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Meet the 2011 SXSW Filmmakers | “Fightville” Directors Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein

Meet the 2011 SXSW Filmmakers | "Fightville" Directors Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein

Mixed Martial Arts has grown from a controversial no-holds-barred gladiatorial sideshow into a billion dollar phenomenon eclipsing boxing as the dominant combat sport in the world. 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. “Fightville” is about the art and sport of fighting: a microcosm of life, a physical manifestation of that other brutal contest called the American Dream. [Synopsis courtesy of SXSW]

[indieWIRE invited directors with films in the SXSW Narrative, Documentary Competitions and Emerging Visions sections to submit responses in their own words about their films. These profiles are being published through the beginning of the 2011 SXSW Film Conference and Festival. To prompt the discussion, indieWIRE asked the filmmakers about what inspired their films, the challenges they faced and other general questions. They were also free to add additional comments related to their projects.]

Documentary Competition
Director: Michael Tucker, Petra Epperlein
Producer: Petra Epperlein, Michael Tucker
Cast: Dustin “The Diamond” Poirier, Albert Stainback, Gil “The Thrill” Guillory
Screenwriter: Michael Tucker
Cinematographer: Mike “The Truth” Tucker
Editor: Michael Tucker, Petra Epperlein
Sound: CJ DeGennaro
Music: Alex Kliment

Responses courtesy of “Fightville” directors Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein.

An unusual path to filmmaking…

We fell into filmmaking by accident. We met in New York City in 1994 where Petra was exploring opportunities in architecture and I was regaining equilibrium after living in Vietnam and Thailand for two years. We hit it off–personally and creatively–and soon enough we were living together in Berlin developing projects.

Our first film was “The Last Cowboy.” Supported by Sony Europe, it was probably the first film completely shot and edited on DV and it went on to be the first non-studio film to be put on DVD. At the time, DVD burners cost more than $20,000, so we leveraged our expertise and worked with major rights holders to introduce DVD to the European market. After a few too many “Austin Powers” Special Editions, we became restless, abandoned everything and drove to Andalusia to figure out what to do next. While in Spain, on the heels of Y2K, we began work on “Nomados,” a digital series for children that explored conservation topics around the world. That took us to Namibia and Australia where we tracked rhinos, tagged cheetahs and avoided crocodiles.

The world of fighting…

“Fightville” was directly born out of “How to Fold a Flag.” One of our characters, Michael Goss, an Army vet suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), was an amateur cage fighter and he invited us to film a couple of his bouts on the regional Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) circuit in Louisiana. We were immediately fascinated, but knew nothing about MMA. What we did know, was that the world we stumbled into was ripe to be filmed. Cajun Acadiana, with its distinct patois, roughnecks, shotgun houses and hot nights, was about as far away from the big lights of Vegas as you could get. It was a world of survivors–underdogs–a place where adversity is a lifestyle. What other place has a neighborhood (Fightville) named after its passion for fighting?

The literary nature of fighting…

We approached the subject armed with literature. Every fight is a story and the sweet science–boxing–has long been a literary staple. Jack London used to spar with his wife in his garden. Hemingway bragged of his fighting skills. Mailer wrote as much about boxing as he did about culture. Joyce Carol Oates–the most unlikely fan of all–spent her childhood with her father at the Garden watching the champions of the day battle it out. Fightville is the kind of place where they would have saddled up to the bar and written about the next big thing.

There’s something about a fight that attracts and repels us. When two men square off toe to toe, they aren’t just fighting, they are brutally acting out the drama of life. It’s undiluted competition and while it may be a sport, it’s a sport that isn’t played. It’s about giving and receiving hurt, domination and submission. For the audience, the arena is the place where their dragons are slain. A champion isn’t just fighting his opponent, he’s fighting to overcome life itself.

Misconceptions about fighting…

The biggest challenge in developing the project was the general misperception of the sport. MMA is one of those things where everybody has an opinion, even if they haven’t seen it. In fact, it still isn’t legal in New York State, due to some very stubborn members of the NY State Assembly and some resistance from boxing promoters. Right now, MMA is the fastest growing sport in the world. A few weeks ago, the UFC sold-out a show in Toronto–55,000 seats for $11,000,000 in under ten minutes. And yet still, sight unseen, people think it’s some sort of no-holds-barred gladiatorial spectacle where giants enter the cage and beat the snot out of each other.

All that said, we focused on the art of fighting and the physical, mental and spiritual transformation that a fighter must undergo to be a champion.  What kid hasn’t wanted to run the stairs like Rocky, arms in the air, victorious not just in the fight, but in life. We all want to be better, advertising tells us so. But what does it take to be a champion? In the end, “Fightville” may be less about fighting and more about what it takes to be the best at anything.

Upcoming projects…

Right now, we are focused on “Fightville.” After four war films in a row, it feels good to be engaged in something that rings triumphant. At the same time, as the 10th anniversary of the war in Iraq approaches, we are working on an epic meta-documentary for the classroom that will bring personal context to the war for the next generation. Petra is also finishing a graphic novel about life in the German Democratic Republic (GDR) and we are looking at our first narrative feature. 

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