In 2015, Oscar- and Emmy-winning documentary filmmaker Roger Ross Williams decided to make his first narrative feature, “Cassandro,” which is screening in the Sundance Premieres. 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 the first day, I was just blown away by Cassandro’s inner spirit and joy,” Williams says. “That night in El Paso, we went to a tequila bar after shooting, and I told (the production team), ‘This is my first fiction film.’”
Williams initially thought that the journey from narrative idea to finished project would be fairly cut and dry. He partnered with longtime collaborator, film editor David Teague, to write the screenplay. Then he called Michelle Satter, founding senior director of the Sundance Institute’s Artist Programs, and said that he would like to participate in the Sundance Screenwriting Lab. “Michelle said, ‘Well, that’s not how it works,” remembers Williams. “You actually have to submit a screenplay.” The director then asked Satter how long that would take. “I remember her saying, ‘Think of writing your first screenplay as [compiling] a rough cut of a documentary.’ And I was like, ‘What?’ That takes a whole year or more. And she said, ‘Exactly.’ That’s when the reality set in that we were on this long journey.”
Throughout the next several years, Williams and Teague worked on the screenplay and eventually teamed with Amazon Studios to make the project become a reality. After attending both the Sundance Screenwriting Intensive and the Director’s Lab, Williams got the “Cassandro” script into the hands of Gael García Bernal, who eventually signed on to play the titular role, but also produced the film under his and Diego Luna’s banner La Corriente Del Golfo. Eight years later, Williams is in Park City to premiere “Cassandro.”
What was it like getting Bernal to sign on to the project?
I basically stalked 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 screenplay.’ I remember there was one moment when Gael was at the Governor’s Awards and he was sitting with Alejandro González Iñárritu and Alfonso Cuarón and I, being very intimidated, went up and again tapped him on the shoulder and said, ‘Hi. Remember me?’ Finally, my agents got me a meeting with him, and when I got to sit down and pitch him, he was like, ‘I’m in.’
Did your documentary filmmaker skills come in handy at all on the set of “Cassandro”?
Yes. Robert Redford was one of my mentors at the Director’s Lab and he got me to lean into my documentary skills. In a documentary you are working to make (the subject) feel safe and to get them to tap into something deep inside themselves. I eventually realized that that’s the same thing you’re doing with an actor.
You have won an Oscar, an Emmy, a Webby, a Peabody and a NAACP Image award for the work you have done in the doc space. Why make a narrative when you are at the top of your game in the nonfiction field?
I like to tell stories in different ways and work in different formats. That’s why I made a VR piece. Narrative filmmaking is just another way of telling stories. That’s exciting to me because it’s a new challenge and I like to challenge myself.