Former NXT talent Ryan Nemeth is a wrestler, writer, and, if his dream meets reality, film producer.
The younger brother of Dolph Ziggler, Nemeth launched a grassroots campaign to fund his film, HEEL, which is a narrative drama about a pro wrestler who receives a contract with the biggest wrestling company in the world and needs to simply stay out of trouble for a couple of weeks before signing the deal. The film covers wrestling’s darker areas, such as sexual assault and drug addiction.
Nemeth is seeking to raise a total $65,000 to fund his project. The majority of the money has been raised, and Nemeth hopes the final 20 percent of funding is pledged by the end of the week, ensuring that HEEL takes its place as a film that will place a bright spotlight on the areas of pro wrestling that, too often, remain underexposed.
Justin Barrasso: How did you decide upon the title of HEEL for your film?
Ryan Nemeth: The script came first, and the title actually came way later. HEEL encapsulates so much in one word.
Aside from the word "heel" being a really key bit of wrestling terminology that fits everything about the story into one neat syllable, it is also pertinent to my personal life as well, because of my upbringing in wrestling and my older brother’s skill set and influence.
HEEL is a story is about a wrestler who works as a heel, and it’s a story that blurs the line between reality and fantasy, even for the people working in the business. Our protagonist, if you can call him that, he’s more of an anti-hero, is faced with a critical decision. The climax of the story is him in a wrestling ring, and he has to make a decision whether to keep going with the wrestling match or actually beat the sh-t out of his opponent.
So it’s the idea that the crowd knows this is fake and they’re going to boo the heel, but what if the good guy isn’t a good guy? That’s the idea: do we know what’s going on, or not know what’s going on? So "heel" is the perfect word for it.
Barrasso: The film’s plot is centered around an emerging star in pro wrestling who is offered a contract with the biggest company in the world. What else can we learn about the plot?
Nemeth: This film is about our main character, Mason, who receives an offer to sign with the biggest company in the world. The talent director tells him to finish up his indie dates and stay out of trouble until then. So we have a countdown of three weeks to see if he’s going to behave himself.
This is a character that has secretly developed a pain pill addiction, and one of his best friends was attacked sexually by a fellow wrestler. He can’t decide whether to keep quiet or take justice in his own hands.
We have a tremendous director, Maggie Levin, and we were very lucky to get her to direct. We also have an Emmy Award winning costumer, Rodney Munoz, on board, who also works full-time for Jimmy Kimmel Live!, which is pretty amazing. He is so passionate about this script and believes in me, which is an incredible stamp of approval.
Barrasso: Producing your own film is a phenomenal opportunity, but this could not have been the original plan. You showed off your charisma and wrestling acumen in NXT, with dreams of the main roster and a starring role at WrestleMania. When did you realize that a different destiny awaited your career path?
Nemeth: Signing with the WWE was all I wanted. My dream came true, but once I left NXT, I needed to recalibrate and rethink my purpose in life. I had a great opportunity to write for WWE Swerved on the WWE Network, and I got plugged in with the creator of Jackass, Jeff Tremaine. I still wrestle, and I’ve worked the indies and Tommy Dreamer’s "House of Hardcore," but I fell in love with film and acting. But it dawned on me that my new mission is telling this story.
I also sporadically run independent shows in L.A. called "Nuclear Heat Wrestling," in which every show has a different cause we benefit–whether it’s dog or cat rescues, charities for victims of sex trafficking, or other causes. I run them with Anna Lore. Those were a precursor to this film project, using wrestling to help the world instead of just trying to use wrestling to make money.
People have asked me, "What are you going to do if this isn’t funded?" My answer is always the same: It will get funded.
This world is sick of people not paying for the wrong sh-t they’ve done in life. I know for a fact that happens in wrestling. I know the film will upset a lot of people, but I want to help tell this story. There is no profit coming from it, but I feel compelled to do it. Now, with hundreds of people around the world helping fund the project, I am responsible for making sure it happens.
Barrasso: HEEL covers some heavy topics within the pro wrestling industry, such as sexual assault and drug addiction. Is the film based on reality?
Nemeth: When I left NXT and started working the indie scene, I learned it was the Wild West. There are no rules, there’s no overarching body or group. It’s basically a group of nomads going from promotion to promotion. It’s not as hard as you’d think for someone to get away with bad stuff. By the time somebody is whispering about something you did to some girl, you’re already 300 miles away at the next show. It makes getting away with being a scumbag pretty easy. And if you’re the woman who is the victim of some kind of violence or sexual assault, this is just like any other industry and any other sport–the minute you open your mouth and say something about somebody, you have your industry telling you you’re a liar or a sh-t, and there is this new giant army of online fans suddenly doxxing you. Do you want to lose all your bookings and speak out? Or keep quiet and continue to allow this to happen?
It’s so easy to go undetected as a truly sh--ty, sleazy scumbag in wrestling. So short of saying, "Here’s what I know about this business," which I’ll never do because that’s a betrayal to people who are victimized and those are not my stories to tell, but my story to tell is a fictional work inspired by that world. I love wrestling and I love most of the people in the business, but a seedy underbelly exists, the same that is being exposed in every other industry except in wrestling, which is avoiding it because it blends fantasy and reality and we’re never supposed to know which is real.
Barrasso: What can you tell us about Dolph Ziggler’s role in the film?
Nemeth: Creatively, he’s a consultant. But I cannot cast anyone until we have the funding in place, and that’s why the next few days are critical. I have roles I’d like him to play, and ideas of what I’d do, but we need to fund the film first.
My first foray into the international film circuit starred my brother, and that film, Daddy’s Boys, which is a comedy, inspired me to go further in the film industry.
Barrasso: What are the incentives for donating to HEEL?
Nemeth: Making a pledge literally makes you a part of this movie. There is a whole giant list of cool incentives, leading up to being a producer with IMDB credit on the film. It’s SAG, it’s on the level, and we’re hoping to take it to festivals around the world. If you want to be a business partner of Dolph Ziggler, this is the way to do it.
There are a handful of wrestlers who have been super generous with their pledges, especially Ruby Riott, Shawn Spears, Luke Harper, Pro Wrestling Tees, Trent Beretta, and John Morrison. Referees and production people from WWE, medical staff from AEW, pledges from all over, and I appreciate every single dollar. Even friends from outside of wrestling, like Sam Richardson from VEEP, made a generous donation. And the pro wrestling themed hamburger place in LA, Grill ‘Em All, has been great to us.
Pledge something big, pledge something small. That pledge of $10 helps a lot, and for only $20, you’ll learn about all the behind-the-scenes parts, like what it’s like to cast people, storyboards, locations. I mean, it costs more to go to an indie show. And as you go up, the incentives get cooler and cooler, and you even get to go to the wrap party.
I love wrestling, and I love how wrestling makes people feel, and that’s the reason I want to make this film.
Barrasso: There are still many goals to reach with HEEL, but what are you most proud of this far into the project?
Nemeth: HEEL has been crowd-funded from the beginning, including the topics of sexual assault and drug addiction in the film. Sadly, but most poignantly, people emailed me, DM’d me, and sent me messages explaining why those topics are so important to them, explaining to me why the topics meant so much to them. Those were some crushing, heartbreaking stories.
This film will have a story that is extremely important to people all over the world. The idea was crowd-funded, the finances are crowd-funded, and the crew is going to be made up of a very diverse and inclusive collection of people. I want this movie, from start to finish, to be made by the most passionate, caring people possible. I’m extremely thankful to those who pledged, and we’ve got a few more days if you want to help us reach 100 percent.
Justin Barrasso can be reached at JBarrasso@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinBarrasso.