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Dave Hillhouse

Oct 2, 2020

During the opening minutes, with a no-frills sequence featuring lots of indie wrestling clips, it isn’t certain that The Wrestler: A Q.T. Marshall Story is the type of film that is built for a broad audience. By the time the film has finished, you may just be recommending it to people specifically because they aren’t wrestling fans.

Frank Zarrillo is a filmmaker who was setting out to produce his first feature-length documentary through Big F Pictures; Mike Cuellari is a long-time pro wrestler who, as Q.T. Marshall, is much closer to his final match than his first. They crossed paths by happenstance and, over a five-year partnership that sounds as much like a friendship as anything, they worked together to create a rousing film of persistence and adaptability.

Zarrillo spoke with about the production, and why the biggest pay-off of Marshall’s perseverance isn’t even in the film.

It all started on a bit of a fluke, according to Zarrillo. After he had graduated from Full Sail University, he obtained work on Project Runway for two years, then was working construction while trying to find his next job in entertainment.

Having long had a dream of working for WWE, he put together an audition video for the 2015 version of Tough Enough. Seeing as his brother Nick had a wrestler by the name Q.T. Marshall in his circle of friends through work, they approached Marshall for some help and advice.

Through conversations with Marshall at The World Famous Monster Factory, the New Jersey wrestling school where Marshall coaches, the idea of a documentary came up with no sense of a focus for an exact subject. When Marshall mentioned that he was nearing 30 years old and almost ready to give up, save for one last push to make it big, Zarrillo knew immediately that Tough Enough was no longer the goal: he had a film to make.

With news that Gerald Brisco would be coming to the Factory in two weeks to run some try-outs, Zarrillo jumped in with both feet. “I got my friends together, bought the equipment, and started filming the Brisco footage,” he recalls.

The film transitions immediately from the wrestling ring of the opening, that which will serve as the backdrop to Marshall’s dreams of reaching greater heights as an in-ring performer, to his financial responsibilities as a husband. This means that, as he approaches his 30th birthday, he can’t give his whole day to the dream all the time, and thus works for his step-father’s Snap-On Tools business as well.

Zarrillo recalls that Marshall was almost embarrassed by the idea of footage showing him working, but the director assured him that most people watching the film will relate to him because of exactly those scenes.

Marshall’s wife, Carolyn, admits that when their relationship was new she wasn’t fully supportive until she started going to the shows and seeing the love that Q.T. had for the business. Now, she says she’s totally behind whatever he needs. Right now, he gets what he needs by keeping one foot in the wrestling world and working as a coach at the Factory, currently operated by Danny Cage.

It’s here that Marshall describes the mission he’s on for one last big push to break out as a wrestling star, one fed by students and trainers alike. Cage intends to be sure that the visiting Brisco (at the time a WWE talent scout) takes special notice of what Marshall can offer. Then-students Punishment Martinez, along with both Matt and Lisa Riddle, heap praise and gratitude upon Marshall. While Marshall explains that he was closing in on becoming a coach full-time, the students urge him to go for one more run.

Then again, Brian Heffron (The Blue Meanie) is also coaching at the Factory, and he candidly says that Marshall should have made this kind of push for himself five years ago. Even Cage acknowledges that Marshall may have already blown his chance with the way things ended at Ring of Honor. Though the film dances around it for a while, it eventually comes out in conversation that Marshall may have had his eyes on too many prizes at one time, seeking an NXT try-out while still working towards a potential contract with Ring of Honor. He ended up with neither.

Also adding a voice to the mix is Sherri, Marshall’s mom. She wants him to achieve what he wants for himself as well, though every point is always laced with realism. Marshall recalls a funny story about his mom seeing a visiting Sheamus (who was known at the Factory as “Irish Steve”) and bluntly saying to her son that if he hasn’t made it, there’s no chance that you will. Still, there are plenty of brushes with fame. We see Marshall work with Bryan Danielson and get Black Hole Slammed by Abyss on TNA, and there he is in the background doing a bit with JBL and MVP.

If there is one more push left in him, those around him spell out how hard it will be. Punishment Martinez describes the tryout at the WWE Performance Centre as one of the hardest things he’s ever done. Marshall himself discusses his struggle with weight issues over his whole life, and how one week of bad dieting can unravel 11 years of sacrifice. Carolyn has to step in as bad cop at the grocery store as Marshall attempts to smuggle some desserts into their shopping cart.

The middle part of the film is heavily focused on Brisco’s visit, and even in a film about Q.T. Marshall, there seems to be a lot of focus on the younger wrestlers. This is, perhaps in the end, more their time than his. Marshall says he’s ready for some back-up plans if it doesn’t work out, but his eyes and face don’t match his words.

The drills during the try-out look daunting and exhausting. Zarrillo lets the camera roll and captures a lot of the work that everyone is putting into achieving their dreams. Brisco comes off as friendly, knowledgeable, hopeful of finding something but quick to let people know what they should expect. “It’s a miserable lifestyle,” he says of wrestling, and that those who make it in the WWE get paid well but, in return, Vince McMahon gets his pound of flesh.

It’s at about the halfway point of the film that the narrative has succeeded in patiently setting up the moment when Brisco is focused on watching Marshall on the mic and in the ring, and we as the audience are hoping that he will see something that he will bring back to the WWE to talk about.

After the tryouts, Marshall will wait for a pre-arranged tryout at NXT in September, but in the meantime he continues to get some work for Ring of Honor. Both Kevin Kelly and Steve Corino have plenty of compliments to throw Marshall’s way, with Kelly saying he likely was on track for a Ring of Honor contract before he made his misstep in the past. Cage follows up by suggesting that once he reached Ring of Honor, Marshall may have taken his foot off the pedal, and hopes that he’s ready this time.

Yet, the story takes a turn that nobody wants to see. Cage calls Marshall into his office and closes the door on the film crew. We learn later that the WWE cancelled his NXT tryout as they didn’t feel it was financially necessary to bring him to Florida. Marshall exits the room and, for once, is in no mood to talk to the camera.

This leads to a scene at the dinner table with Carolyn, Q.T., and Sherri. What begins as a simple breaking of the news about the NXT tryout turns into a chance for all involved to get some things that seem to have been building up for a long time out in the open. Marshall says it’s just one more hoop to jump through, but Sherri reminds him of how many years he’s been jumping already. She tells him that her own friends are already retired and she’s working two jobs, and she wants something better for him. Carolyn is quieter, but resolute that she doesn’t want to see him chasing more disappointment.

Of that particular scene, Zarrillo knew something special was unfolding right in front of him. “They were just supposed to talk about what was going on,” he says. “But it was like a forum for them to say what they wanted, stuff that was on their chest for a long time. Once we shut the camera off, it was calm and everybody sort of broke off on their own.”

The ending of the film takes a few quick turns, as Marshall is very down on himself and questioning the decisions he’s made about how to break into the top companies, feeling destined now to drive a truck all day and hate every minute of it. From there, though, we’re told that he quit the Snap-On company and, seemingly out of the blue, opened up a wrestling school alongside Glacier (Ray Lloyd) called One Fall Power Factory in Georgia. It all seems to happen so fast that a statement put in by Zarrillo to keep chasing your dreams almost identifies for us that yes, it’s over.

Ironically, though, Marshall’s wrestling story did not end there, and since production wrapped, he has made his way onto the AEW roster.

The reason this didn’t make the film is purely pragmatic, Zarrillo explains. Just as the final cut was taking shape, Marshall was acting as a go-between, delivering messages from Cody Rhodes about his desire to film a new ending with the AEW connection. “The cut was done,” Zarrillo says. “Closed captioning was done. I couldn’t go back.”

Still, it doesn’t change the heart of the story, and, as Zarrillo points out, you can’t write a real-life story. “Some people were so disappointed with how it ended,” he explains. “They say it’s not right. What am I supposed to do? You see it so many times where people don’t get exactly what they want.”

The story of the film itself, however, continues to build momentum. As Zarrillo sent copies of his film out to festivals and competitions only to receive letter after letter of “No thanks,” he began to question whether this film that he thought was so good was different in the eyes of others.

Sometimes all it takes is one “Yes,” however, and Zarrillo remembers the surprise and excitement of gaining entry into the San Diego Comic Con Film Festival in 2017. “Maybe I did do something right!” he says, laughing a bit. He was given six tickets to the festival, so his crew and Marshall headed to San Diego. Even then, however, voices of doubt entered his mind as he watched the films that he was up against. “I was so down on myself, wondering why did I come all the way out here?”

When he heard the words The Wrestler: A Q.T. Marshall Story announced as winner for best documentary, however, everything that he, Marshall, their families, and the whole crew had poured into the production was rewarded.

To top it all off, Zarrillo explains how the whole project almost never came to be. “The first time I was supposed to meet Mike, it was a Saturday and I was supposed to work. My dad was mad at me for not doing the job. If I had chosen to work and made that minimal amount for the day I would have never met Mike.”

Call it fortune, luck, karma, or just the product of keeping focused on a goal, it doesn’t take much to see a parallel journey of sorts between both Zarrillo and Marshall. Both have made it to the next level, but I wouldn’t expect either of them to let off the pedal from here on out.

The Wrestler: A Q.T. Marshall Story was initially released in October 2019, and is available for rental or on DVD through Amazon, and in other retail outlets.

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