By David Krueger Herald Writer
Lake Stevens wrestlers are going from being on the mat to on the big screen.
A perennial wrestling powerhouse with four state wrestling championships in the past six years, the Vikings are going to be able to see themselves starring on the big screen in a documentary about the journey that encompassed their 2011 wrestling season and what life was like “On the Mat.”
The documentary, written and directed by Fredric Golding and narrated by former Lake Stevens wrestler — and current “Parks and Recreation” star — Chris Pratt debuts at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City on Monday. It will also be available then to watch for free on the TFF’s website (www.tribecafilm.org).
Starring local athletes, “On the Mat” follows the 2010-2011 Vikings wrestling team through its season, all the way to the state tournament. It focuses on five particular wrestlers and their head coach, Brent Barnes.
“(Pratt) always thought it would be cool to do a documentary on the wrestling program. He had a great experience,” Barnes said. “He put together a pitch, and pitched it to a couple different networks and MTV was willing to give some startup money to do a pilot.”
Golding said he met Pratt through some mutual friends, and they instantly “clicked.” Pratt told him his idea, and Golding thought it would be interesting to look into wrestling, a notoriously overlooked sport.
What he found was an incredible wrestling community in Lake Stevens, one that he said made him feel welcome immediately.
“There’s a line that Chris says in the narration … ‘Wrestling is to Lake Stevens what football is to Midland, Texas. It’s simply everything.’ That’s really true,” Golding said.
Barnes had some reservations about turning his wrestlers to movie stars. With high school kids the focus of the documentary, there were lots of opportunities for young student athletes to get caught up in the moment and perhaps say something they might regret.
“Anytime people are going to be filming it’s permanent,” Barnes said. “Anytime you film kids and they’re out of your sight there’s always concerns. After a couple weeks I just came to the conclusion that we’re gonna do what we do and it’s gonna be honest. We work real hard and try to do it the right way.
“They’re not perfect. But who is? We just wanted to present an honest portrayal of what it’s like.”
Everybody on the Lake Stevens team — and every single one of their opponents — had to sign a release to be in the movie. Some declined, which was OK with Barnes.
One wrestler who signed the release with little hesitation was then-sophomore Eric Soler.
“I was like, ‘Yeah I’m gonna be a movie star! This is gonna be sweet,’” said Soler, now a junior.
Soler became one of the five Vikings — along with Jesse Peterson, Jack Reeves, Ryan Rodrigo and Steven Walkley — to be featured when he tore his anterior cruciate ligament. His fight back from injury is one of the main story arcs of the documentary.
“(Soler’s) an amazing kid. He’s truly, truly incredible,” Golding said. “How anybody in their right mind can wrestle with a torn ACL is beyond me. This kid has a mental toughness that I’ve never seen in all the athletes that I worked with.”
Working with Golding took a little while to get used to, according to Soler. He said it was a few weeks before he got used to the camera following him around school, to his house and even Safeway.
“It kind of sucks at the same time because we’d have to repeat stuff that we did,” Soler said. “I was with some friends and we were walking out of Safeway. They missed it and wanted it on film. They had us walk all the way back in and all the way out to the car and we were like, ‘Oh are you kidding me?’ It was freezing outside.”
In the end, Soler got used to the cameras. He said they may have even provided a little extra motivation on the mat.
“Yeah, there probably was a little bit,” he said. “It’s not like you want to lose in front of the camera on national TV. I feel like maybe in practice there might have been a little more motivation to some people. We always try to win. It doesn’t matter if there’s a camera there or not.”
The director said Soler, Barnes and the city of Lake Stevens were very helpful and made him feel welcome.
“Lake Stevens was great. The high school was great,” Golding said. “They were very, very welcoming. … (Barnes) let me really be around with the camera. There were very few instances where he said turn the camera off. He made me feel welcome on the mat at Lake Stevens.”
Golding, who was nominated for an Academy Award for directing “Hank Aaron: Chasing the Dream,” tried to remain unbiased, but couldn’t help to begin rooting for his subjects. They returned the favor by giving his documentary a fairy tale ending: a state championship.
“It’s very hard to be objective when I’m involved in it,” Golding said. “When I step back, there’s no question I wanted Lake Stevens to win the state championship. Frankly I couldn’t have written the script better than the story that I had. I think people would not have believed the script for the story I captured on film. It’s just the Cinderella story.”
Originally a 30-minute documentary, the 87-minute full-length movie, which premiered at Lake Stevens High School in November, will now be shown in front of a much bigger audience at Tribeca, which takes place April 18-29. Golding is excited to see how a “New York audience” responds to his film. He hopes to find a buyer so that “On the Mat” could get a national release, whether it’s through DVDs, Netflix or even in theaters.
Pratt, who on Twitter said he wrestled in the 215-pound weight class, also hopes his movie finds a following.
“Please enjoy the HS wrestling doc I produced/narrated, ‘On The Mat.’ I’m very proud,” Pratt tweeted on April 10.
Barnes thinks the documentary turned out pretty well. He said there’s a little profanity, and it’s probably geared toward middle school students and above.
“There are some very dramatic moments,” Barnes said. “I don’t know if I’d want my eight year old watching it. … But the end result was a pretty good documentary of what it’s like to go through a high school wrestling season at Lake Stevens.”