Interview and Exclusive Clip: ‘Such Great Heights’ Director Jonah Tulis
Interview with Such Great Heights director Jonah Tulis conducted by Marc Patterson
Such Great Heights is one of the more amazing sports documentaries I’ve had the pleasure of viewing in my lifetime. I don’t say that to make some fluffy hyperbole filled statement. I say it because it’s true. Director Jonah Tulis was able to find the perfect film subject in Jon Fitch – one of the most down to earth UFC fighters to enter the octagon – and in doing so got in closer than most documentarians are able to go. I recently reviewed the film (click here for review), but in addition was afforded the opportunity to speak to Jonah about making this film. Not only that, but we were afforded the opportunity to showcase an exclusive clip from the film that you won’t find elsewhere. Before we get to the interview let’s start with the clip, which highlights fellow AKA fighter Nate James as he’s about to enter the ring. As you’ll see from the documentary, and in the interview, the men of American Kickboxing Academy are a true team and the camaraderie runs thicker than blood.
Brutal As Hell: Jonah – first off – thank you so much for doing this interview with us. I really appreciate your flexibility and making this happen. I was really stoked to see this film as I’ve been a fan of Jon Fitch and think he’s one of the most humble and down to earth guys to fight in the Octagon. I’m going to start with a more obvious and generic question – but tell me about how this project came together for you. Out of all the guys in the UFC you could have gone after why did you choose Jon Fitch?
Jonah Tulis: Absolutely. We’re really excited about the film and that it’s finally out there for everyone to see, so it’s a pleasure to talk with you about it! How did the film come about? Well, to me and producers Jesse Osher and Philip Frank, who first brought the project to me, the sport of mixed martial arts was about to break out and there were stories that needed to be told and characters that needed to be examined. But, the next question is how do we find the stories and moments to tell? It’s tough because when filming a documentary; you’re not completely sure what you’re gonna get. You just have to be confidant that your characters are compelling, and you have to be certain that they’re going to be themselves and not some sort of caricature for the camera. So how we got to Fitch… Well, while this was all going down, Phil Frank had a chance run-in with Jon at an airport, and after they exchanged info the dialogue began. After learning more about AKA and Fitch, combined with the impending title shot for Jon, we had found our subjects. Jon is a really down-to-earth guy that anyone, inside and outside of MMA, can relate to on a human level. And that also goes for the other guys at AKA and that’s what made them such great subjects.
BAH: I’m sure you’re aware of the big Anderson Silva film, Like Water, that is out there right now. I watched it recently and while I enjoyed it, I felt that it was more or less propaganda designed to sell more pay-per-view tickets for the upcoming re-match bout with Sonnen. (You can’t deny the impeccable timing!) Your film is being released close to the same time, but contrary to Like Water you have a much more earthy vibe. It looks and feels like true documentary and I really appreciated that. Can you tell me about the time you spent with the guys from American Kickboxing Academy. Does the same earthy tone that your film carries truly exemplify what these fighters embody?
JT: When we embarked on the making of this film, we really were adamant about giving it that handheld naturalistic verite feel. For one, it captures the fighters as they are, and really allows for you to see things as they do, no frills. Even in the interviews we kept the handheld feel, which gave them more life than your typical doc. When you’re filming a documentary “in the moment” as we were on this project, I think it’s essential for the viewer to feel like he or she is living the moment with the characters on screen, and I hope we accomplished that. Most of all, we wanted it to seem as real as possible, which, quite frankly, it was. As per spending time at AKA, it really was an amazing experience. We spent two months basically living with the guys, day in and day out, and we actually grew quite close to the coaches and the team. It’s funny, it took a few days for them to realize we were there to stay and not going away anytime soon. Then they really warmed up and let us into their lives. A really great, honest, kind bunch of guys and possibly the best part of this experience was getting to know them.
BAH: I was somewhat surprised in watching the film how utterly poor these guys are. It’s no shock that live and breath fighting day in and day out, but here are big names in the MMA world living in truck campers in parking lots or in the back of their cars, or shacked up in the gym. Maybe this isn’t a question, but I think it’s something important that you really brought to light – and you did spend an intentional amount of time on it – so, can you talk to us about this aspect of the film?
JT: This was utterly fascinating to me. There is a huge disparity in financial security at the gym. Some live quite well, specifically the UFC fighters, but when fighters are just starting or even a few years along, they’re fighting for one or two thousand dollars a fight and that doesn’t pay the bills. But what’s even more interesting is, for the most part, money isn’t the driving force. I mean, everyone likes to get paid, but they are there to fight and achieve goals they’ve set for themselves. They know that they need to train full time to get to where they want to be, so this is just what they have to do. Their crummy living situation is just a means to an end for them. I will tell you this, all the fighters started living like this. It’s almost light a rite of passage to be honest.
BAH: My more critical side was curious why, in a film where you’re supposed to be following Jon Fitch as he prepared to fight GSP, you spent so much time talking and featuring other fighters and key players of the American Kickboxing Academy. Part of me really wanted to see more of Fitch. Can you tell me about this choice and why it was important to the film?
JT: Fitch’s story is clearly the driving force of the film. But the other characters, specifically the younger characters, tell the story of Fitch’s past without giving you the standard documentary info binge. You see Matt Major, Nate Moore, Nate James, Pat Minihan; that was Jon before he was a UFC star. And showing them, in these moments in the career, mirror Jon’s rise to prominence. I think the younger fighters, whose career trajectory is still undetermined offer an interesting glimpse into how a fighter gets to the top. Additionally, the team aspect of this sport was fascinating to me. They were all fighting for the title, in it together, until the end. Pat was by Jon’s side training everyday. If you noticed, even though he had no fights on the horizon. And in the last scene of the film, I think it’s evident the connection these guys had. There is no title fight without these guys and their stories needed to be told.
BAH: For our readers it should be no surprise as to the outcome of Fitch’s bout with Georges St. Pierre. I thought the most brilliant shot you captured was the vulnerable moment after Fitch lost. He’s beat up, bruised, bloody – and I instinctively felt the camera should pull away and give him that moment to grieve in his loss. At minimum I thought he would at least push the camera away. But yet you let the camera linger. That moment was so intense. Can you tell me about your personal experience and feelings shooting that?
JT: That is my favorite moment in the film. It was pure emotion. And nobody ever gets to see a fighter in a moment like that. It was emotional for us as well, as we were so connected to Jon and the guys. It was almost like we were a part of the team for a few months. I’ll tell ya, our cinematographer, Mike Washlesky, was holding back tears in that hotel room. It was hard on all of us. But we kept filming and I think we captured something amazing. It really is my favorite moment of the film. It’s the climax more so than the fight. I think anybody watching this film can relate to this moment and feel what Jon felt, and that’s truly amazing.
BAH: Do you still hear from any of the guys from AKA?
JT: We speak here and there and stay in touch via social media. Phil, Jesse and I were close with a lot of the fighters and coaches and we’ll definitely stay in touch. It’s tough though with all our crazy schedules! Although, last week we were out in San Jose for the premiere and we caught up with everyone. It was surreal because it’s been so long but also lots of fun!
BAH: This is the kind of film where you just know there’s a ton of stuff that’s been left on the cutting room floor. Any great anecdotes or stories that couldn’t be included?
JT: We shot well over 100 hours, so there was plenty we wish we could’ve included. There were many other great characters at AKA too, who I wish we could’ve included but it would’ve made the film a bit scattered and less focused. We have hours and hours of more in depth interviews and scenes, almost too many to comprehend! There was one particular moment we didn’t catch, which I sure wish we did. We followed Jon to a San Jose tire shop (which will remain nameless), who is also known for it’s back room chiropractic adjustments. Basically, a couple mechanics hold you down over some tires and make adjustments. They wouldn’t let us in to film (as this is not a licensed chiropractic office) which was a bit devastating. That would’ve been great. There are about 25-30 minutes of bonus footage on the DVD. Some very cool stuff including a bruised-up final interview that we couldn’t fit into the film despite how cool it is. That’s out in July.
BAH: With a string of injuries and mounting losses over the couple of years things aren’t looking great for Jon Fitch to get back in the ring for a title shot. Having gotten to spend all that time with this phenomenal fighter do you have any unique insights or thoughts about what might be going on in his head? Do you think he has some fight left in him?
JT: Had a long talk with Jon the other night about all of these things. He remains more focused than ever. I think it’s all about staying healthy in this sport, and if he can stay healthy, he’ll be back on top in no time. Nobody works harder than him and we all know he’s got the best coaching in the business. But let’s also remember, aside from his flash knockout loss to Johnny Hendricks, he’s been pretty solid. He won five in a row and he absolutely demolished BJ Penn despite the draw decision. He’ll be back. I’m certain of it.
BAH: Jonah, again I really appreciate you taking the time to chat with us about your film. I’ll be encouraging all of our readers who are avid MMA fans to go out and see it. I wish you the best of luck with your filmmaking career!
JT: Thanks so much!
Such Great Heights is available now through your local VOD provider, or through iTunes Movies. Special thanks to Jonah Tulis for taking the time to speak with us over an especially hectic schedule!