Documentary filmmaker Michael Hamilton has been interested in profiling sports figures for nearly 20 years. From chronicling Alexander Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby, and Eric Staal’s bumpy journey to the NHL to revealing the multifaceted and often misunderstood personality of track and field star Donovan Bailey, Hamilton is fascinated by the struggle of professional athletes to reconcile their heroic public images with their personal dilemmas.
For the first time in his career, Hamilton turns his lens to the world of UFC and, in particular, Michael Bisping, who is the first British fighter to win a UFC championship title. In Bisping: The Michael Bisping Story, Hamilton profiles the fighter as he reveals his difficult childhood in working-class Northern England, his steady and hard-earned rise within UFC ranks, and how an injury to his almost derailed his career. Hamilton sat down with Digital Trends to talk about what attracted him to Bisping’s story, how Rocky influenced the documentary’s narrative, and the limitations of interviewing a subject who is sometimes unwilling to reveal his most personal details.
Digital Trends: In many of your documentaries, you’ve focused largely on subjects from different sports: Hockey, track and field, and basketball. What attracted you to profile Bisping?
Michael Hamilton: I’ve never done a story on a fighter before and was always kind of intrigued with that [UFC] space. I just think those guys are a different breed as people will tell in the Bisping film. What really cemented it with me was getting the chance to actually meet Michael [Bisping] before I signed off. The producers asked me to do it, and I was just kind of like, “I don’t know.” We met [Bisping] in Hollywood, and we sat down for like two and a half hours just talking about stories. And I really got an understanding of who he was. But more [importantly], his personality is infectious … and that that really drew me in when I left that meeting. I said to the producer immediately [afterward], “I’m the guy for this project. I want to do this.” And the rest is history.
In a previous interview, you had mentioned you didn’t know a lot about UFC. What were some of the challenges you faced in immersing yourself in the sport and gaining access to some of its prominent figures like [UFC President] Dana White?
It’s a great question. This is going to sound weird, but I don’t think you need to know a ton about UFC to make a film about a UFC fighter. The film isn’t about UFC, it’s not about MMA. That’s obviously the backdrop. If you’re a human being, you’re going to love this film because it’s all about perseverance, overcoming goals, [sharing] beliefs and every human on the planet has that. Everyone will love this film regardless if you’re a UFC fan [or not], it’s going to resonate. So to me, that was the key. It’s not like I didn’t know anything about UFC or MMA. I watched it a bit here and there, but I wasn’t a super fan. But I think the film speaks for itself on a human level.
The 1976 film Rocky is brought up several times throughout the documentary. Was that intentional? I noticed that the climactic title match with Luke Rockhold closely paralleled Rocky’s fight with Apollo Creed.
Absolutely. And it’s funny because I wasn’t the first or only person that put those two kinds of connections together. Because of where Rocky came from, he came from the streets. Bisping didn’t have a lot [growing up]. I’m not saying that his parents didn’t love him, which they did, and they provided the best they could [for him]. It was the exact same scenario as Rocky and how they both kind of paid their dues over time. They shouldn’t be where they are today. Both Rocky and Bisping had something in them that just made them believe [in themselves] and overcome and persevere. So, it’s a natural analogy, you know?
How did you get Luke Rockhold to participate in this documentary?
Filmmaking is funny. It’s a funny process because, especially [with] documentary filmmaking, it never goes according to plan. You could have everything scripted [for] how you think it’s going and [then] everything’s out the window. I always wanted to give Luke Rockhold a voice because he was kind of the [doc’s] villain. He’s Bisping’s nemesis and…I really wanted to understand where he was coming from. Is this guy misunderstood? Is he really an asshole? I really wanted to figure out who this guy was. And I always thought talking with the producers that it was going to be tough to get him because I knew they didn’t like each other. Fast forward, we were doing some stuff with Perillo at Perillo’s Gym in L.A. and ironically, Luke was training in there, and Perillo went over to him and asked him [if he would appear in the documentary] and he said, “Yes.” So we pivoted and we found a location [to film him in]. We … got it done [quickly] because I think we had one [filming] opportunity with this guy.
There are several famous figures in the documentary [like] Vin Diesel, Mickey Rourke, and Joe Rogan. Was there anyone you wanted that you couldn’t get?
I don’t believe so. Everyone you see in [the] movie are friends of Bisping and they want to support him and they had a story to tell. [With] Vin Diesel, they worked together on xXx: The Return of Xander Cage. I think everyone that’s in the film was someone that we actually pursued, and I can’t recall anybody that we didn’t get that we wanted.
How do you know when to push for more information without crossing any boundaries? And specifically, there’s a moment early in the film where Bisping sort of shuts down about his childhood and you encourage him to discuss it.
That’s a great question. That’s part of my strength as an interviewer when I’m doing these films is I listen. And frankly, once the interview is done, I can’t even remember what we talked about because I’m so into that interview and what they’re saying, and I’m dialed in. And in the moment like that with Bisping, I think that was when he was [most] reflective. We were talking about growing up and his childhood and there were some issues [in his youth]. If a moment like that comes up, I just let it breathe. I don’t say another word. I let them own the space. If it’s a silent room, it’s uncomfortable for everybody, but it’s more uncomfortable for the person that’s [being] interviewed. And I want to actually challenge them to dig deep and really dive into their feelings and their emotions at that particular time. So a lot of interviewers will just jump right in with another question, and [I think] it just ruins the moment. I’ll just let it sit and let it breathe. Nine times out of 10, they dig deeper. And let’s face it, at the end of the day, these guys have agreed to tell their story, they have agreed to sit down with you. Most of the time, nothing’s off the table.
What’s in store for you after Bisping comes out?
We’re already starting another film with my producing partner on Bisping, Adam Scorgie. We’re doing a story about the first Inuk NHL hockey player, Jordan Tootoo. He has a crazy story, very similar to Bisping as far as persevering and trying to make it to the NHL. I’ve also partnered and teamed up with Shaquille O’Neal to help run his production company. We got a lot of cool projects that we’re developing and going to be coming out later.
Bisping: The Michael Bisping Story is available to stream on March 22, 2022. For more information about the film, check out www.bispingdoc.com.