How 30 for 30's 'Nature Boy' became a reality

Flair shares excitement for new documentary (1:26)

Former pro wrestler Ric Flair is eager for fans to get a glimpse of his professional and personal life in the ESPN 30 for 30 film, "Nature Boy". (1:26)

I grew up a huge wrestling fan during the 1980s. I lived right outside Philadelphia. I used to beg my dad to take me to see the NWA. The WWF used to come to The Spectrum in Philadelphia, which wasn't exactly a lap of luxury, but the Civic Center, where NWA ran shows, made The Spectrum look like a palace.

My dad took me one time to see Ric Flair -- May 4, 1986. He was wrestling Ricky Morton for the NWA world heavyweight championship. I was a little kid, 8 years old. I kind of pushed and shoved my way down to the aisle as Flair was walking down to ring. I remember I held my four fingers up and gave him a loud, "Woooo!" He actually turned right at me and stared. I'll never forget what he said.

"Don't 'Woooo' at me you little brat."

I thought, "Wow. What a jerk." I always remembered, though, what a loyalty he had to his character. I always found him to be a very fascinating figure in this world of professional wrestling -- a world where you're never sure what's real and what's not, and that was especially true in the 1980s. Ric Flair was real. As a filmmaker, I found that incredibly interesting.

So fast-forward about 30-odd years, and I'm making a 30 for 30 film titled "I Hate Christian Laettner." I'm looking for a pop culture figure to interview to talk about what makes a good villain, and to me, the greatest villain of all time is the Nature Boy.

Flair is a huge sports fan too, so we set up an interview, and the one clip of him that appeared in the film was at the very beginning -- and it created a big buzz on social media. Lots of people were into it, lots of tweets like, "Wow, Ric Flair's in this movie. Nature Boy. Woooo!"

John Dahl of ESPN Films noticed it. For the longest time I had been pitching them wrestling films and having it kind of fall on deaf ears. But John said, "You know, I really am intrigued by the reaction Ric Flair had gotten. He seems very relevant today. What do you think about doing a film on Ric?"

I practically jumped out the window, I was so excited. I said, "Definitely."

I reached out to Ric's management at the time, in the spring and summer of 2015, and they were very interested. That kind of got the ball rolling. We had a couple of hoops to jump through -- mainly that ESPN wanted some assurances that WWE would cooperate with footage -- and luckily, WWE was incredibly cooperative from the beginning.

Our first interview for the film was with Ric in October 2015. We sat down in Atlanta for roughly five hours and interviewed him inside of a wrestling ring. He was incredibly forthcoming, and very excited that he was a part of a 30 for 30. The fact that this was going to be the first 30 for 30 feature-length film on a wrestler, and it was on Ric, he understood the magnitude.

So that was kind of our jumping-off point, but there were so many places to go from there. You have to understand, Ric Flair has had a career that has lasted about 40 years, so there's a very wide net of people you can talk to. Being a wrestling fan, I had a list of specific people, some more famous than others with whom I wanted to speak.

I started just reaching out to people -- some cold calling, and others where Ric would pass on their contact info for me. For instance, The Undertaker, that was a huge get for us. He's not someone who does very many interviews, let alone where he breaks character. Ric shared his contact information with me over the iPhone and it came through as Undertaker. So, I was very nervous calling, because I didn't even know how to address him; certain wrestlers find it disrespectful if you call them by their given name and you don't know them.

So I called him up, half expecting him to answer like, "For whom the bell tolls," or something really intimidating. But he just said, "Hello?" like anyone else. He was very friendly. I said, "Oh, hey Mr. Taker. This is Rory, the filmmaker." Luckily Ric had already spoken to him, and he's obviously well-revered by his peers, so people wanted to talk to us.

It was just a yearlong process of reaching out to some of the biggest names in wrestling, including Shawn Michaels, Sting, Ricky Steamboat and Triple H, just gathering a lot of content. There were some lesser-known names who were big in the NWA during the 1980s, such as Nikita Koloff, George South and Baby Doll, all of whom added a lot of great context.

When it was all said and done, we did, I believe, 46 interviews. About 23 or 24, about half, made it into the film. We were able to secure, for the very first time on camera, Ric's first wife Leslie. She was one of the first people to know Ric before he was the Nature Boy. He was simply Richard Fliehr to her. Ric's son David helped set that up.

We did some other non-interview shoots with Ric, too. We filmed him and his daughter, Ashley, at an autograph signing. We filmed Ric in his home in Atlanta, and then we shot some b-roll of Ric in one of his robes coming out to the ring; a lot of the shots that you see in the open and close come from that last shoot. We also spent some time going through pictures and old home movies with him. So, it was kind of like I was in and out of his life for about two years.

The very first thing we did for the film was with Ric Flair, and the very last interview done for the film, conducted in February or maybe March 2017, was also with Ric Flair. We did all that, but along the way Ric was getting a little impatient, wondering when the movie was going to come out. I told him, "Please be patient. This is a marathon, not a sprint."

Then it came down to cutting everything together, and it took a lot of effort to mold everything into the finished product everyone will see. The film actually went through three totally different versions. The very first version of the film I edited myself, and when I turned it in, the folks at ESPN -- mainly John Dahl -- were not thrilled with it. He felt that I didn't really take many risks and it was kind of a "by-the-book" presentation. That was disheartening.

We went back and did a second cut that was very centralized on the 1980s, where the '80s as a decade were more the main character than Ric Flair. John really disliked that cut. But then I edited a new open that he did really like, and that shaped the way the film ultimately turned out. It was a very personal open -- just Ric in his own words.

John said, "You know, I really like this idea of the film being personal, where we're really hearing more of Ric." He also said, "I really like your conversation with Ric from the first interview. You guys kind of have an interesting back and forth. ... I think you should do another interview with him."

I was planning on doing a final interview anyway, but John really pushed for something different. "On this one, I think you definitely should have an angle where you film yourself as well." It wasn't a suggestion based out of wanting to put myself in front of a camera or in the film. It was more so that some of Ric's reactions to the questions were very interesting, and you kind of needed to hear the question that his answer had context.

The more conversational feel that John pushed for wound up being great for the film. I hired a good friend of mine, Charlie Askew, as the editor, and working together with him, he kind of cultivated what you see right now, which is the third version of the film in its entirety.

Another crucial element of the film came together by necessity. During the interviews, there were some incredible stories told, and we had to decide the best way to visualize the stories for the viewer. We could've used pictures, like Ken Burns' style of storytelling, but there really weren't pictures that illustrated some of the stories we were telling. Another technique we considered were recreations with actors, but I couldn't really envision using an actor to play Ric Flair.

Then a filmmaking mentor of mine, Jim Jorden, suggested using animation. I really liked how animation was used in the 30 for 30 film "Benji". And the world of wrestling during the 1980s was a bit cartoonish too, so animation seemed as if it could be the perfect solution. I reached out to various companies and decided to go with Six-Point Harness Animation out of Los Angeles. The guys over there are huge wrestling fans, and I feel they really made many of the stories told in the film come to life. As a filmmaker, I don't have a distinct style. I'm willing to use whatever technique tells the best story possible, and I'm really happy with how those animations ultimately turned out in the film.

It was all lining up, and then Ric had his health scare. We discussed how to handle the film as the situation evolved, and talked quite a bit about how it might affect how the story was told. There was a time when it looked as if Ric wasn't going to make it, and that definitely would have impacted the ending of the film and how we presented it. We wanted the film to be evergreen, so that it could last forever. But fortunately he recovered. The future was uncertain, but he was stable.

We thought about it, and we decided to address the health situation in a director's statement, which will run during a commercial break. Once it looked as if he was going to make a full recovery, we decided to not actually put it in the body of the film. We like where the film ends right now, with Ric living vicariously through his daughter and her wrestling career. That's not changing. That has already happened, and that's how he views himself.

My goal from the beginning was to make a film that appealed to wrestling fans and non-wrestling fans alike. Something that doesn't talk down to wrestling fans, but at the same time, if you don't like wrestling or know much about it, you can still enjoy the film. I was hopeful that it would get a good reaction, and with the New York and Atlanta premieres, and the other people who've seen it, so far it has been good. I wasn't sure how Ric was going to react to it, because there are some tough things to hear for him in the film -- especially from his children.

We first screened the film with him, before he got sick, at San Diego Comic-Con at the end of July. Talk about an interesting experience. We're sitting in his hotel room while people are saying in the film that he has a drinking problem, and we're watching the film while he's drinking.

But he really liked it. Some parts were upsetting to him, but to his credit, he didn't want to change anything or gloss over anything. So, that was fulfilling.

It's important to note that this is not a chronology of Ric Flair's greatest matches or career. That already exists in the WWE's archives. This is really a film that tries to encapsulate who Ric Flair was, and is, and at the same time, it's about wrestling and the appeal of what he did within that business.

Most of what I've seen on wrestling has either been incredibly tragic, where they just look at the underbelly of the industry, or it's just not breaking any new ground. Hopefully our film is something that appeals to a wide audience, and does break new ground -- stands the test of time as something that, if you want to understand what wrestling was in the 1980s, the appeal of it, the appeal of Ric Flair and why he relevant today, you can look at this film.