Michael Tucker has put himself into dangerous situations for his art. Around 2003 one of his documentaries led him to be stationed with the the US military in one of Uday Hussein’s palaces located in the heart of Baghdad. Tucker placed himself in one of the most volatile cities in Iraq at the time to complete his documentary on the lives of soldiers stationed there. Very intense. He has traveled the world over with his wife and filmmaking partner Petra Epperlein to capture the human essence where ever they were able to grasp it. Now, the artisan documentarian has recently entered into another violent world, one that is very familiar to us, and through the eye of his lens he has crafted not just another documentary, not just a ‘good MMA movie’ but what is being called one of the best films of the year: FIGHTVILLE. Following Dustin Poirer and Tim Credeur, Fightville has been called ‘must see’ at the SXSW film festival and will be premiering in Toronto the weekend of UFC 129 (buy tickets here before they sell out, because they will). Read our exclusive interview with the future Oscar number one contender Michael Tucker right after this trailer.
You have been all around the world, most notably Iraq during the height of the insurgency, most of your documentaries have political leanings….Why MMA? Fightville was born directly out of my experience in Iraq. In Baghdad in 2003-2004, I met a few soldiers who were CRAZY about MMA and they had a steady stream of DVDs coming from Amazon that they would share. Coming home, one of those soldiers, SGT Michael Goss, decided to take up amateur fighting and he invited us to film one of his bouts in Louisiana. His story–one of four coming home stories–is featured in our last film HOW TO FOLD A FLAG which will be released next month by Morgan Spurlock. However, after telling Mike’s story we fell in into the MMA scene in South Louisiana and decided to develop a film out of it.
Are you a fan of MMA? How familiar are you with combat sports? I’ve never been much of a sports fan, but have always loved great sports films–especially boxing. “When We Were KIngs” is one of my all time favorite films. As for combat sports, my own experience is limited to the infantry training I had back when I was 17 years old and completed Army Infantry School. I was knocked out in about 8 seconds during pugil training. That said, I’ve never had the desire to train, but find that it is a stunning thing to film.
What did you shoot Fightville on? Fightville was shot on two camera systems. One was a trusty old Panasonic HVX200 and the other was a Panasonic HPX170 that Panasonic loaned us. The film was finished entirely with Apple Final Cut Pro Studio–including extensive color grading with Apple Color. It’s pretty amazing what you can do with these tools now and the film pops on the big screen.
What is it like working with your wife as a partner? Neither of us were MMA fans, so I walked into this first and got to know the world and then she came down when I started shooting and was amazed by what she saw. As we moved into the project, her eyes became the eyes of the mainstream audience in order to stay focused on getting to the heart of the world. The thing is, MMA isn’t what everybody outside of the sport thinks that it is. Both of us have embraced martial arts (and the film) as a vehicle for positive transformation. That surprised people around us until they sampled what we were making and realized that the sport exemplifies pure competition. It’s the physical manifestation of the American Dream. That’s what made it worth making a film about. More than a film about fighting, it’s a film about pushing yourself to be the best.
There was a resistance to digital filmmaking in some circles around the late 90’s/turn of the century. Is film finally dead? Film isn’t dead, but we’ve reached the point where a small team can make a serious film limited resources. There are no barriers anymore and people are turning out incredible work. At the same time, the distribution landscape is changing (as well as viewing habits) and that’s creating a seismic shift in the business.
What are your thoughts on ‘backyard MMA’? I don’t really have an opinion about backyard MMA, but I do think that much of what the mainstream sees of the sport is supported by negative images in “underground fight club” films and the like that do nothing to promote MMA as a legit sport. Every time I see one of our guys fight, I’m in awe of what it took to get them in the cage. As Tim Credeur says, “People see the fifteen minutes of the fight, not the fifteen years of training.”
What is it about conflict that draws you to a subject for a documentary? I’m not sure if it is conflict. I think has to do more with extremes and insular worlds. War is one of them. After experiencing Iraq, it was hard to see the world the same way again. It was even harder to explain the war. Our work is the only outlet we have to try to make sense of extremes. Fighting is appealing because it’s so mythical and literary. It’s the stuff legends are made of. I was with Dustin last weekend and I have to admit to being incredibly proud of his determination, dedication and fortitude.–the same things that drew us to him as a subject. As our promoter Gil Guillory says in the film, “Every fight is a story.” It’s epic.
Why should someone who has no interest in MMA watch Fightville? FIGHTVILLE could be about champion tennis players or pole vaulters. The subject is secondary. At it’s heart it’s about what it takes to to be the best at anything. It’s inspiring to see that heart at work. All of us want to be champions, if not in the ring or the cage then in life.
Will Fightville create MMA fans in your opinion? I’m not sure if FIGHTVILLE will create fans, but I do know that it’s going to change a few minds. For us, the most important thing is thinking more about MIxed Martial Arts and how MMA is part not only of the evolution of fighting but also the physical culture. When George Butler set out to make PUMPING IRON in the ’70s, there was a moment when potential investors basically told him he’s be laughed off 42nd Street if he made a film about Body Building. At the time, there were like two dozen gyms in New York City. How many are there today? MMA has less to do with the NBA and NFL and more to do with body building, running and even yoga–extreme body cultures that have become completely mainstream. More than sport, it’s a lifestyle: literally a way of living and that’s what the film focuses on. I am fan of anything that makes us better people.
Do you create documentaries that you want people to see or do you make the film that you want to make and if people gravitate towards it, that’s a cherry on top. The most important thing for us is nailing the world in the minds of the people we are filming. We wanted to make a film that captured the essence of their world and their motivations for fighting. That said, you have to love the people you are filming or it isn’t worth doing.
Tell us a funny anecdote about Dustin/Tim or both. I’m not comfortable telling funny stories about UFC fighters, but I do have a fond memory of going to Montreal to film one of Dustin’s fights where TIm was cornering him. One morning, Tim and I walked around for hours to find the perfect fresh yams for Dustin to eat pre-fight. And then he found this enormous yam and brought it back to the hotel, wrapped it in a wet towel and microwaved it. And that’s what people don’t get: these guys are more at home walking the aisles of Whole Foods shopping for organic cocoa butter than most of us are. Again, MMA is a body culture and you don’t have to look any further than people like Mike Dolce and his diet to see that. That guy is going to be the next Jim Fixx.
What were the main challenges in filming Fightville? Shooting MMA is probably the most physically challenging thing I’ve ever done. I’ve been to Iraq and Afghanistan a half dozen times and have been in some pretty dreadful situations that we incredibly taxing, but nothing prepared me for the rigors not only of fighting but training as well. The first fight I filmed in a humid rodeo arena and it pretty much killed me–13 fights and I was soaked in sweat and dust. There was a really steep learning curve to be able to get to the point where I could anticipate the movement/direction of the fight. All of this was made worse by shooting with one camera. However, with those limits came alot of intimacy that a larger crew would have missed.
Tell us about the audience receptions to Fightville. The audience receptions have been amazing. We premiered last month at SXSW in Austin to a packed house that leaned more to the film world and we were taken-aback by the reactions. Most people have a vague idea of what MMA or the UFC is but then it all gets kind of blurry in that much of the mainstream perception of the sport has been formed by pre-Zuffa UFC fights and early NHB fights. People are surprised that there are rules and that it’s not just two guys beating the snot out of each other. Mostly, I think they are both surprised and inspired by the fighters in the film. My best memory of 2011 has to be watching friends from the NY film world lining up to meet Dustin after the premiere. They truly fell in love with this kid and we are able to embrace his story and his journey on their own terms. What we are most proud of is making a film that captures a lifestyle and speaks to the love people have for MMA.
Are you officially a fan now? If you had the time in your busy schedule, would you be watching the fights on a Saturday night? I’m definitely a fan of the fighters we have worked with and I look forward to finally being able to see them fight under the big lights.