Lithuanian-American director Marius Markevicius has a strong connection with his subjects and a deep sense of pride for the country and culture they often share, whether it’s through his narrative work or documentary films. In 2012, the first generation Lithuanian-American filmmaker’s documentary, The Other Dream Team, made its debut at Sundance. Since that career milestone, Markevicius has gravitated to projects that highlight personal narratives.

Recently, Marius directed a documentary on one of UFC’s most celebrated underdog fighters, MMA Champion Rose Namajunas (“Thug Rose”).  A fellow first-generation Lithuanian American, Namajunas’ story resonated with Markevicius, who wanted to understand the makings of the fighter through a lens of authenticity that felt truthful to Markevicius’ kind and vulnerable spirit. 

Markevicius spoke with Awards Focus about the documentary, Thug Rose: Mixed Martial Artist, and how he brought his own authenticity to the table, how he earned the trust of his subjects. 

Awards Focus: Your film Thug Rose: Mixed Martial Artist recently premiered at the Austin Film Festival. What was the process like submitting Thug Rose to the festival and how was the reception?

Markevicius: The process of submitting the film was interesting because UFC financed this film. They had never done festivals before and Thug Rose was a trailblazing project for UFC. They do a lot of content—fight promotion shows, fight countdowns, some reality shows, and content for the internet, but this project was quite unique for them. It’s a full-length documentary that goes in-depth into one of their athletes. I’ve had films at Sundance and in different festivals over the years, so I knew that world. When I pitched them on the idea, they were very receptive and excited to support that process. We submitted it to the Austin Film Festival, which also lined up very closely to the release of the film, so the timing of it was good. We were fortunate that they accepted us. The response was really good. We had a nice premiere, and I was very happy that Rose and Pat got to experience that because a lot of films these days just go straight to streaming or TV. Getting a chance to see it on the big screen with an audience is really special. Given how long we worked on it, and how much Rose gave to it emotionally, I was just happy that she got to experience it with a very supportive crowd. We had a great Q&A after that, and you could tell the audience was really engaged.

Awards Focus: Were there any other films that inspired you while you were making Thug Rose: Mixed Martial Artist?

Markevicius: I’m a big fan of documentaries and I’m a big sports fan, so I’ve watched many sports documentaries. Rose’s story is unique, and I couldn’t quite draw any parallels to it, in terms of the journey that she’s been on and the traumas that she’s gone through. I do think that the stories about US gymnasts who have been through sexual abuse was an inspiration, because of how brave they were to tell their story. Rose and I talked about that, and the impact that those women who came out and testified have had. We wanted to continue that trend of raising social awareness for people who have been through that kind of trauma. Of course, it was all Rose’s decision, and it was up to her. I just wanted to create a platform for her to tell her story, to make a comfortable space to allow that to happen. She took a big leap of faith in telling her life’s journey—the good and the bad.

I was also inspired by a couple of documentaries that covered mental health issues in the sports arena. In particular, the Naomi Osaka documentary on Netflix and the Mardy Fish documentary Untold: Breaking Point.We’re seeing a positive trend where athletes are willing to talk about mental health issues and the stresses and the difficulties that come with being a top-level athlete. Rose goes through that as well, as you see in the film. She talks about her mental health openly, and admits that it’s an ongoing process that you will continue to work on throughout your life.

Awards Focus: When you first talked with Rose about the documentary, how did the two of you discuss her comfort level, and establishing boundaries during the filming process?

Markevicius: We first met in 2017, when she had become the champion, but I’d already been aware of her career and story. We share a mutual cultural background—we’re both Lithuanian and first-generation Americans. After she became champion, I thought, ‘someone has to tell her story and do it in depth, in a quality way.’ We met and we clicked. She had seen a documentary I had done called The Other Dream Team that was at Sundance in 2012 that really was inspiring to her.

We had some candid discussions about what topics we might cover or not cover. I left it open for her. I thought that she needed to tell her story in a complete and holistic way on her terms. We wanted to put to bed a lot of unfounded things that had been said about her online. We wanted her to tell her story in her own words in a way that wouldn’t be manipulated by anyone else.

Awards Focus: Does the film showcase archival footage? How did you decide what was included and wasn’t?

Markevicius: Yeah, the film includes a lot of archival footage. That was the nice thing about working with UFC. They have a tremendous archive of her career—beginning from when she was first starting out at twenty. You can see her grow and mature through the years, through those archives. Even more special was the discovery of family footage and photos. Rose and her mother shared a lot of childhood photos and personal things that really enhance the storytelling, and allow you to get to know Rose more in-depth. It also makes her more relatable when you get to see her entire journey.

Awards Focus: Having completed Thug Rose, how did the experience shape how you plan to approach future projects?

Markevicius: This experience was quite unique in the sense that I entered into a subculture of professional fighters. I’m a fan, but I’ve never been inside the world or participated in the sport myself, so it was pretty incredible to meet people in that community. A lot of my preconceptions were broken down, like who these fighters are and why they fight. You realize how supportive that community is, how positive they are, how much they help each other, and how balanced a lot of them are, because of what the sport has given them—not only in terms of physical fitness, but also mental fitness and mental preparation. There’s a lot of mantra positivity associated with martial arts, and I was really blown away by that. 

Also, just the experience of it all: going through a training camp and fight week with Rose and her team, being embedded into the intensity of how things get leading up to the fight, hearing the roar of the crowds and seeing people in the fights before Rose who are literally bloodied and battered and being put in the ambulances while Rose is getting her hands taped up to go out there. I was nauseous with my own nerves watching Rose prepare. The visceral experience was unlike anything I had ever been through, and we tried to put that onto the screen and allow the viewers to go through that ride, too. 

As a filmmaker, the lesson was that capturing something that intimate can take years. What we were able to capture was a result of gaining the trust of our subjects and spending a lot of time together. It really enforces that idea that you need time with your subjects to gain access and intimacy in your filming. 

Awards Focus: Can you talk about how your culture and Lithuanian heritage impacted your work on Thug Rose?

Markevicius: My body of work is almost all related to Lithuania and my background and my culture, which I’m very passionate about and very proud of. It’s a very small country that has suffered at the hands of the Soviet Union and Russia over centuries. And it’s still happening, but we keep fighting. Rose is a part of that. That’s how we clicked, because she is also very outspoken about our culture and the difficulties it’s been through. I’ve done narrative films and documentary films, and they almost all have had that cultural connection to my own background. Those shared experiences lead to a heightened level of understanding and passion. Rose is a classic underdog story, as is our country, Lithuania. It’s a country of only three million people and it has still persevered. That connection of country and culture seems to be the thread in my process.

Awards Focus: What would you like leave readers with as they reflective on Rose’s story?

Markevicius: Just that I’m very proud of the film and very grateful that Rose took that leap of faith. She was so brave. In a sport that has such a macho façade to it, not a lot of athletes in her position are willing to talk about issues like mental health and sexual abuse. That’s what makes Rose unique. She can’t help but be vulnerable and honest. She’s so incredibly emotionally honest. I think that is disarming to her opponents, because they don’t know what to make of it. Everyone else is putting this tough façade on, doing everything they can to be intimidating, and Rose is calm and quiet and honest and vulnerable. I found her to be a fascinating person, and getting to know her through the filming process was a great experience.