As a first-generation Lithuanian-American, Marius Markevicius, filmmaker and President of Sorrento Productions, is naturally drawn to stories from the Eastern European diaspora. This is true of his directorial debut documentary that premiered at Sundance, The Other Dream Team, a film about the intersection of basketball and Lithuanian independence that follows the 1992 Lithuanian national basketball team on their journey to the Olympics shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union. Marius’s awareness for Lithuanian culture organically led him into the ring for his next subject, Lithuanian MMA fighter and mental health advocate Rose Namajunas.

In his newest documentary Thug Rose: Mixed Martial Artist, Marius and his crew closely follow the two-time world champ on her path to success, getting a glimpse at the formidable and vulnerable woman known in the MMA world as Thug Rose.

In this exclusive interview, we spoke with Marius about his start to directing and producing, his approach to connecting with his doc subjects, and how he captured the spirit, strength, and vulnerability of two-time world champion Thug Rose.

Tell us a bit about yourself. What was your first job as a director and how did you decide to pursue your craft professionally?
I went to film school at UCLA for my master’s degree, but before that I went to Berkeley as a Business major undergrad and started working in real estate business, my family business. I enjoyed that, but the calling was storytelling and writing and directing, so I decided to shift back in that direction and go to film school. Out of film school I did a few indie projects, which were narrative. We had a couple films at Sundance which I produced—I was a producer first. My first directing feature was The Other Dream Team, which premiered at Sundance in 2012. Since then I’ve been going back and forth between directing and producing, and switching between narrative and docs. 

What was your connection to The Other Dream Team?
I was born and raised in LA, but my parents and grandparents on both sides are all from Lithuania in Eastern Europe, it’s a very small country. So The Other Dream Team was super personal. I’m very into our culture and history, but also basketball—I’m a huge fan, and that film was about how basketball has always played a part in Lithuanian identity and culture. Ultimately in the 80’s and early 90’s when Lithuania got its independence, basketball was a big part of that movement. 

What inspired you to tell the story of Thug Rose: Mixed Martial Artist? 
I’ve always tracked Rose’s career. She’s a fellow Lithuanian and we’re a small country, and we all try to support each other when someone’s doing something special or impactful. So I was following her career, and when she won the Belt in 2017 and hit her apex, I thought “You know, her story—she seems like such a fascinating person, not only inside the ring, but outside the ring.” I reached out to her back then, and she had seen my doc The Other Dream Team, and she loved it. She said that when she encounters people who want to learn about Lithuanian history, she shows them that film. So there was a good connection. I pitched her on this idea, and I’m very grateful that she was willing to take that leap of faith and have the trust to dive into a multi-year filming process. 

How many years did it take to film Thug Rose?
There were different iterations of filming. When I was first filming her, we did a couple interviews and created a sizzle reel in the attempt to raise the financing. This was a classic independent film trajectory, where it started out with an idea, then you have to figure out how to raise money. Ultimately, we took it to UFC and they saw the reel, and they eventually agreed that they wanted to finance it. 

How did you execute your vision for the film and what gear did you use?
When these kinds of projects go through so many years of filming and different eras of financing, there’s ultimately a lot of different formats and cameras. The primary camera we used was Black Magic, and I was lucky enough to work with cinematographer and long-time collaborator Bo Bilstrup on most of the shoots and travel that we did. But sometimes we would try to get two Black Magics and sometimes it would be varying cameras based on where we were and who was available, and that ended up causing technical challenges in the edit. And when you film over several years, the technology also changes over that time—which is pretty typical for docs, you end up having some mixed formats. The post-production team is really good about smoothing it all out and making it as cohesive as possible. 

We also had a ton of archival footage. Especially the fighting footage—a lot of that is from UFC archives, and so it’s a combination of original film footage and interviews and archival fight footage clips. 

How did Thug Rose: Mixed Martial Artist differ from other projects you’ve worked on? 
Each one is very different, and that’s what makes it so interesting and rewarding. Especially with documentaries, you dive into a new world each time. I think what makes this one different is that it’s a new subculture that I didn’t know much about. I watched casually as an observer of UFC and was a fan of Rose, but going on the inside you get to see what it really takes and what they go through physically and mentally for the fights. It was also interesting meeting tons of people in the MMA community. The people are really nice, they just seem like really balanced people. I think the film broke down a lot of stereotypes about who these fighters are. I mean, a lot of them do come from hardship, but I think that in a lot of ways those communities are really supportive. I think a lot of those fighters are really grateful to have found those communities, and therefore they’re just really happy and nice. It’s just kind of the opposite of what you might think when you think of a professional fighter who fights so fiercely in the ring.

Rose was the ultimate example of that. She’s just so sweet and kind, and her emotional honesty just radiates out. Especially after fights. Her emotions just come out and she often says some of the most beautiful and profound things after the fight, and those moments have been really special to see during her career. 

What is something that you hope viewers take away from the film after watching it? What message were you trying to send?
I’m always curious to see how audiences react. We definitely didn’t try to push through a message. I think with documentarians, it’s better to give the subject space to tell their story and it speaks for itself. That’s what we try to do here—just give Rose a platform to tell her story, to be open. She’s always emotionally honest, and allows herself to be vulnerable so that also aids in the storytelling because you see all sides of her, and she doesn’t hold anything back. Of course there’s some difficult subject matter in the film that she covers, including some abuse that she went through and the traumas in her childhood. She says that she hopes that people who have been through that kind of struggle and abuse can take something from her story—that they will be inspired to achieve their dreams and reach their goals.

What were some challenges you faced while making Thug Rose: Mixed Martial Artist and how did you overcome them? 
When we got closer to her fight against Weili Zhang, which was last November of 2021 (she was defending her belt, fighting Weili Zhang for the second time), and really getting into the training camps—that was tough, because we wanted to be there to film everything. All the moments, the good, the bad, and the ugly. But her group, when they get closer to the fight, especially Rose, they have to close off to a certain degree and really focus, because she’s going to enter the ring in a very dangerous sport. So the distraction of making a film—we tried our best to minimize that, but to be there and capture as much as possible. That was a challenge, but I think Pat Barry, her fiancé, really helped a lot in giving us the access all the way up to the point before our filming would start to interfere or cause distractions. I think we found that balance early on and it worked out quite well. And she performed really well and won the fight, so I think everybody came out on top. 

What’s next for you?
I have a couple of projects in the works. One is a narrative project—it’s the scripted adaptation of my documentary The Other Dream Team, to adapt that into a scripted limited TV series. I think it’s an incredible story and it’s timely. It relates to the fall of the Soviet Union and some of the politics that are going on now are eerily similar. 

I’m also producing a documentary, also from that part of the world, about a Belarusian opposition leader named Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya. She’s a woman who’s in exile because her husband is in jail in Belarus, and she ran for president a couple of years ago. She was forced out by the dictator there, Lukashenko. I have a director that’s filming with her and it’s a heavy story about the political situation over there.

You can learn more about Marius on his IMDb.