get but just couldn’t make it happen?
IH: No. Honestly, we definitely got everyone we wanted to get. And, again, in terms from a producer’s standpoint, Jian worked his ass off, and so did Page, and all credit should go to them. I mean, they got J.R., and when we got J.R., I was like, “WOW! We got J.R.!” And then they got Foley, and Foley was amazing. Then we got the Rock. And we got the Rock way after the movie was done.
The movie was cut, and then they go “We might get him.” I was like, “Get who?” And they’re like, “The Rock.” I’m like, “Oh, no way! We’re not going to get the Rock. I mean, if we get him, I’m recutting the whole film, I don’t care!” And then we got the Rock. Once we got the Rock, I was like, “Holy shit!” We literally – going back to Beyond the Mat, we got everybody that Beyond the Mat had, and more. Right? We got Foley, we got the Rock, we got Jake the Snake, so we pretty much had the three primary characters of Beyond the Mat, so to me, I was like, “Holy crap!”
So we definitely got everybody that we wanted to speak to. I mean, the wrestling community is tight. People, these guys, they love one another. They spend so much time with one another. They were more than happy to sit down and talk about him, and talk stories, and things along those lines. I wish we could have used more of the Nasty Boys and Jake and everybody else, but there’s only so much you can cram into one film.
LYT: You didn’t just get the Rock – you got the Rock to credit one of his biggest catchphrases to the Iron Sheik, which is such a score that I’ve seen people running that as a separate news item on websites already, just because they saw it in the trailer.
IH: I saw that as well, actually, to be honest with you. I just saw that – I think I saw it on the Yahoo one, it’s been on a bunch of other ones. Yeah, yeah. Everybody’s cool. And that was a huge part – we were editing it, and that comes towards the 82nd or 83rd minute of the movie, like the last sort of chapter of the film. I remember as I was cutting it, I was thinking, “This is huge.” I’m a big wrestling fan. I deal a lot with political documentaries and stuff like that, but I’m a huge wrestling fan. I watch it every Monday, et cetera, et cetera. I’m not so happy about last Monday night, the survivor series – it wasn’t the greatest episode – but I’m a big wrestling person. I’ve watched it since I was a kid, so to me, as I was cutting it, and as I’m listening to them, I’m like, “Holy crap!” Everybody assumed that he copied the Rock, but that’s not the case at all, you know.
That’s how awesome and gracious the Rock is. The fact that he on film, on camera, basically is correcting everybody, and wants everybody to know that the Sheik is the one that really made the whole jabroni thing up, although the Rock took it to the next level.
LYT: Now recognizing, as you said, that you can’t get everything in, one thing I was curious about was after the Sheik left the WWE the first time, there was that period where he came back during the Iraq war, with Sergeant Slaughter. There’s nothing in the movie about how that happened. Did you get any sense of what was going on there? What it was that got them to take him back after they had fired him?
IH: I’m trying to recall the interview. I know we spoke about this stuff. I think it was just the perfect – I mean, he got kicked off because of what happened with Duggan So wrestling being what it is, and WWE being what it is, he was the perfect heel to accompany Slaughter. I mean, the shock on people’s faces, all of a sudden they’re best buds, taking on America, right? Perfect story line. I mean, who else do you want to get? So I think that was one of the main sort of thoughts behind it.
The reason we didn’t include it in the film – there were so many other stories. It is a fact that – I know people want to see a wrestling movie, and I respect that. I think for the first 45 minutes, it is a wrestling film, right? I watch a lot of WWE documentaries before approaching this. Visually, how do I want to come up with the story – and it has that feel. But it wasn’t just a wrestling movie. It wasn’t the only thing we set out to do. We want to talk about the tragedies. We want to talk about him hitting rock bottom – no pun intended. Him bouncing back and coming back stronger than ever, and becoming this social media icon.
So all of that had to fit in, so we had to make our choices. When you look at him being Colonel Mustafa, or him fighting Slaughter after the whole Hulkamania thing phased out – when you look at his career, what is the most central part of his career when it comes to wrestling? That’s Hulkamania. So we had to start thinking how do we position wrestling, roughly, and how much wrestling is going to go into it, and how much is in – we focused on that.
That is probably – when you look at wrestling, he contributed so much, but I wanted – that is the biggest contribution to wrestling, right there. That night, and him launching Hulkamania in the way that he did. So that’s what we wanted to focus on when it came to wrestling. Everything else – we had all that, but we didn’t want to make it solely a wrestling film. We wanted to go beyond that, and look at him beyond the wrestling – look at him and his struggles. So that’s why the choice was made not to continue with wrestling, and detour and go into his personal life – what happens after the fame, and after he leaves the top of the mountain, so to speak.
LYT: Well, speaking to that, I was blown away when I saw his wife. I was like, “Wow. She seems like such a normal person.” Was there anything like that that surprised you coming into the project that, as a long-time fan, you wouldn’t have known, or wouldn’t have expected?
IH: I think what happens behind the scenes, what happens – not so much the wrestling aspect, because I knew the back story to some degree. Obviously I was exposed to a little bit more, and that was interesting to me. It definitely was interesting, but what happens at home shocked me. The drug use at that point in his life was shocking – things along those lines. If we’re talking about what surprised me – I think I was aware of it, but to the extent that it went to, that’s what really shocked me.
Not so much surprised me, but something that really kind of – I guess surprise is the wrong word, but something that I was happy to learn was how much his family loves him. They rallied around him for him to bounce back, in spite of everything. You saw in that scene where he basically loses it on his wife.
IH: She’s still there. She still fought for him to bounce back, and his kids as well. She still rallied for him to go into rehab and get his life and shit together, and things along those lines. And that’s – I don’t want to say surprising, because surprising has that negative connotation to it, but it’s sort of – it made me happy to see that he had such a strong family dynamic around him. No matter what, they weren’t going to sort of let him go. They were going to fight for him to come out of the dark abyss that he was in. That was great – that was wonderful to see. Being able to capture that was amazing.
LYT: Do his kids now think he’s cool again as a social media icon, or are they like, “Oh Dad! You’re embarrassing us again!”?
IH: No, they think he’s cool. I can 110% guarantee that they think he’s really, really cool. I’m not privy so much to private messages, but I know that they – I mean, sometimes he goes over the top, but they’re kind of into it. They’re very happy at the stuff that he posts. I mean, the whole Rob Ford thing, for example, in Toronto. I know we got messages back that they thought were hysterical, that all of a sudden he interjects himself into this story, and it becomes even bigger, just because he comes to Toronto to challenge him, which we found very funny.
LYT: Having titled the movie The Sheik, has there been any friction from fans of the original Sheik, that it might confuse people?
IH: Yeah. You know, I haven’t experienced anything, because I’m sort of out of the loop. The Magens have sort of related that to me, and I’ll be reading here and there – I think our trailer is up to almost 100,000 views or something like that, so I’ve been reading the feedback. It’s like, OK. I don’t know how to respond to that. I mean, some people are pissed off – sure. It’s a title. I don’t think that it disrespects the original Sheik in any way. It’s a title that we decided to go with. I don’t think we should be apologizing for that. That’s all I know about it.
Nothing personal – I haven’t read anything personal in concern to what I’ve been posting, but I did go and read on some blog that when the movie came out back in April in Hot Docs – I did read on some blogs and websites that people were a little pissed off. But what are you going to do?
LYT: How much do you think of the Iron Sheik’s so-called anger on social media is real? Like, does he really – does Mel Gibson really make him mad? Does Miley Cyrus really make him mad? Or is it some make him more mad than the others? Do you get a sense of that at all?
IH: I think they all make him mad. I think the Sheik speaks his mind and he doesn’t give a shit. [laughs]So, you know, I think if he goes to Twitter, he’s basically just speaking his mind. He just doesn’t care. Yeah. I think he likes – and the more attention he gets because of Twitter, the more he’s going to speak his mind, the funnier it’s going to get, the more the fans are going to love it. So I think that’s why he – having interviewed the Sheik and having spent time with this larger-than-life character, this person, I can tell you that he definitely is behind everything he says.
LYT: I just thought it was really interesting and touching the day the Ultimate Warrior died that he came on Instagram and said “All the stuff I said, I didn’t mean it. It was just a work.”
IH: Yeah, I think so as well. I remember reading that, and I remember the day he died. Yeah, I think a lot of things – I don’t know how much Miley Cyrus is a work, or Justin Bieber – I don’t know how much of that is a work. But you know, he’s an entertainer, and at some point he still thinks he’s in that wrestling ring mentality. So whatever puts him over, puts him over. So sometimes he’ll be at work, and sometimes he’ll mean it. I can’t really speak to a particular tweet, but I’m pretty sure that when it comes to the Warrior and other wrestlers, I’m certain that he means it, that it was the work, and things along those lines. When it comes to other celebrities, I don’t know. I can’t speak for him.
LYT: I don’t want to take too much more of your time, but why don’t you tell me what the plans are for the movie going forward. It’s available on demand starting this week – is that right?
IH: Yeah, it’s available on demand on iTunes, Hulu and all other video-on-demand as of December 2nd. I think that we’re trying to get it into broadcast service. It’s going to be broadcast in Canada later on in the year – later on next year. There are other plans, as well. It’s hopefully going to get picked up by other channels, because there’s a lot of festivals that want to showcase it. So it’s having a great run. It’s having a really solid run, and we have a solid distribution team, so I’m really happy with the way the film is going.
LYT: Are there talks for Blu-rays or DVDs in the future?
IH: You know, I don’t know. I should know, shouldn’t I? I am working on another film right now, and I have no idea, but someone at the distribution company would definitely know.
LYT: I was going to say, aren’t Kickstarter backers supposed to get a DVD?
IH: I assume the Magens will definitely honor that and get the DVDs to everybody who deserves a DVD.
LYT: Are there going to be more major festival days? I’m in Los Angeles – is there going to be a chance to see it theatrically here any time, as far as you know?
IH: I hope so. I think we sort of held the film back. We had to do a little bit of touching up on it, from its initial run at Hot Docs to where it is right now, so I think the whole distribution strategy is starting to roll out right now, and I believe that there are dates set for release in the US for the festivals. But honestly, the best thing to do is to talk to Rob or the distribution guys. I’m a little bit out of the loop when it comes to that, when it comes to the whole release. They’ll let me know once it’s happening, and then I’ll be able to know. So I know December 2nd it’s coming out on various video-on-demand platforms, and then up until it’s going to have a festival run soon – another festival run soon, so that’ll be cool. But other than that, I really don’t know.
LYT: OK, last question: fan question, nothing to do with the Iron Sheik.
LYT: Who do you want to see Sting face, now that he’s in WWE?
IH: Oh, man! You know what? I’m happy with what they did when they brought him – the whole thing with HHH – that was cool. And then I was expecting something on Monday, and nothing. What the fuck? It’s like, dude, you can’t hype that shit up, and then nothing happens on Monday! I hope something happens tonight. If it doesn’t happen tonight – I see the story unfolding of him against HHH later on, because from what I’m reading, ‘Taker is still out and not feeling it. It’ll be cool, though, to see Sting versus ‘Taker. Screw the streak, it’s over, even though Brock shouldn’t have won, whatever. But it should be Sting versus ‘Taker, because that’s what we all want to see. But Sting versus HHH – that would be awesome.
Especially if at the end of that match somehow Cena screws Sting, and he’s turned into evil Cena. That would be fucking great! That would be great – that would be like a Hogan NWO moment. Because you know that’s where they’re going – they’re going to turn him. It’s been, like, the Authority coming back is now only in Cena’s hands.
LYT: Well, my guess is…
IH: He has that power to bring them back.
IH: If he turns and brings the authority back, after Mania or in Mania, people are going to go “Holy Shit!” That’s like an NWO – that’s like a ‘Taker losing to Brock moment. It’s time to turn him fucking into evil Cena – enough with this “You can’t see me” crap. We want to see him hard-ass Cena again.
LYT: I agree, which is why I don’t think they’ll do it. I think fans tend to be better bookers than the real ones.
IH: $100 million in merchandise – that’s why they’re not going to do it.
LYT: Exactly. Thank you so much for your time today – I really appreciate it. I enjoyed the hell out of the film.
IH: My pleasure.