Awards Daily’s Megan McLachlan talks to director Gabe Polsky about Red Penguins, the documentary that follows when the Pittsburgh Penguins invested in Russian hockey.
It sounds like something out of the classic Paul Newman comedy Slap Shot. Strippers stripping between the periods at ice hockey games, while live real-life bears drink Iron City beer to entertain the crowd.
Only it isn’t some outlandish prank from a comedy—it actually happened.
Just in time for the return of NHL hockey, Gabe Polsky’s documentary Red Penguins (out on digital August 4) flashes back to the early ’90s when NHL’s back-to-back Stanley Cup-winning team invested in Russian hockey—with hilarious and sometimes dangerous results. Then-Pittsburgh Penguins owner Howard Baldwin brought in young marketing director Steve Warshaw to move to Russia and try to come up with interesting promotions—and boy did he. But his work for the Red Penguins nearly cost him his life.
Polsky, who served as an executive producer on National Geographic’s Genius series and directed another hockey documentary Red Army about the unbeatable unit known as the Russian Five, has an interest in letting the camera roll a little longer than it needs to, with good reason. He captures some really interesting discoveries in the process, like when Russian Penguins manager Valery Gushin laughs hysterically at the memory of planting a spy on Warshaw, which included a threat on his life. The story of the Red Penguins is so scandalous that former Walt Disney CEO Michael Eisner, who tried to partner with the Russian team on an idea for the film Mighty Ducks 5, refused to comment for the doc.
I talked to Polsky about the making of this film, why he didn’t interview any of the hockey players for the project, and why no one in this hockey documentary really had the sport on the brain at all.
Awards Daily: Russians are not known for being very candid, I would say. How did you get the subjects in this documentary to open up? They seem to really tell you a lot.
Gabe Polsky: I think the fact that I speak a little bit of Russian helps. They like that. The second thing is, I don’t take myself too seriously. That helped. When somebody comes in and they’re very formal, that’s not my style when I interview. I think I just kind of go with my intuition of how to connect with people. I don’t really have a formal technique. As you see in the documentary, it’s a little bit off the cuff. I leave stuff in there that most people might not.
AD: I did notice that.
GP: If something’s not interesting to me, I figure out ways to get inside a little more. Even if they’re not speaking, I’ll capture reactions or something, anything I can to dig in to the truth.
AD: I notice that you didn’t interview any of the players on the Red Penguins. Was that because you felt like you already covered the players’ points of view in your previous documentary Red Army?
GP: Yeah, I thought about it a lot, especially as I captured all of the interviews and I was thinking, “Do I really need that perspective to make this story powerful or not?” If it’s working, you don’t really need that, but I thought about it a lot. I didn’t feel that I needed it to get to the truth. It’s really not about the players.
AD: The footage you get is so detailed. I was even thinking of a section where Warshaw talks about a player giving up his jacket for a sexual favor and you have a photo of three players, one without a coat. I know that’s probably not from that interaction, but how did you get all of this footage, and given that it’s Russia, was it hard to come by?
GP: The great thing is that Steve is kind of a hoarder and collected every possible thing about this story in his attic. He’s got every ticket to every game, all the contracts, all of the paraphernalia, which was great and added texture. Michael Eisner denied involvement in the film, so if I didn’t have all the contracts and logos, I wouldn’t have been able to include that, because there would have been no evidence. That was great. Also, with the Russian stuff, basically I got some good people there that helped me track things down, and here and there, people collect things. You can find things in odd places. The sad thing was that there was so much footage that came in when I had already finished the film. I was depressed about that. I think the important thing, especially with that talking head style, is that the archival footage is really dynamic and leads you into this strange world. You’ve gotta have action and color. 99.9% of Americans have never been to Russia, especially in the ’90s. For them, it’s all new.
AD: On paper, the idea of investing in Russian hockey and trying to poach their players sounds amazing, but it also sounds dangerous. Do you think then-Pittsburgh Penguins’ owner Howard Baldwin and company were naive when it came to following through with this initiative?
GP: Yeah, for sure. They had no idea what was there for that. That’s just the bottom line. Howard Baldwin, as you see in the movie, is a little bit of a kooky guy and I think if it weren’t for a guy like that, they wouldn’t have gotten involved. He’s a risk taker.
AD: Do you think the thought of going into a politically volatile area crossed their mind? Another question I have is whether you would you say this documentary is also about American greed?
GP: Yeah. Definitely. It’s about a lot of things. That’s one seam in there. They also wanted young players, anyone developed out of that program. They admit it. I think caring about the Russians and what they’re going through—they just wanted to get the benefit that they need.
AD: I kept thinking about that.
GP: They could care less about the hockey than the actual product that they were trying to sell. Because the NHL had extracted all of those resources.
AD: Why do you think Michael Eisner chose not to comment on this documentary?
GP: I know Michael Eisner, not well, but I know his son, and they’re very nice to me. In fact, they were very helpful in introducing my brother and I to Walter Isaacson, the author of Einstein: His Life and Universe, which became the Genius series. Michael introduced us to him. When I called him, he didn’t even want to talk about it. It’s a mystery to me, to Steve, to Howard. They don’t understand. Maybe he just didn’t want to deal with it. It turned out negative and he didn’t want to be associated. He probably didn’t know that Steve was going to collect all of that information.
AD: At one point, the Russian manager Valery Gushin laughs for a good five minutes at the idea of putting a spy in Warshaw’s office and the threat that Warshaw would be hanging by his thumbs at the top of the arena. It’s a turn in the documentary. What was it like capturing that moment? I even think I hear you say, “What’s up?”
GP: I knew immediately that this was going to be a tremendous moment in the film. It’s not clear what it means, even to me, but I think he enjoyed messing with Warshaw so much. He enjoyed playing with him and scaring him.
AD: As a filmmaker, since I know you were involved with Genius, did you ever think of what this film might look like as a traditional narrative film and not a documentary? Would it be a thriller? A comedy? All of the above?
GP: The guys doing The Americans, their development team came to me and I showed them the film and they were very interested in it as potentially a series. And then there’s a lot of other people who say the same thing as you do. I just wanted to get this thing out and make it awesome. It needs a really great filmmaker that understands all this, with the humor. The important thing about this is that I want to challenge you to think about a single film about Russian people and their mentalities and culture that’s out there today. Do you know any film? There’s Red Army, but there’s really nothing about there. We don’t know anything. How are people supposed to deal with and understand this culture if they don’t know anything about it? This is a way to be entertained but you also learn something.
Red Penguins is available to rent and own today.