David Arquette is a mess.
The actor is tooling around Hollywood, desperate for work. The onetime hotshot star of the Scream franchise has been auditioning for a new role for 10 years without success, he laments, clearly forgetting, or discounting, 10 years’ worth of bit parts in small films or leading parts in bit films.
As his second wife Christina – whom he married after divorcing his Scream co-star, former Friends actress Courteney Cox – points out: in his prime her husband featured on the gatefold cover of Vanity Fair’s 1996 Hollywood issue, alongside Leonardo DiCaprio, Matthew McConaughey and Will Smith.
“And those guys have gone on to be the biggest movie stars in the world… David has a lot of sadness that he could have been that. Instead he went off to make the Scream movies and became typecast as a goofball.”
This is the set-up for You Cannot Kill David Arquette. The new documentary follows the 49-year-old as he tries to reset his professional and personal life after a calamitous two decades. The bizarre cause of Arquette’s downfall: a toxic mixture of wrestling, theatricality, hubris and mental illness.
In 1999 Arquette made buddy comedy film Ready to Rumble, appearing alongside Rose McGowan and various wrestling personalities as an ardent fan of World Championship Wrestling. Offscreen, too, Arquette was a lifelong follower of a wildly popular “sport” that is as much theatricality and fakery as it is genuinely physically challenging entertainment.
The following year, at the urging of WCW’s Vince Russo, Arquette agreed to become the real-life winner of WCW’s World Heavyweight Championship. As publicity for wrestling, reasoned Russo, the Hollywood carpetbagger “winning” an actual professional wrestling match was dynamite.
Arquette was no one’s idea of a heavyweight, in any sense of the term. But he signed up for the gimmick – reluctantly in private, but publicly he went all out, dressing up in lavish, ring-friendly costumes, noising up full-time wrestlers and pratting about on chat shows. As Cox recalls in the doc: “He looked like he should have been in Earth, Wind and Fire. Instead he was going to wrestling matches. It was kinda insane and I remember feeling embarrassed because there was nothing small about how he embraced wrestling.”
But for wrestling fans, his winning the belt was a fakery too far, and Arquette became public enemy number one. To be rejected by the sport he loved was a cruel blow, the impact of which was accelerated by apparent long-running issues with alcohol and other substances.
So, three years ago, Arquette decided to make amends and make a comeback. He wanted to be re-embraced by the wrestling fraternity by proving that he could actually wrestle – and, in so doing, get his life back on track. And he wanted to do that with a filmmaking crew documenting every step of the way.
For over two years You Cannot Kill David Arquette co-director Price James followed the actor. The Londoner describes his subject as “a dopey comedic everyman” but also “a fearless Peter Pan who thinks he’ll live forever, but also doesn’t care” – someone who ends up an “exposed, mentally ill” individual.
Arquette signed up for all that in a documentary that occasionally leaves your jaw on the floor as you see this schlubby middle-aged dad engaging in “street wrestling” in the midst of clogged Mexican traffic junctions, having his ass brutally kicked in a backyard wrestling bout in Virginia and, it seems, going too far when a Death Match almost lives up to its billing.
You Cannot Kill David Arquette will also have you scratching your head. The actor – who has two stents in his heart after a cardiac arrest – actually signed up for all this humiliation and pain? This is a documentary about wrestling that really tells the truth about an entertainment that has untruth at its heart? Might this just be more fakery, cloaked in the robe of reality-TV redemption?
And why, ultimately, was Price James making this film? He’s a Hackney native with a background making pop videos for Beth Ditto, Friendly Fires and Hercules and the Love Affair. He shot a funny short, Action Man: Battlefield Casualties, with Matt Berry (6.6 million YT views). How did he come to be sucked into Arquette’s weird world?
Price James: explain yourself.
I came over to the States from London to develop another movie that I was writing. And through some complications, it turned out the production company couldn’t make it because it was a pure narrative, and they only had funding for documentaries. And the David Arquette movie as an idea was presented [to me] by Arquette and CAA, the agency. So because it had the potential to be maybe a genre-leaning movie, like the Rocky and Karate Kid films, I spun it and leaned in a bit harder. So I danced that line of making a meta documentary. And wrestling, we all know, has in its very nature this theatricality, but also real emotion. So I wanted a film that made you question what you were watching, insofar as: is this real? Or is this faked?
The shoot was meant to take six months, but took two-and-a-half years. Why?
It’s hard to call cut when you’re mixing real world [events] with an overarching plan of hitting genre tropes. So I knew the ending had to be big, but because we were working with real events, if something bigger comes along but it’s in four months, it’d be stupid not to film that. When you’re dictated by real events you can’t set up everything – and I have to say that carefully because it is, in quotation marks, “documentary”. And anyone who watches it will make their own judgement. Some people are calling it [Joaquin Phoenix mockumentary] I’m Still Here meets [Mickey Rourke comeback hit] The Wrestler, which is pretty accurate. And funny.
What did Arquette want from the project?
His main brief was he wanted a love letter to wrestling. It’s commonly written that he’s the most hated man in wrestling. For me, as a comedy director, the tragedy in that statement meant I knew we could pull comedy out of that sadness as well. And by its nature, wrestling has bad guys called heels and good guys called faces. And Arquette in real life is a likeable, wonderful, sensitive man. But in wrestling he’s a heel because they say he ruined wrestling. He was the jump-the-shark moment. So there was a lot of scope for a redemption story.
The theatrics work on multiple levels, too.
Right. A Hollywood actor’s life is defined by fame and adoration. But what happens when that dissipates? He was so hot in his youth, but now he’s approaching 50, so it’s also a story about aging in Hollywood and that need to be relevant. But also the need to be loved more than anything. Arquette’s definitely a renaissance man – he’s into puppets, he’s a humanitarian, so you know he cares… So to have the negative vitriol from the public, [wrestling fans] shouting “fuck you” and spitting on him in restaurants – he’s the worst person to be in that world because he’s so sensitive. So [winning the belt] backfired on him emotionally.
Assuming this scene is real, why did he want you to film him having a ketamine infusion in hospital under the supervision of his psychiatrist?
That was a real event, that was a part of his therapy. You know, Hollywood’s a different place – they have legal ketamine injections for mental health purposes. And his wife Christina suggested that we capture it. And of course you go: “That’s so fucking intimate and weird and raw, it’ll be worth it.” But it was difficult as well, because even in that moment he’s still aware of the camera. So you’re trying to be sensitive to the scene and try and expose him a bit, to try reveal the real side of him.
He puts himself through further punishment, taking part in a low-rent backyard wrestling contest with local knuckleheads. Again, WTF?
To be honest, that was one of the most fun! For a story arc we had to start him at the bottom, and there was nothing lower than a DIY-constructed ring surrounded by dog-shit in a wood in Virginia. No one cared about him; he’s just this old, loser washed-up actor – they even call him Mr Courteney Cox. So that scene was amazing because it was his sacrifice, almost, like his crucifixion. I’m a huge fan of Paul Verhoeven and really I wanted that to feel like the beginning of RoboCop: you have to deconstruct someone to rebuild them.
Then there’s the Death Match, at which we see his neck punctured, followed by a high-speed ride to A&E.
That’s Arquette: he just commits. Without him doing that Death Match, we wouldn’t have the third act moment of teetering on darkness. Technically that was an accident. But he was four millimetres from cutting the main artery in his neck. The biggest reactions we had at a screening – we managed a couple before lockdown – were when you see the blood pumping out of his neck in the hospital. To actually see an audience throwing their popcorn and drinks in fright – that’s the visceral reaction, and the sadistic pleasure, you want as a director.
What does Arquette think of the finished film?
It was pretty difficult – David has a love of filmmaking and his wife had to kick him out of the edit. The Arquettes acted as production company and funded the company who took the film on, ultimately. So there was a lot of closeness, it was hard to get objective distance, and it definitely went through lots of iterations.
So you had to wrestle for control of your movie?
Ha, sort of, yeah. It was definitely a rollercoaster. There was wrestling with demons on all aspects of the film.
How’s Arquette doing now?
Great. He’s had a bit of a resurgence. He sent me a message a month ago, saying: “It was a long road, but thank you brother.” And he was just really moved that it was his first positive movie review in years! So that feeling of redemption is great for his self-esteem. I always said to him that he was going to get action movie scripts after this. And he called me and said: “Hey, I just got an offer from [Veteran Action Hero Name Redacted] for an action movie!” So ultimately he’s super-hyped.
You Cannot Kill David Arquette is available to rent now, and on Sky Documentaries