Phil Harder Q&A

July 6, 2021
Phil Harder has made a documentary on Baron von Raschke, a video with Prince, a feature film, and more.

“Prince pushed my creativity further and asked me to make it look like a graphic novel I had been experimenting with in recent videos. I realized that Prince really had his ear to the ground. He encouraged artists around him to make his music better. He made me a better filmmaker and I’ve tried to take that inspiration to my film shoots.”

I loved The Claw. I read that you worked on the film for many years without a huge budget, which was raised by the Baron’s son on Kickstarter. Did you grow up watching the AWA?

In my small Wisconsin town I couldn’t avoid experiencing the phenomena of AWA’s “All Star Wrestling.” My brothers and I argued over what was real and what was fake. We then proceeded to beat the crap out of each other with the latest wrestling moves. I was the youngest so I always lost (like the famous jobber Scrap Iron). Like any kid of a certain era we debated the intricacies of Baron von Raschke’s famous claw hold and attempted to knock out friends with the hold. Fast forward a few decades and I saw the Baron’s photo at a casting house. I was informed that this vicious, psychotic German was raised in Omaha and lives in Minneapolis — and to my surprise, the Baron was actually Jim Raschke, a sweet, sensitive and artistic guy, the opposite of his wrestling villain character. With this dichotomy we set out to make a movie, pulling back the curtain on this weird sport/entertainment, and like when I was a kid we attempt to discover what is real and what is fake, and then we watch the wrestlers beat the crap out of each other. A lot of these old school wrestlers were Olympic athletes who destroyed their bodies from decades of brute force athleticism in the ring. Karl Raschke is the son and one of the producers, so I had access to an amazing archive and the Baron himself, who I became friends with through a few music videos we made together. We shot on and off for a bunch of years, up to spring 2021. So yes it’s definitely a labor of surreal love. After a year of Covid lockdown editing we came up with a wild movie unlike any wrestling film.

Does it strike you like it does me a shame that fans can’t watch the archives anywhere? How did you get your hands on old footage?

We did some intense footage searches. There are hidden gems within other films too. I was always looking for wrestling footage shot on film rather than the TV video from live wrestling shows. I think 16mm film quality is a rarer look at wrestling and more cinematic. Since my wrestling characters were so old school, a lot was shot on real film. Of course I feature some of the taped tv shows in the movie too because that AWA production quality is pretty hilarious. The Raschke archive library, which Karl collected, had a ton of material including years of super 8 home movies that Bonnie Raschke shot (AKA Mrs. Claw). We even have some incredible finds from 35mm original prints, but I can’t tell you where the producers found those or their lives will be in danger.

Did Jim ever slap the claw on you? I always wondered if he actually had exceptionally strong hands.

The Baron never gave me the claw but in 1995 I threw my version of it on him as we were on break from a music video shoot. He feigned extreme pain for a photo. As far has his hands, Jim is incredibly strong. Realize in the 1960s, Jim Raschke was a world heavyweight Greco Roman champion who qualified for the 1964 Olympics. And when I say champion I don’t mean the pro-wrestling version. This was before he turned pro, when he was in the Army in New York. Then he learned pro-wrestling holds from the best: Verne Gagne and Mad Dog Vachon. So by the time he entered the ring as his new German character Baron von Raschke, he was in the prime of his life. There’s a scene from 1967 in the film where the Baron takes on “all-comers.” They offered $2,000 to anyone who could pin the Baron. These guys were lumberjacks, farmers and Canadian woodsmen. Jim/The Baron pinned every guy in seconds because they may be strong but they don’t know how to wrestle. Some of these guys tried some dirty tricks too, so he threw a few over the ropes. Mad Dog Vachon was the instigator of Baron’s all-comers matches. Mad Dog told us they made a lot of money with these circus-style wrestling shows in the early days.

As someone who has directed feature films and worked with professional actors of all stripes, how would you rate Jim’s acting ability? 

A year before we finished The Claw I directed a movie called Tuscaloosa with extremely talented actors like Tate Donovan from Argo, Natalia Dyer of Stranger Things and Devon Bostick of Okja/Diary of a Wimpy kid. These actors grew up in front of the camera. They could carry long scenes and were all amazing. As a humble guy, Jim Raschke will joke about his acting abilities. As Jim he is pretty much just a guy who tells great stories and his acting is so-so (sorry Jim) but the moment he kicks into the Baron he is unstoppable — no script, he makes everything up as he has his entire professional career. Early in the movie he relives a wrestling promo decked out in his 1960s robe. The Baron comes out and for two minutes he screams about his mysterious claw hold without missing a word. The difference between Jim and The Baron is night and day and that is what this movie is about — the two extreme sides of a person. I also realized that even though Jim is a really humble guy, he loves the camera. I think that’s what makes this film unique. As Jim, he tells fascinating stories about his life in documentary form, but then we cut to a wild recreation and Jim steps back into his famous alter ego: The Baron! and everything on set explodes. It was a wild shoot.

You have a legendary career as one of the great film artists and documentarians of bands and musicians. Was music your first love?

Yes, it was — from playing in a rock band in junior high to discovering punk rock and touring the U.S. and Europe. Those tours opened my mind and my world. Then taking all those band connections and learning film through music videos with DIY filmmaking. Our team took that same ethic and put it into The Claw, shooting on weekends with friends. Like wrestling, we were faking every frame of this movie. But I need to be careful when using the word “fake.” Baron von Raschke once warned me never to use the “F” word in front of him.

When was the moment when you realized you wanted to pursue film?

When I bought my first 16mm camera and two rolls of expensive black and white film. I set out to shoot my first paid gig, an $800 music video for Soul Asylum. Unlike some of the music videos we shot on crappy video, I was rolling film for the first time. I barely knew how to expose it correctly, learning light meters and all that. I was very nervous as we shot the band on a farm. I even rented a dolly and had a decent crew. Because the film was so expensive I storyboarded every shot per lyric and literally rolled only on that lyric, and “cut” to try to save film. When we finished I didn’t know how to unload the magazine without exposing the film so I took it to a lab in northeast Minneapolis and the kind gentleman taught me how and processed the film. I realized when I saw the footage that my intense planning paid off. Looking at that raw footage for the first time on a 16mm projector made me believe I could be a filmmaker. The video was “P-9” and became my first hit on MTV in 1987.

You go way back with the iconic Duluth band Low and made a wonderful film about them. Is it ever hard for you to shoot and work with artists who are friends?

Never. Most of the bands I’ve worked with have become long friends and many donated music to The Claw including a rare version of “Violent Past” by Low. With the style of music I tend to work with, we are all in it together. We all come from humble roots and we know it’s a gas to make these mini-movies and act like rock stars and maybe sell a few records too. From Babes in Toyland to Low to the Foo Fighters to Prince … and hundreds more we just cranked out these awesome little films. All the music artists I’ve worked with were into the creativity of shooting film. Music videos have been my job my entire adult life. It never gets old.

You made the remarkable “Cinnamon Girl” video with Prince. Of course I could ask a million questions but I’ll restrain myself to a couple: he’s known as a genius control freak — was he willing to let you make most of the decisions? What’s your lasting memory of him?

I had heard horror stories about working with Prince but from my experience that was bullshit. I worked with Prince that entire summer. He was a gem to collaborate with. Prince knew most of my film work by the time he gave me a call. He pointed out examples of my work and asked if I would write an original story with some of those techniques in mind. He told me that “Cinnamon Girl” was a song about a girl who commits jihad. It was pretty daring at that time. A few days later I showed him about four pages of a story about this middle eastern teen in New York who witnesses the planes hitting the towers. She then deals with racism against her family of middle eastern descent. The 14-year-old, played by Keisha Castle-Hughes of Whale Rider, becomes so beaten down by racism that she enters an airport strapped with a bomb and blows herself up. We soon discover that she only imagined doing it. The story was a pretty rad thing to try after 9-11 and while we were in the middle of the wrongheaded Iraq War quagmire. Prince knew my version of this story would get banned (which it did) but he didn’t care. He wanted to speak to an important message about racism. Prince then pushed my creativity further and asked me to make it look like a graphic novel I had been experimenting with in recent videos. I realized that Prince really had his ear to the ground. He encouraged artists around him to make his music better. He made me a better filmmaker and I’ve tried to take that inspiration to my film shoots. There are so many talented people on a film crew. The director doesn’t direct everything so I hope I can inspire others to make our films better.

You wrote and directed the feature film Tuscaloosa, which seems like a lot of work. Did the experience exhaust you? Will you write and direct another?

Tuscaloosa was a dream come true. I was exhausted but that’s nothing new in filmmaking. And yes, more films are in the works thanks to an amazing team of friends who support me. People like Patrick and Dan Riley, Danny Nevitt, Erik Helgeson from our Tuscaloosa-producing team. It’s now a year after the release. Looking back I can say I’m still very proud of the movie. We pulled off a miracle with our amazing Minneapolis film crew and post houses, Even though the budget was modest compared to a studio picture, it looks and feels as good as anything out there, but unlike a studio picture we could do whatever we wanted so we went head-on into some pretty difficult subject matter. The day the film was released, March 13th, 2020 the country shutdown and we had to cancel all theater screenings. Two months later we witnessed the murder of George Floyd which coincidentally reflected some of the story in our movie. We stopped promotion to let things sink in and pay respect. It wasn’t the time to promote a film. A few months later we started up again because we felt the movie had something to say about what many people were going through after this tragedy. Our distributor began streaming Tuscaloosa on Amazon Prime and other platforms while we were in the thick of the pandemic. Now that it’s post-Covid, Tuscaloosa has been given a second life in theaters. We’ve booked many festivals and we are setting up some creative screenings which was always the way this movie was meant to be seen: panoramic cinema with a live audience! Perhaps these new screenings are part of a celebration of the vaccine and people finally getting back together again.

What’s next for you?

The same team who made The Claw and Tuscaloosa are planning more movies. We have some really cool scripts we’ve developed. I’d tell you what they’re about but my producing team would have to put the claw on you.