Filmmaker roger ross williams is known for capturing moments of intimacy and awe in documentaries such as God loves Uganda and the Oscar nominee Life, animated. Of Cassandro, a portrait of gay lucha libre wrestler Saúl Armendáriz (Gael García Bernal), Williams has brought that sense of warmth and showmanship to his first scripted film. The film, which hits theaters September 15 and Prime Video September 22, is just one of several Williams projects coming in 2023 from HBO’s I love loving you, Donna Summerwhich premiered in May, to the AppleTV+ docuseries The supermodelsexpected on September 20, for his hybrid documentary on the history of racism, Stamped from the startwhich will be released by Netflix in November.
Williams spoke at the Telluride Film Festival earlier this month The Hollywood Reporter about making the leap to a script, the trip to Juarez, Mexico that convinced him to dive into the story and the helpful advice he received from Robert Redford about working with actors.
You first met Cassandro through a documentary you made for the New Yorker and Amazon. Why did you decide to adapt his story into your feature debut?
When I made the documentary about Cassandro, I went to a wrestling match with the real Cassandro in Juarez, Mexico, which at the time was, and perhaps still is, one of the most dangerous cities in the world because of the cartels. I walked into this wrestling arena, thousands of people. The match starts. I’m standing backstage and they start playing his theme song “I Will Survive.” And the whole audience sings. Thousands of people. As he walks out, they give him their babies to kiss. Children hug him. I just burst into tears. I cried. I thought, what’s going on here? I just couldn’t process it in my mind. He took the stage in his full dress, turned around, ripped off his train and threw it to the audience. And I thought: fuck. This is my first scripted film.
What was it at that moment that moved you?
I thought I was in an extremely homophobic, inhospitable environment where people like Cassandro were beaten up and thrown away, discarded and hated. And here was this flamboyant gay man who was completely loved, admired and adored. It broke the stereotypes I had in my head. And I realized that boundaries between people were meant to be broken. There were human connections that we could make, but we don’t always make them because we limit ourselves. And this was a connection made right before my eyes that I didn’t think was possible. And watching it just broke me down.
How did you approach shooting the fight scenes in the film?
It was important that every fight told a story. Every fight has an emotional charge, whether it’s winning over the crowd, gaining trust, or the humiliation of his first fight. It was all beautifully and carefully choreographed by our (Mexican wrestler) Chessman, who was our choreographer and trainer.
How much of what we see in the fight scenes is actually Gael?
He did most of the stunts himself. He did all those somersaults. He worked so hard and started six, seven months ahead, bulking up and training so he would have the stamina. It’s also really dangerous. The real Cassandro broke almost every bone in his body. He broke his back several times. He’s a mess. It’s really debilitating. And Gael really took that role very seriously. Getting the physicality of it, and then also getting those really intimate emotional moments.
The character’s relationship with his mother is a large part of the film’s emotional impact. Tell me how you make that.
The relationship Saul had with his mother – the real Saul – was such a special bond. By the way, this is the first film of that actress, Perla De La Rosa. Luis Rosales, who cast Roma, found her. She was in community theater.
Cassandro is also a part of myself, namely my own feelings of abandonment and my relationship with my own father and my close relationship with my mother. There’s a lot of me in this script. I was the other family. It was me and my mother. We spied on him and his family and sat there. Those memories of sitting in the car with my mother looking at this man she loved and couldn’t be with tore me apart as a child, and I wanted to recreate that in this.
I came from this small industrial town (Easton, Penn.). My mother was a maid at Lafayette College, a small liberal arts college. She cleaned the dorms, the dorms and the toilets. Years later they gave me an honorary degree and my mother came and I said, “My mother cleaned your toilets.”
You started this film at the Sundance Directors Lab and Robert Redford was one of your advisors. What input did he have?
Redford really helped me understand how to use my documentary skills to work with actors, because I was afraid of actors. And he said, ‘What do you do as a documentary maker? How do you talk to your subjects?” And I was like, “Well, it’s about making a connection with the subjects and drawing them out and putting them at ease so that in my interviews I can get the real truth.” And he says, “Well, that’s exactly the same with an actor.” I was also scared of the sex scene and he said, ‘It’s choreography and storytelling. That’s all. It’s just a sex scene.” He storyboarded it for me on the back of the script pages.
Imagine you’re starting your narrative career, and you’re sitting there with Robert Redford and talking about a sex scene.
It’s the beginning of your storytelling career, but you’ve had a long career. You’re not 22 and walking in there.
Filmmaking, it came later in my career. I was a journalist for ABC News, CNN, People. I was Barbara Walters’ producer. News was a great training ground. It’s like a storytelling boot camp. And then I quit and went to Africa and made Music by Prudence and coincidentally won the Oscar. And everything changed. I thought: I am a filmmaker now.