When Bill Simmons was envisioning possible subjects for a documentary, even as far back as his time working on some of the initial ESPN 30 for 30 films, Andre the Giant was always one of the first names that came to his mind.
"I have this old computer that has a lot of the original 30 for 30 stuff from 2007 on it, and Andre was on the initial list of 12 documentaries that I just thought could really resonate," Simmons said. "Back then, HBO had a monopoly on the sports documentaries. They were doing a lot of older stuff like Joe Louis and Vince Lombardi and people like that, and it just seemed like there was an inefficiency with subjects and athletes and teams from the '80s and '90s, so he was always on that list but at the time the WWE kept everything for themselves and rightly so.
"They just didn't outsource stuff and especially not Andre, who meant so much to everybody there and was such an iconic guy for them. It just wasn't going to happen."
That approach by WWE softened in recent years, and a couple of years ago Simmons, HBO and the WWE all came together to make the HBO documentary "Andre the Giant" a reality. The film, which premieres Tuesday night at 10 p.m. ET, is Simmons' first foray into documentaries for HBO. He recently sat down to discuss the film with ESPN's Arash Markazi.
Markazi: How did this documentary on Andre the Giant come about?
Simmons: Over the course of this decade, I started to go to more WrestleManias and I had people from the WWE on my podcast. We really covered wrestling at Grantland, and then The Ringer, like it was a real sport. We had a wrestling podcast and we were really WWE-friendly in a lot of ways and I got to build some relationships. So when I went to HBO and [HBO president of programming] Mike Lombardo hired me partly to do sports documentaries and try to start them going again at HBO, that was the first thing I wanted to do.
At that point I had a good enough relationship with the WWE to at least get them on the phone and get Vince, so we had this teleconference call from Lombardo's office with one of those satellite video connections and basically tried to convince Vince to do it for an hour. It was really personal to him. I think we swayed them. The WWE is a really good company that is very protective of their I.P. (intellectual property) and they should be. I just don't think this is something that could have happened sooner than this. They really put a lot of faith in us and they did not meddle or anything. They really trusted that we were going to do something good. It was a really good outcome, but it was basically an 11-year odyssey for me.
Markazi: Much of the documentary actually focuses on his life and relationships with friends and family outside of the ring. What was it about Andre and his story that transcended professional wrestling?
Simmons: I always thought this documentary would work in a big way because everybody had four stories about Andre. If a documentary is going to work the footage has to be cool, the interviews have to be great, and the stories have to be great -- and if you have all three, it's almost a lock it's going to be a good documentary as long as you have the right director, and we had an awesome director in Jason [Hehir]. I was reasonably confident but I just didn't know how people who didn't care about wrestling feel about this. Would they care about him?
I was watching the second rough cut with my wife, who doesn't like wrestling, and she was kind of half watching it and then she got into it and then she starts sobbing. She's a pretty good litmus test. When I saw that, I said we might really have something here. That's when I really knew this doc was going to work. He had a handicap, you don't really think of him like that, the way the world was built wasn't built for people who were built like him, and he had to live with it every day. I think that's something nobody ever thought about, They just viewed him as this giant, but his day-to-day life wasn't as glamorous as people would have imagined.
Markazi: You really see a side of Andre in this documentary that most people have never seen before. We hear from his brothers, sisters and even his daughter. How hard was it to get them to open up about him?
Simmons: That's Jason. He went all out with this. He was really committed to turning every rock that he could. He went to France and those scenes are really shot beautifully. We probably could have even had more but I think we had the right amount. He went there and his heart was in the right place and he got them to trust him. It's little stuff like that that pushes a doc over the top. The traditional generic version of this doc wouldn't go to France. You do stuff like that and you go the extra couple miles and you throw yourself into it and it's going to have a different result.
Markazi: Could you picture the arc of this movie and building it towards that iconic match between Andre and Hulk Hogan at WrestleMania III before you even started working on it?
Simmons: The whole time I thought this is one of the easiest docs for me to sell. Even when we were selling it to Vince, the arc of it was so clear -- it had to build to WrestleMania III, and it had to have the part where wrestling takes off after Andre had already peaked but they need him for this match. Even though his body was breaking down and, oh by the way, they don't know whether he has decided if he wants to lose or not. It was so obviously a great documentary arc and it's really hard to find those.
We did so many at 30 for 30 and I learned so much about the arcs and where it works and doesn't work. We were able to do some without one at all. I thought the Bo Jackson one was good, people liked it, but it didn't really have an arc. It was like this guy was great and then he got hurt and you work around that and tell a story and make it cool but ultimately there's not the twists and turns that a movie would have. We had success at 30 for 30 with things like The Fab Five and The U, where you could jump in at any time. It really captured these iconic teams. Those worked and were super re-watchable and we loved doing those.
When it's something like this Andre doc there's an extra layer you can get to because it plays like a movie and those are my favorites ones. This easily could be a movie even though it couldn't be because you could never get someone to play Andre that was convincing, but the arc of it is a movie.
Markazi: You were a wrestling fan and an Andre fan before you started working on this, but what was the most surprising thing you learned about him while working on the documentary?
Simmons: I knew his body was breaking down but I didn't know that he knew he was going to die early. Vince says at one point even before WrestleMania III that Andre was telling him that he was done. And it wasn't like he was done wrestling, it was that he done and going to die. I didn't know any of that stuff. I didn't know how physically hard his day to day life was in terms of the traveling and stuff like that.
I knew that he was an incredible drinker, the most beloved guy in the locker room and this incredible attraction, but there's so many more layers to the guy. I thought the interactions with the cast of Princess Bride were great. It was 30-plus years ago and they could all still remember what he did and what he said. He just clearly resonated with so many people and that makes it easier to tell the story.
Markazi: To that point, we hear from Rob Reiner, Billy Crystal, Cary Elwes and Robin Wright in the documentary and they all have these vivid memories and stories from working with Andre on "The Princess Bride." You really get to know Andre the person through their stories. Were you surprised that was as big a part of the documentary as it ended up being?
Simmons: I wasn't surprised because William Goldman, who's one of my favorite writers who I've gotten to know a little bit over the years, wrote the movie and was on the set, and when Andre died he wrote an essay for New York magazine about him, and it was great. You could just tell from reading it that Andre had a huge impact on everyone that was on that set, so when we're talking about who to interview for this doc, Jason and I wanted to go deep on Princess Bride because we could tell he had an effect on those people.
Markazi: Anyone who is a wrestling fan has seen the Piper's Pit segment when Andre turns on Hogan and has watched the WrestleMania III match they had at the Pontiac Silverdome. The documentary, however, provides a new layer of real-life drama when you talk to Vince McMahon and Hulk Hogan about it. It's almost as if you're watch the match for the first time with this new information.
Simmons: That's my favorite part of the movie because Jason reinvents this thing that everyone already knew about. I was talking to Triple H after the premiere and he was really blown away by the movie and super-excited, but the thing he loves the most was that part, because it basically captures in the best way possible what it's like to put together a storyline like that.
That's the most important storyline in the history of wrestling; turning Andre and making him a bad guy and setting up the biggest match that had ever happened and that 10 minutes just goes through it so well. Hogan was the greatest good guy they've ever had at the peak of his powers -- they're bringing in these villains to try to upend him and he would just waltz through [them] and at some point you have to bring the biggest villain in. I still think that's the best wrestling storyline ever.
Markazi: You could tell in the documentary how much Andre meant to Vince, but you could also see that they didn't part on the best terms and that still hurts Vince. It's pretty heartbreaking. How aware were you of the relationship they had going into this project?
Simmons: We don't make that movie if he's not interviewed. We made that clear. He was obviously so protective of the Andre legacy and he had a lot of conflicted emotions of how it played out, and we talked about it even before we agreed to do the movie that he has to be interviewed. We can't do it if you're not in it. It's tough. It's all genuine and what he thought at the end was Vince used him. As soon as he couldn't wrestle anymore it was like thanks and wrestling goes on. It's pretty complicated.
There's also a lot of things that could have been in the doc, but I think the pace is important. It's 86 minutes and there's a bunch of other stuff we could have added but then it slows down, and you have to keep things moving. One of things that could have been in it after we did the interviews was Andre's relationship with Stephanie [McMahon]. She's a little girl at that point, but Andre was like a big brother to her. He was unusually tight with that family, which makes things a lot more complicated.
Markazi: What are some of the other tough cuts you had to make while editing the film?
Simmons: It's the toughest thing to do in the documentary. You have to cut stuff out. I think a lot of people can't do that. They fall in love with stuff. When we were doing 30 for 30 there was a specific time limits. So if it was an hour, you remove the commercials and it's 52 minutes, if it was an hour and half we had an hour 17 and if it was two hours we had an hour 42 and that was it.
If you had a 90-minute doc and we had it for two hours you had to pad it by 10 minutes. Part of the appeal to me with this was the best possible length was going to be the length whether it was two hours or 90 minutes, and it ended up being 86 minutes. For us it was about the pacing, and that's why I was so interested in seeing it in a theater at the premiere with people because you could tell when you lose people if they start going to the bathroom or go on their phones -- and nobody moved. If you pad it or the pace is off, people lose attention and they're not into it anymore.
The biggest thing for me that got cut was that he actually did win the title after the WrestleMania III match, but it's part of the storyline that he immediately gives it to Ted DiBiase and it's the only time he won the title. I felt that could have been a pretty good three-minute additional section but the reality is once WrestleMania III is over, we've got to get to the end of the doc. We have to get to his body breaking down and his career going to south and it pulls us away from that.
Another one is how many times Andre got body-slammed, which was interesting. They make it seemed like WrestleMania III was the first time, but he had been body-slammed like 12-13 times before that. One of the times he got body-slammed was in Japan against Stan Hansen, which is one of the best matches he ever had. There's also a whole Japan side of his story we could have gone into. There was just so much, but I think where we ended was just right.