Director Jonathan Jakubowicz is drawn to powerful stories. His first two short films tackled, respectively, the influx of Jewish immigrants into Venezuela and the 9/11 attacks. He followed that up in 2005 with his first feature length film, Secuestro Express. The film focused on the routine kidnappings that happen in Latin America, a thriller that spoke to contemporary social issues.
His new film, the highly anticipated Manos de Piedra (Hands of Stone), centers on the life of Roberto Durán the famed Panamanian boxer. Played by Édgar Ramírez and joined by his Joy co-star Robert De Niro (as his boxing trainer, Ray Arcel), Durán remains an enduring role model for many around the world. That’s precisely what drew Jakubowicz to the project. The Venezuelan director, whose film had a special screening at Cannes earlier this spring, will be stopping by the Dolby in Los Angeles for a Director Master Class as part of the National Association of Latino Independent Producers NALIP Media Summit to share what he’s learned as a Latino filmmaker navigating the increasingly welcoming but no less complex world of American filmmaking.
Ahead of the summit, Remezcla chatted with the director about what he hopes to discuss with his fellow filmmakers at the conference, why he was drawn to Durán’s story, and what it was like working with De Niro and Usher.
What drew you to filmmaking?
I was inspired by the early films of Martin Scorsese. The ability to tell stories that made people think about the darkest places of the human condition, made me fall in love with movies.
This your first time at the NALIP Media Summit, what are you hoping to get out of it as a participant, and what do you hope to bring to the table as part of the Director’s Master Class?
I’ve been working for many years in telling the story of a Latin hero with some of the best actors in the world. I’d love to share my war stories and inspire others to continue making movies for a world audience. We are at a crossroads for our culture in the US and I’m interested in hearing what other filmmakers are doing.
Much of what the summit will address is obviously the struggles specific to Latino and Latin American creatives in the US: have there been specific obstacles you’ve had to overcome in getting this film made, seen, and now released?
“This is why I decided to make a movie about a Latin hero. We need to change the stereotype.”
When Donald Trump describes Mexicans as rapist, drug dealers, illegal immigrants and criminals, he’s describing 90% of the roles Latino actors have played in Hollywood movies and TV shows for the last hundred years. He didn’t invent the stereotype, he’s reacting to it and using it for his benefit. Most Trump supporters don’t even think he’s racist, because they too have been exposed to the stereotype since they were born. This is why I decided to make a movie about a Latin hero. We need to change the stereotype. Tell stories about those Latinos that make us proud.
It was very hard to get this movie made. This is a story where most characters are either Latino or African Americans — it goes against every stereotype, and getting it made within the system was impossible. We were lucky to find independent financing, and Harvey Weinstein fell in love with it. It’s a happy ending to a difficult journey where we faced very big cultural barriers. But most other similar efforts don’t end well. Most movies with Latino leads who are positive characters simply don’t get made. And I think it’s urgent to change that.
Speaking of Manos de Piedra. What drew you to Roberto Durán and to tell his story?
Roberto Duran has an incredible combination of heroism and flaw that made me fall for his story. His relationship with his trainer, a Jew from Harlem in his 70s, allowed us to dream of casting a legendary actor. We eventually got De Niro on board and that was the key to everything. Durán’s rivalry with Sugar Ray Leonard, played by Usher in the movie in ways that will blow your mind, is one of the most exciting in the history of any sport. And Durán not only has a unique story, he’s also really fuckin’ cool. Some heroes are boring. Durán is never boring. Even when he does things you don’t like, he’s always fun to watch. He’s an inspiring character who’s name is known all over the world but whose story is unknown. We are about to clarify a the biggest enigma in the history of boxing. What’s the story behind “No Mas”? The movie is a journey to the best years of the sport and you’ll get to see it from the inside.
What’s most remarkable is that you landed quite the acting pair for it; what was it like working with Édgar Ramirez and Robert De Niro?
“Most movies with Latino leads who are positive characters simply don’t get made. And I think it’s urgent to change that.”
It was a dream come true. We are all filmmakers because of the movies De Niro made with Scorsese and Coppola. To have him be part of my creative team was beyond any ambition. He worked on the script with me for half a year and was completely involved in the whole process. We shot the movie with a Latino crew and every time he walked on set felt like a blessing for all of us. His dynamic with Édgar is the stuff of legend.
Édgar trained for a year and completely transformed into Durán. He boxes with his style and goes through a never ending roller coaster of emotions throughout the movie. We just premiered the movie in Cannes, and when the audience stood up for an ovation, Durán started crying, and of course we started crying. Everything about this movie has been special for all of us. To be able to tell the story of someone who is in my opinion the greatest Latino boxer in history, with some of the best talent in the world, is a privilege and an honor that pushed me forward through the hardest years and will make me grateful forever.
Hands of Stone opens in theaters on August 25, 2016.