On the Mat, a documentary playing at the Tribeca Film Festival, examines the world of high school wrestling as experienced by Washington state’s Lake Stevens High team, winner of seven state championships in the past decade. Actor Chris Pratt (Moneyball, Parks & Recreation), a Lake Stevens wrestling alumni, recruited filmmaker Fredric Golding to follow the team for five months and document their blood, sweat and tears—literally. We spoke to Golding about the grueling training that high school wrestlers endure. View the entire film as part of the Tribeca Online Film Festival.
Since wrestling can be a pretty technical sport, were you worried it might not translate in a movie?
Really, it’s very simple. I mean simple in the sense that while wrestling is technical, it’s as simple as: If your shoulders get pinned to the mat, you lose. That’s really the basis of the whole sport. It’s just like when the Greeks did it—they literally drew a circle in the sand and put two guys in the middle and blew a whistle and said go. It really hasn’t changed that much except for the fact that there’s technical moves, like a takedown or a reversal.
It definitely has a built-in drama.
Exactly, and it’s three two-minute periods. In a certain sense it’s like boxing in that it really is an exhausting, exhausting six minutes. As a high school sport it’s the ultimate sacrifice, just by virtue of the fact that these kids first of all have to cut weight. There are pretty simple rules about it, in terms of you can only lose a certain amount of weight, but ultimately these kids are not eating during the week in order to “make weight.”
You usually hear athletes talk about stocking up on calories and eating the right kinds of foods, so it’s a bit counterintuitive when some of the boys starve themselves to make specific weight classes. How does a kid maintain energy to wrestle if he’s hardly eaten all day?
It’s a good question. Jesse Peterson, who’s 103 pounds, is 120 pounds as a normal kid. Jesse has to lose, hypothetically, 15 pounds. So as it gets closer to the season, he’s starting to lose weight. Then say he walks around during the week at 108 or 109 pounds, he knows that come Tuesday or Wednesday of that week, if he has a match on Friday, that he simply has to start running more, really working out. He has to watch everything that he puts into his system, inclusive of water. Ultimately these kids really don’t eat very much as it gets to what they call the weigh-in, where they “make weight.” Then after the weigh-in there’s a period of two hours or so where they eat before a match and get their energy. They’re always drinking Pedialyte or Gatorade, which is an instant dose of energy.
Does that generate any sort of culture of boasting about how long you’ve gone without food?
It’s not really a boasting because it’s an extremely arduous and difficult process. Not only is it physical but ultimately it’s emotional for a kid. Unlike college wrestlers, what is interesting in high school is that when a kid eats they’re still growing. So he’s eating and he grows and yet he has to wrestle at a certain weight. It’s very complex. So there’s not really a boasting about it because it’s extraordinarily difficult. You literally sometimes almost have to dehydrate yourself to make weight. These kids know how to count calories.
Did you interview any parents who were concerned about their kid’s eating habits?
I did interview a lot of parents, yes. These kids have been wrestling for a long time—most of them had been wrestling since they were 7, 8, 9 years old—so they knew what a weight cut was and they weren’t doing it at a point where it was dangerous. There’s state laws, and even national laws I believe, in terms of how much weight you can lose in relation to body fat. The [rules are] pretty severe about what a kid can do and can't do. I believe two or three years ago it used to be there was no outlawing of saunas, because naturally the way you lose weight is one of two things—it’s exercise or sweating. But nowadays kids cannot go in the sauna. I think a couple kids actually died, so they can’t go into saunas.
The film gives a real sense of how important camaraderie is for the sport. For example when Steven refuses to lose a couple of pounds to make weight, you see how his decision affects the entire team.
It’s an odd sport because on the one hand it’s an individual sport, but on the other hand it’s a team sport. It has that inherent irony built in, in that you want to win an individual state title in your weight class. But if you lose, you still have to wrestle to get consolation points for your team. And losing is really crushing for these kids. That’s what’s really interesting is that they’re still kids, so many kids who lose also lose their emotions.
At one point Eric tears his ACL. I imagine there was an instinct in the parents to urge him to stop wrestling. Was that discussion brought up?
Oh absolutely. They went to a pretty prominent surgeon outside of Lake Stevens, near Seattle, and ultimately they said he can wrestle. He could have done some greater damage to his knee, there was that possibility, but he put on a knee brace and wrestled. It’s really pretty remarkable when you think about it. For us laymen to walk around with a torn ACL is one thing, and it’s painful, but imagine wrestling with a torn ACL.
At another point, one of the kids doesn’t get up from the mat and is taken away on a stretcher. Was Coach Brent Barnes ever worried it might look bad for wrestling if this was in the film?
No, he wasn’t worried that there was a camera crew there because he was concerned about Jesse’s well-being. Even though we kept shooting, the fact of the matter is that everyone was concerned for his safety. I kind of don’t wanna give it away, but as soon as he moved his foot, people knew he wasn’t paralyzed. But he was out for a while. It was really scary. Really scary. I’ve shot a fair amount of sports and a fair amount of people in hospitals—any documentary producer does, because you go after narrative moments—but this definitely was a life and death moment.
How many minutes was he down?
He must’ve been out for at least three minutes.
As a documentary filmmaker, do you naturally keep shooting in that moment? Or is there a part of you that feels you should withdraw?
It’s the age-old expression, “Don’t hope what you wish for, don’t wish what you hope for,” in the sense that you know that it’s going to be a story highlight when something tragic happens. I have a job, and my job is to capture those moments that are both in the agony of defeat and the elation of victory, and sometimes defeat comes with physical defeat. So my task is to document that—my task is not necessarily to comment on it as it’s happening. So there was never a question in my mind as to whether I would turn off the cameras or not.
And you can always make decisions later in the editing room.
That’s exactly right. Obviously if the cameras would’ve gotten in the way of someone’s safety, that’s when you back off. But backing off is one thing as opposed to turning off the cameras. It’s the ultimate documentary question, when you turn the cameras off or not.
Clearly a big part of the team’s continual success is Coach Barnes. How does he stand out from other wrestling coaches, and sports coaches in general?
Coach Barnes is just an extraordinarily well-rounded individual. He reads a lot. He has a lot of interests outside of wrestling. As he says in the film, he has to have other interests because he’s extremely obsessed with wrestling. He’s really a spiritual mentor, if you would, to these kids. He believes wrestling is a sport where you learn life lessons: You get pinned, you have to get back up. If something happens in life that’s tough, you have to scrape yourself out of the bottom of the barrel and keep walking. That’s what he believes, and he teaches the kids that. I’d say most of the kids maintain relationships with Coach Barnes throughout their life. In fact, that’s one of the reasons we did the project, was that Chris [Pratt] is still to this day very friendly with Coach Barnes.
Do a lot of the teammates stay in touch afterwards?
Absolutely. You have to remember that even in practice, you have to wrestle with someone and you have very close body contact with another kid. There’s something about wrestling with one kid perhaps for four years. There’s a certain level of, I don’t wanna call it intimacy ... or yeah, intimacy, among these kids. They know each other’s bodies and they know how tough they are and they know what it takes to excel.