“Hands Of Stone” Director Jonathan Jakubowicz: “It’s The Beauty Of working With Geniuses.”
By: Sean Crose
Sometimes we don’t know how well we have it. While living in a world of Twitter trends and the latest celebrity gossip, it’s often hard to appreciate the suffering that comes from growing up in dire poverty, or the fear that comes when one’s life might well be threatened. Such things, we might well feel, are only the stuff of movies, right?
While the upcoming film “Hands of Stone” deals with the relationship between Panamanian boxing legend Roberto “Hands of Stone” Duran – played by Argentinian actor Edgar Ramirez – and American trainer Ray Arcel – played by Robert DeNiro – it’s worth keeping in mind that the film is based on a true story. For the real Duran grew up in grinding poverty in his home country, while Arcel had legitimate reason for fearing the mafia would kill him. It’s actual life the movie deals with…though the story itself is custom made for Hollywood.
Director Jonathan Jakubowicz, took time to speak over the phone on Monday and claimed he wanted to create the “story of a positive Latino figure.” He ultimately settled on the 103-16 boxing legend. “Why not,” he asked, “focus on somebody who actually achieved greatness?” Sure enough, Duran’s life is fertile ground for a biopic. “He was a legend,” Venezuela’s Jakubowicz told me, “to all of us.”
“I was fascinated by him,” the director stated about his subject, “by his style, by everything he represented.” Yet Jakubowicz, who burst onto the scene with 2005’s “Secuestro Express” made it clear Duran “wasn’t a saint.” Sure enough, Duran was apt to make things as difficult for the “Hands of Stone” team as it was for his trainers during his prime.
For instance, just before Duran was to give the film his blessing, the feisty 65-year-old instead decided to give the production team a jolt. “He called us at five in the morning,” Jakubowicz said, “and sent us to hell saying he’s not going to sign anything.” Fortunately for the director, it was all bluster. “He’s a mind gamer,” claimed the director, adding that “he comes from rage.”
Sure enough, the dire poverty of Duran’s youth helped shape the man. Jakubowicz explained how, as the extremely poor Panamanian son of an American Marine who abandoned his paternal obligations, Duran felt the sting of American influence, as well as an individual American’s neglect. Still, the director made it clear that America also provided with fighter with incredible opportunity, especially through the person of Ray Arcel, who’s played by Robert DeNiro in the film.
“That dichotomy I found extremely fascinating,” the director said.
What may be extremely fascinating to film and boxing fans is the film’s cast. Besides Ramirez, who was brilliant in 2010s “Carlos,” Robert DeNiro, famous for, among other things, the fight classic “Raging Bull,” proved to be extremely helpful. As Arcel, he plays an aging trainer who comes back to the fight game after being run out of boxing years earlier by the mafia.
“He said I needed to work on the script,” Jakubowicz said of DeNiro, “to find Ray Arcel’s voice.” After helping Jakubowicz strengthen the screenplay, the legendary actor was then ready to act in the film. “DeNiro, he transformed,” Jakubowicz claimed, mentioning that the actor “shaved his head and dyed his hair white.”
Yet DeNiro wasn’t the only big name to come aboard. Someone was needed to play Duran’s arch nemesis, the popular and masterful “Sugar” Ray Leonard. Needless to say, Leonard the character was as difficult to cast as Leonard the fighter was difficult to defeat. Jakubowicz was bewildered. “I met with Freddie Roach,” the filmmaker said. “He goes, ‘listen, for Sugar Ray, you should get a dancer.’” That may have seemed crazy, but Jakubowicz took the iconic trainer’s advice. The role went none other than pop icon Usher – who’s listed in the film as Usher Raymond IV.
Much to Jakubowicz’ delight the song and dance maestro “trained for like a year for Leonard.” Sure enough, the great fighter himself helped prepare Usher for the role. “You nail the smile,” Leonard said of Usher, “everything else I’ll teach him.”
“It’s the beauty,” Jakubowicz said of the “Hands of Stone” experience, “of working with geniuses.”
With the script and cast lined up, it was time to film. “I focused on the psychological aspect of the sport,” Jakubowicz claimed, explaining that the first fight between Duran and Leonard contains a lot of “quick cuts,” due to the up close and personal nature of that battle. The rematch in New Orleans, however, was filmed with “wide lenses,” in order to effectively capture the movement and tempo of the notorious rematch. And the first fight in the film, where Arcel initially catches Duran in action live and in person? Jakubowicz made sure that viewers are “seeing it through the eyes of Ray Arcel.”
It was obvious just talking to the director that he was a true fan of the sport of boxing. “It’s a labor of love,” he said of the film, adding that “the golden era of boxing” that Duran and Leonard ruled, deserved top notch treatment. After all, these were men who went for broke – repeatedly. And frankly, it’s a story that’s needed to be told on film.
“We really need everybody to go,” Jakubowicz said.
Undoubtedly many fight fans will heed the call.
“Hands Of Stone” opens nationwide on August 26th.