10 Filmmakers to Watch in 2017: Jeff Unay

Jeff Unay makes our 10 to Watch in 2017 list with his documentary The Cage Fighter.

The Cage Fighter, winner of the CIFF 2015 Points North Pitch forum and nominee for a Golden Gate Award at San Francisco International Film Festival for Best Documentary Feature, follows Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) fighter Joe Carman’s journey back to the ring. Carman made a promise to his family never fight again, but after his wife falls ill, he realizes that he must return to MMA to support his four children. Director Jeff Unay initially thought he was filming a short film chronicling Carman’s experience, but almost four years later, he finds himself with a documentary that showcases his talent as an up and coming filmmaker.

Unay and Carman benefited from being in the right place at the right time. During a yoga class in 2013, Unay became acquainted with Carman and his plan to return to the ring. Carman was struggling and hoped to find his self-worth through fighting and Unay became fascinated with Carman’s background. What resulted from Unay’s footage isn’t so much a story just about reclaiming old glory, but rather a tale of fatherhood and doing whatever it takes to provide for one’s family.

The Independent caught up with Unay about his experience creating The Cage Fighter, working with Joe Carman, building an audience for his feature, and what he hopes people take away from this inspirational story.

Max Covill: Tell me about your relationship with Joe Carman.

Jeff Unay

Jeff Unay

Jeff Unay: We really hit it off from the beginning. I suppose it’s because I could really relate to what he was going through at that moment, because I was going through my own personal struggles. I called him up and asked if I could follow him around for the next couple months as he completed his training and his fight. He agreed and shortly after our first meeting, I began filming with him.

During that time, I really connected with Joe’s strong desire to fight, to pursue something that few understood. He had a lot to prove to himself. And as a filmmaker, I had a lot to prove to myself as well. I may have not agreed with what he was doing, but I could never place judgment on him because, in a way, I felt as if I was doing the same thing, pursuing the desire to be a filmmaker when I probably shouldn’t have.

It wasn’t until I spent time with Joe at home with his kids that I had a deep connection with what I recognized to be the central theme of this film: fatherhood. I saw that with Joe and his young daughters. As soon as he enters the home, they tackle him and immediately want to play with him. I remember seeing that for the first time and my eyes got really big. Here’s a man that’s keeping his cage fighting as a secret from these amazing, beautiful little girls that love him unconditionally.

MC: How do you build an audience for this project?

Unay: We’ve had a social media presence for the film since late 2013, but it wasn’t until we won the CIFF 2015 Points North Pitch forum did we gain industry awareness. And as we received grant support from our funders along the way, we were able to gain momentum in building a documentary / indie film audience. We’re still very much in the process of connecting with audiences now that the film is playing at film festivals throughout 2017. We look forward to furthering our connections with general audiences and, naturally, the combat sports community worldwide in the coming months.

MC: This isn’t exactly your first foray into film. What other projects have you worked on?

Unay: I’ve worked as an artist in a variety of fields since 2000, as a graphic designer, storyboard artist for TV, sculpting characters for AAA video games, and eventually working on blockbuster visual effects films (King Kong and Avatar). In 2010, I won a Visual Effects Society award for my work on Avatar, especially on the creation of Zoe Saldana’s character Neytiri. Since 2011, I’ve worked full time directing and shooting film projects in and around Seattle, where I live. The Cage Fighter is my feature directorial debut.

Joe Carman dukes it out with Clayton Hoyt in The Cage Fighter.

Joe Carman duking it out with Clayton Hoy.

MC: How did you achieve the look of The Cage Fighter?

Unay: I began shooting the film with a Red One MX camera that I bought back in 2012. The entire film is shot shoulder-mounted using old Nikon manual uncoated photo lenses from the 1970s. The subject matter of a fighter’s tale is pretty gritty, so I wanted the look of the film and the way the camera moves to match that grittiness. The camera is always moving, always alive, present and reactive. I wanted to shoot the film in a way that expressed how I was always following Joe throughout his daily life, always moving with him, because I want the audience to follow him, too.

MC: What was your approach when working with Joe Carman?

Unay: As I shot the film and worked with our brilliant editor, David Teague, I wanted this film to unfold in a very physical way, keeping the dialogue to its bare minimum and allowing the film to be expressed through the emotions of his face. Prior to filmmaking, I was a digital character sculptor working on big blockbuster films (ie: building King Kong’s face and overseeing all of the faces in James Cameron’s Avatar) and my focus for over twelve years was on facial sculpting, animation and performances. Having studied the face for years researching the works of psychologist Paul Eckman’s Facial Action Coding System (FACS), I’ve learned that the story is told through the emotional honesty expressed through the face. I wanted to tell this story through many portraits.

MC: What are you hoping audiences take away from The Cage Fighter?

Unay: I hope audiences can connect with the central theme of The Cage Fighter—family legacy and lineage. This film is all about being a better man. For me, it’s about being a father and also being a son. The greatest reward as a filmmaker is when people can connect with the film in a deeper, more personal level. Although as flawed as Joe is as a man (as we all are), there was so much love between Joe and his daughters. One of our funders said it best: families are built upon equal measures of love and pain.

MC: Do you plan on continuing the path of a filmmaker?

Unay: I plan to continue writing, directing and producing feature films!

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