A fighter who powered his way through the ranks of boxing to be crowned the Flyweight champion of the world, Juan Francisco Estrada or ‘El Gallo’ is widely recognised as one of Mexico’s most famous boxers. However as revealed in Michael Medoway’s stirring documentary short, El Gallo’s sporting success was built from the tumultuous beginnings of a childhood marked by loss and tragedy. Medoway joins us on DN today to explain how he told the boxer’s story by juxtaposing the challenges of the past and the present in order to reveal the inspiring tenacity of ‘The Rooster’.
This might sound strange, but I think the film found me, quite like how boxing found Juan “El Gallo” Estrada. I was on set shooting a commercial when I struck up a conversation with one of our coordinators, Lizette De Los Santos. She told me how she photographs boxers and she began to show me her work, which I was immediately drawn to. She began to tell me about El Gallo’s story and how he had gone through tremendous tragedy in his childhood. We joked around about doing a documentary about him, but then after speaking a bit more the conversation got more serious.
Lizette had gotten to know the manager and El Gallo’s team, so she reached out to them the next day. After getting a positive response from El Gallo’s team, I started looking for a way to fund the project. At the time I was producing commercials for the Japanese market at Downtown Reel. When I approached the EP, Jeff Murray, whom I largely credit with starting my directing career, he enthusiastically told me, “Whatever it takes, I’m all in.”
The film at its core is about accepting loss and coming back stronger from it.
So then everything became very real. A month after the day Liz and I met on set – we found ourselves in Hermosillo, Sonora Mexico where El Gallo was training for his upcoming title fight. Because we rushed into production so quickly we needed a solid local production team to get the ball rolling immediately – so we turned to Gusana Films in Mexico, who serviced the production for us.
I knew from our first conversations that I wanted this film to be about two people. Young El Gallo living through the tragedies of his youth and the present day El Gallo, preparing for the biggest fight of his career. El Gallo’s tragedy ridden childhood forever changed his life’s trajectory – using his personal losses and his deep family ties to fuel his drive. The film at its core is about accepting loss and coming back stronger from it. Both Young El Gallo and present day El Gallo confront loss and find ways to overcome it.
With any project I work on, I often try to find inspiration by coming up with a single shot that will represent the film as a whole. The shot of Young El Gallo silhouetted on a hilltop was the first shot that came to me. I pictured a vulnerable child against a barren landscape, stripped of hope and of his childhood. This shot for me set the whole tone of the flashbacks when we see El Gallo as a child.
We were in Hermosillo for about a week. To shoot all of the young El Gallo recreation scenes like the crumbling house, the boxing tree and the training facility we had to make existing locations in Hermosillo work for us. Luckily we happened across an abandoned casino “Casino del Diablo,” which is where we shot the crumbling house, and the tree scene. We used the gym that El Gallo actually trained at when he was a kid as well as the boxing gym where he trains today.
For our shoot in Mexico, our DP Alejandro A. Wilkins did a series of camera and lens tests (thanks to Camtec LA) and we ended up opting to shoot on the Arri Alexa Mini with Kowa Anamorphics. The film is a mix of traditional hand-held photography along with gimbal work, utilizing the Movi Pro. We thought the vintage glass provided a nice softness to the image that we needed for the flashback sequences, but also added a bit of character and grit to the training sequences as well.
The fight night sequences were a mix of the RED footage along with HBO and DAZN’s broadcast footage. We decided to shoot on the Red Weapon Helium and an Angenieux EZ-1 zoom lens. We wanted the fight to be captured on modern glass and the ridiculously high resolution of that camera to give the fight night a crisp look and visually separate it from the rest of the film. The 8K resolution also allowed for reframing in post.
When he lost the fight in a very close decision it was a proverbial gut punch.
As most films tend to be, making this one was an emotional roller-coaster. After shooting the film in Mexico, we came back to the states awaiting the big fight at The Forum in Inglewood, CA. We had shot an ending where young El Gallo celebrated a victory, which we were going to intercut with HBO footage of El Gallo winning the title. (Spoiler Alert) When he lost the fight in a very close decision it was a proverbial gut punch. We’d have to wait until their inevitable rematch to get the ending we always wanted – which happily, we now have.
Editorial was a huge obstacle for me personally as I don’t speak Spanish. I happened upon this killer post house, TruLove Post in LA that does a lot of Spanish speaking content. They were a one stop shop for the edit, sound design and music composition and we never could’ve made the film without their tireless work.
El Gallo is definitely the most exciting and meaningful film I’ve ever done. Most of my documentary work has been in advertising and this is the first time I’ve been able to tell a person’s story in a way that best captures the essence of their character and life story, without commercial interests shifting the focus.