Joe Carman in "Cage Fighter"

Interview: Jeff Unay on Packing a Punch with “The Cage Fighter”

Jeff Unay was doing yoga at his local gym when he first met Joe Carman, who would become the subject of his first feature. Both were taking time away from busy lives – Carman, working for the ferry system with a family of five at home, and Unay supporting his own clan with a job at a tech company, and as the strangers forged an intimacy over things they might not share with their immediate friends and family, eventually working out more than just their muscles.

“When I’m going off and doing yoga after a rough past two months where I just needed to clear my head, I meet this guy and immediately, he starts telling me about his life and what he’s going through,” says Unay. “And he’s telling me, ‘I’ve got to train. I’m getting ready for an event and it’s just something I got to do. And I said, wait, what event? And he just said, ‘I’m an MMA fighter and I haven’t done this in a number of years.’”

Despite Carman’s imposing physical stature, this wasn’t the answer Unay was anticipating, and perhaps even more unexpected was how deeply Unay could relate, though going into the ring was never something he had contemplated himself. He had, however, long wanted to make a feature film, and after tangentially finding ways to pursue that dream, using his tech know how to work on the visual effects for such films as “King Kong” and “Avatar,” and serving as a cinematographer on the doc “Free to Play,” he believed that in Carman, he found a captivating subject for a project that he could fully invest ‎himself in. As a result, “The Cage Fighter,” which was shot over the ensuing three-and-a-half years, crackles with the energy of both men following their passion no matter where it would lead.

Filmed so intimately that Unay would later have to remove the sound of his lens hitting the cage from the sound design during the fight scenes, “The Cage Fighter” hits as hard as its main subject, primarily because of the time it spends out of the cage. A caring father and husband, the biggest blows Carman suffers in the film often come from knowing that his wife Norinda and his daughters  can’t stomach watching him fight, though it becomes clear he draws confidence from the sport that he can’t find elsewhere, despite doctor’s visits for dizziness and the potential of losing his daughters’ custody to his ex-wife‎. While you see Carman collect bruises as he’s trading kicks and punches, it’s how Unay is able to articulate the accumulation of how those in his personal life are able to leave a mark on him emotionally that is truly affecting, and when coupled with breathless scenes of his rivalry with a younger fighter named Clayton Hoy, make “The Cage Fighter” a force to be reckoned with.

Recently, the film had its hometown premiere at the Seattle Film Festival where ‎Carman and Unay’s professional and personal passions collided for all to see and the director took the time to talk about his discovery of an unlikely kindred spirit and how he was able to tell some of his own story through Carman’s, as well as how his VFX work informed compositions for “The Cage Fighter” and why the time spent with others that didn’t make the final cut only added to the richness of the film as it ended up being.

Joe Carman in "Cage Fighter"How did this start out?

As I just walk the streets of Bellevue, Washington every day, I’m just really mindful of my environment and the people that I meet and I love when people tell me stories, and I believe the best stories are the stories, or the ones that I need to tell, are the ones that find me and I don’t go off to find that story. I will never be someone that reads the New York Times and goes and chases a story. That’s never where I want to start. Where I want to start are always the stories that are around me and are a part of my life, they’re a part of where I live, they’re a part of my neighborhood, so that day when I met Joe doing yoga, I was just really struck with curiosity about the guy. If [he’s training] and hadn’t fought in a number of years, what does that mean? You seem to have a lot of really positive things in your life. You have four great daughters, you’ve got steady work – why are you going back into fighting? I always like starting a project with a lot of questions, and this was part of the way I made this film [was that] I’m going to give this story enough time to where I hope the questions I have initially or throughout get answered in a way that I never would’ve been able to expect. Maybe [those answers come] in small conversations, maybe they’re in really long, crazy elaborate conversations or best when described physically — if I have a question about why he fights and I can see a physical answer to that without exposition, I’m in. So that’s how I approached shooting this film. Plus, I think he’s very charismatic, he’s very open and his family’s lovely, so why not? [laughs]

When Joe comes walking in to your life, were you actually looking to make a film along these lines?

Yeah, before I started this project, I had a two- or three-month period where I was basically overworked and emotionally exhausted and I decided I was just going to go off and make something finally for me. I was in a place emotionally where I was just ready to dive in and have no answers, have no immediate goals as to what I’m even working on, but I just wanted to work on something just for me for once. When I met Joe, here’s a guy who’s almost 40 who is putting himself at risk — financial risk, physical risk — all because he loves fighting and it’s something that even he has a hard time describing to other people why he does it, which I’m very fascinated by. As an artist, it’s the same for me where I try to explain why I try to do art or why I love art, and it’s hard to talk about. So when I met him, I was like, “Holy shit, this guy is in the same place I’m in right now with his life. He’s overworked, he’s emotionally exhausted. He doesn’t have a clue as to what he needs to do to right his ship, but he has fighting. That’s the one thing he knows and feels comfortable in and loves” and I feel the same way about film. How am I to judge this man? I may not agree with him going in there and getting into a fight in a cage, but I get it. Like I have no right to try and be a filmmaker. I should just shut up and work my tech job and be happy and provide for my family. Why am I even trying to do this? But I need to do this as much as this man needs to fight.

Joe Carman in "Cage Fighter"Aesthetically, did that sense of closeness actually contribute to the way you shot it?

I started off as a traditional artist and then I moved into sculpture and that was my job while I was working on these big blockbuster films as a visual effects artist. I got a chance to work with a lot of actors and directors on sculpting their faces, so I’ve studied faces professionally and I’m really in tune with facial expressions and facial anatomy and what it means for specific muscles in your face to trigger combinations to reveal a universal emotion. I’ve also always loved photography and I just love people. I’m genuinely fascinated by human beings and their behavior. So when you watch this film, a lot of the key scenes are covered in portraits and shot with lenses for this same effect because I want to strip [away] as much dialogue and exposition as possible and let the face of these people tell the story. There were many scenes where I’d work with our editor David Teague, who’s an amazing filmmaker, and [the scene] would be three-and-a-half minutes long and there would be a lot of talking and a really strong point at the end where the whole scene makes sense, but we’d look and go you know what? Screw it, let’s cut right to her facial expression when she’s looking at him with a bruised and battered face and let that be the scene. Instead of a three-and-a-half minute cut of a scene, it’s one portrait. That’s it.

One of the other things I would do when I would film is I would always put lavalier mics on everyone and as I did, that’s when I would say my hellos, like, “Hey, how’s it going?” I had six lavalier mics and an H6, which records six tracks, and I would just record everyone – each family member – and I would shoot by myself and a lot of what I would shoot [was] in off-hours, so instead of me going home and watching TV, I would just pick up my camera and go to the Carmans’ house and I would just film them doing whatever they were doing that evening. Maybe they were watching TV. [laughs] And anytime anyone would come up to me — and Joe would do this a lot, he’d just start talking to me as I was filming — I would just politely put the camera down and have that conversation with him. When the conversation was done, I’d bring the camera back up and then he would go on or someone else would [do the same], so what I was doing was letting them know the conversation that we’re having won’t be in the film and I’m not going to give my editor the option to put it in. And some of the conversations are amazing, but it was that constraint of saying this is not what the film is, and that was a big part of the aesthetic was to not let anyone address the camera.

Joe Carman in "Cage Fighter"It sounds like the decision to film by yourself wasn’t made out of financial necessity, but wound up contributing to how intimate this is.

I was really taken by how emotionally honest everyone was in front of the camera and I think a lot of that [was because] it didn’t feel like a film shoot, so if I were to have a boom operator with me, and many, many times I wished I had that luxury or had planned for it, but that boom operator would have to establish a relationship with this family [as deep as mine] because I knew how emotional this film was. I knew how many of these moments I filmed by myself that I couldn’t believe that I was filming. Doc filmmakers talk about that all the time, but I don’t think [the family] would’ve been that revealing or that open if there was a crew. There’s no way you could make this film with five or six people, strangers sitting or standing around the Carman home, so it was a big part of the storytelling, [having] literally no crew.

It’s really interesting how the film portrays the relationship between Joe and his father, which is obviously a big part of his life, but not necessarily easy to capture on film. How did you figure it out?

When I started this film, I thought it was really just going to be a portrait of a fighter, [though I knew] he’s a lot of people’s experience in their own way, but it wasn’t until I shot the scene right after [Joe’s] first fight and he’s sitting there with a big hurt eye and his wife is really asking what his motivation is [to fight], and he has a hard time answering it, and then his daughters just are so emotionally honest at that moment, that I just thought, “Wow, this isn’t some short film. I think there’s something really here.” And his wife [asks], “Why are you doing this? Is this because of your dad?” I shot with him for over two months at this point and we had never talked about his dad. So I went, “What’s that about?” Again, I don’t know the answers [going in], but I was super-curious, so what I asked [Joe], “Hey, when are you going to see your dad again?” And he just said, “In a couple weeks, we’re going to go over to his house for a lunch or dinner together,” and I wasn’t even really asking him what his relationship was like with his father at the beginning, I just asked to be there. So I said, “Do you mind if I just hang out?” [with] no expectation as to like what I would film that day. I just wanted to see what is their interaction like and where did this question from his wife Norinda come from? So that’s how those scenes happened. I knew there was some undercurrent there between him and his father, and it was my job to be there and to be present as much as they would allow. I filmed at his father’s house like five or six times over the three-and-a-half years, and every time I would film, it would just be very cordial and then every once in a while, something would happen. That’s how those scenes unfolded – they truly unfolded.

Joe Carman in "Cage Fighter"I recall you also said you shot a couple hundred hours with Clayton, Joe’s chief rival as a fighter in the film, but you left it on the cutting room floor. How did the film evolve in that respect?

With Clayton, Joe had fought him early on, and what ended up happening was there were words said on social media [that] Joe had seen that people were making about the fight he and Clayton had. He had taken all that really personally, and Joe just went, “I want a rematch with that guy. I’m going to call him out and I’m going to fight him again.” And that [gave me\ a really clear idea as to how to structure the film. Here’s this guy who really wants this rematch with this young fighter and all this other stuff in his life is happening, so when I saw [Joe] get really angry and fired up, I knew I could hang his big emotional journey on this throughline of him getting the rematch with Clayton. So I reached out to Clayton and said, “Hey, look, this is a project I’m working on on the side – would you like to be a part of it?” And he was game, so I filmed Clayton for three-and-a-half years as well and that scene at the very end of the film when he is very open where he currently is with his life and he tells Joe, “Hey, man, I’m pretty down and out too, I don’t think I would’ve been able to capture that if I didn’t spend all that time with Clayton ahead of it.

What has it been like to start showing the film to audiences?

It’s probably the most rewarding when people come up to either Joe and I or the family and they immediately start talking about their own life [because] my editor David [and I] always talked about making the film interactive in the sense that when you watch it, you’re bringing in your own life and your own experiences to it. We didn’t even really talk about plot points or story structure. We’d just talk about our own families. So I’ve had people come up to me after a screening very emotional, [like] “This film reminded me of my ex-boyfriend,” and I’m like, “Really? How?” “Well, he had an addiction and he chose his addiction over me,” and that’s all we talked about. A really fantastic filmmaker also came up to me and didn’t even talk about the film, but was crying and said, “I didn’t grow up with a dad, and so as flawed as this man is in your film, I was so envious of the girls because they had a dad” and that was the conversation. A lot of conversations we’re having are people immediately talking about their own fathers or their own failures as a father. That blows me away. That’s been the most rewarding part of showing this film the past few months.

“The Cage Fighter” opens on February 2nd in New York at the IFC Center and in Los Angeles at the Arena Cinelounge.