2 Utah filmmakers tell the wild, unauthorized story of ‘American Gladiators’

Jared Hess and Tony Vainuku team up on 5-part Netflix docuseries ‘Muscles & Mayhem.’

(Netflix) The behind-the-scenes stories of the '80s/'90s competition series "American Gladiators" are told in the five-part documentary series "Muscles & Mayhem: An Unauthorized Story of American Gladiators," directed by Utah filmmakers Jared Hess and Tony Vainuku. The series debuts June 28, 2023, on Netflix.

The most recent documentary series Jared Hess produced for Netflix was “Murder Among the Mormons,” the story of forger-turned-murderer/bomber Mark Hofmann. Tony Vainuku’s most recent Netflix docuseries told the tale of football star Manti Te’o, whose life was nearly ruined when he was catfished.

And the new project from the Utah filmmakers is about … “American Gladiators”?

That cheesy late’80s/early’90s TV series that featured musclebound hunks in weird competitions against average Joes? Really?

“The show was absurd,” said Hess, who’s best known for directing ”Napoleon Dynamite.” “I mean, it was crazy. It was violent. It was sexy. It was hilarious.” It “encapsulated … all the things about the late ‘80s and early ‘90s in such a fun way from the perspective of pop culture. It was just a huge part of the zeitgeist. …

“So what we wanted to know going into it was, man, who were these actual people? I mean, they were all playing these larger-than-life personas. … But who were the people behind the scenes, and what were the stories that we didn’t see? Because we knew that there had to be an equally crazy story behind the production.”

That there was. “Muscles & Mayhem: An Unauthorized Story of American Gladiators” is a serious documentary about something that’s kind of silly.

And, in addition to all the absurdities, there were a lot of dark sides to the “Gladiators” saga. Injuries. Steroid and drug use. And it’s not an exaggeration to say that the gladiators were exploited by the show’s producers.

There’s an arc to the story — from the inept inception of the series through its rise in popularity. By the second half of the first season, the gladiators had been cast as villains, competing against average Joe and average Jane contestants.

“It was a phenomenon,” Hess said. “Because there was a David-and-Goliath aspect to the show, everybody wanted to compete. And [viewers] would see themselves in the competitors that were on the show. Like, ‘Oh, man. There’s a middle school math teacher going up against the gladiators. And that aspect of it was so fun to see. People that would line up to audition. It was crazy. I mean, it was such a huge show.”

The gladiators — who went by names like Nitro, Gemini, Malibu, Zap, Blaze, Laser and Titan — became stars, and then had to deal with huge fame and tiny salaries.

It was the late 1980s and early 1990s, so no one should be surprised that the use of steroids ran rampant. (To ward off criticism, the producers promised steroid testing. They did not, however, promise to reveal the results of those tests, or take any action against gladiators who tested positive.)

Through the lens of 2023, it’s astonishing that (a) the gladiators were paid so little, and (b) that when they were injured while making the show — which happened a lot — they got no support from the production company.

In some ways, this is a typical Hollywood story — great success followed by declining popularity and a fall into embarrassing has-been territory. Did you know there was not just an “American Gladiators” tour, but an “American Gladiators” dinner theater?

Big fans

Hess was 10 years old when “American Gladiators” premiered. Vainuku was just 2. And they both grew up watching the show, both in first-run and reruns.

“I was a diehard fan,” Hess said. “I don’t know any kid that wasn’t at the time. If you grew up in the ‘90s, it was just a staple of the culture. It was so outrageous and fun. And I’ve just been a fan of it my whole life.”

Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune Filmmaker Jared Hess, seen here at The Salt Lake Tribune's Sundance preview event in 2015, is co-director of “Muscles & Mayhem: An Unauthorized Story of American Gladiators," debuting on June 28, 2023, on Netflix.

Vainuku’s father — a bodybuilder — was into the show, “so it was really natural for me to get in there,” he said.

Working on the series, “we were a couple of fanboys getting the first kind of sneak peek at stuff,” Hess said. “It was a riot.” When Netflix approached him about the “American Gladiators” project, and he “jumped at the chance. And then I was, like, ‘I’ll only do it if I can party with Tony.’”

Officially, this is the first project the two have worked on together. Unofficially, they’re longtime collaborators.

“Jared has always been secretly behind the scenes with me my whole career,” Vainuku said. That includes his award-winning documentary about Polynesian football players in Utah, “In Football We Trust,” which Vainuku directed with Utah-raised filmmaker Erika Cohn.

“Jared has been … really walking me off of ledges and helping me. I mean, he’s basically been a second director almost, without getting credit for it,” Vainuku said.

Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune Tony Vainuku, director of "In Football We Trust," talks with the media as he attends the Sundance premiere of his documentary at the Salt Lake Community College in 2015.

Vainuku was working on the Manti Te’o documentary when Hess started work on the “American Gladiators” project, and jumped in as quickly as he could.

“It was a natural fit. We’ve known each other for years,” Vainuku said. “And for me, it’s a huge opportunity, because, obviously, Jared is a legend. I’ve always wanted to do a piece with him. So it’s a huge milestone for me, personally, in my career to work with Jared.”

And the partnership worked for this series.

“With Jared being such a fan and bringing the humor, me jumping in with some of the drama, … it was just, for me, such a natural and happy marriage of storytelling,” Vainuku said.

Off to a terrible start

One of the more astonishing parts of the docuseries is clips from the original pilot for the series — a “hot mess” filmed at an equestrian center that, according to Hess, turned into a “disaster.”

It was so bad they knew producers couldn’t show it to programmers at stations around the country, so they cut it down to a sizzle reel — a few minutes of highlights that they took to a national TV programmers’ convention.

“That story, to us, was just hilarious,” Hess said. “When we heard how bad it was, we were, like, ‘Oh my gosh! Please, we hope this exists.’ And the director of it at the time actually had a copy and we were like, ‘Hallelujah!’”

It wasn’t a good copy — it was on VHS — but they included pieces of it in their docuseries. And it’s just amazing to look at because it is such a train wreck.

“The best moments of it, which are just so pathetic and depressing, it was comedy gold. It was, like, ‘How do we showcase what a nightmare it was?’”

(Netflix) Danny Lee Clark, right, and three of the female gladiators.

They used clips of the debacle, and interviewed those who were there — including the gladiators.

The original gladiators speak

The Netflix series features interviews with producers, the director, studio executives and contestants on “Gladiators,” but the focus is on the gladiators themselves. (It’s a considerably different take than the recent ESPN “30 for 30″ documentary, which revolves around controversial “American Gladiators” creator/Elvis impersonator Johnny Ferrarro. He’s a much smaller part of “Muscles & Mayhem.”)

“It was just such a great chance to let the gladiators tell their personal stories of struggle,” Hess said. “It was a peek behind the curtain of one of the greatest shows of the last few decades.”

“And we were fortunate enough to get the six core gladiators that started the whole show,” Vainuku said, “and really just tell the arc of the rise and fall of the show and the characters fall out and how their lives moved on.”

(Netflix) Danny Lee Clark — aka Nitro — was one of the original American Gladiators.

It helped that Danny Lee Clark — better known as Nitro, one of the original gladiators — is also a producer on the Netflix version. He was “instrumental in tracking down the other gladiators,” Hess said. There’s a moment when Nitro is being interviewed by Hess and Vainuku, who are off-camera, and he tells them that he’ll come get them in Utah if they don’t represent him correctly.

“He’s looking at Jared when he says that!” Vainuku said.

The interviews with the gladiators come across as stunningly honest, if only because the interviewees seem so completely unconcerned about how they come across.

“I think part of the reason that they were so honest [was] it was an episode deep in their past,” Hess said, “A lot of them were at a point in their life where they were really comfortable talking about these things. Which was surprising. They just kind of owned it.”

Not that all the stories match up. The non-gladiators have a perspective that’s different from the gladiators, and the gladiators remember some things differently. And it has been almost 3½ decades since the show premiered.

For at least some of the gladiators, the show was the highlight of their lives. “Some of them, this is all they kind of had their whole life,” Vainuku said. “So I would love for just their story to be told. … For people to walk away and go, ‘Oh, wow! That’s who Nitro was. That’s who the people were behind it.’ Feeling like they know who these characters were. And feeling this nostalgic feeling of the show again.”

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