Hola America writer reminisces on his Texas wrestling roots at the premier of The Iron Claw.

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By Juan Fourneau,  Hola America

Scott Beck and Bryan Woods found breakthrough success in the competitive world of Hollywood through their screenwriting when they wrote a spec script titled “A Quiet Place”. It went on to be distributed by Paramount Pictures and grossed over $340 million dollars. This made them players in an industry far away from their hometown of Bettendorf, Iowa.

Now the Quad Cities natives have come back home between writing, directing and producing major motion pictures like “The Boogeyman”, and A24’s “Heretic” starring Hugh Grant. I saw their 2023 release they wrote and directed, titled “65,” starring Adam Driver, in theaters with my son. It was a great flick that later reached number one on Netflix in early July of 2023. Today they are giving back to an industry they loved as teens.

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The Last Picture House held its grand opening on Saturday, December 9th in Davenport. The evening was glamorous, with a red carpet for photos to celebrate the debut of the new boutique cinema located in downtown. Movie lovers from the Quad Cities converged to support the duo who began their film journeys while in high school. The two continued to write, direct and produce movies while attending the University of Iowa, where they founded their own production company, Blue Box Films, and gained recognition by winning various film contests.

Juan Fourneau at The Iron Claw premier at the Last Picture House.

For the grand opening of The Last Picture House, an independent film house that shows new releases and indie films, the duo brought something special to the Quad Cities. Through their connections with A24 Films they secured a rare early screening of the hot new movie, “The Iron Claw.” I was fortunate to get a ticket to the movie through their Autograph Club (https://www.lastpicturehouse.com/membership). “The Iron Claw” was inspired by the Von Erich wrestling family, who drew record crowds and ratings during the early 1980s, a magical time for Texas wrestling.

The story has a special place in my heart because as a child I watched the Von Erichs battle their rivals, The Fabulous Freebirds and General Skandar Akbar’s army of Devastation Incorporated on ESPN. I also followed them by reading the monthly wrestling magazines at my local newsstand. The handsome but still rough and rugged Von Erich brothers were perfect for the decade with their movie star good looks and chiseled physiques.

As a young boy, I dreamed of joining the circus-like world of professional wrestling and eventually found myself training in Dallas under Skandar Akbar in 1994. Mr. Akbar proved to be a kind man who was quite different from the anti-American bad guy he portrayed in World Class Championship Wrestling. My first match was at the world famous Sportatorium, featured in the film. I felt honored to perform in the fabled arena built like the Roman Coliseum, where every seat focus was set on the 18×18 wrestling ring, whose rock-hard canvas mat was legendary among wrestlers.

My referee for the match was James Beard, who also had a part in the movie, playing himself. Beard was hired by World Class in 1986. He saw firsthand the sad decline and tragedies that the Von Erich family faced, which are portrayed in the movie. Beard spent a month on set in Baton Rouge as part of “The Iron Claw,” and was impressed by the way the actors took to the wrestling ring. I spoke with Beard after seeing the movie. “We had three actors who didn’t know anything about wrestling,” he said. “To do those spots that well and really nail them, it was amazing, incredible.”

Over his 35 + year career as a referee, he also helped train wrestlers and saw his share of novices try to learn the sport. I’ve also watched young aspiring wrestlers over the years at the Black & Brave Wrestling Academy in downtown Davenport. I have even had matches with them at the local SCW Pro independent wrestling promotion as they became more skilled at their craft. Getting in the ring and being a capable pro wrestler is not for everyone, and it can often take several years to master the more complex skills. Seeing Kevin, David and Kerry Von Erich’s wrestling moves portrayed so well by actors on the big screen was impressive.

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The wrestling scenes in the movie are the best exhibitions of mat action Hollywood has ever produced. Beard and I agreed that the actors delivering such believable performances was amazing. Beard credits it to the hard work that wrestling choreographer Chavo Guerrero and others, especially the actors, put in on the set. “I was very proud. We took a lot of time to do that. The actors were very dedicated to doing things the right way.” Beard explained that the actors were shown how to do the wrestling moves, spent some time practicing and then delivered the scenes. The film did not use stuntmen in the ring. “What you saw in the movie was the actors doing these spots.”

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The star of the movie is Zac Efron. The longtime referee had high praise for the actor’s dedication to getting the role of the last surviving brother, Kevin Von Erich right. “He was incredible to work with,” says Beard. Kevin Von Erich had a style in the ring that was very rough; not Ricky-Steamboat-like smooth. He was a tough, young, physical athlete who had played college football. His reputation as a wrestler was that he was “stiff” and unorthodox. Beard’s guidance of Efron’s moves is reflected in the movie. “Kevin was like a panther in the ring. He was going to attack you and if you didn’t fight back you were going to be eaten up.”

At times during filming Efron would ask Beard for his observations on the scenes and would adjust his movements based on his feedback. “There was one scene with the Freebirds where Zac kind of let his opponents come to him. Afterwards he asked me if that was how Kevin would have done it and I said no. Kevin was very aggressive, he would have nearly run over you to get to them.” In the next take, the star incorporates that rough and tumble style of Texas wrestling Kevin inherited from his father, Fritz and it came across well on the big screen.

The patriarch of the family was the legendary Fritz Von Erich, played by Holt McCallany. My old trainer Skandar Akbar always spoke of Fritz with reverence and respect. Fritz was a towering, gruff, domineering figure who could intimidate fans and wrestlers alike. He burst onto the wrestling scene in the 1950s and became a star quickly, as a large man who could talk, with size and agility, rare back in the day. Beard knew Fritz personally and thought the movie was a bit tough on him but praised Holt’s portrayal of the father. Stories of Fritz’s softer side abound in the wrestling business. I once had a match with “Hacksaw” Jim Duggan, and the former college football player had much appreciation for Fritz as he was the one who opened the doors for him to enter the world of professional wrestling. Dusty Rhodes tells the story of Fritz lending the young wrestler the money needed to pay for the funeral expenses of his father in Austin.

Beard also shared high praise regarding the writer and director of the movie, Sean Durkin, a long-time wrestling fan. “A nice guy, a dedicated guy. I thought he was just incredible. He was a big wrestling fan.” For me, it was stunning to see Durkin recreate the fabled Sportatorium. For Beard, it was more emotional. “I almost cried when I walked on the set.”

Efron got in tremendous physical shape for the movie, demonstrating his dedication to get the role just right. The training scenes were inspiring and emulated the look of the Von Erich brothers as they performed for sold-out arenas all over the globe during their meteoric rise. The director supplemented the movie magic by incorporating real-life clips of Kerry Von Erich wrestling Ric Flair in 1984, as well as “Mr. Perfect” Curt Hennig in 1990. Any fan of Kerry “The Modern Day Warrior” couldn’t help but get pumped up by the montage in the film featuring a soundtrack that included “Tom Sawyer” by the Canadian rock band Rush.

Though the movie did well in portraying the raucous crowds the Von Erich brothers inspired, it’s difficult to accurately show the global mania they created in that era. Most wrestling stars at the time were in their mid-30’s and 40’s. When teenagers in Texas tuned in and saw young athletic wrestlers close to their age battling for world titles on their television sets, it drew ratings and attendance records that set World Class Championship Wrestling on fire.

The Lone Star State was booming at the time, and America was fascinated by Larry Hagman in the popular television nighttime soap opera “Dallas”. The price of oil was soaring, and the economy was strong. John Travolta starred in the movie, “Urban Cowboy” where honky tonks, cowboy boots, and belt buckles became fashionable. The Von Erich family was another part of that magical time. In North Texas they’re remembered by folks as celebrities who rivaled “America’s Team”, The Dallas Cowboys in popularity. Multiple times the Sportatorium couldn’t hold the masses who wanted to see the boys, so they performed in bigger venues like Reunion Arena, The Cotton Bowl, and Texas Stadium. But as the price of oil crashed in 1987, so did the fortunes of the wrestling family and their promotion. The film delves into the drama and aftermath of the tragedies that struck the family as their glory days came to an end. Durkin found a way to make a great movie that tells a tragic tale but still allows you to leave the cinema with hope.

“The Iron Claw” will be released nationwide on December 22nd. The Last Picture House will begin playing the movie December 21st. The Last Picture House is a boutique independent cinema that shows current blockbusters and classic films from the past. For more details visit https://www.lastpicturehouse.com/movie/the-iron-claw.

I hope folks from all over the Quad Cities and the surrounding area check out the movie at this exciting new theater. The sound system and concessions rival any movie house you’ll find for miles, and you’ll feel the labor of love throughout the details of the cinema created by its co-founders and Iowa natives, Scott Beck and Bryan Woods.

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