A celebrated playwright, opinionated essayist and fiercely independent filmmaker, Mamet was introduced to the sport several years ago by several enthusiasts, notably Mordecai Finley, Mamet's rabbi and a longtime jujitsu practitioner who has a part in the film as one of the undercard fighters. Fascinated by the sport, which blends the brawn of boxing and agility of kick-boxing with the art of jujitsu and the head-banging of wrestling, Mamet wrote a story that revolves around many of his favorite themes -- honor, deception and betrayal -- set in the world of mixed martial arts.
"Like everyone, I grew up with boxing, but everyone seems sick to death of it -- it's all about whether Mike Tyson was going to bite someone's ear off or not," Mamet said during a break between scenes last week. "I'm interested in going backstage into this new world, especially since everyone loves backstage movies. You could say that the story is a lot like a story about Hollywood -- it's all about honor and corruption."
Mamet grins. "In a lot of ways, it's an American samurai film. I think it's a script Kurosawa would've liked."
Mamet's script focuses on a jujitsu master, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor ("Children of Men"), who after years of refusing to fight must sacrifice his purity by going into the ring to protect his honor. The film is populated with top fighters, including Ultimate Fighting Championship legend Randy Couture, Enson Inoue and Ray Mancini, as well as John Machado, who runs a Brazilian jujitsu training school in L.A. But it also features such acting talent as Emily Mortimer and Tim Allen, as well as Mamet regulars Joe Mantegna and Ricky Jay, who plays a fight promoter who delivers such Mamet gems as "Everything in life -- the money's in the rematch."
Mamet pitched the story all over town. To his surprise, everyone passed. "I was a little dumbfounded," he admits. "I told them, 'Crunch the numbers. Look at the UFC's pay-TV ratings. See how big Randy Couture and some of the UFC stars are.' God willing, I think a lot of people are going to be surprised at how well this will do."
Looking for a buyer, Mamet went to Michael Barker and Tom Bernard, the heads of Sony Pictures Classics, the art-house specialists best known for championing foreign films from the likes of Pedro Almodóvar and Zhang Yimou. "With them, at least you're talking to the two guys who can say yes," Mamet explains. "They didn't even ask to see the script. They said, 'We'll see you at the opening.' "