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“Take Shelter” director Jeff Nichols clears the air

“Take Shelter” director Jeff Nichols clears the air (photo)

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“I never considered myself going into ‘Shotgun Stories’ as a filmmaker with worldly aspirations in terms of the stories I’m trying to tell. In fact, it was quite the opposite; they were very specific and very regional. But I realized that there’s power in coming up with some kind of universal feeling and I was very much aware when selecting this topic for this film.”

The topic, in this case, is anxiety; the film is “Take Shelter.” And the man who made it, the man talking about his lack of worldly aspirations, is Jeff Nichols. He might want to find some and fast; “Take Shelter” is a very powerful film, even more powerful than his impressive debut, “Shotgun Stories,” from 2007. In my opinion, it’s one of the best movies of the year.

Michael Shannon stars as Curtis, a young husband and father paralyzed by nightly visions of the apocalypse. He sees enormous storms on the horizon, pouring weird, brown, oily rain. He sees his family dog trying to kill him. He sees people trying to kidnap and murder his family. These are more than just dreams; they feel like visions of the future. And in all of them, Curtis is powerless to stop what’s coming. Searching for some kind of relief and unable to discuss his condition with his wife (“Tree of Life”‘s Jessica Chastain), he starts building out the old storm shelter in his backyard.

“Take Shelter” is a rare kind of movie, technically impressive and emotionally devastating. And Nichols is a rare kind of director: intelligent, open, but not too full of himself and his work that he can’t make a joke or two at his own expense. Over the course of our half hour phone conversation, I asked him why he decided to make this film, how he directs an actor as good as Michael Shannon, and whether making this movie about anxiety alleviated any of the anxiety he was feeling in his own life. In some small way, it definitely helped me with some of mine.

What was the origin of the project?

The combination of a few things, the first of which was visual. I was standing in my backyard and I was struck by the image of a man standing over an open storm shelter. I wasn’t really sure what he was doing; I didn’t know if he was going in or coming out, or whether there was someone else in there. That stuck with me.

Whenever I write, I try and approach my stories from some kind of universal theme or idea or emotion. In my first film, it was revenge. I’ve been thinking a lot about anxiety, so I decided that might be an interesting idea or feeling to make a film about. In my life at the time, I was oddly struck with a lot of anxiety, because my life was actually going really well. I was in my first year of marriage, my first film had come out and people didn’t hate it. I was moving from my late twenties to my early thirties and I finally felt like I was starting to get my shit together. I didn’t want any of that to unravel. When I was writing this in the summer of 2008, it felt like everything was going wrong: our government was going to collapse, the dollar was going to go in the toilet, Iceland was bankrupt, not to mention constant reminders of polar bears leaping off icebergs that are melting. It just felt like there was this dull, gnawing dread, that I thought was palpable. I felt like it was something the rest of the world could identify with.


That, combined with this image combined with a little more pragmatic idea of wanting to make another film. It’s really hard out there to get an independent film made. I liked the idea of blending a genre film, in this case a psychological thriller, with the kind of pace and tone of “Shotgun Stories.” Whether you want to call that an art film or an independent film or just a boring film — I would say thoughtful film — if you combine those two, you could make something that was palatable, not just to an audience but also to the people who were going to put money into the movie.

You mentioned the movie was written during your first year of marriage, and the marriage between Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain’s characters is a big part of the film. Did you solicit any feedback from your wife about the marriage aspect of the script?

I didn’t until I showed her an early cut and we were sitting on our couch watching it on the DVD player. There’s a scene where Curtis, Michael Shannon’s character, urinates in his bed. And the wife comes in and he’s kind of abrupt and short with her. And during that fight onscreen, my wife looked over at me on the couch. And the reason was because it was verbatim the kind of fight we would have. [laughs] Not that I urinate the bed a lot. Basically, my wife has an intolerance for being sick. She gives you one day, and then if you’re not out of bed after that, she’s pissed. We’ve had that exact fight. I’m in bed going “Just leave. Go away,” and she says “What is that? What is that face? What is that you’re doing?” That’s the closest I got to home.

To be very serious about it, I set out this tone or emotion of anxiety, but while I was writing I quickly realized that’s not enough. Anxiety is an effect, it’s not a cause. I needed the cause of all this stuff. As I built the character, I needed to give him a life that he loved and valued and arguably was respected by other people. Curtis begins this film in a good place. He’s kind of a guy that has his shit together. And as you start to dismantle that, that’s where the fear and anxiety comes from. I didn’t even know it but as I started writing, I was setting myself on a course to write a film about marriage, because separately from the film I’d been thinking about my marriage. How marriages work, why most marriages fail and what I have to do to be one of the ones that make it work. What do I have to do? The conclusion I came to was, I think it’s a lot about communication. We all carry these fears and doubts. They will always be there, whether it’s fear of the government collapsing, or the environment, or you can’t pay your bills, whatever. We’ll always have something to worry about. And I think where marriages maybe get damaged is in people not sharing those fears with their significant others. That seemed like an answer to me, and an interesting ending for this problem that I’d built up in this film. If that is indeed the ending or resolution then that kind of decides what your film is about; it’s going to be about these two people trying to put themselves back on the same page. They were on the same page at the beginning of this film. They were a happy, normal married couple. And then these things start to go off the rails.

There’s a few very memorable images in the film, but the one that I keep returning to is that motif of the brown, oily rain that falls in Curtis’ dreams. Where did that image come from? Was it developed over a long period of time?

It really just kind of came to me. I don’t see Curtis as a particularly religious man. However I do see him as a spiritual guy. And Curtis is very close to me as a character, the closest I’ve ever written in terms of my own belief system. I kind of want to think of myself as a guy who’s responsible and would support and care for my family, and if things go wrong that I would try and deal with them.

I also grafted on top of him a lot of my own personal belief system which is — and I promise this will make a point about oily rain — I’m not too big on organized religion. It just doesn’t do it for me. But something I very much believe is that if there is a God he’s somewhere in nature. Nature is the purest thing we can touch and observe. It can be the most beautiful and also the most devastating. I believe that there’s a natural balance to things; rain seems to be a very pure expression of that balance. And for that to fall out of the sky and be dark and viscous, that just seems to be a terrifying symptom of something out of whack. It’s the canary in the coal mine.

The first week we were filming, Deepwater Horizon happened. I got to a motel room one night and I turned on the TV after a long day of shooting, and Larry King was interviewing T. Boone Pickens, the Texas oil man. And I swear to God: I turn the TV on and the first thing Larry King said was, “T. Boone, can it rain oil?” I was like, “Shit! I’ve got to get this film finished. It’s already happening!” Of course T. Boone was like “No, no, oil is far too heavy to get caught up in the rain,” which I think might be true. But there were a lot of things that over the course of filming were just strange and ironic like that.

I loved the sound design in the movie as well. The way the sound of wind and rain were used reminded me of the way bird chirps were used in Hitchcock’s “The Birds,” that idea of innocuous natural sounds being rendered in this ominous and almost musical fashion. Was that an inspiration at all?

I didn’t take any direct inspiration from “The Birds;” I wish I could say I was that smart because I love that film. And I have to give most if not all the credit to Will Files, my sound designer and mixer. He is a genius. I went to school with him; now he’s one of the lead mixers at Skywalker Sound. He’s a phenomenal artist. A lot of that bird stuff, I just showed and it was already intact.

My approach to sound design, and this is something I had to develop on the fly during “Shotgun Stories,” is that everything has to come from a place of reality; with this film, you find ways to heighten that reality. I think this stuff is far creepier when it comes from an organic, naturally-sounding place. In Austin, where I live, you go to the grocery store and they have these huge swarms of grackles. And they make this insane sound. I remember using that as a reference. You don’t have to go far to find creepy stuff like that. The same with the wind.

We have to talk about Michael because he’s so incredible in the movie. Is he an actor that needs or wants a lot of direction?

We don’t talk much. I learned this on “Shotgun Stories.” He just shows up with things intact. We had a few very brief conversations over the phone about the kinds of clothes he wears, and we mainly had those conversations to delineate his character from the character he plays in “Shotgun Stories.” He just gets it, and I trust that he gets it. You don’t worry about Mike Shannon very much. I don’t worry about him at all.

When he shows up, we don’t rehearse. I’ll block the camera and we just go. As Mike puts it, he leaves the juice in the lemon. The trick with Mike is after you’re done, after he’s given away ownership of the performance, that’s when he starts asking questions. “How was it? How did it feel? How are you going to cut it?” Especially on this one; it wasn’t him being an annoying actor, it was because we shot this thing in four weeks, completely out of order, all in different pieces, and it’s an extremely difficult thing to track this character. Think about it: one day I say to him, “Today you’re going to wake from a dream you’ve been bit by the dog. We haven’t shot that yet, so you have no concept of what it looks like or how it feels or anything. We’re gonna shoot that part today.”

I know people watch the film and they’re like, “Wow he’s such a good actor. He’s there in all those moments.” From my perspective, he’s the most incredible actor in the world because he did all of that piecemeal, out of order. I just sit back and I’m in awe of him.

I read that when you cast Jessica Chastain you actually got to meet Terrence Malick and talk with him about her. What’s it like meeting Terrence Malick to talk about an actress?

Brief.

[laughs]

He’s a busy guy. My executive producer, Sarah Green, produced “Tree of Life.” She’s the one who recommended Jessica, but it was a very difficult thing for me to judge because I hadn’t seen her in anything. She said “Well maybe you can sit down with Terry.” So she arranged it.

He was extremely generous and polite. From the 10 minute meeting I had with him, he struck me as a very sensitive, very sweet man. He spoke about Jessica very highly, and from my perspective that was all I really needed. But just for the sake of things, I flew out to L.A. and met her. She was lovely, but I still hadn’t seen her act. And it wasn’t until we were on set and started rolling the camera that I did.

When you started the project, you were writing about all this anxiety you had. Did making the film lessen that anxiety? How did you feel after it was over?

For me personally, I’m always going to be stressed out. If it wasn’t me being stressed out about being married and being a good provider for my wife, now we have a son. What elementary school is he going to go to? What kind of man is he going to grow up to be? What kind of father am I going to be? There’s always stuff to worry about. There’s always going to be pressure. What I’ve taken away from the process of making this film is it’s all about how you process that anxiety and that fear and somehow stay productive.

Without spoiling it for readers, the ending of the film is somewhat ambiguous. Do you have a preferred way that you want viewers to read it?

It’s specifically designed to be ambiguous. That really riles some people and some people really love it. What’s funny and interesting to me — and not to sound too cocky about it, but I really do think it worked — is everybody talks about the specifics of what’s happening in that scene. And to me, the specifics don’t matter that much. And I’ll explain.

What is happening, what is going to happen, all that is just fun to talk about. But what’s important to me is that these two people are on the same page and are seeing the same thing. There’s several interpretations of where they’re at. And that’s great. But as long as they’re seeing the same thing I think there is a resolution and the possibility of hope in the film.

Some people get it, some people don’t. But by God, we’re the ones making independent films here. We’re the only ones that get to do this.

“Take Shelter” opens in limited release tomorrow. If you see it, we want to hear what you think. Tell us in the comments below or on Facebook and Twitter.

Jackie That 70s Show

Jackie Oh!

15 That ’70s Show Quotes to Help You Unleash Your Inner Jackie

Catch That '70s Show Mondays and Tuesdays from 6-10P on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Carsey-Werner Company

When life gets you down, just ask yourself: what would Jackie do? (But don’t ask her, because she doesn’t care about your stupid problems.) Before you catch That ’70s Show on IFC, take a look at some quotes that will help you be the best Jackie you can be.


15. She knows her strengths.

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14. She doesn’t let a little thing like emotions get in the way.

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13. She’s her own best friend.

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12. She has big plans for her future.

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11. She keeps her ego in check.

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10. She can really put things in perspective.

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9. She’s a lover…

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8. But she knows not to just throw her love around.

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7. She’s proud of her accomplishments.

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6. She knows her place in the world.

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5. She asks herself the hard questions.

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4. She takes care of herself.

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3. She’s deep.

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2. She’s a problem solver.

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1. And she’s always modest.

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Fantastic Fest 2011: “Clown,” reviewed

Fantastic Fest 2011: “Clown,” reviewed (photo)

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What’s the funniest movie of the year? “Bridesmaids?” “Horrible Bosses?” “Justin Bieber: Never Say Never?” No, the funniest movie of the year so far is a Danish comedy called “Clown.” The only problem with this movie is you can’t see it: it currently has no distribution and its content is so edgy, it might have trouble finding it without some significant cuts. So it’s the funniest movie you won’t see this year. It poses a sort of cinematic philosophical conundrum: if a movie is hysterical, and no one is around to laugh at it, is it really funny?

“Clown” is a big-screen adaptation of a TV series of the same name that I’d never even heard of before it screened at Fantastic Fest. Fortunately, you don’t need to know anything about the series to enjoy “Clown;” all that’s required is a love of “Curb Your Enthusiasm”-style observational-slash-confrontational awkwardness and Farrelly Brothers-style gross-out sex humor. Smash those two together and drown them in Underberg bitters and you’ve got “Clown.”

The premise is very “Curb,” with two Danish actors, Frank Hvam and Casper Christensen, playing loosely fictionalized versions of themselves, stand-up comedians with endlessly patient girlfriends. Frank is uptight, Casper is outrageous. The two plan a vacation away from their loved ones they secretly name “Tour De Fisse” — a.k.a. “Tour De Pussy” in English — a canoe trip to the greatest brothel in the world. The only problem is Frank’s girlfriend is newly pregnant, and she’s been giving him flack about hating kids and being unprepared for fatherhood. Determined to prove her wrong (even though she’s absolutely right) he drags a pre-pubescent boy named Bo (Marcuz Jess Petersen) that his girlfriend’s supposed to be babysitting along for the trip. The Tour De Pussy. You see the problem here.

The film wears its episodic roots on its sleeve: Tour De Pussy becomes a series of epic misadventures along the trio’s trip. The threads that connects it all together are the character dynamics: Casper devilishly egging on Frank, Frank struggling to connect with Bo, Bo trying to figure out what the hell he’s doing on this trip with these two weirdos. All three make wonderful traveling companions, even if their travels don’t always go so wonderfully. The final act of the film manages to pull off a combination of sentimentality and humor so simultaneously sweet and hilarious that it would make Judd Apatow super(bad) jealous. And while the jokes are utterly immature, the film actually offers a surprisingly mature portrait of masculinity in all its wondrous insecurities.

I know what you’re thinking: “Matt, this movie sounds fine, but you haven’t explained what makes it so funny.” That was by design. This sort of outrageous shock comedy works best as a surprise. I can tell you that the film has a sex scene so funny it made me cry, and a riff on the final punchline in “The Hangover” so outrageous it made me scream (and might also be illegal to show in the United States). Both of those moments are the biggest laughs in any movie this year, if only you could see them this year.

“Clown” does not have US distribution, but holy cow it deserves it. If you saw it at Fantastic Fest, or you’re a fan of the original series, tell us in the comments below, or on Facebook and Twitter..

Fantastic Fest 2011: A joint interview with the director and star of “Knuckle”

Fantastic Fest 2011: A joint interview with the director and star of “Knuckle” (photo)

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Fantastic Fest is not a big festival for documentaries. This year, there’s just two in the lineup: Morgan Spurlock‘s “Comic-Con: Episode IV – A Fan’s Hope” and “Knuckle,” the true story of a family of Irish bare knuckle boxers, the so-called Traveller clan known as the Quinn McDonaghs. You may think of documentaries as stately, educational things with somber voiceovers and slow-motion zooms of photographs of men with handlebar mustaches who died in the Civil War. “Knuckle,” with its perpetually smoldering blood feuds and brutal bare knuckle combat, is another breed of doc entirely, one that feels right at home amidst the rest of the funky, frenzied films at Fantastic Fest.

Its director is Ian Palmer, who stumbled into this world by accident, when he was hired to film a Traveller family wedding. There he met James Quinn McDonagh, his clan’s biggest and best bare knuckle fighter. For reasons largely lost to history, the Quinn McDonaghs and another family, the Joyces, have been fighting for decades. The feuds are supposed to be settled with bare knuckle boxing matches, but inevitably, some new slight or perceived insult pops up, and the battle continues. After an invitation to film one bare knuckle match, Palmer was hooked, and he spent the next decade recording the ups and downs in the wars between the Quinn McDonaghs and their rivals.

During our conversation, we discussed when and how Ian knew there was a documentary in the world of Irish bare knuckle boxing, and when and how James knew Ian was the right guy to make that movie. I also learned how YouTube and social networks have fueled these Traveller feuds, and I scored some fight tips from James. But we began with the Fantastic Debates, where James fought festival founder Tim League in a battle for cultural supremacy.

Let’s start with the post-fight recap. How did you think it went?

James Quinn McDonagh: I was given a debate I couldn’t win, that Irishmen are superior to Texans. How could I win that with 200 Texans looking at me in Texas? Wasn’t gonna win it. So I decided to throw out the script and just go with the flow.

Ian Palmer: I thought you were losing that fight at one point James.

JQM: Is it my fight you were thinking of?

IP: [laughs]

JQM: It was a great night, great entertainment. It’s a great pastime and I enjoyed the fight itself.

Was it weird wearing boxing gloves?

JQM: It was. I don’t like gloves. They’re a hindrance. They soften your blow and soften the impact.

All right, let’s talk about the movie. Ian, in the film we see how you found James and his family, but not how you decided to make a movie about them. How did that happen?

IP: I stepped over the threshold into a world that most outsiders had never gotten to really be inside. I wanted to make a film about it very quickly. I met James and his brother at a wedding. The bride’s family had invited me. I remember afterwards going back to that side of the family that I had met before and asking them “Do you think the guys would ever let me make a film about this?” And they said, “No way. It’ll never happen.” But I figured there was no harm in asking. This was after I’d filmed the first fight. And even though they’d let me film the fight, it didn’t mean they were going to let me make a film. Despite what the family had said, James was quite open. We had a good relationship.

JQM: We built up a lot of trust very early on.

IP: And that was key for James and his immediate family to accept me inside. If James had said no, it wouldn’t have worked.

So James, why did you feel like you could trust Ian?

JQM: He’s a character himself; a genuine character. He put himself across very well, he made his intentions very clear early on. He’s not like some of the guys that would do something for a year and then go and do something else and not let you on about it. He kept me updated, he kept telling me the truth. Good and bad, whatever happened, we were all part of it together. One day he said, “James, I think I want to do something about this, what do you think?” I said, “Do what you’ve got to do, but don’t do it injustice, don’t do it wrong, and let me have a look at the final piece and see what I think, and give me some sort of little say on it.” He showed me the final piece, and I think out of the whole 96 minutes, there was maximum one minute that I didn’t like.

IP: It wasn’t even that. It was one shot. It was actually a total surprise to me, because I thought it relatively innocuous.

JQM: It was one shot, which is irrelevant now to talk about, but this one shot of me, Michael, and Paddy [James’ brothers], we wanted to change. Everything else we were beautiful with. We’re very happy with the movie itself, very happy with Ian, very happy that he trusts us and we can trust him, and long may it continue.

Over more than a decade of shooting, how much footage did you accumulate?

IP: I maybe have 200 hours. And I had a lot of acquired of footage, the video tapes the clans send to each other, wedding footage, and some photographs too. There was a big collection of stuff to wade through when I eventually tried to come to grips with it.

I’d never had a deadline for this film. If I had that I would have finished the film inside of two or three years. But I always wanted to have a longitudinal study, as they say. I’d almost had a commission for it after the first year, in 1998. But that didn’t come to anything. The TV crowd I was with wanted me to push it in a different direction and I wanted an open-ended approach; I didn’t want to dictate things, and I didn’t want many formal interviews. It wasn’t going to be that kind of a process; it was going to be a journey. It was real people, going on a journey, and I was going along for the ride. It became a very long ride because I really had no deadline.

And that’s one of the things that makes the film so interesting. But how did you know, then, when to finally stop?

IP: I’d stopped at various times. As the film describes at one point, six or seven years in I said, “I’ve had enough. I’m not getting anywhere with this. I’m just some guy with a camera having a thrill.” But the time passed and a call came through ten years after I started. Michael [Quinn McDonagh, James’ brother] jumped back onboard the fighting game, challenging his cousin in England to sort out what he’d failed to do many years before. That, for me, was always going to round out a story of a particular journey by three brothers in their fighting lives. And that was always going to the way the whole world was going to be told.

Ian, you mentioned those videos that the families would send one another to provoke fights. They’re are amazing. They’re almost like battle raps.

JQM: The tauntings.

“The tauntings,” yeah.

JQM: It was the thing of the day. When technology started to come into the hands of Travellers, social websites and social networks like Facebook started coming online, people started getting their hands on digital cameras and camera phones, instead of just ringing up a guy or sending a third party, Travellers would go on video and taunt. That all started after I had my fight with Patrick Nevin, when I stupidly said no Nevin would ever beat me. They started sending stuff back on the strength of that one, and in turn, we wanted to get a message across. They had the last word; we wanted to say something back, so we opened our mouths in front of a tape and we started bullshitting. In turn, they come back. It was like a ten part miniseries. It went on from that and it’s a continuing trend up until this day. Only two weeks ago, the Joyces and Nevins are on their tenth challenge on DVDs. Five on each side at the moment.

It seems like YouTube would only encourage this stuff.

JQM: They’re all on YouTube.

And how has the movie affected that back and forth?

JQM: I’m on speaking terms with some of the Joyces and some of the Nevins. The feedback I’ve gotten has been nothing but positive. Everyone knows they made mistakes, everyone holds their hands up, and in general everyone’s saying it’s a brilliant, brilliant movie. Everyone loves it. It’s gone wild in Ireland and England. Every Traveller I know has got a copy.

Does that surprise you though? In the movie, we see how the littlest insult can set off a new feud. I’d think there must have been something in there that someone took offense to.

IP: The film is part of that conversation now. But because there is a story arc, rounding out this relationship between James’ brothers and the people they were fighting, it does something different than the normal tapes that are going back and forth. It does show with James’ life, someone who’s gone from being the lead player in the fighting to the lead player in –

JQM: — peace negotiations.

IP:Well not so much peace negotiations. It shows a process that someone can go through in their life, and having a consciousness about it. I wouldn’t assume to say the film would have any role to play in family thinking in the future.

JQM: It’s not going to fuel it. The feud’s been going on forty, fifty years going back to I don’t even remember how or why. “Knuckle”‘s not going to make it any worse, and it’s not going to help it. “Knuckle” is just there to tell the general public and the audience of what’s going in this private life of the Traveller community of bare knuckle fighting.

Ian, tell me what it’s like to film one of those fights. It can’t be an easy thing to shoot.

IP: You’d be surprised how it feels like you have a shield in front of you when you’re looking through a camera lens. My technique was always to get in as close as possible.

JQM: He was really up in your hole.

IP: That was always my approach. I just wanted you to feel it. I’d come away with specks of blood splattered on the lens. It wasn’t that I enjoyed fighting in that particular way. But I never found it off-putting. It’s a technical challenge. You’re there, you’re trying to keep it in focus, there’s a crowd, you’re trying to do a job. It’s probably the same as the guy on D-Day shooting photographs. He wasn’t thinking about danger.

So James while you’re fighting, you’re cognizant of things like Ian and his camera getting in your face?

JQM: Me, when I’m fighting, there’s only one voice I hear — and I don’t even want to hear it — and that’s the referee. Everything else around me is not there. Just the guy in front of me. I don’t feel, see, or hear [Ian]. I just focus on what I’m doing, and that’s how I can concentrate and do what I do best.

Now that you’re primarily training fighters instead of fighting yourself, what are your main pieces of advice to your students?

JQM: It’s all about the second plan, the Plan B. I always went into a fight with a Plan A and a Plan B. If one’s not working, switch to the other one. Thankfully I’ve never needed Plan B.

[laughs] If they make a fiction version of your life, who do you want to play you?

JQM: Just because he’s a big guy with a bald head, and we’ve got the exact same date of birth: Vin Diesel.

Vin Diesel, I can see that. I don’t know if he could do your accent though.

JQM: You never know, he’s an actor. Or I could just play myself.

“Knuckle” opens in December 2011. If you saw it at Fantastic Fest, tell us what you thought of it in the comments below or on Facebook and Twitter.

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