It was December of 2017, and Rick Lee was pacing in front of AKA, waiting for Khabib. The UFC Embedded producer had a lot on his mind. His family, for one. No one wants to be away from their family during the holidays. His work for UFC 219, where Nurmagomedov would go on to defeat Edson Barboza by unanimous decision, was immediate and pressing. But what weighed most heavily on the filmmaker’s mind was the demise of his friend Gerard Roxburgh’s passion project, Devour. Financing for the independent film had fallen through at the eleventh hour, and Roxburgh now looked into a void where once there was a dream.
Roxburgh had made a documentary about Evan Tanner, Once I Was a Champion, and like Lee, was well familiar with the UFC—having worked on The Ultimate Fighter.
Nature abhors a vacuum, and into this empty space stepped Gerard Roxburgh, another MMA filmmaker. Roxburgh had made a documentary about Evan Tanner, Once I Was a Champion, and like Lee, was well familiar with the UFC—having worked on The Ultimate Fighter.
Roxburgh and Lee wanted to make a thriller, preferably a heist film. To accommodate an independent movie budget, the story had to hit certain pragmatic points. For example, a story set in just one location was key. The filmmakers had an idea that would fulfill most of these requirements, and they didn’t have to go far to find it.
Roxburgh and Lee had a mutual friend, a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu brown belt named Rob. Rob had studied under a man named Lee McDermott, who was also in the movie business, working as a stunt coordinator. On one fateful day, McDermott suggested a weapons class. Rob and Roxburgh agreed, and in a single session learned about disarming a dangerous opponent. As it turned out, for Rob at least, that information would come in handy.
Keen to monopolize on the ‘green rush’ of marijuana legalization, Rob and his pregnant wife decided to set up business with their own cannabis farm. Rural life isn’t always safer than the city, though. And in their case, workers at the farm had drug trafficking connections. In a robbery attempt, armed men broke in and tied Rob and his wife up. Somehow, Rob managed to talk his way out of the restraints. And when he was released, Rob – using the technique McDermott taught him – disarmed the men and shot them.
As Lee says, the would-be thieves had “f—ed with the wrong motherf—er.”
Feeling that Rob’s story would make a great starting point for a movie, Roxburgh got to work on the screenplay. The Scottish filmmaker didn’t come alone, however. He had long wanted to work with fellow Scot Paul Telfer, best known for Spartacus (2004), Hercules (2005), and The Days of Our Lives.
Location scouting began before the script was finalized, allowing Roxburgh and Telfer to craft the story to what was on hand. They found the perfect location in a cannabis farm not far from where the actual event took place. “There’s a mine here, woods there,” Telfer says, “so we incorporated those things into the script.” Adding, “working on the script is also a good way to make sure your character has a bunch of great lines.”
A third Scot, actor Declan Michael Laird, was brought in early as well. A mutual friend of Laird and Roxburgh had suggested the two Scots now living in Los Angeles meet up. When they did, they discovered their parents had been classmates, growing up on the same street in the same small town in Scotland. “From that point forward we were mates,” says Laird, a former soccer player. “And we wanted to find a project to do together.”
Laird was no stranger to serendipity. After a serious knee injury derailed his soccer career, he rear-ended a casting director. While discussing the accident, the casting director suggested Laird audition for a BBC show, River City. Laird did so, got the part, and voila—the soccer player was now an actor.
As the script came together, Roxburgh, Laird, and Telfer sat down to discuss all the Glasgow psychopaths they had known. From these conversations came the character of Ticker. “In Scotland,” Telfer explains, “a Ticker is a debt collector. The idea is the debt is constantly growing, so there is a ticking clock.”
Telfer, who took on the role of Ticker, relished the opportunity to play a psychopath who takes action. Telfer, who plays villain Xander Cook on Days of Our Lives, spends much of his time on the soap “staring off into space, plotting evil deeds.” By contrast, Ticker’s psychopathy is fully expressed. So just how disturbed is Ticker?
“The Scottish bite necks,” Lee says matter-of-factly, explaining a clip that has made some wonder if Green Rush is a horror movie.
Urijah Faber, who has a production company with Roxburgh called Fabrox, came aboard to produce. Misha Crosby, best known for American Horror Story, joined both the production side and the cast. MMA writer Danny Acosta put time in on the script. Kriss Dozal nailed her audition and landed the lead actress role.
While Rob’s real life home invasion inspired the story, many changes were made. For example, the lead character – also named Rob and played by Mike Foy – has a brother, Caleb, played by Laird. Caleb is “the moral compass of the story,” says Laird, as well as “the more handsome feller” of the two brothers, he adds with a laugh.
As pieces of the puzzle kept clicking together, Urijah put in a good word for Andre Fili, a UFC fighter close to Faber’s heart. Crosby, who in addition to editing, producing, and acting, also works as an acting coach, viewed the inclusion of Fili with some trepidation. “I was thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, this could be very difficult,’ but to my delight he had a wonderful natural instinct.”
During production, the entire cast stayed in one large home close to the location. Laird and Fili shared a room. “I don’t get starstruck,” Laird says, but as a huge MMA fan, meeting Faber and Fili was a different experience. But soon Laird was struck by how professional and down to earth the MMA fighters were. Fili liked to read Batman comics after shooting, prompting Laird to realize, “Dude, you’re a nerd.”
According to everyone associated with the production, Fili was remarkably well prepared from day one. He had his lines memorized and nailed take after take. But then, MMA fighters tend to engage in the entertainment aspect of their sport more than other athletes. Laird notes the level of showmanship displayed by fighters, saying, “If you’re good at golf you don’t really need to talk s— about your opponent.”
Telfer hopes Fili will continue on with acting, as the actor says the fighter has abundant talent for the art. While it is widely known Fili has a tattoo of Faber on his leg, he also has one of Daniel Day Lewis as Bill the ‘Butcher,’ perhaps a sign of things to come.
When it came to bringing on a stunt coordinator, there was no question. Lee McDermott, who had wrapped up work on Vikings, was available to choreograph the fight sequences his own student had inspired. Roxburgh comments that McDermott has died on Vikings, “about 200 times. It’s a fun little game, to spot Lee dying. It’s like ‘Where’s Waldo?’”
The entire film was shot in ten days, with one day of rest for the actors halfway through. Actors were up at 3:45am, filming began at sunrise and ended at sunset. Everyone pitched in, including producer Faber. Telfer recalls his first sight of the MMA legend on set—carrying in a massive case of water for the crew. Faber worked hard to care for everyone on set. As Telfer says, “that’s what great leaders do.” Faber also loaned his own Chevy Nova, which had recently been in an accident, to the production. The damage only added to the flavor.
While the actors were working long days, director Roxburgh and producers Lee and Crosby were putting in even more time, with Roxburgh cutting dailies every night after shooting finished. The cannabis farm where they were filming was about to go to harvest—reshoots were an impossibility because of continuity issues. Roxburgh had to make sure no mistakes had rendered footage unusable. His due diligence was rewarded—on a couple of occasions he caught an error that required a reshoot.
For this family of MMA fans and fighters, many from the same small area in Scotland, Green Rush was the realization of a long held dream to work with one another and to put together a film that functioned as a proof of concept. Telfer doesn’t hesitate to call Green Rush the most fun he has ever had on set. While Spartacus also had a family-like feel, and he enjoys his work on Days of Our Lives, it seems he feels Green Rush is a project apart—unique in its process and origin. A movie made with pure motive.
In fact, shooting began without a post production budget. When investors expressed concern that perhaps post production money wouldn’t come through, Roxburgh told them if worst came to worst he would do it himself, editing “for the rest of time.”
In the end, the post production money did come through. And even after principle photography wrapped, the MMA family kept on giving. Lee encourages viewers to keep an ear out for voice work done by Karyn Bryant, Luke Thomas, and John Morgan.
Thanks in large part to Faber, Green Rush was then picked up by Lionsgate, putting a major powerhouse behind the project.
When asked what they want fans to know about the movie, Roxburgh doesn’t equivocate. “Don’t judge a book by its cover,” he says. Some on social media have expressed certain expectations of the film based off its MMA connections. “It’s not an MMA movie,” but rather, “a scrappy, great little indie.” Crosby compares the film to a roller coaster, full of unexpected twists and turns.
Laird suggests viewers prepare themselves. “Strap in, you’ll be on a wild ride for 90 minutes.”
Green Rush will be available at your local Redbox, UHD and On Demand April 14th.