The first rule of "Fightville" is that you do talk about "Fightville."
Anyway, executive producer Michael W. Gray of Ho-Ho-Kus does – and with good reason.
This documentary about the brutal sub-world of MMA (mixed martial arts) fighting, directed by Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker ("Gunner Palace") and opening Friday at New York's Cinema Village on East 12th Street, is in one sense his own "Rocky" story – his two-fisted, two-legged, two-elbowed entry into the world of professional filmmaking. And he can't help but identify with Dustin Poirier, the young up-and-comer who is the standout among several athletes profiled in the film.
"Poirier is a guy fighting for his dream," Gray says. "[My career] runs parallel to his. I identified film as my passion, albeit later in life, and pursued it with fervor."
A Westwood native (Westwood High School class of 1987) and William Paterson University graduate, the 43-year-old Gray found himself working in advertising, real estate and venture capital. But his real passion, he realized seven years ago, was movies. And he found his entree through another of his passions: martial arts.
"I had trained for a hobby in a Brazilian jiu-jitsu gym, for many years," he says. "That's how I got introduced to the directors in the first place. ... A colleague in the film business heard about the start-up of a mixed martial arts film, and asked if I wanted to be introduced to the filmmakers."
"Fightville," filmed over a period of two years, premiered at the 2011 South by Southwest festival and has been shown at a dozen others worldwide; it opens this week simultaneously in New York and Los Angeles, with additional release on Apple iTunes and on-demand cable. "This film has wide audience appeal," Gray says. "The guys in the film are highly trained, dedicated athletes at the highest level."
A slam-bang combination of boxing, wrestling, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, Muay Thai, kickboxing, tae kwon do, karate and judo, mixed martial arts is not without controversy (several states, including New York and Vermont, have banned it).
But this variant of cage fighting is full of raw, outrageous, testosterone-fueled action: The fighting techniques have names like "sprawl-and-brawl" and "ground-and-pound." And it's proved increasingly popular since the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) was founded by Brazil's Gracie family – a prominent sporting franchise – in 1993.
"One of the beauties of it is you sort of find yourself when you're competing," Gray says. "You define yourself by how you react, and how you adjust, and how you handle yourself during this conflict. The fighting transcends the fight: It defines you as a person. If you're stuck in a situation, are you going to give up? Or are you going to use your training, and think three steps ahead? It's really very much like a chess match."
"Fightville" focuses on Gladiators Academy, a gym in Lafayette, La. – Cajun central – where ambitious young people train for what is almost the equivalent of modern gladiatorial combat. The film focuses in particular on 22-year-old Poirier, currently competing as a featherweight in the UFC (he's ranked No. 5 by MMA Weekly, a website devoted to the sport).
"Some people just have this in them, just as other people might turn to art or architecture," Gray says. "In this case, our protagonist, Dustin, has this in his blood. His father fought. His grandfather fought."
In Poirier's determination to live his dream, Gray sees something of himself. He has his own challenges – following "Fightville," he's got executive producer credits on several upcoming films, including "Darkroom" (a horror film; Gray is co-executive producer) and "The Birder's Guide to Everything," with Sir Ben Kingsley.
" 'Fightville' is an important film, because it has a message," Gray says. "You do something you love, you pursue your passion with everything you've got. Life is short. This film is about that."