When Greg Whiteley was 19 he ventured from his hometown, Bellevue, Wash., to spread the word of the Mormon Church on Navajo reservations in the Southwest. At first he would come in hot, as the kids say, eager to knock on doors and proselytize.
“Frequently the thing I’d ask was, ‘Do you have time to hear a message about Jesus Christ today?’” he recalled during a video interview earlier this month from his Southern California home. “And the answer 99 times out of 100 was, ‘No, I do not have time for that.’ I think I spent the first months of my mission talking at people, and it was a very discouraging experience.”
Gradually, however, he learned to shut up and listen. “I was amazed at how quickly people would disclose the most vulnerable things at a doorstep within 90 seconds of meeting them,” Whiteley said. He didn’t realize it at the time, but he was preparing himself for a successful career as a documentary filmmaker.
Today, Whiteley, 53, is best known for creating, producing and directing immersive, off-the-beaten-path underdog sports docu-series for Netflix, including “Last Chance U,” “Cheer” and his latest, “Wrestlers,” which premieres Wednesday. All are notable for what they are not: manipulative, sensationalist, opportunistic.
Whiteley finds subjects that offer maximum access and editorial control. “It’s really hard to get that from the New England Patriots,” he said. In other words, this isn’t “Hard Knocks,” the HBO series that purports to offer revealing behind-the-scenes stories from N.F.L. training camps. For “Last Chance U,” which premiered in 2016, Whiteley focuses on individual community college football and basketball teams. In “Cheer,” the subject is a Texas community college cheerleading squad that happens to be a national dynasty. And for “Wrestlers,” Whiteley and his 20-person crew descended upon Ohio Valley Wrestling, a scrappy, underfunded professional wrestling company, with a passionate, blue-collar fan base, based in Louisville, Ky. Famous O.V.W. alumni include John Cena and Paul Wight (who wrestled as Big Show), but the company has maintained an authentic little-guy personality.
“Wrestlers” is vintage Whiteley. He identified a few dynamic lead characters, including Al Snow, the fiercely dedicated, disarmingly thoughtful former W.W.F. and W.W.E. wrestler and current minority owner and day-to-day manager of O.V.W., who sees wrestling as a means of telling great stories preferably for television; Matt Jones, the aggressively opinionated O.V.W. co-owner and sports radio personality, focused on touring and keeping the company afloat financially; and HollyHood Haley J, a rebellious (and often irresponsible) young wrestler who is one of O.V.W.’s most popular performers and drives Snow mad with her propensity to smoke weed on the gym premises.
Whiteley and his crew settled in and familiarized themselves with the rhythms of the operation. Perhaps most important, he quickly established that he wasn’t trying to burn anyone or manufacture the gotcha moments that fuel reality TV, which those on both sides of the camera are adamant that “Wrestlers” is not.
“There was a great deal of trust,” Snow said in a video interview from his home office. “Professional wrestling as a whole has always been a very closed, very secular business, never open, especially not to the general public and especially not in this manner. It was a tough decision for me to let this happen and be involved in it. But meeting Greg I really got the idea and the impression that he was going to treat it with respect and he was going to be honest.”
The trust is largely a byproduct of Whiteley’s patience. He doesn’t push things, preferring instead to burrow in and hang out and get to know his subjects; “Wrestlers” was shot over a period of three and a half months. His ideal is to disappear, or at least create the illusion that he has. He wants his three camera teams constantly rolling film — unless his subjects tell them to stop, in which case they generally do. This, in turn, reinforces the trust level. He tells stories by spending countless hours with his characters, not by asking hot-take questions about drug abuse and romantic problems (both of which are present in “Wrestlers”).
Snow, who in the series likens himself to Kermit the Frog presiding over “The Muppet Show,” emerges as a sort of tormented showbiz impresario. He’s like a Broadway director in an old Hollywood musical, agonizing until the final curtain goes down, at which point he starts agonizing anew. The primary tension in “Wrestlers” simmers between Snow, the professional wrestling purist, and Jones, the entrepreneur focused on the bottom line. It doesn’t seem like the most obvious angle, but Whiteley has a gift for finding gold in the unobvious, in this case a conflict outside the ring that turns into a battle for the soul of O.V.W.
“Credit to Greg, he sniffed that out,” said Adam Leibowitz, a producer who has been working with Whiteley since “Mitt” (2014), Whiteley’s documentary portrait of Mitt Romney’s unsuccessful bids for president in 2008 and 2012.
“When you’re presented with a project like this, you think it’s going to be about funny wrestlers and their crazy costumes and their personalities,” Leibowitz continued. “Yes that’s great, and that’s a part of it. But for all of us, it was the tension between Al and Matt that really made this show super interesting, to have this almost Shakespearean battle between these two completely different personalities over this little gym.”
Whiteley traces his patient approach not just to his missionary work, but also to a lesson absorbed from an old-school master of cinéma vérité. He first encountered the work of Frederick Wiseman as a film student at Brigham Young University. Then, when Whiteley was making “New York Doll,” his 2005 documentary about the New York Dolls bassist Arthur (Killer) Kane, he saw Wiseman’s “Public Housing,” an epic look at a Chicago housing project. He was struck by how Wiseman would wait a few beats after a question was answered, a process that often yielded some of the film’s most unguarded moments. Whiteley tried the approach with Kane, at one point asking if he was nervous about an upcoming reunion concert. No, Kane insisted, of course not. Then he stared straight ahead saying nothing, looking very nervous.
“I’ve never quite had Wiseman’s courage to let situations breathe for as long as they’ll breathe,” Whiteley said. “But I do know I let them breathe longer than I would have had I not seen ‘Public Housing.’ And some of my favorite moments that we have ever filmed have occurred because we’re not cutting yet. Just stay on this moment.”
He also likes to zoom in on characters who don’t seem to be trying out for the camera. For instance, he was fascinated by the swagger and authenticity of HollyHood Haley J, whose real name is Haley Marie James and who wrestles with and against her mother, Amazing Maria (Tina Marie Evans James). Haley, for her part, didn’t seem to care much about the project, even blowing off scheduled interviews.
“I had an attitude at times, and Greg handled me very well,” Haley said in a video interview from her home in Louisville. “It was all new to me, especially them following me around. I’d try to run and hide and get away from everyone. And then here comes Greg with the camera.”
Whiteley is always after what is real, which in this case sets up a rich irony: a painstakingly authentic look at an endeavor often derided for being fake. But for all of their veracity, Whiteley’s projects also make for fine drama, generating high real-life stakes, off the field as much as on, that go well beyond famous athletes winning big games and matches. None of the wrestlers in “Wrestlers“ are getting rich. The kids in the various iterations of “Last Chance U” are just hoping to catch on with a four-year college, or merely graduate and get a decent job. These are very human stories about people just trying to get by.
Whitely wouldn’t have it any other way.
“We really only have one gear as a company,” he said. “Let’s just tell the true story.”