Roger Ross Williams admits that before making a short documentary for the New Yorker on gay luche libre wrestler Saúl Armendáriz, all he knew about the sport is what he gleaned from Jared Hess’ 2006 comedy Nacho Libre. But Williams was so taken by his subject that not only was he eager to know more, the Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker felt compelled to make his first narrative feature film, titled after Armendáriz’s stage name, Cassandro, and opening Friday, June 15, at San Francisco’s Roxie Theater and the Smith Rafael in San Rafael. (See Dennis Harvey’s review here.)
“When I made the documentary, I was so moved by Cassandro’s story that I was like, ‘Yeah, I’ve got my first script,” Williams says during a visit to San Francisco where SFFILM screened Cassandro at the Castro. “I love telling underdog stories of people who overcome great adversity and achieve something.”
Played in the movie by Gael García Bernal, the real Cassandro was born in 1970 in El Paso, Texas, and spent his youth crisscrossing the border between there and Juárez, where much of his family lives. He was still a teenager when he began on the lucha libre circuit, taking on several characters until adopting the persona that would make him a star.
To bring Cassandro’s life to the screen, Williams enlisted David Teague as his cowriter. Teague edited Williams’ Emmy-winning documentary, Life, Animated. The way Williams sees it, editors are the writers of documentary films since those stories are created in post-production. So, it only seemed logical to enlist an editor to partner with him in honing this first fiction film.
“We spend a lot of time with Cassandro hanging out in El Paso, just absorbing the world and the culture,” he says. “I love El Paso. I think it’s a fascinating, really interesting place. Cassandro lives on the border wall—his house looks onto the wall. We shot on location. At the house, the backyard is the wall. And so, this thing, this wall is looming over, it’s looming over you.”
Besides finding a writing partner, the other vital element in putting the film together was casting an actor to play Cassandro. Settling on one actor and one actor only can be dangerous, but Williams never considered anyone other than García Bernal. The filmmaker wanted an actor not just with charisma but who could do the heavy lifting when it came to the story’s emotional scenes. That was García Bernal, who turned out to be as enthusiastic about playing the role as Williams was to direct him in it. The actor is about the same height as Cassandro, but slighter. He spent a year bulking up to portray the stocky wrestler more authentically. And that was only the beginning of his preparation.
“Gael spent a year working out and taking ballet lessons, so he could be fluid and smooth in the ring,” Williams says. “He spent many months working with luchadores. He did almost all of his own stunts. He really wrestled. He was doing all of those flips and wrestling hard. He was beat up and in pain, just like a real wrestler.”
One of the wrestlers García Bernal fought on screen was one of Cassandro’s real-life opponents, El Hijo del Santo, a championship wrestler. Williams approached him, merely seeking permission to use him name and likeness in the film, only to have El Hijo del Santo surprise him by offering to play himself.
“I was like, ‘Oh my God!’” Williams remembers. “He loves the real Cassandro. They became really close friends. He was a big supporter of Cassandro in getting Cassandro to where he is today.”
Williams attended Cassandro’s last fight, one in which he was hurt. The wrestler has suffered a lot of injuries throughout his career. The director says Cassandro has broken every bone in his back at one time or another. Then two weeks before Williams started shooting his film, Cassandro suffered a massive stroke.
“It was a devastating stroke where he was he was paralyzed on half of his body and cannot speak,” Williams says. “He can make sounds; he can’t really form sentences. He’s out of the wheelchair. He can walk with a walker now. He came to Sundance and that was very touching.
“He came to the set in a wheelchair. Can you imagine going to a set and there is Gael García Bernal playing you in your life story? Talk about emotional, he brought his father to the set; it was all kind of surreal.”
Cassandro’s story is one of a gay athlete who broke down barriers and found success wrestling. But he is also someone who can remember a time when he could walk back and forth across the US-Mexico border without even having to show his passport. Crossings were casual. They are not anymore in an era marked by xenophobia and the cruel, hateful words and actions of politicians.
“It’s become so heated,” Williams says. “It was so important to shoot on location with that wall in the backyard. It’s this poor Mexican community that serves the wealthy of El Paso and they live on the wall.
“That was so symbolic of the walls Cassandro broke down. That wall was a metaphor for that. The movie’s really about how you can bring people together, even in the macho world of lucha libre. A feminine, gay, flamboyant man—he’s good at what he does and he’s charismatic—could win people over and bring them together and break down walls.”