‘American Gladiators’ Netflix Doc Directors on Telling ‘Nostalgic Story’ of the ’90s Phenomenon and Exploring ‘Sensitive Topic’ of Steroid Use
“American Gladiators” aired in the 1990’s, but the competition still remains a phenomenon decades later. Last month, ESPN’s “30 for 30” explored the show, and now, Netflix is getting into the game.
Netflix’s five-part docuseries, “Muscles & Mayhem: An Unauthorized Story of ‘American Gladiators,” pes into the hit, chronicling the meteoric rise and sweeping impact the superhero-like athletes had on both fans across America and their “average Joe” competitors.
Co-directors Jared Hess and Tony Vainuku were fans of “American Gladiators” as teens, so it was natural to revisit the TV show when Netflix presented the opportunity. In their series, the filmmakers explore the good, the bad and the ugly, bringing audiences insight through access to executives who greenlit the production in the ’80s, original crew members and gladiators, including Nitro (Dan Clark), Storm (Debbie Clark), Diamond (Erika Andersch Bunker), Laser (Jim Kalafat), Ice (Lori Fetrick), Zap (Raye Olson), Blaze (Shari E Pendleton Mitchell), Sky (Shirley Eson-Korito) and Tower (Steve Hennebery).
“I’ve been such a huge fan of the show. The show was a huge part of my life, as a kid in the late ’80s, and early ’90s,” Hess tells Variety. “It’s one of those shows that was so unique at the time, it stays in your brain your whole life. I always wanted to compete as a 12-year-old boy.”
Here, Hess and Vainuku speak to Variety about exploring the “American Gladiators” fandom, the lasting impact and not shying away from digging into the steroid controversies surrounding the show…
How did you decide to approach telling the story?
Hess: We wanted to get into the details of what happened behind the scenes. What’s the story that people don’t know off-camera? Before we started the documentary, we had to talk to everybody involved — the gladiators, producers, directors of the show — and just hear what went down. It was heartbreaking, hilarious and riveting all wrapped up into one.
Vainuku: There were about six of the core cast that we wanted to tell the story through. When you have five episodes, you don’t have a ton of time, but we did it in a linear way where we start with the six core gladiators and then it starts evolving. I think landing on the six core members was key for us and gave us an opportunity to get into each of their stories versus trying to tell too many.
As fans, what was the biggest revelation from the series that you were taken aback by?
Hess: One of the one of the funniest revelations for me was hearing what a trainwreck the production of the initial pilot was. We had no idea that when it started, it basically didn’t have a chance. Right away, they started failing and just how garbage it was; then, how they were able to breathe life into the sizzle and ultimately sell the show. For me, that was hilarious. And seeing the evolution of what the games were — like the weird junky trampoline game that they threw together last minute. It was so haphazard.
How were you able to get everyone to speak so candidly about the entire process?
Vainuku: A big part of that is timing. It’s been a while. They feel safe and detached from it at this point. The second part is there are a lot of preliminary interviews that Jared and I are doing before we even get on-set with them. It’s easier to speak without a camera. There’s a lot of relationship-building outside to help them feel safe and vulnerable in the moments that we need to really lean into their stories.
Hess: But Bob Levy didn’t need any of that. He was ready to roll. He had a bag of chips and was ready to tell you anything. Another amazing thing is that Dan Clark “Nitro” is an amazing producer on this. Obviously, he knew all the gladiators and has existing relationships, so the ones that that were hard to find, he was able to track down. There already was a built-in camaraderie between the gladiators. Tony and I had to win their trust, but ultimately, we just wanted to let them tell their story, give them a platform to discuss whatever they wanted about their experience and let that be our guiding star in structuring the narrative.
The discussion of steroid use is prevalent in the doc. Was the topic of steroids always a planned story arc?
Vainuku: That definitely was a sensitive topic for everyone. We owe lot of that credit to Nitro. He was so open with it, and with his book, he’s been open with it in the past. To be quite frank, everybody, outside of Dan, had a little bit of a harder time talking about that. Even though it was so long ago, they feel like it’s still frowned upon on now. We just had to help them understand that this is really a story about them, and it doesn’t reflect at all what is happening your present time. That was our approach to the whole series. We weren’t really focused on what was going on now — it was more a slice from the past in a nostalgic story that we were trying to tell. We knew it was necessary, but Dan was definitely huge in getting everybody up to be as open with it, as well.
Hess: Once they all took the lid off of the steroid topic and their experience with it, it was like, “Alright, let’s just go for it.” It wasn’t that we were prying it out of them at all. It just became a part of the conversation that we were having with everyone and people were comfortable talking about it. It was such a big part of the culture. They weren’t the only ones. Professional athletes, pro-wrestlers, movie stars — it was a big part of the ’80s and ’90s.
Vainuku: But when Dan talked about the execs really being on board with them basically and being on the same side, as far as not wanting to test for steroids, that actually is something that the execs will probably hear on the series for the first time. We’re getting both sides. Dan’s interpretation of it, the execs don’t know that part.
Why did you decide to incorporate animation?
Vainuku: It was an idea early-on. We knew when we started interviewing everybody before the shoot and getting their stories, just how absurd they were. Some of them were so outrageous. We said, “How are we going to pull this off?” The tone of those specific stories that we brought to life in animation really limit themselves to that format. We wanted to do it like that Saturday morning cartoon style.
Did you always intend to include the contenders throughout the series?
Hess: All of the gladiators would talk about very specific contenders that really kicked their butts. Whether they were former Olympic athletes or specifically someone like Elden Kidd, these names kept popping up in interviews and we were like, “Wow, these guys are occupying a lot of real estate in the gladiators’ minds even to this day. We’ve got to find them.” We were lucky enough to track down the ones that were a serious threat and made sense to their specific stories. There were contenders that had won a few times, but that wasn’t what was important — it didn’t matter whether the contenders won or not; it was the narrative that they played within each of their stories that made sense. And was funny.
Vainuku: They were the ones that the gladiators really had a lot of respect for.
Hess: Or the ones that they just hated.
Editor’s note: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.