Friday, October 22, 2010

Film profiles deaf mixed martial arts fighter Matt Hamill

From USA Today:

When Matt Hamill (right in picture) appeared on The Ultimate Fighter in 2006, two people saw potential:

•Tito Ortiz, the veteran UFC fighter coaching one of the teams on the show, made Hamill his first draft pick.

•Eben Kostbar, a filmmaker, thought Hamill's story of dealing with deafness and becoming a three-time Division III college wrestling champion would make a great film.

Four years later, Hamill is so well-established in mixed martial arts that he's a slight favorite against his former coach Saturday at UFC 121.

Next month, Hamill will premiere at the AFI Film Festival. The film took several years because Kostbar and writing-producing partner Joseph McKelheer went through roughly 75 rewrites to make sure Hamill was happy with it and that they weren't making, in Kostbar's words, "a cheesy wrestling or MMA movie."

"Our film is kind of like The Blind Side, where football is the backdrop," Kostbar says. "It's more Matt's journey, growing up in a small town where deaf education was sparse, learning to come to grips with who he is."

They also found they wanted to keep the deaf community happy. That meant replacing Kostbar, who had been cast to play Hamill in the film, with a deaf actor, Russell Harvard.

"There will always be controversy about a hearing actor playing a deaf person," Hamill says. "The deaf community has a lot of talented deaf actors, and they don't think it's fair that they aren't given a chance to portray that in films, TV and plays. I can understand that from their point of view. (The producers) made amends by casting a deaf actor who is extremely talented and did a great job portraying me."

Other actors in the film are deaf, including former Weeds and Jericho cast member Shoshannah Stern. She plays Kristi, Hamill's girlfriend who helps him adapt to life at Rochester Institute of Technology after an unhappy stint at Purdue. RIT, which keeps a list of its deaf athletes on its athletic department site, inducted Hamill (99-3 record, 47 pins) into its Hall of Fame in 2007.

Also in the cast is one of Hamill's former opponents, Rich Franklin, who helped Hamill get started in the sport. Franklin sought a wrestler to help him round out his skills and found Hamill through mutual friends. The former UFC middleweight champion then encouraged Hamill to pursue MMA and seek a spot on The Ultimate Fighter.

Franklin was reluctant to fight Hamill two years ago but dutifully followed through and handed his friend the second loss of his career. Hamill has won four in a row since then, though one was on a disqualification in a fight opponent Jon Jones was clearly winning.

The fighters remained friends, and Franklin was later offered a part in Hamill. Though Franklin's character appears at a discouraging time — he's a Purdue wrestling coach who cuts Hamill as he struggles academically and athletically — he didn't hesitate to add to his growing list of film credits.

"It's not the role itself that was interesting to me," Franklin says. "But it was interesting it's Matt Hamill's life that we're working with."

Hamill and Ortiz have maintained contact since TUF, but Hamill isn't sentimental about facing his former coach.

"I always knew it was a strong possibility since we are in the same sport in the same weight class," Hamill says.

The journey to put Hamill's life on screen was longer than his successful college career. Hamill doesn't mind.

"The delay will be worth it," he says.