Fantastic Fest Interview: Nail in the Coffin – The Fall and Rise of Vampiro
The split life of a lucha legend and a father from Canada
By Richard Whittaker,
6:37PM, Wed. Sep. 25, 2019
Don't call Vampiro a wrestler. It doesn't matter that his career in and out of the ring has stretched across four decades. It doesn't matter that his look – corpse paint, tattoos, long hair – inspired hordes of outsider kids to wrestle, or that he helped bring Mexican lucha libre to the U.S. Because, first and above all, he's a father.
That's the man at the heart of wrestling documentary Nail in the Coffin – The Fall and Rise of Vampiro, which made its world premiere at Fantastic Fest this week. Documentarian Michael Paszt first met Vampiro in 2001, when he was a journalist in Mexico working for Superluchas, a weekly wrestling magazine. "We kept in contact over the years," said Paszt, "and then we lost contact for about 10 years, and then we ended up bumping into each other in the airport. I asked him, what are you doing, what are you up to, and it turned out he was living in Northern Ontario, and he was flying, literally commuting, from Thunder Bay to Mexico City every Thursday, doing matches, doing the show, and flying back Sunday night so he could make packed lunches for his daughter every Monday."
Because Vampiro isn't just Vampiro, the legend of Mexican lucha libre as both a performer and a booker. He's Ian Hodgkinson, a 52-year-old father of a teenage daughter from the Canadian side of Lake Superior. Over the years, he's been a kid in trouble with the law, worked for Milli Vanilli, hung out with horror-punk pioneers the Misfits, traveled the world, got clean, started a podcast about addiction and mental health issues called Vampiro's Rituals and, most importantly raised his daughter Dasha as far from his professional life as possible. "Thunder Bay, Ontario, is a very small town," said Hodgkinson. "I know the school, a Catholic high school. I have friends there. Her grandmother's there. At least I know that she can be in a situation that's safe, she can study, and I can go away and not worry about the stress of having a teen daughter alone in a city of 32 million people."
In Nail in the Coffin, what Paszt captures is a man that constantly puts his daughter first. The travel is to stay in the industry that he knows the best, meaning that he can provide for her: it puts incredible stress on Hodgkinson the man, but as a father that's what he is driven to do. Paszt said, "As parents raising our kids, we do everything we possibly can do to raise them right. So for us as filmmakers, that's the heart of the story."
Not that Dasha was going to be so central to the narrative when they first started shooting. "I didn't see it," said Hodgknson. "[Paszt] saw it. ... I think he saved the movie. It was his vision of seeing what I didn't see. he helped me with my ego, because we made a decision really early on that I wasn't going to put my fingerprints on it. I told him, I'll ruin your movie. Don't ask me, don't tell me, I don't care. This is yours, and I trust you."
It was one event that helped the director see what the story wanted to be. He was at a wrestling show in Canada where Vampiro was booked: Paszt recalled, "It was a packed house, the show is going on. he'd just brought he a new camera and camera bag, and it got lost or misplaced, and she was like, 'I've lost my camera.' Right in the middle of the show, he stopped the show, and got the microphone and said, 'My daughter just lost her camera bag, she just got it today. Please help.' Everybody in the frigging event started looking for it, and sure enough somebody found it under a bench. They carry it up, they put it on the stage, and everybody cheered."
It's the kind of moment repeated throughout the film, like when Vampiro drops out of a conference call for Triplemanía, the biggest event on the Mexican wrestling calendar, to take a call from his daughter. "That happens all the time" said Paszt.
Yet it is also inevitably a peek behind the scenes of an industry that has made Vampiro an international star, but that he finds frustrating. "When you're going up a hill, everyone else will pull a rope," he signed. "Wrestling pushes a rope."
Austin Chronicle: Do you see yourself as a Mexican wrestler, or a Canadian wrestler who works in Mexico?
Ian Hodgkinson: I'm not a wrestler. At all. And I don't want to be. Vampiro was born on the streets of Los Angeles, and Vampiro was made in Mexico City. So Vampiro is 100% from Mexico City. I showed up there when I was 19, and now I'm 52. Over half my life.
I've got tattoos all over my head and my face. I'm well aware that, when I sit on a plane, people look at me and go, "Is he going to blow the plane up?" But when there's a problem on the plane, I'm the first one you come to. That's my life. You look at me like I'm a monster, but when there's a bigger monster then I'm your friend. – and I'm OK with that.
AC: So much of the wrestling action centers around Triplemania, and the infamous incident with (American wrestler) Jeff Jarrett, when he started throwing tortillas into the crowd ...
IH: I was there, and I thought, "Motherfucker's gonna get killed." And that was the easy part.
AC: When did you decide that Triplemania would be such a big part of the film?
Michael Paszt: It was just the timing. When we first connected, we were probably about a year before Triplemania XXV, so this was the biggest event for the company. So for us, and your filming and it's a circus and you see this organized chaos, and you've got all this going on – and then you've got Ian, who's the ring master, keeping the show going on.
We wanted to show the intensity of the chaos in the beginning, so you get an idea of what he has to do. And then we fall into the film, let it breathe, fall into him with his daughter. We get to see what the trolls don't see.
AC: It feels like there's a lot more Mexican wrestler working internationally and on American television, with luchadores like Bandido and Rush in Ring of Honor and Fénix and Pentagon Jr. signed to AEW. How's that affecting things for Mexican wrestlers in Mexico, and how has it changed the Mexican wrestling industry?
IH: It hasn't. It's horrible, it's broken, and it's not going to get fixed.
Lucha Libre's always been around. Sean Waltman, when he was the 1-2-3- Kid, came to Mexico and learned high flying. Tiger Mask (Japanese masked wrestler Satoru Sayama), he was in Mexico. The X-Division in Impact Wrestling comes from Mexico. Lucha Underground comes from Mexico. Anyone who does any acrobatic wrestling has spent time in Mexico.
The problem with Mexican wrestlers, and why wrestlers from Mexico will not be successful in the United States for more than the flash-in-the-pan time they have, is that they're new, they're fresh, and they have intensity and acrobatic athleticism. That's OK, but once you've seen it three or four times, you've seen it. The reason is that, culturally, in Mexico we are not soap opera, story-based wrestling. In the United States, there's story lines that the follow and that accumulate at Wrestlemania. In Mexico, what you see on television doesn't transpire in [non-televised] house shows. The guys that wrestle together never work together outside. So what Mexican wrestling does is just sell their guys so the office gets money.
There's no sequence, so when the wrestling guys come from Mexico, unless they're working against each other it's never the same. People go, "Well, what are we missing?" and it's because a Mexican wrestler is not educated to tell a story to an American-educated audience. And that won't happen because the Mexican companies are too blind, and they think they know it all, and they want to keep it as it was 100 years ago.
That's why martial arts has fallen off, and now it's MMA and reality-based systems: because tradition means 'from a time period from before.' But in MMA, it means I will go in there and headlock you, suplex you, ground and pound you. That's not martial arts. That's "I learned how to kick your ass."
The other thing that's going to affect them to the end of time is that promoters are cheap. The indie wrestling scene is booming, but there is no extra economy to invest. Until the Mexican wrestlers learn how to speak American English, and understand what they're saying, they're not going to communicate. And two, until American promoters get their visas so they can spend time here and learn the culture, and not come in and work for one day and then just leave, the system will never change.
AC: Do you still feel you're going to keep going in Mexico, or is it time to hang your boots up?
IH: I hung them up 20 years ago, and then now I've got 15 bookings next month. Of course I'm going to work. It's a necessary evil.
Nail in the Coffin – The Fall and Rise of Vampiro