ByMatt Juul, writer at Creators.co
Digital Arts and Entertainment Writer at Boston Magazine
Matt Juul

Regarded as one of the greatest boxers of all time, the journey of Roberto Duran is finally coming to the big screen courtesy of director and writer Jonathan Jakubowicz.

The man they called "Rocky," "El Cholo," and "Manos de Piedra" is played by actor Edgar Ramirez in the film, while Roberto De Niro fittingly portrays famed trainer Ray Arcel. Duran's longtime rival turned friend "Sugar" Ray Leonard is played by Usher.

Here's what Jakubowicz had to say about working with a legend like De Niro, telling the story of Duran, and why the infamous "No mas" fight doesn't matter.

Was it daunting to you as all as a director to work with such big names like Edgar Ramirez, Robert De Niro, and Usher?

It is exciting, you know. I don't think doing it was ever daunting. I wrote the script and, when you direct the stuff you write, you really know what you need. It really felt because, at the end of the day, it doesn't matter how much experience the people you are working with have, nobody knows the story better than you do. It felt exciting. It felt like a dream come true.

When you are a film student, you dream of making a movie with the big boys. Making a movie with Robert De Niro is probably beyond my wildest dreams. I decided to make movies because of many of his movies.

Everything he did with [Martin] Scorsese and [Francis Ford] Coppola. Suddenly, working with him in a boxing film and him being an encyclopedia of boxing having made the best boxing movie of all time, it's just a privilege. It adds pressure, but it's so small when you put it on a balance with the opportunity that it gives you. You have a genius that's in front of you and his transformation and commitment to the part, it's mind-blowing.

That goes Rob, and it goes for Usher, and for Edgar, and [John] Turturro, and everybody who worked on this film is a hero of mine and their dedication to their roles just felt...it makes your work shine. It makes your lines better and it makes your directing easier.

At the end of the day, when you have a great actor, you just have to make sure he's great.

For you personally, what stood out to you about Roberto Duran's story?

I'm from Venezuela and Duran is a local hero as well, not only in Panama, but all over Latin America. He's a legend and someone you grew up with admiring.

It's really when I started researching his story that I was fascinated by his relationship with Ray Arcel and the dichotomy of a person who is the son of an American Marine who has an affair with a local Panamanian girl in the Panama Canal and abandons her. He grows up with this rage and hopes to avenge the American father who left and the American occupying power who is still there. He dreams of fighting American fighters, yet his trainer is American.

There's something beautiful there about his love and hate relationship to the United States that I found as an opportunity for some serious character dynamic and some exciting drama. Duran has an heroic quality, but he's also not perfect. He's just a cool badboy and, to make the movie about a cool badboy who happens to be a hero, just felt like something unique and exciting and, in many ways, a departure from the traditional stereotypes that Latinos are portrayed with in the mainstream media, in movies, or in TV.

We're usually the drug dealers and the criminals. Suddenly, you have this athlete who stopped the world every time he fought. It just had a very exciting combination of elements. And his rival, "Sugar" Ray Leonard, was a worldwide name, and an exciting character to explore as well. It really felt like it had all the elements and I've been working on this for many, many years.

Photo by The Weinstein Company
Photo by The Weinstein Company

Did you watch a lot of fight tape to prepare for this film and how you were going to shoot it? What was your approach to showcasing the technical aspect of the sport of boxing?

Yes, I watched a ton of fights, but I also spent a lot of time with Duran. He revealed some of the dirty tricks and the nasty secrets of the sport.

I thought it was really exciting to tell that side of the whole thing as well because, at the end of the day, it's like a magician. It's the stuff you don't see that really gets you to win many fights. Mostly, what I really want to focus on was the psychological aspect of the sport and to display how fights are won with strategy and the mind as much their body in the ring. Each fight was shot differently because it was intended to capture the psychological battle between the fighters.

The Montreal fight is very filled with telephoto lenses and tight shots, it's very violent and they're fighting toe-to-toe, because that's what happened. It feels claustrophobic while the "No mas" fight is the extreme opposite. We were very wide, long takes, going around the ring, feeling the stadium as an additional enemy for Duran.

I really wanted the audience to participate in the fight and not just witness a boxing fight which has been done to death in many movies, but to actually experience what it's like for one of the warriors to stand in the ring in front of each other.

Also, these fights are very famous, you can watch them on YouTube. So, I had the responsibility to give you a lot more than what you can watching the fights.

In terms of genre, it goes from being a sports drama to, at times, being like a romantic comedy, which hasn't really been seen much in boxing films. What was your thought process behind that?

When you meet Duran, you find those dimensions immediately.

He's not only the guy who can step into the ring and bring all the rage that can threaten an opponent. He's also hysterical. I mean truly insanely funny in unexpected ways. And, he's unexpected. He can say anything at any given time and, immediately, it was important for me to capture that humor which is also very typical of Latin America.

I think in many ways it differentiates itself from other boxing movies because it's a Latino boxer. It's insane to think, but there's never been another movie about a Latino boxer. That is obviously going to set him apart because he doesn't have the same background as as your traditional African American boxer or white or Italian boxer that has been portrayed in movies.

I do think the tone in those different things that you've mentioned that you haven't seen in movies comes from the culture and comes from the source itself.

Since this movie celebrates Latin American immigrants, do you feel like this is an important time for this film to be coming out in theaters?

Absolutely. When you hear Donald Trump say that Latinos are drug traffickers, criminals, or rapists and you decide to change your channel, you're very likely to find a movie or a TV show with an Hispanic character who is a drug dealer. You change it again, you find a rapist. You change it again, you find a criminal. Those are the stereotypes Latino actors have been playing in American mainstream entertainment for a hundred years.

So Trump is truly capitalizing on the stereotypes created by the media and I do think it's an urgent moment to change the stereotype. We can pretend like that it doesn't affect people and entertainment is just entertainment. But it seems to be not the case and I think Trump is a warning for our culture that there is a limit to how much you can simply deny the consequences that entertainment can have on society.

Photo by The Weinstein Company
Photo by The Weinstein Company

You could have made this film about Duran without including the famous 'No mas' fight. Why did you want to include, and why feel the need to leave the situation ambiguous?

The first question, I'm usually bored by a lot of the heroes of today because there is such a great effort to make them perfect that they become dorks. It's unbelievable how much do they want them to be perfect.

I think it's inevitable, if you're making a real movie about a real character, to humanize them and show some of the bad parts. I think what's exciting is when you see the character overcome those demons and become a better human being.

I think that's part of why the movie is proving to be so emotional for audiences. We had beautiful screening in Miami, and literally half the theater was crying at the end of the movie. Many people came to me and said that the movie spoke about themselves.

That is because we're not perfect, none of us. We have all been defeated, we have all been on top and then down. I think the "No mas" is a very particular unique moment in boxing and getting the audience closer to the answer to that enigma is something that was very exciting for me as a storyteller from the beginning, and how different Duran perceived that event to how the audience perceived that event is key to the importance of the movie. He simply didn't see it as quitting, he saw it as, "Go f--k yourself, I'm done with it."

He completely changes his perspective later and that's the big comeback that we see. Him finding his place in the universe and the responsibility and that symbol for so many people, I think is part of what makes his story so special and so engaging.

And in regards to leaving what he said ambiguous is because, I really think it doesn't matter. I was being respectful to him because he said he didn't say, "No mas," and it became such a big line in pop culture. Everybody sort of says, "No mas." I thought that it was, at the end of the day, better to leave it like that because it doesn't matter what he said. What matter is what he did. And the unfortunate thing is that phrase, "No mas," which was probably tailored by Howard Cosell became bigger than a man who fought 120 fights and had 60 percent knockouts.

It's way bigger than one fight, but that's the knock on the man. One night, one line, can completely change your legacy. I think that's unfair and it's part of the reason why I thought this movie had to be made.

What was Duran's reaction to seeing the film, and what was your reaction to seeing Duran react to the film?

Duran has seen it three times by now. He saw it in Cannes, he saw it in L.A., he saw it in Miami. The first time was very emotional for him and he was crying. We got like a 15 minute standing ovation in Cannes which was very emotional for all of us. I think we were all crying.

For Duran, it took a few days to digest and he was asking me about this scene and this scene. It was very intriguing to see his reaction because he was facing some of his own demons by watching the movie.

When he saw it the second time, he gave me a hug and he said, "This is truly remarkable. I'm truly grateful this movie got made." He was very generous with Edgar and truly feels that Edgar captured his essence. He even said that he thought I used CGI to make Edgar look like him, which I think is the biggest praise that you can get. Especially because I don't think he's comparing to the physical. I think what he's seeing is himself in Edgar, and I think that's a testament to Edgar's performance.

When he saw a third time here in Miami, I think it was a treat for him because Miami is filled Latinos who understand the little things in the movie that may escape some other audiences.

I think he was extremely happy that everyone was celebrating him and I think he's going to continue watching the movie many times, which is a very good thing.

Hands of Stone hits theaters August 26.

What is your favorite boxing movie?