In 2015, Oscar- and Emmy-winning documentary filmmaker Roger Ross Williams decided to make his first narrative feature, “Cassandro,” which is premiering at Sundance. At the time, Williams was in El Paso, Texas, working on a short documentary about the real-life Cassandro, a Mexican, openly gay, cross-dressing lucha libre wrestler. “From day one, I was just blown away by Cassandro’s inner spirit and joy,” Williams said. “That night in El Paso, we finished shooting and went to a tequila bar, and I said (to the production team), ‘This is my first fiction film.’
Williams initially thought that the journey from narrative concept to finished project would be fairly cut and dry. He partnered with longtime collaborator, film editor David Teague, to write the screenplay. Then she called Michelle Sater, founding senior director of the Sundance Institute’s Artists Program, and said she wanted to participate in the Sundance Screenwriting Lab. “Michelle said, ‘Well, that’s not how it works,'” Williams recalls. “You actually have to submit a screenplay.” The director then asked Sater how long it would take. “I remember him saying, ‘Think about writing your first screenplay [compiling] A rough cut of a documentary.’ And I’m like, ‘What?’ It takes a full year or more. He said, ‘Right.’ That’s when the reality set in that we were in for a long journey.”
Over the next several years, Williams and Teague worked on the screenplay and eventually worked with Amazon Studios to make the project a reality. After attending both the Sundance Screenwriting Intensive and Director’s Lab, Williams got the “Cassandro” script into the hands of Gael García Bernal, who eventually signed on to play the title role, but produced the film under his and Diego Luna’s banner La Corriente. Del Golfo. Eight years later, Williams came to Park City to premiere “Cassandro.”
What was it like to sign Bernal to the project?
I basically chased the guy for a year. I’d go to the Academy Awards, and I’d tap him on the shoulder and say, ‘I’m doing this thing about Cassandro. I have this script.’ I remember there was a moment when Gale was at the Governor’s Awards and he was sitting with Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu and Alfonso Cuarón and I was so scared I went up and tapped him on the shoulder again and said, ‘Hi. Remember me?’ Finally, my agents got me a meeting with him, and when I sat down and pitched him, he was like, ‘I’m in.’
Did your documentary filmmaker skills come in handy at all on the “Cassandro” set?“?
Yes. Robert Redford was one of my mentors at Directors Lab and he let me lean on my documentary skills. In a documentary you are working to make (the subject) feel safe and tap into something deep within themselves. I finally realized that you are doing the same thing with an actor.
You’ve won an Oscar, an Emmy, a Webby, a Peabody and an NAACP Image Award for your work on Doc Space. Why create a narrative when you’re at the top of your game in the nonfiction field?
I love telling stories in different ways and working in different formats. So I created a VR piece. Narrative filmmaking is another way of telling stories. It’s exciting for me because it’s a new challenge and I like to challenge myself.