‘Glena‘ is a feature-length documentary film about Glena Avila – a single mother in her 30s – and her dream to become a professional mixed martial artist.
Glena was living the American Dream: successful career, two happy children, long-term relationship, and a beautiful family home. Then one day, with no background or training, she decided to give cage fighting a try. And she was good…really good. But Glena’s perfect world begins to unravel: impending foreclosure, a career-threatening injury, and a painful custody dispute over her young daughter threaten to derail her fighting dreams. Complicating matters, Glena struggles to rebuild a once-close relationship with her teenage son as she travels across the country to compete in a trilogy of epic matches.
‘Glena‘ is a real-life Rocky story, a one-in-a-million tale about a woman who risked it all for her shot at the big time. Anticipating the WORLD PREMIERE of ‘Glena‘ at the 2014 Slamdance Film Festival, we profile the film’s Director Allan Luebke. Be sure to catch ‘Glena‘ on Saturday, January 18 & Wednesday, January 22, 2014 in Park City, Utah.
Find More Information & Tickets to ‘Glena’ at the 2014 Slamdance Film Festival – HERE
How were you first introduced to Glena’s story?
Like all great things in life, I met Glena by total accident. I was producing a talk show for a small independent television channel in Oregon’s Columbia River Gorge and was researching potential guests. Our college intern heard that a female cage fighter worked at the Oregon Veterans’ Home nearby. We checked it out online, sent Glena an email, and met with her in person soon after. We booked her for the show and she was one of the best guests we’d ever had. Glena has an extraordinary ability to hold the screen, and she’s just so darn likable and charismatic but without being arrogant. Everyone loves Glena!
Right off the bat, what aspects of her life made you want to produce this film?
The contradiction really hooked me. Glena has a great career, owns her home, has succeeded at being a single parent, and has risen above a pretty tragic upbringing. What would lead her to risk it all – especially at 35-years old – for a chance to become a professional fighter? I remember thinking that Glena could be my own mother, neighbor, co-worker…just an unassuming woman who unexpectedly stumbled across an amazing talent that she possessed and decided she had to pursue it no matter the cost. I love those kinds of stories, so the opportunity to make a movie about Glena’s journey was a dream come true.
Do you have a personal relationship with MMA?
Not when I started the film. I’d watched UFC in the 90s when it was controversial and you could rent VHS copies at Blockbuster, but I certainly wasn’t a fanboy of the sport, which I think was key for telling this story because it’s really a film about Glena, not about MMA. I didn’t want to make a film that justified the sport or made a passionate appeal to the audience to change their opinion. It’s not that I disliked MMA, but I just don’t find agenda-based movies very interesting. Glena’s story includes so many universal themes: family, romance, career, coming of age, chasing improbable dreams…we just really believed that the story needed and deserved to be shared with a large audience, and so intentionally focusing on the characters instead of the sport was a pretty easy choice.
What is it about fighting and fighting culture (whether it be MMA or boxing) that is so relatable to audiences? Do you find fighting stories to be distinctly American in nature?
The American film industry has released a boxing/fighting movie nearly every year for the past 30 years so we as a culture clearly enjoy living vicariously through a fighter’s life. Let’s be honest…we’ve all imagined what it’d be like to be fighter, to wake up before the sun rises to train, to get into the best shape of our life, to test ourselves physically against a tough opponent, to soak up the roar of the crowd, and to stand victorious at the end. Watching a movie about that is the next best thing to actually doing it. Actually, the next best thing is making a documentary about it!
As a documentary filmmaker, can you describe your philosophy behind constructing a quality documentary narrative?
Glena unfolds almost entirely in front of the camera, so everything the viewer sees in the movie was usually my first exposure to that particular story element. I intentionally tried to avoid using talking head interviews where the characters outright say how they feel, and instead used verite footage that illustrates those feelings. It’s a difficult style to pull off, but when it works, it’s amazing. I worked with three different story outlines at all times: what was likely to happen, what was best case scenario, and what would be totally unexpected. That prepared me for chasing the story wherever it headed. My favorite sports movies focus on the characters while the sport is the backdrop. I wanted to do the same with Glena. Early on I laid some ground rules: don’t treat MMA as an unusual sport, and don’t whisper in the audience’s ear how they should feel. Filmmaker Andrew Stanton has a great philosophy about that. He says, “Don’t give the audience 4. Give them 2+2.” I prefer to present information to the audience and allow them to come to their own conclusions, even if it’s not the one I came to.
Do you ever draw influence from past documentaries?
Yes, a lot of movies. I’m a big fan of finding ideas in other movies and incorporating them into my own project, then over time refining them into something all my own. Initially Hoop Dreams was my Bible. I also watched the documentaries Stevie, Murderball, Buck, and Racing Dreams quite a bit. But after filming ended and editing began, I started watching fewer documentaries and more fictional narratives. I think documentaries are allowed more slack with their character development and story arcs, and I wanted Glena to be as compelling as a documentary but as entertaining as a movie you’d see in the theater. The Fighter, Rocky, The Wrestler, and Warrior – which are all movies about boxing or MMA – were major sources of influence. Watching Tom McCarthy’s Win Win was a nightly event for a while. The documentaries The Queen of Versailles and Undefeated helped me work through several structural issues.
What was the most difficult part of developing ‘Glena?’
Learning to tell a feature-length story was tough. We’re used to watching movies that are made by pretty talented filmmakers, so I didn’t realize just how difficult the process would be when I tried doing it myself. At one point I had a stack of about 20 boxing movies from the public library, and I’d watch them with a note pad and breakdown every scene into a one-liner about WHO did WHAT and WHY. I’d do that for the whole movie, then analyze how each scene contributed to the overall story arc and character development. Do that for long enough and you begin to recognize the common elements that create great stories. Quentin Tarantino said, “If you watch good movies, then you know how to make good movies.” I believe that, and I believe that if you’re willing to reverse engineer something, and to be critical, then you can learn to be good at anything.
What aspect of the film’s development did you find to come easier than expected?
Easy parts…I don’t think there were any! In all honesty, the easiest part was getting talented people around me to believe in the project and to support the process, and that’s really a testament to the power of Glena and her story. The Executive Producer Ashley Scherman never wavered in her support of the film or of me, even when I was struggling with my own belief in both. Music composer Peter Bosack watched a rough cut that I thought was pretty bad, and he loved it right away. He understood the story on a deeply personal level, which is how I hoped audiences would react. He sent me a long email explaining how much he related to Glena’s struggle, and how inspiring he thought the story was, and that he absolutely had to work on the movie. Peter is incredibly talented, and receiving his vote of confidence really helped encourage me to not give up…and believe me, I considered it many times. There were some dark days when I was as close to accepting failure as you can get. At my lowest points, I considered that I just didn’t have what it took to make a good movie, but I’d tell myself, “There’s 300 problems here. Let’s fix one tiny problem at a time, and in six months all the problems will be fixed.” Filmmaking is really a series of small battles, and if you can manage to approach it that way, those battles actually become a lot more winnable. I’m not sure if that answers the question! My point is that filmmaking is really hard, but it’s easier when you have people around you who genuinely believe in your ability to accomplish your vision.
How is the Slamdance Film Festival a good screening destination for ‘Glena?’
Slamdance was always our highest goal. Glena is an underdog story made by underdog filmmakers, so playing at Slamdance – a festival for and by filmmakers – is the perfect place for us. We submitted to all the major festivals, and we were incredibly fortunate that Glena was never rejected before Slamdance accepted it. The first response we got was from the Slamdance programmers saying, “We love the movie! We want the world premiere!” That was a truly surreal moment; Ashley and I took the call together on speaker phone. We actually thought they were calling because the online screener password wasn’t working or something like that! After we hung up, she and I just hugged each other and cried for about five minutes. I didn’t expect to feel so overwhelmed. It just felt so damn good that have a festival like Slamdance validate everything we’d been through for the last three years. Ashley said, “What if Sundance wants the movie, too?” I said, “Forget Sundance. I want Slamdance.”