A few weeks ago, as DOC NYC, the annual festival of documentary films, drew to a close, I managed to get to an encore screening of the wonderfully insightful film on the world of lucha libre pro wrestling in Mexico, LUCHA MEXICO. Although disappointed to miss the chance to talk with subjects of the documentary and bona fide pro wrestling stars Shocker and John Strongman, who appeared at the documentary’s US premiere, it was still a thrill to see the movie on a big screen and have a spirited talk with co-directors Alex Hammond and Ian Markiewicz about the making of the film (with Chocko providing some much appreciated outside interference and camera work to be shared down the line).
Below is an approximation of our chat...
mondocurry: You mentioned that you’ve been a long time wrestling fan. Did your viewing always veer toward lucha libre?
IAN MARKIEWICZ: Lucha libre has always been interesting to me, and whenever I can watch it, I do. I think it’s harder to find on TV in the US. You’ll see it there for many months and then all of a sudden it’s gone. So it's not consistent. I always had this idea that I was going to do something more about wrestlers in the US, but loved the idea of one of them going down to Mexico, because that happens a lot: guys go down to rehab themselves, or maybe work there early in their career. It's a side of wrestling we aren't as exposed to. That’s kind of where the Jon Strongman angle comes in.
MC: Can you talk about the period of time over which the documentary was made?
ALEX HAMMOND: We started shooting 4 years ago, around 2011, 2012. Every few months we would fly down to Mexico and shoot as much as we could, getting to know the different companies and finding stories. We would be working on freelance stuff at the same time, and even finished another feature documentary while shooting Lucha (Better Than Something: Jay Reatard).
IAN: There was maybe a year in there, give or take, of research.
ALEX: The beginning was all research, finding the characters we were going to use, and some of that never even made it into the film.
IAN: Earning their trust took a long time, and that was before we could even turn the camera on. You’re asking somebody to let you into their lives, which is rarely easy.
MC: Were there wrestlers who were difficult to speak with because they were guarded about their non-wrestling identities?
IAN: I’ll be honest with you, most of the masked guys don’t want to give you too much. Only some of them will. Blue Demon was really there for us and we spent a lot of time with him. And there were others who were very nice and loved the idea of what we were doing, but knew it wasn’t something they could be fully involved with. In those cases it wasn’t like there was a real barrier - they were very honest and said that while they didn't mind appearing in the film, they couldn’t show what’s behind their character.
The only person who totally refused to participate was El Hijo del Santo… because he wanted the movie to just be about himself. If it included other wrestlers, he didn’t want to have any part of it. Of course, he’s not the original Santo… But it still would’ve been nice.
MC: Was there any one individual, or individuals, who helped you to gain access to others you ended up following in the movie?
ALEX: Well, the first company we worked with was with Triple A (AAA, one of Mexico’s major pro wrestling promotions) and we got quite a bit of access early on, but ultimately they were the company we ended up following the least. It was on one of our later "research" trips that we finally connected with CMLL, which was not easy, and started meeting and interviewing more wrestlers. We have to thank Sandra Granados, the head of PR at CMLL; she kind of runs the show, and was one of the first people to really get what we were trying to do. I'd also add that at the first CMLL press conference we went to, we met Jon Strongman, and he introduced us to Shocker. And Shocker introduced us to a lot of the other guys, like Fabian El Gitano, and this whole world opened up.
Having filmed with two of the major wrestling companies, we knew we also had to meet with Perros Del Mal, the hardcore/extreme promotion in Mexico. Perro was a different thing. We met El Hijo del Perro Aguayo at the major Lucha Expo, where everyone goes once a year to meet their favorite superheroes. From there we started hanging out and going to shows with him, he was very generous with us.
MC: The music in the film is fantastic. Sometimes it was like traditional and modern sounds meeting one another. Can you talk about your ideas for it and how it came together?
IAN: That blend of modern and traditional was exactly the idea.
ALEX: We worked really hard on that. The music was always going to be a long process because we wanted original music as much as possible, but we also knew there would be famous songs like (wrestlers’) entrance songs, and we wanted to have some authentic Mexican music in there, stuff that’s popular, and music that was cinematic. Two composers that created original tracks for the film were Jonathan Snipes, a film composer in LA, and Tucson-based musician/composer Sergio Mendoza. They both brought a modern and Mexican mix to the soundtrack.
MC: There is incredible close-up footages of matches that to me looks better than broadcasts of lucha libre that I’ve seen in the past. How did you approach filming?
IAN: I think that was very purposeful. We wanted to show a different perspective. You can see this stuff on TV and now you can see it all online, so what’s the point of just showing the match as it's already available? Wherever possible, we wanted this to be our own version.
MC: Did you bring in experiences with other types of filming to your project? Did filming the wrestling matches force you to adjust in any ways?
IAN: We've shot a lot of live music stuff, like concerts. Performance and dance movement - wrestlers are no less performers than any dancer. The biggest challenge was dealing with the standard six man tag team matches. You may have one guy you’re following, but you can't capture his match if he's the only one you shoot, and there are usually at least three different points of action. And we’re only a two-person crew. So you have to find a way to navigate the chaos.
ALEX: There are times you miss things in the ring. It’s awful. We shot so many shows, and after the years we put in we got better at working around the ring. You become more in tune with different wrestler's styles. So our shooting got better along the way, but I have to say it's never easy running around and making sure you follow the action while also trying to compose something beautiful without getting in their way.
IAN: Wrestling is just hard thing to shoot.
ALEX: You have to predict and then be very quick on your feet.
MC: It was just the two of you filming?
ALEX: Yes, Ian and I took turns shooting the verite scenes, and then we both shot the shows whenever possible. The only time we had three cameras was for one of the big CMLL Anniversary shows.
IAN: An old friend and colleague of mine, Sean Williams, came down to shoot for a few days. I love working with him, and we had a ridiculous amount of fun in Mexico.
MC: Were there any moments while filming where you felt like you were in a dangerous situation?
IAN: We were never in danger, really.
ALEX: Ultimo Guerrero almost fell on you…
IAN: He ended up breaking a photographer's camera right next to me. You do see some collateral damage. And there were times guys got me in a lock up just to mess with me while we were in the match. That was for fun, though. I think the worst was when the crowd started throwing stuff. I had a guy throw a full Gatorade bottle at my head.
MC: That brings to mind a wild scene in the movie when Ultimo Guerrero is riling up a fan sitting at ringside. He responds by throwing a drink. Can you talk about that kind of scenario? Was it typical?
IAN: That night was chaos. In that arena in particular, Arena Coliseo Guadalajara, you can see crazy shows. They have discount beer, a lot of interaction with the wrestlers, and the people don't hold back. Arena Mexico is a little bit more calm. There’s a lot of security. It’s a rowdy but controlled crowd. It all depends where you are.
MC: Have either of you experienced a change in your perception of lucha libre, or professional wrestling in general, since working on the movie?
ALEX: I think I’m going to be a fan for life. Making this film is definitely the reason for this, because I honestly didn't follow Lucha Libre or pro wrestling before. I have to say I think Lucha Libre really brought me closer to Mexico and to my culture. I'm half-Mexican but grew up in the U.S. Every time we're in Mexico, I seek out a lucha show and of course go to the Arena Mexico. I have a new respect for wrestlers now. I do believe they are athletes, hard workers who risk their lives for our enjoyment. It really is a fascinating world.
MC: How did you reach a conclusion to filming? Was there a certain point where you felt like there was enough footage?
ALEX: There are so many little details of lucha libre that we could have included another hour of scenes and details of the sport… We didn't want to make a movie that was going to hold your hand and tell you the rules of everything.
Honestly, we found it hard to stop shooting, because we really enjoyed shooting this movie and kept finding new things to shoot. But there came a moment where we knew we had the film. We actually finished a cut, and two months later, Perro (Aguayo Jr) died… and that was really hard. It was a total shock for us. This made us go back to the edit, and we basically spent the rest of the year re-cutting the movie.
IAN: We had the movie before that but… You can’t have something like Perro Aguayo's death and not address it. We were as shocked as everyone else - there are only a handful of wrestling deaths as tragic as his. We felt like it would be dishonoring his memory to sweep it under the carpet in any way. And not only that, but he was a really big supporter of us and the project. He really loved what we were doing and always made the effort to help us. We had to pay that back on some level.
MC: Are there any relationships that formed while making the film, and has the experience informed your next projects?
IAN: Shocker is a great friend, and John (Strongman) is wonderful. They've both given us the shirt off their backs more times than I can count. And that's just the beginning of a long list. We were very fortunate to have been able to work with people we could actually be close with. On top of that there were a lot of incredible people we spent time with but couldn't fit in the film…
ALEX: Yes, there were many wrestlers we got close to but only so many you can explore in an hour and half movie. We made quite a few friends, some we'll have to return to in future projects. Of course, we have many other films we'd like to make before continuing work on this one!
IAN: At some point you have to say "the film is done," but every project is different. We probably will try to bring out a little more of this stuff in whatever way makes sense. We're not planning to make a longer or different cut of this film, but we're open to exploring and sharing some of the other tangents if people are interested.
Look for LUCHA MEXICO to make its mark on the West Coast of the US in the near future, with sights set on a theater release some time after.