04/20/2012 02:34 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Blood, Sweat, Dreams: 'Fightville' Director Talks MMA and Rising Star Dustin Poirier

By: Noah J. Nelson

In Fightville, directors Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein get down and dirty on the front lines of the mixed martial arts world. There they encounter now rising star Dustin Poirier while he was beginning his pre-UFC career, fighting in promoter Gil Guillory's USA-MMA matches based out of Lafayette, Louisiana.

Tucker and Epperlein are best known for their work documenting the Iraq War in the film Gunner Palace, and use a gritty aesthetic to capture the emotional texture of the MMA world's unglamorous side of fairground fights and strip mall gyms.

Turnstyle talked with director Tucker about the new film.

Turnstyle: What attracted you to doing a story about MMA in the first place?

Michael Tucker: We had a little bit of exposure during the Ira War, soldiers would watch UFC fights on their laptops so I knew what it was. One of those kids that I knew from the war came back and he started training in mixed martial arts, started fighting as amateur and that led us into this world. He introduced us to Gil Guillory, the promoter whose in Fightville and one thing led to another. It was captivating. Its a very exciting, physical world. ITs no surprise that people have always been attracted to the world of fighting in cinema, it was one of the first things that was ever filmed was boxing. We kind of found ourselves in that sweet spot: it was easy.

TS: There's a very working class vibe to the film, I'm wondering if that also stems from the time you spent with soldiers. If that comes from who these guys are?

MT: It's funny. I think that there's a very working class vibe in our work. We're both very working class people. I'm a high school dropout. I have a GED. I didn't go to film school, it's one of the things that I'm very connected to that world. My filmmaking partner Petra is also very connected to that world and I think its a very underrepresented world. We see those worlds in narrative features all the time time but its very rare to treat them seriously in documentaries without looking down on them, lets say.

I think that we just want to go into worlds and see them on their own terms. This is the world these are the people, without getting preachy about it.

TS: The film follows Guillory's promotion as it scales from fairgrounds to arena fights. Was there a definite change in the tone of the crowd? Does the popularity of UFC lend validation to  these smaller promotions?

MT: I think that's where fighters come from. Any fighter you see fighting on a UFC show has fought in a fight like that. It's probably the least understood part of the sport. In New York where we live professional Mixed Martial Arts is banned so its very hard for a New York based fighter. they have to work in other Northeast states to get those fights, to get the experience, to work their way up.

Gil Guillory's fights are Madison Square Garden compared to some of the even smaller promotions which are other there, which are kind of like regional wrestling. Where they'll literally go to a bingo hall or a high school auditorium and set up a ring or a cage and do their thing. Probably at that level its even grittier because you're seeing a lot less talent. They're not coming, these guys from the more legitimate schools. That didn't interest us too much. There are still places where there are tough men contests and we wanted to focus on a world-- and we found it-- where it's really martial arts. Where these are real athletes.

TS: How lucky did you feel that you found Dustin Poirier as part of this process?

MT: In retrospect we were incredibly lucky that we found Dustin. He's an amazing athlete. He's incredibly dedicated. I think while we were filming we felt blessed every time he won, because it was like 'Oh, what's gonna happen if he loses?' But the kid just kept on winning and winning and winning. That was a blessing.

On the other hand it was through his victory, which was a result of a lot of hard work that the heart of the film evolved the message which is: what does it take to be the best at something? I think that's the thing that people respond to. Again you said it yourself: these guys could be going to any job or any vocation. When you devote yourself to something, what is the positive result? Through him we found the heart of the film.

TS: Tim Credeur almost reminded me when he was in sensei mode-- because of how he looked and his intensity-- as the head of Cobra Kai in Karate Kid. Did that ever cross your mind?

MT: Those guys joke about it themselves. Tim can also channel Yoda, he can channel Mr. Miyagi. I love more than anything filming g people and realizing how much for this generation pop culture infects us. So whether you're out with soldiers in Iraq and they're suddenly quoting lines from movies, or you see TIm as channeling these things. There's a part of it that's funny, but there's a part of it where you realize how effective it is and I'm sure there is some ad guy out there who quotes lines from Mad Men. That's just the way the culture works. And I love it when it starts intruding into reality. That's just who we are.

TS: How cramped is Tim's gym?

MT: It was tiny. We were just at his new gym where they're getting Dustin ready for this big epic fight on May 15th. This new gym is like an aircraft hanger where the other one was like, if you can imagine 25 guys sparring in like half of the bottom of a suburban house. In your rec room or something. That's how small that room was. They're literally bumping into each other while they're sparring.

It was tiny but it was also, and again in retrospect I felt incredibly fortunate. What a truly hole in the wall place, and there are places like that across America where these kids are trying to do this thing. Its just another variation on that crusty boxing gym in a neighborhood. Except it's next to a Piggly Wiggly and it's in a strip mall.

TS: Was it difficult shooting in that space?

MT: Yeah it was incredibly difficult and I'm lucky that I don't have any black eyes. Or any missing teeth, A difficult space but also a great space because it was all right there. It was so claustrophobic and so sweaty and so physical, but I think it really captures the intensity of the training. Probably the biggest danger in that space, as anyone who goes to a gym is that everyone has ringworm and staff. It's gross. It's very gladiatorial. People have been doing this for thousands of years. Just a really entertaining environment.

Fightville opens theatrically in New York and LA on Friday, and will be available simultaneously nationwide on iTunes, XBox, Vudu and cable Video On Demand. The biggest fight of Dustin Poirier's career (to date) is coming up on May 15th when he takes on Jung Chan-Sung, better known to fight fans as "The Korean Zombie", in a UFC featherweight title eliminator match.

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