Over the last decade, Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) has grown from a controversial no-holds-barred gladiatorial sideshow into a billion dollar phenomenon. MMA has eclipsed boxing as the dominant combat sport in the world, and is so popular that MMA fights regularly appear on U.S. network television – even as a longstanding ban remains in force in New York State. But far from Las Vegas, in sweat-soaked gyms and low-rent arenas across America, the big lights are but a dream. Here, men fight to test their mettle, fortified with the mythic promise that an ordinary man can transform into a champion. Directed by the accomplished filmmaking duo of Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker, FIGHTVILLE takes us to Southern Louisiana, where a group of young athletes, including future MMA powerhouse Dustin Poirier, strive towards personal and professional greatness. The reward? A triumph that could ultimately yield an opportunity to compete professionally in the sport’s upper echelons.
FIGHTVILLE is a microcosm of life, a physical manifestation of the American Dream and the relentless dedication required of all who hope to attain it. Here, men are not born, but are instead built through self-determination, hard work and faith. In FIGHTVILLE, that’s what champions are made of. Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with director Michael Tucker to discuss the origins of the film, the challenges and surprises that presented themselves along the way and much more!
I wanted to give our readers a little background on you. What originally intrigued you about the world of filmmaking and made you pursue it as a career?
In the beginning, I always wanted to be a photographer. Specifically, I always wanted to be a combat photographer. I never went to school and ended up having a hard knocks education. I ended up working in Asia. I went to Vietnam and Thailand for a while and that is where I first started filming. I had drifted from photographer to short documentary stuff. In 2003, the war started. I was living in Germany at the time with my wife and filmmaking partner [Petra Epperlein]. We started filming in Iraq and what we thought was going to be the end of the war ended up being the beginning of the war. One thing led to another and over the next eight or nine years, we made four war films.
That is a pretty interesting background. Who would you cite as your biggest professional influences?
It is hard to say. You know, I really grew up respecting this whole generation of photographers who came out of the Vietnam War. Tim Page is the most iconic of them. He is the Dennis Hopper character in “Apocalypse Now,” the wild and crazy photographer. When I was younger, I liked the idea of someone going into a war zone to film and finding out it isn’t as romantic as it appears.
Your latest film is “Fightville.” What was the catalyst that inspired you to make this documentary?
Again it kinda goes back to the war. A lot of the soldiers we were with in Baghdad were interested in mixed martial arts (MMA). That was when I was first exposed to it and the first time I had heard of UFC or MMA. Coming back from the war, one of those soldiers ended up training in mixed martial arts and ended up fighting as an amateur. He was responsible for introducing us to the world we filmed in “Fightville,” which is specifically Lafayette, Louisiana. Again, we had no real interest in the sport but once we saw it, it was incredibly compelling. It was so beautiful and so physical and it was a great world with a great set of characters. We just jumped into it!
For those who haven’t seen the film yet, what can you tell us about those characters and how you cast the film?
It is kind of interesting. The star of the film is Dustin Poirier. Dustin has come a long way in the past three years from when we first saw him. The first time I saw him, he knocked someone out and I was immediately captivated. It was like, “Wow!” He had this incredibly physical energy and presence. At the same time, he was incredibly humble and very hardworking. Dustin is now probably one of the top five featherweights in the world. He has a fight on May 15th, 2012, and if he wins that fight, he will probably get a shot at the world title. That was either an incredible stroke of casting there or an incredible amount of luck! It is just kind of amazing that we found this kid who was literally fighting on dirt floored rodeo arenas and now he is fighting on the biggest stage in the world. As far as the other characters in the film, Dustin’s trainer is “Crazy” Tim Credeur, who is also a veteran UFC fighter. He is just kind of an old school character, a cross between Mr. Miyagi from “The Karate Kid” and Yoda from “Star Wars” but he also has a dark side like the bad guy in “The Karate Kid,” Sensei John Kreese (played by Martin Kove) who runs the karate school. Tim is equal parts of all that — a great and classic character. The person most responsible for getting us into the world of MMA was Gil “The Thrill” Guillory. He is the promoter featured in the film. Again, going back to movies, he is kind of the classic promoter, the P.T. Barnum. He is the guy who is always out there saying, “Let’s put on a show,” and who really believes in his American Dream — that he can fill up a 5,000-seat arena. The last character is Albert Stainback, who was completely different from all the other fighters in that he could quote Bruce Lee and at the same time, put Stanley Kubrick references into his walk-out to the arena. We found him incredibly amusing and captivating. He was a great counterpart to Dustin because they were like night and day as people.
It goes without saying you can’t predict the future. How differently did this film turn out from what you perceived it would while going into the process?
I think when we went into it, we didn’t really know what to expect. We kind of figured, “Oh, this is a portrait of the sport.” What we didn’t count on was that Dustin would wind up having a pretty serious degree of success in the sport. As we were filming, he just kept on winning and the stakes got higher and higher. It got to the point where everytime we filmed him, it was a white knuckle event, you know, “Is he going to make it through this?” It also became very personal as he has become a part of our family. I have a huge amount of respect for him and I really admire him. You know, I can’t even watch him fight anymore because it is too difficult emotionally.
Working with your wife as a co-director, how do you typically divvy up the work for a project such as this?
I am always shooting and often due to the subject matter, I am out on location alone. Or if we are together, I will be shooting and Petra will be doing sound. Our editing process is very intensive and she is always adding a fresh set of eyes to it. She is always able to be critical about what I have captured. That is important because when you are out there with people, you get very emotionally attached to things and you fall in love with the characters and what you have been shooting. She is the one who is able to kind of kill things off that need to be killed off. but, ya know, we are married and we live together and make films together and I can’t think of a better life!
As a director, what was the biggest challenge that presented itself on this film?
It is a very difficult thing to film well and try to make it beautiful. We were very lucky to end up in this dingier world which had a lot of texture to it. It wasn’t like the UFC that you see on television where everything is brightly lit. This was more of a shadowy world where we we just able to concentrate on the fighters, so we kinda made do with what we had. But I think the biggest challenge has probably been the perception of the sport. A lot of people walk into it thinking it is something that it is not. I think we are constantly battling against that. It is a sport that is growing really, really fast and has a huge audience but at the same time, it is a very controversial sport.
The characters in this film were all inspiring. What did you take away from them and from the journey of making this film?
Probably more than anything we have made, the process of making this film really became personal because through Dustin and his hard work, you could really see, “if you apply yourself, what you are able to achieve.” That kid would be up every morning, pushing himself and pushing himself and pushing himself. Not only would you begin to admire him but you also found yourself wanting to emulate him, which was strange because I am a 45-year-old man looking at a 21-year-old kid, but it made you think, “What can I do to be better? Am I working hard enough?” I think it is easy to become complacent. It is funny in this day and age, a lot of people are experiencing rough times right now and a lot of us had it better before. Now things have become a little bit more difficult. I think it is something about the champion and something about the guy who is willing to go out there and put everything on the line that is truly inspirational.
Is this a subject you can see yourself revisiting again in film form in the future?
I think so, absolutely!
What other projects are on the horizon for you, both short and long term?
We have been focusing on documentaries for, basically, the last 10 years. I think we are ready, as we have gone off into different directions and are producing commercials now, and we will probably see some narrative features on the horizon. Doing documentaries is a difficult process because you throw yourself at it for two or three years and you don’t know what the outcome is going to be. It is a pretty edgy way to make a film and everything kind of rests upon your shoulders. You don’t have this whole structure around you. It would be interesting to working in a more controlled environment, just to see how that goes.
Seeing you have been so successful in the field of filmmaking, what is the best piece of advice you can offer to someone who is just starting out?
I think things have changed so much. The best piece of advice is that, at the end of the day, if you make a good film, it will find a home and an audience. It will be discovered but it really starts with the work. It is really a matter of anyone being able to go out and buy a camera now for a $1,000 that can take absolutely stunning images, if you are careful. You can put some great work together if you are out there everyday, discovering the world around you and even trying to find something that in not that interesting but trying to make a good story out of it. Pick something difficult or challenging, rather than something that is obvious. That is where you find your voice.
Thank you for your time today, Michael. I really enjoyed the look into the world of MMA you have given us with “Fightville.” Best of luck to you with the film and on your future projects!
Thank you so much for your time! Have a great day!