"Vision Quest? I'm sorry, it's just a crappy movie, and I'm happy to finally get another wrestling movie out there," Eben Kostbar says with a laugh from his home in Los Angeles.
He's right: Vision Quest is a crappy movie. His new film, The Hammer, is not, and it's not just another wrestling movie.
The film tells the story of retired UFC fighter Matt Hamill, focusing primarily on his collegiate career at the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) where he was a three-time NCAA Division III National champion between 1997 and 1999.
While Hamill's time on the wrestling mat serves as the backdrop for the narrative, this film is as much about deaf culture as it is double-leg takedowns.
Kostbar serves as writer and producer of the project that has been a part of his life for more than five years. He also co-stars in the film as one of the RIT wrestling coaches. Nearing a theatrical release, Kostbar reflected on the journey when we spoke earlier in the week.
"Nothing would be worse than putting so much time, so much belief into the film, into Matt's story, and it not see the light of day. I'm happy that a company got behind the film and believes in it, and just excited that people are finally going to get a chance to watch it. Hopefully, they're inspired just like I was inspired five or six years ago when I first saw Matt."
Hamill's story caught Kostbar's eye when he was part of the line-up of fighters competing on Season Three of The Ultimate Fighter. Sharing the Ultimate Fighter house with current TUF coach Michael Bisping, Hamill became a protege of his coach, Tito Ortiz, and became a favorite with the audience, including Kostbar, who saw a story he wanted to tell in the life of the budding mixed martial artist.
"When I saw Matt's story on The Ultimate Fighter, it was really one of those moments where it was like, `This guy accomplished a lot and is pretty inspiring.' I felt like if I was inspired by him, I thought a lot of people would be intrigued.
"I grew up wrestling and playing sports. I was always the shortest, not the fastest. I was an okay athlete, and I've always had a deep love for wrestling specifically. I eventually got into filmmaking, and always wanted to do a sports film, but found myself writing some other films because it's a lot easier to sell other genres. Plus you have to have a really good story. You can't just make a sports film that's not a good story."
Just as films like The Blindside and this year's Warrior have used sports as the backdrop to tell a larger story, so too does The Hammer. While it follows Hamill's quest for a wrestling championship during his days at RIT, it also delivers a glimpse into a culture that is rarely seen on the big screen, or any screen at all for that matter.
"I think it will really educate a lot of people about the deaf community," Kostbar said hopefully. "They're still referred to as handicapped and disabled, and identified by a lot of these terms where it's not people being rude, it's just ignorance. Obviously, movies are here to entertain, but it would be kind of cool if this did impact their culture in a positive way."
Early in the process, the film endured some backlash from the deaf community after Kostbar, a hearing actor and filmmaker, was tabbed to play the titular role.
"I was acting a lot and I was still involved in wrestling, keeping myself in shape. I was hanging around Matt, I know sign language, and so Matt was like, 'You know me better than anyone else. I think you should play me.' That's how that started, but I was ignorant.
"I didn't know anything about the deaf community, and as I was writing this and kind of really getting to know about them, I thought it would be selfish of me to play this role when there are a ton of talented deaf actors out there. This could be something bigger than just an opportunity for an actor to play a role; this could be something where it really opens the doors for more deaf actors, more deaf crews."
After Kostbar stepped aside, they cast Russell Harvard to play Hamill. The 30-year-old deaf actor caught their attention playing opposite Academy Award winner Daniel Day-Lewis in the critically acclaimed Paul Thomas Anderson film There Will Be Blood.
"If you can kind of hold your own against Daniel Day-Lewis, you must be a pretty good actor since he's one of the best of our generation. Russell Harvard, or any other deaf actor who could have played the role, is going to be 100 percent authentic.
"Obviously, actors portray different people and you can kind of get by, but what I learned is that what's different about the deaf community is that it's a real culture, there is a real language — American Sign Language. You can learn it, but somebody that has lived in that culture their entire life like Russell has can really make sure that the role is played with integrity and authenticity.
"As a hearing filmmaker, we had a lot of deaf people involved with the film, but I'm not naive enough to think I know everything there is about their culture by researching it for a few years. At the end of the day, I wanted to tell a story that was really entertaining and for this film to be successful, but I also hopefully wanted to make a difference and shed some light on their culture."
Thus far, the film has been a hit with audiences and critics, garnering awards at several of the film's festival stops. Perhaps better than any award has been some of the comments Kostbar has heard from audiences on their way out of the theatre.
"Many hearing people come out of it saying, `You guys put me in the shoes of what it's like to be deaf a little. I didn't know that deaf people only understood part of the lip-reading if they can lip-read' and `I didn't know that there was an actual language.'
"What's even a little bit cooler is that — and I don't want to give away the film — but everyone in [Matt's] family that has seen the film have been very moved and touched that the film was portrayed right. They were proud of it."
Kostbar has spent the last five years of his life working on this project, and will realize one of the biggest dreams for the project next week.
"The film kind of is emulating the story. We set off as independent filmmakers without a big studio behind us. Our big goal at the end of the day was to get this film a theatrical release. We're don't have the huge kind of thousand screen release that the big studios have, but we still have a theatrical release, so our dream as filmmakers is coming true, and part of it is Matt's story inspiring us to never give up.
"There were a lot of hurdles with this film, and I hope people show up to theaters and give themselves a chance to see it. I think we did everything in our power to make as good a film as we could make. If you're a sports underdog fan, you will find faults with this film. No film is perfect, but you will enjoy it."
If you don't want to take Kostbar's word for it, take mine: go see this film. It's original, insightful, and vastly superior to the reformatted trash being turned out by big time Hollywood studios these day.
My heart breaks a little bit more every time I see the trailer for that horrible Footloose remake.
The Hammer opens in select theaters on October 27. For theatre and ticket information, please visit the film's website at thehammerfilm.com.