“Girl Fight: A Muay Thai Story” is a documentary from director Matthew Kaplowitz that follows New Jersey kickboxing coach, Prairie Rugilo, and one of her students, DeAna, as they prepare for several fights and cope with setbacks and opposition that comes with training to get into the ring. The film won best editing in a feature-length film at the Rahway International Film Festival 2015, and official selection of Film Fest 52, Bronx International Film Fest, Yonkers Film Festival, New Haven International Film Festival, Albuquerque Film Festival, and Woman Up Independent Film Festival.
Longtime MMA fans will know Kaplowitz from his former website The Fight Nerd, and as someone who has long had his hand on the pulse of the martial arts scene in New York and the surrounding region, he brings a genuine level of authenticity to the film that can’t be missed. ProMMAnow.com caught up with Matthew recently to learn more about how the film came together, find out how Prairie Rugilo and her Girl Fight students are doing now and his plans for future projects.
I thoroughly enjoyed Girl Fight: A Muay Thai Story Matt, how did this film come together and how did you get involved?
“Girl Fight: A Muay Thai Story” originally started when I was working at one of the places where we made TV shows for Bellator. The company was an off-shoot from the place I had just left, so it was initially a small internal crew that said they were open to hearing ideas from anyone. I had a subscription back then to “MMA Business” magazine, and saw an article about the Girl Fight gym in there. It introduced me to the coach, Prairie Rugilo, and her concept of why she opened the all-female gym, which was to find a place where women could learn self-defense and how to actually fight in a comfortable environment, not just teach cardio-kickboxing where the people training there never learn how to punch or kick right.
I thought this was a really cool idea, and when you factor in that her gym was on the Jersey Shore, it seemed like a good idea for a reality series. This was the beginning of 2013, so the Jersey Shore reality show was still kind of a popular thing. I went to pitch it to one of my producers, and I barely got a sentence before I was told to get back to work. I was pretty defeated, and after talking to some colleagues, decided that I would make a sizzle reel on my own and then pitch it again. If I had a viable sizzle reel that proved my concept was a good idea for a show, I felt like they would have a hard time saying no.
I messaged Prairie on Facebook and she was very receptive to the idea, so a few weeks later I went down there with my friend and we spent two days interviewing and filming people. It didn’t take me very long to realize the Girl Fight gym was no reality series. There was no sleazy nonsense, no in-fighting, just a supportive and judgment-free place where women came to train, either to let off steam or compete inside the ring. It felt wrong to pitch this as a reality show and I decided to pursue it on my own to make a full-length documentary out of it.
From there, I just started filming and let things happen naturally. 18 months later, I thought the story I wanted to tell was completed and began to work on wrapping it all up.
What drew you to this particular story and characters?
In the beginning, I was mostly just shooting and waiting to see where it took me. The only idea I had initially was to literally document what this gym does and show some of the fighters that came out of it. At the time, Prairie was getting ready for a rematch for her championship that she lost a few months earlier, and another student named De Ana was getting set to make her debut.
With documentaries, you can have one story going into it, and by the time you are done, you get something totally different that just spontaneously happens. I had no idea where things would go when I first started. I thought it would be a few months of shooting, film the ladies winning their fights, show how awesome they are, and then I could call it a day. I wasn’t expecting to see the fights turn out the way they did, which basically changed everything for Prairie and De Ana and set my doc in a new direction. The story soon became something more personal to me, which was what do you do when you fall down? What happens when things don’t go your way? It became about believing in yourself, and never giving up in the face of setbacks and obstacles. I think that is something much more relatable and universal, and the kind of story that the viewer can project themselves into.
I think the cool thing about how things worked out while filming is that Prairie and De Ana are very different people, as well as the other people that are part of the film. How they reacted to the things that happened were unique to their personalities, so you have a journey with two people that have a lot of similarities, but major differences in how they cope with these scenarios. It gives viewers options on who they relate to more, and shows them that what works for one person may not work for another, and that is okay, too.
The real martial arts battle is always with one’s self, is that the message here?
Yes, that is a big part of it. I like to tell people that this is not a fight movie, but a movie about women who happen to be fighters, and deal with a universal subject of dealing with obstacles and taking what you want from life.
Anyone that competes understands that it is all about the mental game more than the physical one. If your mind isn’t right, you won’t train right and you sure won’t fight right. It’s what we do when things get tough and look impossible. It’s when we fall down a hole and have no idea how to get back up, and realizing that it means you start climbing one foot at a time.
We filmed this less than a year after Hurricane Sandy hit and it devastated the Jersey Shore, so that became a character to mirror the stories of the women I was following. One minute, everything is normal, and the next your entire world is turned upside down. Just when you think you have it figured out, a new problem happens (in the case of the Jersey Shore, there was a massive fire that hit and destroyed what was left of the boardwalk that survived Sandy). It’s all about how you learn to deal with these issues and face these challenges that makes the difference.
I think it is an idea that so many people go through on a daily basis, whether they are involved in martial arts or not, and that is something I enjoyed getting feedback on during the film festival circuit. We would have 70 year old women, because that is the typical arthaus crowd for many film fests, that have never thrown a punch in there life and balked at the idea of watching fights, but after the first turning point happens in the doc, they became invested and started to see the big picture. By the end, they were shadow boxing during the final fights and invested. Not everyone can relate to getting in a ring, but everyone can relate to feeling depressed and down about yourself, and I think seeing these women deal with that adds a positive perspective on what a person can do in any negative situation in their life.
How are Prairie Rugilo and the Girl Fight team doing these days?
The Girl Fight gym moved has moved to a different location in Toms River that is larger, and they continue to produce amateur fighters. They also just started working with Claudinha Gaedhla who has set up a grappling program at the gym. Before it was all about the stand-up game, but now they have a UFC fighter working with these ladies to complete their game, and we may start seeing some more of them head into the cage to take some MMA matches. The place is growing, and it’s still a great facility to train at that has more options now than it did when I filmed there.
I saw that your buddy Stephen Koepfer from NY Combat Sambo was involved with the film, what role did he play?
I knew “Sambo Steve” from way back when I first started my Youtube channel. I used to do martial arts academy tours in NYC, where I would check out gyms and interview their owners and students and give viewers a taste of how each particular place functioned. I liked finding places that were not just MMA but more interesting martial arts. That’s how I discovered Steve’s place, and we have been friends since then and done plenty of other videos together for my website.
Steve got involved in my doc towards the tail end of it. I had wrapped production and post-production by that point, but what I needed was someone that knew how to get things done once the movie was completed. Steve had success with the documentary he did with Kahleem Poole called “New York MMA”, which was on Hulu for a few years, and it was his film fest that a docu-short I did in 2011 about women’s MMA premiered in (and was sadly never seen again). I figured if anyone knew what to do after the film was done and how to get people to see it, it would be him.
We had done things for each other in the past, but never with each other, and this experience led us to work on a docu-short called “Concrete & Crashpads”, which is about the New York stunt actor community. It goes behind the scenes in how a stunt scene is put together, talks about the lifestyle these “stunties” live, and shows how tight-knit and generous this community in NY is, especially in a booming market.
How did you get interested in film to start with?
I can’t say I planned on that, it just happened on its own. I don’t think I expected to make films 10 years ago. My plan was making comics or storyboards for shows & movies, so that was the closest I thought I would get to this world. I always wanted to work in animation, and I still do, so that’s definitely a factor, but filmmaking like this came out of nowhere.
It started with the creation of my recently defunct website, thefightnerd.com. I had been working for other MMA sites and magazines after I graduated college, and when I was laid off from my part-time job at a local newspaper, I decided to see if I could do the reporting thing on my own. Although my first video was uploaded on Youtube towards the end of 2008, I launched the site in February 2009 with the goal of doing unique video content. At the time, there were not many people doing heavy-duty video stuff on Youtube, and I wanted to do something to make me stand out. I was inspired by The Angry Video Game Nerd and characters like that, so I sought to create the MMA equivalent of that.
I liked making videos that were not just interviews, but things that required cutting video to music, or making stories. I also enjoyed editing and wanted to do more of that. So I did what everyone who wants to make creative things should, and started doing it. After I was able to start working on some TV shows like MMA Uncensored Live and the many MMA documentary programs I worked on related to Bellator MMA and saw how things got done by the pros, my education really picked up.
I feel like the videos I made for my channel were practice to help me get ready to tackle larger projects. I’m still learning as I go, and I expect that to be a never-ending process that is part of the game.
Have you been involved with other movie projects and what are you working on now?
Most of the work I do these days is with production companies that do shows for Bellator MMA, so I am working on some of those right now. I have been making videos on my Youtube channel since 2009, which is where the first documentary-type video I ever did currently is, which was about the MMA debut of Chris Weidman, who I am pretty confident everyone knows about by now. I did some other docu-shorts there and other videos that were not just interviews or reviews, but “Girl Fight: A Muay Thai Story” was the first full-length feature doc for me that went the distance.
In November, I entered the Fusion Five Day Documentary Challenge, which is a contest where you are given a random prompt once the competition starts, and you have 120 hours to complete a short using that prompt and the topic provided. I made it on a 6’ 3” 280 lb male ballet & burlesque dancer that was a friend of a friend, and the piece became about body positivity and battling stereotypes. It’s pretty far out there from the fight-related things I did in the past, and I was happy to break away and show people I can do much more than just combat sports. The film became a top 12 finalist, won “best biographical film” and just won the People’s Choice award during the last film festival it was in. It will be headed to the Fusion network soon to air there for the next two years.
Aside from the stuff with Bellator, I have been working on another passion project since September 2015. I am doing a documentary on my uncle, who is an 87 year old artist with a studio in Union Square, who in spite of his age and health issues continues to trek five days a week to that studio to make art. He doesn’t make much money doing it and mainly lives a very frugal lifestyle, but it’s not about profit for him. It’s about discovery and creating for the sake of creating, an idea that may sound unusual to many people. That is almost done being filmed now and I hope to enter it in some film festivals by the fall. Otherwise, I have plenty of ideas and things I want to make, and I hope I can get to them all.
Do you have any specific goals in film and what other types of stories would you like to tell?
My goal would be to be able to tell whatever story I wanted whenever I wanted. Total freedom, financial and creative, to just make things. Who wouldn’t want that? Some people work to retire, I just want to be able to keep making things and ideally keep my bank account afloat while doing that. I’ve got a lot of work to do to get that point.
One of the most important lessons I learned came from Josh Gross. It was also my first paid gig covering something MMA related! Josh told me he was ‘looking for the story within the story’, and that is something I use to this day. I want to take a story that looks like its one thing, but in reality is something else more universal and relatable. You may not like fighting, but you understand depression and wanting something so bad that you will not let anyone get in your way. You may not initially want to watch a man that looks like a linebacker do ballet, but you know what it feels like to look at your body and not like what you see. I would like to tell stories about interesting people that do unique things, and find an idea that resonates beyond the world they reside in. Whether it will be movies, comics, or whatever format, I like opening people up to new ways of looking at old ideas.
Thanks for talking with us Matt and we’re looking forward to what you do next.
Thank you for the interview, and I thank your readers for their support and hope they will check out this movie and the other things I am working on in the future!