Flipping Tires: Michael Tucker on the MMA Documentary Fightville

The co-director of Fightville on the rise of Dustin Poirier and how the film changed because of Morgan Spurlock. 

Fred Topelby Fred Topel


By now Dustin Poirier is a mainstay on the MMA fight scene. Last year when he was just breaking in, a documentary about his early training made the festival circuit. Fightville is getting released theatrically on April 13 so everyone can see how Poirier dominated Gil Guillory’s Lafayette, LA fight circuit. We spoke with co-director Michael Tucker at ActionFest 2011 where the film played after SXSW. His wife and co-director Petra Epperlein didn’t make it to Asheville, NC but he represented the film.


CraveOnline: Gil was really financially tapped for putting on the main fight in this movie. Did he make his money back?

Michael Tucker: It’s funny, that’s something we’re changing in the film. Morgan Spurlock who’s a buddy of ours was at the screening in SXSW and it was the first question he asked. Did Gil make his money back? Yes, he did. We’re actually inserting that into the film.


What is the secret to getting so close in the gym and even up to the cage to photograph those fights?

Well, I think there’s two kinds of close when you film things. One is just getting intimate with people and letting them feel comfortable that you’re around and they can trust you and let you into that world. That kind of gives you the access to that physical closeness which I think for this it really required it. One thing that was kind of special was that Gil Guillory, the promoter, kind of controlled this world, so I think we were able to capture [it]. The film turned out looking really stunning and people have been kind of taken aback by more like handheld camerawork but it’s close and immediate. For people who don’t know this world, they see it and it’s just great sports footage.


I got a better sense of it from this film.

It’s funny because Hollywood Elsewhere just posted something about the film and the fact that there’s three Hollywood MMA movies coming out this year. It was funny, the comments on Jeffrey Wells site were like 50/50. 50% were incredibly negative comments about the sport, “There’s no rules, it’s homoerotic and it’s this and it’s that.” The other part was like, “No, we watch it, we enjoy it, there are rules.” I think there’s a lot of misunderstanding about what the sport is.


Is that changing?

It’s changing really, really fast because John Jones just won a championship fight in the UFC a couple weeks ago, he was just on the Jay Leno show. People are beginning to see these guys as they’re becoming mainstream athletes. They’re becoming household names slowly. Big time sponsors are after them. I think there’s just more awareness. When we were filming, people were still calling it cage fighting or ultimate fighting. It became people saying mixed martial arts or mixed martial artists. It’s becoming accepted and that helps people understand what it is, that it is martial arts as a foundation based in all these different schools.


At what point did you realize Dustin’s story was going to give you the structure for the film?

I don't think we ever knew. I mean, the first time I saw Dustin fight was the first scene you see in the film. He throws this incredible kick that knocks somebody out and it was like wow, I’ve never seen someone fight like that before. I was completely ignorant about the sport. I was in Louisiana shooting something else and just kind of fell in love with it. I identified him, he seemed to have the charisma we needed, but also he’s humble. In the ring he has the charisma but in real life he’s incredibly humble. It felt like he was worth investing the time in, but along the way we never knew what was going to happen. The fact that in 18 months he went from fighting in rodeo arenas to fighting UFC in Las Vegas is incredible. I think that’s the dream. There’s all these kids across America training in gyms, that’s the dream. That’s what they all want to be is that guy. He is that guy and the film amazingly was able to capture that. I think that was more luck, though I would like to say I have a great eye for talent. You just don’t know what’s going to happen.


How did you divide labor with your co-director?

Well the other director is my wife, Petra Epperlein. Typically when we make films, I shoot everything and we edit together. Editing with this film was a short process but a very intense process of also taking a step back, but especially with these characters, Albert [Stainback] and Dustin, from a pool of characters we had to identify which ones kind of worked and why. Both of us loved Albert, both of us loved Dustin. Just figuring out how to make it worth, not just for the fan base but also for people who don’t know the sport. So are these guys likeable? She’s usually a good gauge of that.


Are there entire characters that didn’t make it in?

Yeah, there were a lot. We worked out of Tim [Credeur]’s gym and all of the people getting in, but see it’s a very unstable sport. For a guy to make it in the sport, he has to be able to train all the time. Which to do so requires money or some sort of stability and a lot of guys just don’t have it. So we lost quite a few in the process.


And as in the film, people find out in their first fight they don’t want to do this.

Yeah, I think I would never do what they’re doing. I actually had dreams about it, it kind of terrifies me. For a lot of guys, they just want to test their mettle, go out there and see if they can do it and then it’s like okay, that’s enough. I think Tim Credeur describes it really well. It’s scary. There’s consequences. Someone could beat you if you can’t defend yourself at least, you’re completely open. You could be destroyed out there. For most guys, once is enough. They just kind of hang it up. Dustin I think has done this 27 times with an incredibly high degree of success.


With Dustin moving on, who are Gil’s top stars now?

Well, what’s funny about promoters like Gil, Gil’s part of this feeder system that exists all around the country and actually all around the world, these smalltime promoters who are trying to identify talent, talent that will sell tickets. A kid like Dustin as a pro fighter, he’s probably only good for half a dozen of those shows before somebody’s going to be looking for him, UFC and Strikeforce and he’ll have to move one. Another thing is that ultimately he’ll move on to other places to train and get more proficient, train with other partners. So the funny thing about Gil is he really is in the classic sense of a promoter, just find someone and make them into a star. He’s constantly looking for who’s the next guy that can fill the seats.


Is there one after Dustin?

As far as I know not [yet] but at the gym they’ve got a couple of guys that are coming up that are going pro. That’s another important thing to recognize about the sport. The base of fighters, these kids that’ve been training since they’ve been teenagers only in mixed martial arts, are now fighting at a level that no one does. People are going out there into the cage and they are fighting, it’s like a scene from The Matrix.


What support has UFC given you since the festival circuit?

We’ve reached out to the UFC. We’re going to be up in Toronto [while] UFC 129 [is on.] We’ll see what happens. We certainly want all of them to come out and see the film and see that it’s good for the sport, but it also has to be said that there’s a lot of films out there right now about mixed martial arts. I know when we were at SXSW this year, they were saying 13 films about fighting. Not specifically mixed martial arts but there was at least a half dozen films about mixed martial arts. I think what’s special about Fightvilleis that it really tries to introduce a new audience to this, trying to be a gateway to say this is what the sport is and do it in kind of a classic sports genre rather than just be for a fan base. There’s no star in the movie. I think once the UFC embraces that it’ll be good for them.


And it’s also good for you that Dustin made it into UFC.

Absolutely. The other funny thing is that this is our fifth film. We’re pretty experienced filmmakers who have premiered films at international film festivals all over the world and we’re total outsiders for that world. This could be a film about pole vaulting. It could be about anything, about figure skaters, but it’s about mixed martial arts. I think that said, it’s going to take time. Those people need to see what it is before they can embrace it and say, “Oh, that’s something good.” Not just the UFC but I think sponsors. I think the message of the film is very Nike. Watch a kid like Dustin, how hard he trains, makes you wake up in the morning kind of going, “What am I doing? When I’m smoking my second pack of Marlboros, he’s out…” It’s been great for us to see that people feel enthusiastic about a sport that they didn’t think about. I think for the sport to grow in a positive way, that’s what needs to happen.


Will you follow it now that you’ve made the film?

I follow it much more than I ever thought I would. I have a huge investment in these guys personally so typically I follow their fights. I’ve become a fan. I’ve never been a sports guy. I just spent eight years making four films about the Iraq War, so sort of the same way, I lived the world of the Iraq War. Now I live a world of fighting guys.


Are their training montages very different from what we’re used to seeing in Rocky?

Well, I think we’re seeing specific to MMA. Yeah, it’s hard work. That’s kind of Dustin’s motto. He’s just out doing whatever he has to do to be ready to fight. I think it surprised people how intense their training is. I think also how varied it is. They see a guy who can hold a perfect yoga pose and then is flipping tires or wielding hammers. And his cardio’s crazy. He is a for real athlete.


What’s your next subject?

I can’t say yet but it’s something totally different. Again, I did these four Iraq films and then fighting. The next thing is something 180 degrees from all that.