Tales of Masked Men, a beautifully shot documentary exploring the fascinating world of lucha libre, premieres tonight, September 28th on PBS. Viewers are in for a treat as the film is a passion project of director Carlos Avila, award-winning director for film and television. Avila made his feature film directing debut with New Line Cinema’s 2000 release, Price of Glory.He also served as executive producer on the film’s groundbreaking soundtrack album that helped introduce Latin rock and hip-hop to a wide audience. In 2001, he was awarded the ALMA award for Best Director for his work on this film. Avila is the creator of Foto-Novelas, a Humanitas Prize-nominated PBS television series. In an interview with Avila, he gave insight into his experience filming ‘Tales of Masked Men’ and gives sound advice for young filmmakers. Tales of Masked Men is the first of the four-part LPB series Voces airing on PBS in celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month.
How did you come to make “Tales of Masked Men”?
The film has been in my life a long time. I loved lucha libre when I was a boy. I have very vivid memories of Friday nights when my mother and stepfather would drive my brothers, sisters and me, as well as some friends of the family, across town to the Olympic Auditorium in Downtown Los Angeles. The great Mexican wrestler Mil Mascaras (the “man of a thousand masks”) would regularly wrestle there and he was our favorite The times when he would wrestle on television, was a special event. In the 1970s – and it’s often the case today – it was rare to see a Mexican man or any Latino on American television who was heroic, charismatic and victorious. Mil Mascaras had those qualities on a massive scale. Perhaps there was a larger-than-life aspect to what I was experiencing but for a ten year old kid, which I was at the time, it was an amazing revelation.
Because those images stayed with me for so long, as they did with many people from my generation, I thought that a documentary that explored the roots and history of lucha libre would be an important undertaking. I do feel that in some ways lucha libre has been dismissed as a “kitschy” sideshow but knowing how long it has endured it felt right to give it it’s due and examine its place in Mexican and Latino culture.
What were some of the challenges you faced?
As with so many of these “passion” projects, the biggest challenge was getting the funding together. Latino Public Broadcasting was on board from the outset but I was surprised by how little interest there was from other funding sources to make the film. In Mexico, there’s some people who call lucha libre, “el patito feo de los deportes” (i.e. the ugly duckling of sports) because it mixes theatre, sports and spectacle. I was starting to feel as if my documentary was becoming the “ugly duckling of documentary film projects.” But we forged ahead and on the most of modest budgets, we made an ambitious film.
From the beginning of the process, I wanted to film the documentary in Mexico and to include people with first hand knowledge of the sport. I wanted to film in the great “lucha” arenas – large and small – in Mexico. Because of this, gaining entrée into the lucha libre world was a challenge. Your expectations are that people are going to be instantly supportive of such a project but it took some effort for this to happen. Mascarita Sagrada was the first to agree to participate and then others started to support the project. Solar and Solar Jr.’s support made a big impact on the film and opened a lot of doors. El Hijo del Santo was reluctant at first but once he saw a cut of the segment on his father, he also lent his support.
How did you gain trust of the lucha libre community?
I try to be straightforward in my dealings with people and I think the “luchadores” (wrestlers) appreciated that. I am also big on following through on things and that was also something that they and other participants responded to. I think that I was fortunate to have met the right people along the way and I could ask for their help in leveraging certain favors Mascarita would speak to a promoter at an event he was going to wrestle at and they’d give the okay to let us film. It was that classic technique of building relationships and then leaning on them from time to time. Having the right people vouch for me and the project made all the difference in the world.
Did anything happen during the filming that was unexpected?
The biggest surprise had to do with a wrestler that we were working with early on. He couldn’t have been more generous and welcoming and then he decided he no longer wanted to be involved with the project unless he was paid a substantial amount of money – which I didn’t feel was appropriate. We had filmed with him for two full days and then he backed out. That was a big blow to a project with such a small budget as ours. But I wish him well. He’s done some incredible things in his career and with his life but for some reason things didn’t work out with our project.
What has the audience response been so far? Have the subjects seen it, and if so, what did they think?
I wish I could answer this question but given the tight delivery schedule for the film we are literally still finishing a few final touches to it. The film screens for the first time with an audience later this week. So far Solar, Solar Jr. and Mascarita Sagrada haven’t seen the film. El Hijo del Santo saw the segment on his father and was very complimentary. I’ll try to update this reply in a couple of weeks after we’ve had a few screenings.
Making independent films can be tough. What keeps you motivated?
I’ve worked in the commercial world and in the independent world. Both have their advantages and disadvantages. On the indie side of things, there is that sense of “authorship,” that sense that the work that you’re doing expresses something vital and personal to you. Perhaps that’s an odd thing to say about a lucha libre documentary but I think it’s important to tell the story of Mexicans and Latinos that were entrepreneurial and that bet on themselves to build something – be it a business or an identity. To be able to tell that story in a creative and unfettered way is why you undertake these independent projects.
The other thing that keeps you motivated is your collaborators. Solar used to always tell me, “Carlitos, todos somos luchadores” (Carlos, we’re all in the struggle). It’s true, we were undertaking a sizeable project with limited resources – we were definitely luchando (i.e. in the struggle). My editor and co-producer, Thom Calderón, was also a huge motivator. His great enthusiasm for the project and his love of filmmaking was extremely motivating.
VOCES explores the amazing variety of Latino arts and culture – is there another aspect of the Latino experience that you’d like to make a film about?
I’m still catching my breathe on this one. I’ll get back in touch with you on this.
What advice would you give young Latino filmmakers just starting out?
My advice is practical, I’d encourage young filmmakers to learn a craft in addition to having projects they’d like to direct or produce. Learn how to be a visual effects artist, a dialogue editor, a camera operator or a re-recording mixer. Learn a craft at which you can make a living at while you’re trying to get your projects made.
What’s your next project?
I’m writing something. There’s also a documentary I’m exploring.