Lucha Undergrounds Eric Van Wagenen discusses the Program

As Lucha Undergrounds Executive Producer, Eric Van Wagenen recently took some time out of his schedule to participate in an interview with me. Van Wagenen plays an integral part in the El Rey Network’s program Lucha Underground’s development and success. With the initial concept coming from the network, Van Wagenen discusses the upcoming season of Lucha Underground, the potential development of a streaming service, how the concept for the show initially came about and what fans can anticipate with upcoming storylines moving into the new season.

Lucha Underground fans will be pleased with Van Wagenen’s open and forthcoming responses regarding the upcoming season. After fans waited in anticipation of the upcoming season, Van Wagenen remains very high on the talent and is quick to give them all the credit for making the show a success. He also discusses how Lucha Underground is unlike other wrestling promotions on television today. His enthusiasm for the upcoming season allows fans to look forward to a number of new and interesting storylines.

Lucha Undergrounds Eric Van Wagenen remains actively involved as a producer for a number of other Mark Burnett programs. His work credits include; The Celebrity Apprentice and Bully Beatdown. His film production and editing credits include The Amazing Race and Survivor. Van Wagenen has also produced programming for the WWE with their network exclusive show Legend’s House. The recent announcement of season two of Lucha Underground has allowed Van Wagenen to open up on a number of different topics along with the future of the show. To read the complete interview, check out the questions below.

How did the creation of the show come about? What inspired the concept?

Lucha Undergrounds Eric Van Wagenen: “I got a call from the Mark Burnett development team and they had said that they were in discussions with the El Rey Network on creating an updated, more US-friendly version of Lucha Libre.

My experiences had really been in reality television, but I have crossed over into the wrestling world with the Stone Cold Steve Austin version of Tough Enough, I also produced Legend’s House for the WWENetwork. I had done a lot of sort of fighting combat shows like The Contender and Bully Beatdown. So within the Mark Burnett family of shows, I’m kind of the guy they call on when they need a show where people are fighting for better or for worse. I have that little niche covered, but we never really ventured into putting on our own promotion.

My job initially for the first several months was to really pull everything and everyone together on the same page and to try to get everyone to share the same vision. It was really hard at first, it took several months and it took several episodes of taping before we all started to see what was working. But the original concept came from the El Rey Network, one of the original shows that they wanted to develop was a Lucha Libre product that was a little more updated and made for second and maybe third-generation Mexican Americans.”

Within reason, based on the events of last season’s finale, what storylines can fans reasonably see developing further?

Lucha Undergrounds Eric Van Wagenen: “I think one of the more interesting ones that I think will be what will happen with the Dragon Azteca character and with the Dragon Azteca mask. Who will carry the mantle? One of the legendary myths that we play with is the idea of the seven Aztec tribes. Clearly one of those tribes is Dragon Azteca tribe and will they now seek revenge with Dario Cueto and Black Lotus? That obviously comes to mind.

Mil Muertes and Catrina taking over the temple and possessing all of the original Aztec gold is obviously a major storyline. Dario Cueto on the run and what that means for the temple and his future makes for a great storyline.

Obviously everyone’s favorite Pentagon Jr. who has been unleashed and on the loose and how we handle that– especially with his relationship with Vampiro. That is definitely something that a lot of people are going to want to know and we’ll be addressing that in the early episodes as well.

We’ll eventually get around to answering all the questions we posed in Ultima Lucha some might have to wait a few weeks before we get to them, but it won’t be in a way that is predictable. I’ll just say that. (chuckles) We are very unafraid to try things. We got away with a lot in season one, but we have a lot of goodwill with our fanbase. We’re hoping that our fans will trust us enough to grow and build and resolve in the least predictable way as possible.”

How has the show evolved since its inception to the season’s finale? How can Lucha Undergrounds Eric Van Wagenen foresee it developing over the course of the next season?

Lucha Undergrounds Eric Van Wagenen: “I actually didn’t think we would be so far into the sci-fi realm at this point. I think originally both ChrisDeJoseph and I were wanting to be very cautious of how we start to roll out the more supernatural elements of our characters and our storylines. We wanted it to be user-friendly and familiar at first.

We knew we were pushing things with the style of vignettes that we were shooting and that would take an adjustment period. So, we didn’t want to lead with a bunch of crazy stuff right off the bat. We wanted to slowly build and dole that stuff out slowly and gauge the audiences’ reaction. Now we have embraced the full theatre of it.

I think that that was the biggest shift and risk that we took and it was definitely kind of something that we were nervous about, but we were very pleased with the level to which our fans accepted it. They loved the fact that we weren’t trying to copy the paradigm that the WWE presents or that TNA presents. We were trying to do something that was out there and a little bit fantastic and not so grounded in reality and the response has been great.

So, I think we’ll continue to push things. I think we thought that we would be more traditional still at the end of the season one, but that was where we started doing things like having Drago turning into a fire-breathing dragon, and Mil Muertes being resurrected, and killing Bael- doing these kinds of crazy things. Once we saw that the audience had an appetite for it than we kind of stepped on the gas.”

When considering casting, what does Lucha Undergrounds Eric Van Wagenen take into consideration as it applies to Lucha Underground?

Lucha Undergrounds Eric Van Wagenen: “I can say we are looking for more females. We have Sexy Star and Ivelisse, and Ivelisse had a broken foot for half the season. It’s no secret that we’re hoping to work something out with AAA and with Rey Mysterio. But we’re hoping that a lot of our guys are coming back. Not everyone is coming back, but were hoping that a lot of them will.

It would be slightly hypocritical to say we have to only have Latin talent. Obviously we want to have people that can Lucha and who are familiar with the style. At our core, and in our name it’s Lucha Underground, but we look for versatility. We look for guys that, if not trained in classical Lucha style like a lot of our Triple A guys are, we at least want them versatile enough where they can work the Lucha style.

That’s why guys like Prince Puma and Johnny Mundo and even Brian Cage are fairly valuable to us because they can go with anybody. They can go with the American wrestlers and they can go with the Lucha guys and everybody looks great.

Personally, I kind of like the guys that don’t fit the mold. Guys like the Willie Mack and Matt Cross. Guys that don’t fit, what you would consider the WWE standards. We’re not trying to compete with them. We are trying to compete in the areas where they are not.”

Wrestling storylines have to resonate with an audience and often times in other promotions they don’t. To what can you attribute the connection the storylines have had with the Lucha Underground audience?

“I think honestly it’s our presentation of our character pieces and our vignettes. I think that you put a lot of pressure on a performer to cut promos in front of a live audience. I hate the traditional backstage scenes that feel awkwardly set up with a camera spying on them and everything feels so forced. They are trying to pretend like they are existing in the real world like a reality show.

We’ve gone full theatre. We have a director and we have super talented editors and we have composers and all the tricks of the trade to create compelling and entertaining stories. We’re not just putting wrestlers in a ring and giving them a promo script to read to a live audience. We have props and we have set decorating and all the tricks that movies use.

We have hired actors to work with. Luis Fernadez Gill who plays Dario Cueto his job is not to be a wrestler. He’s a great actor. We’re grateful that we have him. He makes everybody more believable because he’s so good. I think that we are doing something that is familiar yet different. You are watching a dramatic show like you would watch any other drama series on television and it just so happens that it’s about wrestling. We’re putting less burden on the actual wrestling performer to be convincing.”

With the inclusion of talent past and present from notable promotions, what would the likelihood be of a cross-promotional showcase of talent much like GFW/TNA? Would the idea be entertained?

“A lot of our guys are working with the independents, they work in AAA and they pop up in PWG, but as far as a mainstream crossover, it’s a little tricky because it begs the question, whose world are we living in? Are we living in Dario Cueto’s world or are we living in Dixie Carter’s world? I kind of like Dario’s world a little better.

I’m not a wrestling guy per se I’m more of a TV guy, but the people that drive this show are not really looking to be too aligned with the old school club of a wrestling promoters and wrestling events. We kind of don’t really see the need for it. One of the lessons we’ve learned is that we can create our own stars. We don’t have to rely on established names giving us validity.

No one knew who Pentagon Jr was a year ago, nobody knew who Fenix was a year ago. Guys like Matt Cross and Angelico and Ivelisse were only known by the most hard-core of wrestling fandom. So we’ve discovered that through our presentation and booking and our live events and the editing of the show that we do that we can really do an effective job of creating or own organic original stars.”

What does the balance of 2015 and now moving into 2016 have in store for Eric Van Wagenen & Lucha Underground?

“We’re starting to build up the temple in Boyle Heights and we’ll be moving back in there. There were some concerns that we wouldn’t be able to pull it off, but we will. We’ll be back in the same building. We will be shooting in November. We will be back on the air in January of 2016.

We are extremely excited to be able to pick up where we left off. I know that the cast is even more excited than we are. There are a few things that we are hoping to land on the business side in the next couple of months that really should keep us around for a while. I think that once we figure that out we will breathe easier and be able to have more permanent plans for our future.

Personally, I am also working on Mark Burnett’s The Celebrity Apprentice, which is gearing up with our new host Arnold Schwarzenegger. That will be shooting in the spring probably after we finish shooting Lucha Underground.”

One question that tends to be asked is, much like other sports, how are the ideas of an off-season for wrestling. Thoughts?

“Certainly we would like to have as many episodes as possible in a year. It is expensive to shut down and when you close your doors for a few months, you are taking on risks. You have risk with the location, you have risk with your cast, and you have risk with your crew.

It’s much easier to keep the exact same crew if you’ve got them 52 weeks a year. But our motto is, “Put the money on the screen,” and we don’t really want to build a huge bloated infrastructure and bureaucracy.We’re very lean and mean. Our staff is very small – it’s all pretty much freelancers who love this kind of thing and want to do this kind of show.
We don’t have pay-per-views to build to and so our motto is if we can put on something every week that our competition can’t, that’s our competitive advantage. For us every week there has got to be something that people are talking about. That’s our only chance for survival, to keep people talking every week.”

Among the most popular social media trends was #NetflixneedsLucha. That said, what’s the likelihood of a streaming service/availability for residents outside the US to watch the prior season?

Lucha Undergrounds Eric Van Wagenen: “Believe me, we understand that. Half of our battle is making an easy, legal way to view our product and that’s hard. The El Rey Network is not offered everywhere and Lucha Underground is not on a streaming service or a VOD service yet. We have a product that everyone wants to watch and no way to watch it. It’s a unique issue. It’s one that we’re actively trying to solve.

I don’t have anything official to announce, but I can tell you that there are ongoing negotiations and conversations happening with a video-on-demand service. So, I can’t announce anything officially, but we certainly still are in the discussion. I know that kind of sucks. I wish I could tell you more, but that’s not a dead-end by any stretch.”

With the announcement of season 2, what can you share with us as being the biggest hold-up?

Lucha Undergrounds Eric Van Wagenen: “As far as what took so long for us to announce? El Rey always wanted it. It was never a case of whether ElRey wanted a second season. It was more about how were we going to pay for Lucha Underground season two at the same level of quality that season one had.

We have investors from Mexico that funded the overages in season one and there were some overages, but it’s nowhere near what has been reported and kicked around the internet sites. It was about proving to them that there was a path where we could make the show profitable.

There are still some deals that are pending that we hopefully be able to announce soon that will be big and exciting and probably guarantee us a way for us to stay on the air for a long time. For now, we have a path to do season two and we’ve found some ways to make it cheaper, but not lose quality. We are leaving some options on the table for subsequent seasons and additional episodes to happen next summer.”