HBO's 'Andre the Giant' Director Jason Hehir on Finding the Man Behind the Myth
Andre the Giant is forever remembered as a larger-than-life figure whose reach and fanbase went far beyond the ring. But the story behind the man behind the “Eighth Wonder of the World” has never really been told.
Enter Andre the Giant, an HBO Sports and WWE documentary delving into the life and career of André René Roussimoff. The film features never-before-seen footage and interviews from those that knew him including Vince McMahon, Hulk Hogan, Ric Flair, Billy Crystal, Rob Reiner, family members and more.
The JMH Films project is years in the making, envisioned by executive producer and Ringer Films head Bill Simmons. Along with executive producer of WWE Kevin Dunn, founder of JMH Films Jason Hehir signed on to direct. Hehir, an Emmy Award-winning director and producer, didn’t think he would be the right guy for the job as he wasn’t really a passionate pro wrestling fan. But after speaking with Simmons, with whom he's collaborated on several 30 for 30 installments, he changed his mind.
“It turned out we had the exact sensibilities for this story,” Hehir tells TV Insider. “The goals of the story we wanted to tell, which was to demythologize this mythical figure and tell the story of Andre Roussimoff the human being rather than Andre the Giant the wrestling character.”
Hehir found his lack of WWE product knowledge going in brought a level of objectivity—an asset to making any doc.
“I wasn’t aware of all the details of his mythology and it enabled me and my team to go in there with more of a different pair of eyes,” he details. “Was he really 7-foot-4? Was he really 500 pounds? The first line in his Wikipedia page, when we started researching, was that he was from Grenoble, France, which turns out to be six hours south of where he is from."
He continues, “Even the most basic details of this man were called into question as soon as we started making this film. That was challenging but really fun because you couldn’t rely on things that we’ve come to rely on as filmmakers now. Google and Wikipedia are out because all the facts coming up there turned out to be false, so we really had to do literally on-the-ground research.
"We were going door to door in the village he grew up in France with old black and white photos of him as a child and asking if they knew any of the other people in the photos. We wanted to get the true story of his childhood rather than the mythologize version,” he states.
An important piece of the production was getting WWE on board with where they wanted to go with the film. This, of course, meant going through the hierarchy leading up to Vince McMahon. Hehir met with with the WWE chairman, outlining the story and vision. He approached it as an audition of sorts.
“He was a lot more subdued than I expected,” he admits. “I didn’t know what to expect, but I’ve seen Vince McMahon the character. I’ve seen him being interviewed on television and in action at WWE events and on TV. I know what his public persona is. He was a lot more subdued, a lot more quiet, a lot more solemn.
“It was clear from the moment I stepped foot in his office how deadly serious he was of the story of Andre being told the right way. He has an enormous amount of reverence for Andre the Giant. I think part of that is due to the fact that his father, Vince McMahon Sr., was one of Andre’s best friends. I think Vince is very cognizant that we have one chance to tell this story, and it has to be told the right way," he reasons.
“It’s not going to be a puff piece. It’s not going to be a love letter to Andre. We also have to tell it with respect and reverence for a guy who, in Vince’s eyes, helped make pro wrestling what it is today. Andre was a huge cog in the early machine of WWF, now WWE. Vince, even today, feels a great debt of gratitude to Andre and what he did to the business.”
After the initial talk in July 2016, the deal wasn’t even finalized until January 2017. McMahon was interviewed during the first day of shooting on March 23, 2017. The crew would wrap around nine months later just before Christmas.
Hehir is most proud of getting Andre’s family in front of the camera. The team had to put on their investigative hats, heading to Paris in search of his brother. They eventually tracked him to a local bar where someone gave them his address.
“We had to go to his house with a bottle of wine basically to bribe him to sit down for an interview with us the next day because we couldn’t reach him by phone before we got over to Paris,” Hehir shares.
“We were told the family would probably be difficult to sit down with for a variety of reasons. We were told they’d be tough to track down. They spoke no English whatsoever. They are from rural France. The brother finally agreed to do it. We did the interview in front of their childhood home where Andre and his family grew up. He opened up the house to us, and we found this treasure trove of mementos and memorabilia—the house has largely been unoccupied for two decades.
“[His brother] opened the house for us with things in there nobody has ever seen before: baby pictures, child pictures, old flyers, and programs from his early days in wrestling. These are things they are sitting on that they don’t realize are gold to someone like me who is making film about a subject. I’m very happy we can get people who knew him that well.
“Obviously, we got the Hulk Hogan’s, the Tim White’s and Pat Patterson who knew him from the business... those were the ones I took the most pride in interviewing and getting to know Andre through—the recollections of him from the people who were close to the man, not the myth.”
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Hehir is proud of the finished product, excited for audiences to watch it. He hopes fans and non-fans enjoy it, getting an intriguing look at the inaugural WWE Hall of Famer.
“I’m happy we were able to pull back the curtain from the business and the ethos of wrestling itself. [To give an] inside look of what goes into the choreography and what the locker room environment is like. The ethos of that entire world was fascinating to me. As often is the case, the truth is actually more interesting than the fiction."
Andre the Giant, Tuesday, April 10, 10/9c, HBO