Film about deaf wrestler winning audiences

From the North County Times:

deaf actor Russell Harvard

Deaf actor Russell Harvard stars as real-life deaf wrestling champion Matt Hammill in the biographical film "The Hammer," opening Oct. 28.

Having grown up both an athlete and a movie fan, Eben Kostbar knew when he heard the story of wrestler Matt Hamill that something cinematic was possible.

Kostbar, a producer, writer, director and sometime actor, had grown up inspired by underdog films such as “Rocky,” “Rudy” and “Hoosiers.” A former wrestler and fan of mixed martial-arts, Kostbar liked what he saw in Hamill’s story. Here was an athlete who was deaf, and managed to overcome a low-income, high-risk background to find fame and success in sports.

Hamill is a three-time NCAA Division III National Champion in wrestling, and earned a silver medal in Greco-Roman wrestling and a gold medal in freestyle wrestling from the 2001 Summer Deaflympics. Hamill was later a contestant on the third season of “The Ultimate Fighter” reality television show.

The movie Kostbar co-produced and co-wrote on Hamill’s life is called “The Hammer.” The film is opening for short runs at dozens of theaters across the country today, including the Vista Village Metroplex 15 and UltraStar Cinemas Mission Marketplace 13 in Oceanside. It is directed by Oren Kaplan and co-written and produced by Joseph McKelheer.

“I heard Matt’s story and thought, ‘Wow, that’s remarkable,'” Kostbar said in a telephone interview. “He’s an inspiring guy. He was receptive to meeting and talking about making his story into a film, and it took off from there.”

Kostbar says he knows sports films need a hook and some emotional momentum.

“Matt was open to including all of the aspects of his life,” Kostbar said. “It’s really a perfect underdog story. Here was a deaf person accomplishing something that had never been done by another deaf person. Although I knew American Sign Language, I didn’t have a lot of experience with deaf people, but I was fascinated by this. I knew that a movie would draw the interest of hearing people who wanted to know more, and would also inspire the deaf community.”

Filming for “The Hammer” happened mostly in New York, as Hamill attended Rochester Institute of Technology. While Kostbar initially considered playing the lead role himself, the filmmakers ultimately decided to hire a deaf actor, Russell Harvard, who had a role in the film “There Will Be Blood.”

“We made sure we had deaf crew members, and that people from the deaf community were involved throughout,” Kostbar said. “We wanted everything as authentic as possible.”

After finishing production, “The Hammer” was submitted for film festivals across the country, and became a festival success story, winning audience-favorite awards almost everywhere it landed.

“The audience simply took the film to heart,” Kostbar said. “We were so happy with the festival reaction.”

The festival success was so strong, in fact, that “The Hammer” was able to do what most independent, low-budget films rarely do: pick up a distributor for theatrical distribution. The film will have a DVD release early next year, but the filmmakers are encouraging people to see it in theaters for maximum effect, and to show distributors that audiences will support independent films such as this.

“The film will also make wrestling and mixed-martial arts fans happy, because the action is so real,” Kostbar said. “It will also bring attention to the deaf community in the best possible way. It’s a film that anyone who has struggled will identify with.”

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