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Panama Plays Key Role in Boxer Biopic ‘Hands of Stone’

Robert De Niro has come full circle.

In writer-director Jonathan Jakubowicz’s “Hands of Stone,” slated for release by The Weinstein Co. on Aug. 26, the actor plays legendary boxing trainer Ray Arcel, who came out of retirement at age 72 to coach Panamanian fighter Roberto Durán.

The role brings De Niro back to the boxing arena, where he memorably played Jake LaMotta in 1980’s “Raging Bull.”

The same year that Martin Scorsese’s film was released, welterweight Durán — played in “Hands of Stone” by Venezuelan actor Edgar Ramírez (“Carlos”) — was fighting Sugar Ray Leonard in New Orleans. Durán, 29, who many considered to be, pound for pound, the greatest fighter in the world at the time, had defeated the 24-year-old Leonard five months earlier in Montreal to win the welterweight title. But now, as Leonard took control of the rematch, he began taunting Durán, who couldn’t catch up to his younger opponent. In round 8, Durán suddenly turned his back on Leonard, and went to his corner waving his glove and declaring, “No más.” He quit the fight.

Before this, Durán had lost just once in 73 pro fights, winning more than 50 by knockout.

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“I think that in the film, we managed to explain the mystery behind his decision to stop,” says Jakubowicz.

Durán would log 45 more professional bouts after that, including one more loss to Leonard, before hanging up his gloves at age 49 with a record of 103-16.

It took Jakubowicz, also from Venezuela, seven years to get his vision onto the big screen as it went through various iterations and struggled to secure financing. De Niro suggested that Jakubowicz go to Durán’s home country of Panama to raise funding. “I moved to Panama without a dollar and raised $24 million,” said Jakubowicz when he spoke at the National Assn. of Latino Independent Producers summit in June.

“Panama hasn’t got much of a movie infrastructure,” he tells Variety, “so we had to assemble a film crew from across Latin America.”

Buzz surrounding the film prompted such companies as Mexican catering firm Cletus and post-production studio Congo Films, which has multiple locations in Latin America, to set up shop in Panama.

“I created a Latin American dream team, with a DP from Chile [Miguel Ioann Littin Menz], a production designer from Argentina [Tomas Voth], and a first AD from Mexico [Frederic Henocque],” says Jakubowicz, who hopes to assemble the same cast and crew for his next project, a spy action thriller with specifics still under wraps.

“Hands of Stone” also stars Usher (credited as Usher Raymond) as Leonard, with Rubén Blades, Ellen Barkin, Ana de Armas, Óscar Jaenada, and John Turturro. Newcomer David Arosemena, 11, who plays the young Durán, was born nearly 54 years later on the same date (June 16) and in the same neighborhood as the boxer. He was selected from 2,000 children who auditioned for the role.

The film’s story spans four decades. It was shot over 65 days on Arri Alexa digital cameras in six Panamanian locations and employed 15,000 extras and 350 crew members. A small unit shot scenes in New York for 10 days.

“Hands of Stone” includes 800 visual effects shots, crafted by Oner, the boutique Argentine VFX studio that also worked on Juan José Campanella’s foreign-language Oscar-winning “The Secret in Their Eyes.”

“This film would have cost $70 million to $80 million in the U.S., but we made it for only $24 million,” says Jakubowicz, who credits time-honed Latin American skills at bringing in films with limited budgets. The Panamanian government contributed seed capital of $2.8 million and allowed the production free use of a stadium for a month. Jakubowicz also relied on the expertise of his wife, producer Claudine Jakubowicz, who allowed him to focus on directing while she oversaw production minutiae.

The film became a source of national pride. “The crew would clap after every scene,” Jakubowicz says. “It was fun and emotional.”

Sometimes the locals’ sense of ownership overwhelmed the production. For example, when they were shooting at the El Chorillo slum where Durán grew up, “the whole neighborhood started lining up for food at craft services, thinking it was for them as well,” says Jakubowicz, who credits the catering company with mustering enough supplies to feed everyone. “It turned into a fiesta,” he says.

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