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Meet the Slamdance Filmmakers: Allan Luebke, Director, 'Glena'

By Michael Galinsky

Like many sports documentarians, Allan Luebke looked to Steve James' Hoop Dreams for inspiration when he set out to make Glena, a film about a women's mixed martial arts fighter.  He then expanded the scope of his influences, and dug deep to pull together a character-driven vérité doc that brings the audience into the fighter's world.  It's a story about staying balanced when one gets pummeled by life.





Documentary: How did you come to tell this story?

Allan Luebke: By total accident. I was producing a talk show for a small independent television channel in Oregon's Columbia River Gorge, and I was researching potential guests. Our college intern heard that a female cage fighter worked at the Oregon Veteran's Home nearby. We checked it out online, sent Glena an email, and met with her in person soon after. I wasn't necessarily a fan of mixed martial arts—I knew what it was but had never really watched it—but the story of a single mother in her 30s trying to become a pro fighter was certainly intriguing. We booked her for the show, and she was one of the best guests we'd ever had.

D: Did you have an idea of where the film would go when you started, and if so did the story move in the way you expected?

AL: Glena started as a short film meant to just fill a few months while I was unemployed. I planned to follow Glena only for about four weeks leading up to her fifth amateur fight, and hadn't the slightest thought of making a feature-length film. But after filming was completed, people started asking about a feature film. To be perfectly honest, I don't remember when the switch flipped and how I decided to extend it, but I do remember starting to ponder how to build a feature-length narrative that viewers could stay interested in. Short films can be more experimental with their storytelling, but features have to be tightly woven stories with character development and emotional arcs if the audience is expected to invest up to two hours watching.

D: You are clearly comfortable behind the camera. What films or filmmakers did you look to for inspiration as you set out on this journey, in terms of style, storytelling or subject matter?

AL: 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. Visually, I wanted to make a vérité documentary because it seemed challenging and because I just love how in-the-moment those stories feel. Initially Hoop Dreams was my Bible from a storytelling and visual perspective. 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 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.

D: There are a lot of different themes that kind of weave in and out of the film:  dedication, communication, relationships, poverty, family. Oddly, gender wasn't a very major theme. How did you handle the different themes?.

AL: I think what audiences will find surprising about Glena is that it doesn't have an agenda. The movie isn't about gender, and it doesn't advocate for mixed martial arts. It's just about a woman you come to deeply care about. You want to see how her journey ends. My favorite stories focus on the characters, not the issues, and that's the kind of movie I tried to make.





D: When you make a doc about a fighter, or any sports story, you're at the mercy of the results. That must have made the process both harrowing and exciting.

AL: While filming Glena, we always worked with three different outlines: what is likely to happen, what's unlikely to happen and what we want to happen. There were a couple times when we thought that it'd be helpful for the story if Glena won or lost a certain fight because then we could explore some themes that intrigued us, but ultimately the story that happened was better than we could have written. As a storyteller, you have to allow the story to unfold naturally but also be hyper-aware of every nuance so that you can be ready to follow those threads. When making a documentary where you're at the mercy of the results, you've got to have your storytelling skills as sharp as possible because you're going to be doing a lot of writing to mold the story into a proper narrative. One of the great things about filmmaking is that there are thousands of other movies to use as study guides, and we regularly referred to ten different movies that helped us understand how to tell our own story.

D: When you make a doc about somebody who struggles as much as Glena, it must be emotionally and intellectually difficult to move forward at times. As a filmmaker how do you balance out the need to keep some distance with the desire to put down the camera and do what you can to help the subject out?

AL: Glena went through some pretty tough times, but that's also what makes her story so good. If we as filmmakers had intervened, then Glena's story would have lost some of its power. Luckily for us, Glena understood how unique her situation was, and she encouraged us to roll the camera during those difficult moments. One morning I was planning to make the 90-minute drive to her town for some filming, but she called me early and said, "Something happened to my leg and I can barely walk. I don't know if I can even fight this weekend. My doctor is coming in on his day off. You should get here." Glena's life was pretty chaotic for those nine months of filming, but her willingness to let us be present with cameras is what made this movie possible. This movie unfolds entirely in front of the camera, so everything the viewer sees was the first time it happened to Glena, which makes for a uniquely intimate experience.

Michael Galinsky is partners with Suki Hawley and David Bellinson in the award-winning production studio Rumur. Their film Who Took Johnny premiered at Slamdance. They are currently working on a film about the connection between stress and pain.