Documentarians Michael Tucker and Perta Epperlein became well-known within the documentary community upon the 2005 release of their first film, Iraq war documentary Gunner Palace. The film received mainstream press and attention for receiving a “PG-13” rating, despite over forty uses of the infamous f-word. Tucker and Epperlein documented the war from a series of vantage points in subsequent films, The Prisoner or: How I Planned to Kill Tony Blair, Bulletproof Salesman, and How to Fold a Flag. For their latest film, Fightville, Tucker and Epperlein took a seemingly temporary break from political filmmaking to examine the world of Mixed Martial Arts in the American south.
Following America’s troops home lead Tucker and Epperlein into the world of promoter Gil Guillory, trainer Tim Credeur, powerhouse fighter Dustin Poirier, and struggling fighter Albert Stainback. The stories of Fightville are far removed from the glamour and gimmickry of Las Vegas, instead focusing on these working-class men as they attempt to carve an honest living out of fighting in Lafayette, Louisiana. Fightville opens in LA and New York on Friday, April 20th, and will be available via On-Demand and Digital Download the same day. I recently enjoyed an insightful chat with Tucker, in which he shared with me the process of discovering Mixed Martial Arts, what he and Epperlein learned about the sport after having been outsiders, and crafting Fightville.
Jackson Truax: Fightville is the first film you and Petra made after four films about the Iraq war. The other films feel canonical, in that there’s a progression of the experience of war, and even some recurring characters. Was the progression from How to Fold a Flag to Fightville as natural?
Michael Tucker: Yes, because strangely, that’s how we got sucked into this world of Mixed Martial Arts. One of the characters in How to Fold Your Flag was a soldier I knew in Iraq. He trained in Mixed Martial Arts and started fighting as an amateur. He introduced us to the world. All the characters in Fightville actually were relations of his. It was just one of those lucky things that happens in the world of filmmaking.
JT: Was it important for you and Petra to make a film that was different thematically? If the MMA world hadn’t presented itself in such an obvious way, do you think you still would have made a film that wasn’t political?
MT: I think so… We spent a huge part of our professional life devoted to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and those stories and those characters that have become part of our lives… At the same time, it was our intent to move on in a different direction in general. A lot of it has to do with [how] the public is immensely disinterested in any of that. We saw that through our work and through our available audience.
JT: One way in which Fightville is very similar to your other films, especially Gunner Palace, is that it’s about young men from very working-class families who are in their late teens and early twenties. Is there something specific about the time in these young men’s lives or in their backgrounds that you either feel passionate about, or feel makes for good storytelling?
MT: I think that’s an interesting time in people’s lives. It’s certainly that time in your life when you’re trying to figure out exactly, “What does it mean to be a man?” That means a lot of things these days. I think if you were talking about it in the ‘50s or ‘60s it may have meant a couple of things. Now there’s this full array; the culture’s changed a lot. It’s fascinating watching young people grow up; and to find themselves.
JT: Once you met Gil Guillory, how did you find the other subjects of the film? Did Tim, Dustin, and Albert, present themselves right away, or did you really have to become immersed in the community?
MT: Gil was pretty immediate. He was very open to the idea of having us come in, which was kind of a surprise. Because promoters…might typically shy away from that sort of thing. But he let us in and introduced us to everyone. Tim Credeur was…initially [feeling], “Okay, whatever. If you want to come into my gym, you can come into my gym.” Eventually…I was just there; week after week, month after month. Dustin was interesting. Because the first time I saw him fight, I was completely blown away… I’d never seen anyone fight like that, with that energy. He also had the charisma. Everyone we talked to [said] “That kid has talent. He’ll be a good one to follow.” It’s amazing now… He may have a shot…at the world title in his weight class… That’s just incredible. So we were very lucky. Then Albert appeared, [out of] of all the characters…he felt like the most from our world. We knew that people from our world would relate to him. He’s the one that has the Stanley Kubrick references. He’s the one who just has a more crazy outlook on life.
JT: You and Petra clearly had some great characters and incredible access. How did you know that a story would evolve that would make a compelling documentary?
MT: You never know. With Dustin, we were incredibly lucky. On the other hand, with Dustin, we knew that he was putting in the work; that he would go someplace. The fact that he’s got four fights under his belt in the [Ultimate Fighting Championship] … And the fact that he’s in the top five in his weight class in the world is amazing. We couldn’t ask for a better constellation. He’s fighting on May 15th in one of the most anticipated fights of the year as the main event. It’s unbelievable… We struck documentary gold… On every project, you’re doing it because you’re interested in the world. That has to be the first thing. Also, because you are interested in and love the characters. The rest of it is gravy. We never sit down and think about how commercial or how viable something is going to be. We say, “Is this how we want to spend the next eighteen months? Is this a fun place to be?”
JT: I know you do all the filming, and then you and Petra edit as you’re still filming. How did that process take shape in Fightville, and how did the shooting and editing influence each other?
MT: I think that it was a really useful process. We edited very swiftly through this, and tried not to get overwhelmed by the material… This film [is] unlike anything we’ve ever done, because we were sitting here in the United States. It was really easy to go back-and-forth to the place and make sure that we were getting exactly what we wanted. In some ways…the film was shot more like a feature. It was really trying to get…what we wanted from the characters. Having the luxury of being able to just hop on a plane and be in a few hours in Louisiana was a huge benefit of making sure we got characters that expressed what they needed to express. Which, if you’re sitting in Baghdad, is not so easy.
JT: How did you decide how many people to focus closely on, and then how much space they would take up in the movie and how you would intercut their stories?
MT: It all evolves over time… We didn’t know what was going to happen with Dustin or Albert. But we quickly saw, Dustin just kept on winning. At a certain point, we saw that Albert was sliding… Things were going wrong in his life. He just didn’t quite have it. He was fairly quickly out of the picture. Then it just became focusing on Dustin. Again, it was a little bit nerve-wracking. “Is he going to win or not?” That was our biggest concern.
JT: On the surface, making a film like Fightville seems very different than making a movie like Gunner Palace. Did the experience of filming them feel different?
MT: It always feels the same. You grow up with your filmmaking, and figure out how to do things better… The tool sets get better. But the basic things are always there. Our brand of filmmaking is very, very personal. We pretty much do everything [technical] ourselves, except we have a sound engineer [CJ DeGennaro] that we always work with. We just brought in Alex Kliment who’s our composer. Now we’re doing all of our stuff with him. In the end it’s four people…which is incredible… It always feels like a little family. And it will always be that way.
JT: Throughout the entire process of becoming immersed in this world and filming these people and these fights, what did you see, hear, or learn that surprised you the most?
MT: Finding that what motivates these guys is not unlike what motivates us… They’re practicing an art; just like we’re practicing an art. You want to be better. You want to get better and put out your best work. That’s what Dustin is doing. That’s what Tim Credeur is doing in the gym… They’re real martial artists.
JT: If Fightville gets widely seen in the coming months, both by MMA fans and maybe folks less familiar with it, what’s the ultimate impact you hope the film might have, either on the audience who sees the film or on MMA or American culture on a larger scale?
MT: I think the sport is changing a lot. I think the sport is just at that point where it’s going to gain wide, mainstream acceptance… I do think…seeing some of the resistance in the mainstream press, that it’s still something that people don’t understand. They still think that it’s what it was back in 1993 or 1996. It’s not. It’s something completely different. I hope that people would open up their minds… One of the things I’ve seen with fighters is it’s probably one of the smarter groups of people I’ve ever encountered… People…they don’t have to love the sport. They don’t even have to respect it. But in the case of New York…the sport’s banned. It’s being banned because people are saying it promotes a culture of violence; which is not what it promotes at all. If anything…it promotes a culture of respect and purpose.
Filed under: LiC Interview