At some point in your life, you’ve most likely dreamt of becoming a pro wrestler.
If you never pursued that dream, James Willems has proven that you still have time. He and Lawrence Sonntag are big deals in the videogame community – they run Funhaus, a YouTube channel with more than 1 million subscribers and more than 500 million views. Their latest work is a documentary titled Haus of Pain, which follows the friends as they train for their first match. Oh, and they only have a week to get ready.
It’s a fun, inspirational journey that any wrestling fan will enjoy. Johnny Mundo even shows up!
Running 58 minutes and directed by Mat Hames, Haus of Pain airs exclusively on FIRST, Rooster Teeth’s streaming service available at RoosterTeeth.com and on Xbox One, Apple TV, iOS and Android apps.
I had the pleasure of speaking with James and Lawrence this week to ask all the nerdy wrestling questions on my mind. Here is the edited conversation.
How did the idea for Haus of Pain come about?
Lawrence Sonntag: “A lot of vanity mostly.”
James Willems: “(laughs) Yeah, a lot of vanity. I’ve been a lifelong wrestling fan. As an adult, I’ve stopped watching it, but never stopped appreciating it. Rooster Teeth, the company we work for, started doing documentary segments based on major events and also putting their camera-facing personalities and producers into situations specifically designed with their interests. It started as a joke, but I said if we’re just doing wish fulfillment, I’ve always wanted to train to be a wrestler. I had just taken Lawrence to his first wrestling show in Reseda, California and he was like, oh man, that was really cool. We actually saw a flier for Johnny Mundo’s tag team training camp or something like that and we said we should do that. Then one of us said even better, we should pitch it as a doc.”
Lawrence: “It was a logistics problem. We live in Los Angeles and like most Angelenos, we hate to drive anywhere. The wrestling school was about an hour away, and maybe two hours with traffic. With a full-time job, it just became less and less probable that we would ever actually go and be able to commit the time to it. The behind-the-scenes thinking was well, if we can’t do it off the clock, maybe we can do it on the clock. So at noon we could drive out to the Valley, well, the deep Valley, to take wrestling lessons.”
Did you face any criticism about pitching a pro wrestling idea?
Lawrence: “Not really. It’s funny, there was more assumptions than what actually happened. From the outside, it’s justifiable to think that there’s maybe condescension towards pro wrestling. And yeah, we would get questions like ‘Are you taking this seriously? Are you doing this ironically?’ I know for a fact James does not treat the physical prowess of wrestlers or their physical condition lightly, and certainly, I learned to never question that either. We both went into it respecting the spectacle of it, maybe gaining an even deeper appreciation for it.”
James: “We were embedded in the world of it where everybody understands and respects it for what it is. We were kind of sheltered from the outside criticism of it’s fake or whatever. I dealt with that in my own life in the past. Generally, what I come across is people underappreciated it, not necessarily being critical of it. Most people were just surprised like, wrestling, really? That’s something you’re into? And I’m like, yeah, I am.”
Why did you choose to train at the Millennium Wrestling Academy?
James: “There’s two major schools in the Los Angeles area: Santino Brothers and the Millennium Wrestling Academy. Both were equidistant away from us, and neither conveniently located. Ultimately, we settled on Millennium because the owner, Logan X, has an appreciation for the underdog story. He has a firm belief that anyone can do it. He was the one who engineered the whole training. He said it’s possible, it’s going to take a lot on your part, but here’s how we can make it work.”
The most fascinating part to me is how welcoming and supportive the wrestlers and trainers were. You always hear these stories about wrestlers trying to push people away from the business. Were you surprised that wasn’t the case?
Lawrence: “I certainly was. So I come from a martial arts background, and that atmosphere you’re talking about of pushing people away, is even more intense there. If you stick around, it becomes a very selective process. The people that stick around largely have some mental problems that keep them coming back to that atmosphere.
I was pretty shocked when everyone at Millennium was incredibly nice, constructive, patient and welcoming. My impression was they would be like, oh, here are these assholes that think they can walk in here and get a match right away while I’ve been busting my ass for two years and haven’t gotten anything. I was expecting us to catch some pretty “accidental” hard knocks. It ended up not happening at all. The vibe I got was everybody was just happy to have another friend to talk wrestling with. I had no idea it was going to be like that and I’m so happy it was. That documentary would have been a lot harder to shoot if it wasn’t.”
James: “We all made a conscious effort to be respectful and to not presume that we knew how it worked. We just wanted to learn and do honor of the sport that you love. The mentality of the school seemed to be that the wrestling industry, in and of itself, is difficult. It’s hard enough just trying to make it out there, so there’s no reason to make the training for that any more difficult. The whole time we were training side by side with champions and they had no more ego about it than we did. It was pretty remarkable.”
Did you pay or was it a deal where you’ll train for free in exchange for the publicity?
Lawrence: “I think that was the understood agreement. I felt more comfortable knowing we could maybe get some new eyeballs on them and sort of expose what they’re doing to a wider audience. We still paid for the classes—that said, they were extremely cheap. It’s not as much the money aspect that they’re in it for. They just like training with like-minded people. Individual classes were like $10-$15. It cost us more in gas to get out there than it did to train. I haven’t seen that level of passion in something aside from video games. To see it in person, and no offense passionate video gamers, but these are people in somewhat good physical condition and can actually talk to each other somewhat normally, and have healthy relationships with each other, was really inspiring.”
Why did you only have a week to train?
James: “Because documentaries cost money. We were dealing with a crew that is based out of Texas and were flying out to us in Los Angeles. Once you start doing offsite location stuff, the cost goes up.
There’s an inherent dramatic challenge tied to doing it in that short amount of time. Like when we found out that was the case, we figured there was no way it could work. That makes for good drama for the documentary, but also, more realistically, sometimes you can’t spend months and months and months on two guys training to be professional wrestlers. Also, there’s the concern that our day-to-day jobs do require our presence. The more that something like this can minimize our absence, the better.”
Erika Slay is credited with designing the gear you guys wore to the ring and for your match. How did you go about finding her?
James: “She’s a costume designer for Rooster Teeth. We had ideas for our characters and how they’d dress and there’s a portion of the documentary that shows us sketching those out on a pad. We had those terrible drawings that I don’t think helped Erika at all, but fortunately, we played WWE2K17 and we built ourselves and our costumes in the game. We took 360 images of that and sent those off to her and she was able to make them look similar.
When that box of gear arrived, I got really worried because I felt we’d show up to a wrestling match and people would be upset that we thought it was a joke. Luckily, when we went to Johnny Mundo’s for the first time, his only criticism was that maybe we didn’t go far enough. When you’re wearing his fur coat and his glasses that have crucifixes on them, then you start to really appreciate how candidly they can treat this industry while also loving it more than anything else.”
Lawrence: “I was worried that we’d show up and everybody would be in like sweatshirts with holes in them because they were so Rocky, try to Live on a Prayer type thing. Even when we got to the show, there were dudes in their most splendid regalia. One of the dudes’ boyfriends even made him this incredible battle jacket. It’s an incredible thing to see the most ripped dudes complimenting each other’s boots and jackets.”
Did you stop watching wrestling before Johnny Mundo came on the scene?
James: “I had, but I still played the games. I think it was 2K8 and he was a character in that and I remember him coming out in slow motion and having all these crazy, high-flying moves. So I was definitely aware of him and I also knew that he had moved on to Lucha Underground.
It was pretty surreal. It’s the kind of thing where you’re meeting someone who has been at the top, and you’re expecting him to have a fair amount of ego about it, but he really doesn’t. Like Lawrence said, once you get in the room with a wrestling fan, you already have something in common with them. He made it really easy for us to feel comfortable because he was just talking to us about wrestling. What are our favorite moves, favorite wrestlers? He was showing us the championships and all the things he’s acquired over the years.
Even training in his ring and having him do front flips and moonsaults off the top turnbuckle, and then he was like, you can try. It was like someone left us with a dangerous uncle. But he made sure through the whole process that we were safe. It was a lot of fun.”
What has been the reaction from Funhaus fans as well as wrestling fans?
James: “From the Funhaus/Rooster Teeth community, it’s been very positive. I always like seeing the comments that say I’m not interested in wrestling, but I really enjoyed this documentary. That was the hope especially with the two perspectives we wanted it to have: wish fulfillment because it was a dream come true for me, and then Lawrence putting a challenge in front of himself and committing to it fully until he succeeded at it. These are things people can relate to no matter their interest in the subject matter.
From the wrestling community, I can’t tell the difference. I feel like there’s a lot of overlap. For people who like wrestling and don’t know who we are, the reaction has been the same. I have seen several people say man, maybe I should try wrestling. That’s really great and a really cool finish line for the whole thing.”
Lawrence: “We have one fan who has been a longtime fan and played some communal games with us, and she’s even in some content so the community knows her. She basically got the fever again right away. She used to do backyard wrestling and then got out of it, but she’s back in it now. You catch the excitement and it doesn’t get out of you.
We’ve even talked about going back because there’s a lot of pain and a lot of work, but those high moments are really high. If it were destructive, I’d be really worried. But it’s like chasing a good drug.”
James: “We just got done doing a live show East Coast tour that was supposed to be about video games, but what we ended up doing was more of a wrestling performance. Lawrence bodyslammed through tables and we did powerbombs and all kinds of stuff. It was like man, it’s been two weeks since wrestling school, it’s been a while since we’ve done any wrestling, how can we do it? We just integrated it into our content in different ways. Hopefully, that can persist in some fashion.”
So the door isn’t closed for another match?
James: “Absolutely not. Absolutely not for me. It’s the kind of thing where we finished the match and felt great, but Lawrence and I were like, we should have done some suplexes. Lawrence is like maybe I should have gone to the top rope. If only we had a little more time, we could have added more moves and more words to our glossary of wrestling language.”
Lawrence: “I finished and felt satisfied, but I’m very rarely impressed with anything I do. I hold myself to a really high standard. I remember expressing an amount of disappointment and Logan said something that stuck with me. ‘I haven’t done a single match in which I haven’t felt that I could have done better.’ I guess it’s part of the sickness. You go out there and do your best, and then immediately, you think about what you could have done and then you’re already filling all the spots you want to do in your head. In your spare time, when you’re in the shower or cooking, those thoughts creep back in there. The only way to get them out is in the ring. So I couldn’t imagine walking away from it at this point. People wrestle into their late 40s and early 50s, and even beyond, because how do you walk away from something like that?”
I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask: What is the greatest wrestling videogame of all time?
James: “For me, oh man, I’m going to say WrestleMania 2000 even though I know a lot of people like No Mercy.”
Yeah, I’m surprised. Why WrestleMania 2000?
James: “No Mercy had a lot of extra features like backstage brawls, but WrestleMania 2000 was just so pure. It had a huge roster of moves but it wasn’t so complex and riddled with stuff that it got confusing. I used to book my own pay-per-views because you could make the computer wrestle itself. WCW vs. NWO World Tour and Revenge, I was like, man, this would be even better if it was WWF. Then it became WWF and I was like this is perfect.”
Lawrence: “Playing those late 90s N64 wrestling games was pretty much the first exposure I had to wrestling aside from seeing kids walk around school in Austin 3:16 shirts. I had the most fun and the most memories with WCW vs. NWO World Tour. You can still see the DNA in the mechanics of today’s wrestling games, too. Even more recently, what was it, WWE All Stars, the one where it’s like the NBA Jam of wrestling games, they used that mechanic set almost exclusively. I really enjoyed that one, too, because it was so absurd and it had the mechanics I remembered.
Those [late 90s N64] games came on a system that had four controller cords. Along with Mario Kart 64 and the original Smash Brothers, those were the party staple. It was also the last hurrah of couch gaming because you had to be in the same room together. It was an atmosphere surprisingly similar to people going insane at practice when dudes are practicing moves. When you land a big move on somebody, people lose their minds. It’s pretty cool, it’s a moment.
It was that magic moment in time when you had to be in the same room as all your buds, the controls were easy to pick up, and it led to cool moments where you’re screaming and yelling and beating your friends to death with an N64 controller.”
James: “I’m also going to throw out a runner up: WrestleFest. It had Earthquake in it and not many games include Earthquake. Shout out to Earthquake.”
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