Carly Mensch and Liz Flahive didn’t know much about wrestling before they started writing the new Netflix show GLOW, so they built the lessons they learned about the sport into the sequined spandex fabric of the show. The first season of the series, which is based on story of the real-life Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling league, brings together 14 women from different backgrounds — led by Alison Brie as a struggling actress — who all take to performing in the ring. Think of it as A League of Their Own, with Marc Maron as the sleaziest possible version of Tom Hanks.
The first season is a slow-burn introduction to the world of GLOW, as the characters find their wrestling personas and learn how to pull off a few stunts. That was all part of the design: Mensch and Flahive wanted to teach viewers about the rules of wrestling, which reflected their experience writing the show. By watching the show’s cast train on set, they even wrote around each actress’s specific strengths and weaknesses. Vulture talked to Mensch and Flahive to learn more about their wrestling research, writing characters that play stereotypes without making them stereotypical, and the advice they got from GLOW executive producer and Orange Is the New Black creator Jenji Kohan.
How did this idea come to you? Were you fans of the original Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling?
Liz Flahive: We were not aware of the original show. The thing that we came to first is that we found a documentary about GLOW, which is really about the women now looking back on their time making the show. That was our way in. But once we watched that, then we dug in and found old episodes and started watching more and were awestruck.
What struck you about the documentary?
Carly Mensch: It was more about responding to the world because it was [a] world we never really put much thought into. The documentary does a similar thing that A League of Their Own does, which is remind you that sometimes really special sisterhoods of weirdos come together. It’s fun to imagine the different people who would’ve had their lives changed or not changed by this really unique experience. It was exciting to start digging into the ‘80s and wrestling — particularly women’s wrestling — and then these types of strange, makeshift families that come together.
As you put your league of wrestlers together, how did you build the cast of characters?
CM: We did a lot of front-engineering and back-engineering. We started with the types of stories we personally wanted to tell and the characters who would serve those stories. Then we also worked backwards from different types of ‘80s stereotypes. Wrestling is so much about these oversized, exaggerated stereotypes that reflect the prejudices of the time. We built backwards from a few of those and then forward for a lot of stories and character types that we had always wanted to put in the world.
LF: We also wanted a complicated female friendship at the center. As much as we love oversized characters in the ring, we knew we needed an emotionally grounded story at the center to pull us through. I think a lot of our initial work was also figuring out who these two women at the core were going to be, and then how they were going to interact with the larger ensemble of characters who discover GLOW.
Speaking of those ‘80s stereotypes, you’ve got characters playing wrestlers with names like Beirut and Welfare Queen. How did you ensure depth to their personalities outside of the ring?
LF: Even though we’ve had an end goal of what they might be playing in the ring, we also started with who they were as real people in a grounded reality. The story was always about Arthie playing Beirut, but never just about Beirut. The person you should care about and the person you should track through that story is Arthie. Similarly, you should be tracking Tameé and how she feels about her character, not just watching the pageantry.
CM: We came to this from the documentary, which was really about these women talking about how transformed they were and how much they cared about playing these characters. In terms of how we get into the story, it’s about following these real women becoming wrestlers. We start so early on in the story of GLOW at the auditions, before they even have wrestling characters. Before you know who they are in the ring, you know who they are outside of the ring, and the priority there feels clear.
There’s also an ongoing conversation between Sam and Bash, the men organizing the league, about whether or not they should play up these wrestling characters’ stereotypes.
CM: There’s so many meta things going on in the show that definitely reflect the conversations we were having. We’re a bunch of theater people who are new to wrestling and grappling with it, learning the parts we connect to and learning how it works. It’s a different art form, frankly, than we’re used to. There’s something super freeing about a space where you actually can take stereotypes that are offensive to say anywhere else, place them in the good-guy/bad-guy matrix, and then duke it out. There’s also something really uncomfortable. I think we tried to keep that alive as we made the show.
While you were researching, did you use any real-life wrestlers as inspiration for the characters?
CM: We had to school ourselves so thoroughly that everything felt amazing. We found some great videos of Fabulous Moolah. Mae Young giving birth to a hand is one of our favorite videos of all time. We let wrestling fanatics recommend videos to use and then they would just be like, “Oh, you haven’t heard about this other wrestling guy?” We’d just go watch that video.
LF: It was a lot of feeling dumb for a very, very long time, which was actually really nice. We really were crazy wrestling research nerds for a while. Pretty fun way to spend your time.
CM: We also had our wrestling trainer and our stunt coordinator on set. We had a second set of rings set up — that was our practice ring and the women were training there constantly. Liz and I would go all the time to watch them train. We would pick up so much more just watching women go through it. There were things that weren’t obvious until you actually watched it: “Oh, her face is definitely in my crotch. Oh, that definitely hurts a lot more when I fall. A front bump hurts a lot more than back bump. That rope is actually steel.” Listening to them go through it was its own type of education, which I think was as important, if not more, than going back through history.
LF: We wanted and needed the context, but in making our own show and starting from the very beginning with 14 women, 13 of whom had never wrestled before, [the training] was an extraordinary resource. The entire squad is those 14 women, meaning we didn’t have any background actors, so we pretty much had to call the entire cast for every scene. I’m sure it takes its toll, but it also adds to the magic because everyone is there supporting everybody and seeing everything and it feels like camp.
The show really emphasizes the physicality of wrestling. It occasionally cuts into this fantasy world, but most of the time, they’re all just figuring out how to move their bodies.
LF: We knew in the very beginning that we wanted the women to do their own wrestling. That felt really important narratively for us. We wanted to be close on people, actually watching them go from not knowing something to knowing something. We really feel it is also a body show. We really want to see these women using their bodies to do actual things. Chavo Guerrero Jr. is the wrestling trainer and Shauna Duggins is the stunt coordinator. We almost had daily conversations about what people trained for and then we’d build around those strengths. Someone who plays the guitar with the right hand and doesn’t want to fall on their right hand, we’re going to find a way for them to fall not on their right hand.
The show doesn’t seem to sexualize the characters in the ring, even though GLOW is performing for audiences that are mostly male. Was that a conscious way of approaching the story?
LF: When we have a show made by women with 14 women, it just kind of sorts itself out. We are, definitely, uncomfortable in a good way —
CM: — and interested in the fact that we and all of these women are doing these badass things in skimpy leotards. Our gaze is different and the stories we’re trying to tell are different. I think it’s going to feel different than two guys who are making it. There are many shows out there where you have a girl in a skimpy outfit and she’s surrounded by men. These girls are a force. They may be in spandex, but they are all in spandex together. I think that the set felt very warm and open, and it was their set. I think they felt a lot of power in what they were doing, I think they felt very comfortable taking the risks that they were taking. I think that had something to do with what you ultimately saw at the end.
Which elements of the ‘80s San Fernando Valley setting were you excited to explore?
CM: The ‘80s in San Fernando Valley, it’s such catnip. A lot of our job was to run after the things that felt interesting, and then also making sure we had an amount of restraint in terms of the look of the show. We were really conscientious about it feeling like a very real, grounded ’80s, even though there was a coke robot at a party. Our girls are struggling. They’re not rolling in money, so we wanted things to feel dusty and not like every person was walking around with a huge cell phone and dangle earrings.
LF: The original show, a lot of it, was shot in Vegas. We chose L.A. and the Valley.
CM: Jenji says, “My mom always says everything interesting happens in the Valley.” They’re from L.A. and we’re New York transplants, so they help us with things like that.
Carly, you worked with Jenji Kohan on Orange Is the New Black and Weeds. What was your relationship on GLOW like?
CM: It’s been so dreamy. I’ve known her for a long time and she’s been supportive since day one. She’s a really nurturing mentor who lets you make the thing you want to make without imposing too much, which is a really neat thing to to. She finds writers that have strong voices and points of view and then lets them keep those voices and points of view as they work for her and then hopefully go on to make other things. She was amazing at giving notes and guiding us, but she was always helping us make the show that we wanted to make, which I imagine is a special skill.
LF: Having an executive producer like Jenji — who both feels like she’s really in it with you, but letting you run the show at the same time — that’s hard for most people to actually accomplish and have it be true.
You mentioned that you wanted to focus on the women’s training during this season. How did you settle on that structure?
LF: We always knew we wanted to take it pretty slow the first season. Once the girls know how the wrestle, there’s no going back. We knew that we had a bunch of opportunities in terms of the story of the show coming together and the team coming together that we didn’t want to blow past.
CM: We actually, authentically let the women play themselves as they are learning and there’s so much comedy in watching someone learn. It also allowed us to take the audience on the journey of understanding wrestling, too. We assumed that the audience would have either preconceived notions of wrestling or just know nothing about it, so we wanted to introduce the audience to it as we were introduced to it.