After the success of their documentary Better Than Something, which told the too-short story of the brilliant, prolific, and doomed Memphis garage rock icon Jay Reatard, Ian Markiewicz and Alexandria Hammond wanted to do something different. Markiewicz had long wanted to make a movie about professional wrestling. Hammond was eager to explore the world of bullfighting. In the vivid and ultra-overstated world of Lucha Libre, Mexico's uniquely acrobatic and populist spin on pro wrestling, they found a subject that included elements of both.
"I didn't know much about it, [despite] having it in my culture in a way," says Hammond, who is half Mexican. "I wasn't exposed to it, because I grew up [in the United States]. So once we started getting into it, the floodgates opened."
No, seriously. After four-plus years of filming, the two had 500 hours of footage—their first cut, Hammond says, was eight hours long. They've since carved a lean and entertaining documentary called Lucha Mexico, and it is a fascinating profile of pro wrestling's place in Mexico's culture and an intensely intimate look at the people who turn their passion into a career. In the legendary luchador Shocker, the film also has a memorable hero, and Markiewicz and Hammond follow him as he and his cohorts stave off age and injuries, face the very real possibility of dying young, and keep on bringing the heat.
The movie still needs a distributor, a small detail that should be remedied quickly, perhaps around the time of its U.S. premiere at DOC NYC on Friday. Last week, I spoke to Hammond, 35, and Markiewicz, 36, about what makes Lucha Libre special and other lessons learned during their years in Mexico.
It's not all glamour and lifting weights while wearing a mask. — Photo courtesy of Ian Markiewicz and Alexandria Hammond
Hammond: The moment we decided to start researching this, again, we didn't have any connections; it was just me having a tie to Mexico. I have family that live there, but just knocking on the door and literally just saying, "Hey, we're interested in this"—that's sort of how it works. There's no real connection, it's just really spending the time. We spent over four years on this, and seeing—because of going back and forth and hanging out and not always shooting, but just being fans of this and trying to really understand what it is to be a Mexican wrestler. They really open up.
Markiewicz: We did have a little bit of a connection initially. That's the thing. In Mexico, you'll be talking to somebody and they'll be like, "I know this guy who works for whatever company."
Hammond: I was so excited to make a film that was going to capture Mexico in a different way, not just what we always see. I wanted to capture [these] people that are just trying to survive making a living in an interesting way. These guys are amazing. They saw that we were into it and we weren't there to exploit. We weren't there to make a campy movie about this. We really wanted to take it seriously.
Markiewicz: There have obviously been movies out there that have had a sort of negative tone about wrestlers and wrestling. We made it pretty clear we were not doing that. Look, if something negative or bad happened and that was the truth, that was a different story, but we weren't going to spin it into something to expose them or reveal them to be frauds. That wasn't what we were doing.
Hammond: I think they felt that right away, that we were just genuine. We're going to spend the time to do this right.
Hammond: Shocker, one of the biggest stars in Mexico, can be in the biggest arena in the world and then go right to the street fair. That's sort of what the heart is, that it's a sport for the people. It's not necessarily a glamorous thing, but it's also entertainment, pure entertainment for families, for people to escape. To me, [Shocker] was always the workingman hero, you know? He's this true workhorse. Obviously, he's getting toward the end of his career, but he's still out there bringing joy to so many people.
Markiewicz: The one thing I will say, because I've been to a lot of wrestling shows in the U.S.—even when you go to a small show there's always this feeling of a barrier. And in Mexico that kind of doesn't exist. Those guys are there and they pretty much have to be signing autographs most of the time, and not behind the table for 25 bucks an autograph. A lot of the times they'll be there forever signing autographs for free in the middle of a crowd. Even if you are Ultimate Guerrero and you're Shocker and these guys who are successful and popular, you really have to be accessible on some level. Very few of those guys are successful if they don't do that. It's not that [American wrestlers aren't], but in Mexico there's something much more immediate.
Shocker among his flock. — Photo courtesy of Ian Markiewicz and Alexandria Hammond
Hammond: Second. I mean, it's soccer and then it's Lucha Libre. The Lucha Libre fans say it's number one. They say it's an entertainment sport.
Markiewicz: There's no doubt that Lucha permeates a big part of Mexico—
Hammond: Every day, every night
Markiewicz: There are matches all the time.
VICE Sports: What was the moment both of you realized how big the sport was in Mexico?
Hammond: [Laughs.] This is why it took so long! I mean, the fact that we had so many characters. There are so many amazing people to follow. Wait, now I forgot what the question was!
Markiewicz: That pretty much answers it. We realized that we just kept accumulating in a sense, even though we never lost sight of the kind of movie we were trying to make... Even though, yes, we do focus on Shocker and Strongman and a handful of other characters, it's like, Oh my God there are just so many people and they're so interesting. We have plenty of characters and scenes—great scenes—that didn't make the final film. I don't know what's going to happen with that stuff, but full-on character arcs that are not in there because no one film could contain how much stuff was going on at any given time. You could just keep going forever.
Hammond: We first thought, "OK, we'll find a great masked wrestler." Yet we realized there these three companies: Consejo Mundial, AAA, and Perros del Mal. And that's another story to get into: Perros del Mal. We just knew about the masks and the acrobatics and then we realized, Wow this thing is evolving. [Wrestling] is just a massive, massive world down there. It feels bigger in some ways than the U.S.
Markiewicz: For me, wrestling in the U.S. maybe has a stigma attached to it, so for a lot of fans it ends up becoming this guilty pleasure thing. WWE, obviously, is a huge, huge company. I went to SummerSlam in Brooklyn this year, and the place was blowing up. I think 10, 20, 30, years ago maybe the attitude was a little different. And there are still people—people of an older generation—who do not take it seriously. When you go to Mexico, you don't face that as much. It's in the culture in a positive way. And even if someone doesn't like wrestling they tend to laugh it off like, "Oh, that's fun for kids, whatever."
Even wrestlers we talked to in Mexico would sometimes be like, "Oh, wrestling in the U.S., the audiences you're getting there are not the same. They're not as broad a range of people; they're not really as excited about it."
Hammond: Other American wrestlers that would come down, they did say that it does feel like more of a family event in Mexico, and they felt very safe, and they loved bring their kids as you can see. Everyone brings their newborns. [Laughs.] That's so cool.
Markiewicz: I'll be honest. First of all, Shocker was someone that I knew before going down there, just being a wrestling fan. Because he's been very successful down there, he's wrestled in the U.S. He's been all over. It wasn't necessarily that we went right to Shocker; Shocker kind of came to us. It was a very mutual thing. I think we realized that with Shocker, you see a lot of the history. He goes back with his father—his father working all these years at Guadalajara. Shocker has been through the whole thing. He has the whole experience. He had the mask and he lost it. He's worked the small shows up to the biggest shows.
Vice Sports: And yet his life is not glamorous or extravagant in any way.
Markiewicz: We've wondered about it a lot. [Luchadores] tend to live modestly, even sometimes when they're making decent money, just because—as we let the film say—it could disappear at any moment. I think in some ways, Shocker probably has money [where] he could live more lavishly, but I think that there is a sense that that wouldn't make a lot of sense.
Those pants. — Photo courtesy of Ian Markiewicz and Alexandria Hammond
Hammond: Their endurance to pain—I'm not saying they get off in it—but there was this superhero quality. The hardcore match was very hard for me. They wouldn't let me in the ring. Ian was the one that shot most of that hardcore match. I really couldn't watch it.
Markiewicz: I will say having glass flying around me—it wasn't necessarily that it was hard to shoot on an emotional level—but when glass is flying in your eyes and on your camera, you do think for a moment, "I don't know if I can continue doing this."
Hammond: They literally almost fell on top of me so many times. It's so scary when you're there shooting.
Markiewicz: They'll involve you in the show, if they feel like it. I've had guys get me into headlocks.
Hammond: If you're in the way, they're not going to, like, jump back at you.
Markiewicz: It's not their business to care. I've seen them fall on guys and break their cameras. We just go with it.
Hammond: Honestly, I think it's really that they just love being loved by the people. It's as simple as that, and the glory of that. It's like actors or people who are performers or are musicians, people who have an audience that way. They want that. They want to feel that energy, that they're loved. I think, ultimately, that is part of the high of it.
Markiewicz: Even if it's the tiniest show, and there's nobody in the audience, a lot of these guys will still go out and give a good performance. I think they really enjoy the work—because they're always going to be in there with somebody else. Even if there's nobody in the audience, they are still doing this interactive thing. There's an energy there.
VICE Sports: It seems like there's a parallel with filmmaking, even making this film.
Markiewicz: In some ways. It's an endurance test, that's for sure.
Hammond: That's what kept us going, honestly, was just watching every day this footage. They love what they're doing, and they keep getting in that ring.