‘Lucha Underground': Turning A Dirty Warehouse Into A Neo-Noir Kingdom

Beyond the ring, the El Rey series has won over wrestling fans with backstage vignettes that are nothing like the WWE

In a cold storage facility two miles south of downtown Los Angeles, the “Lucha Underground” ring sits empty. A day’s worth of dust settles on the seats and bleachers that were once filled with rabid fans chanting “CERO MIEDO.” The lights that give the impromptu arena a pulpy comic book feel are off, leaving it feeling as lifeless and abandoned as it was when the cult wrestling TV show’s production team first found it.

But around the corner, in the darkest, dustiest area of the facility, Skip Chaisson is filming the type of scene he originally visualized when he found this decrepit location. Standing in his camera monitor, bathed in lights that shine beneath creaky floorboards, is Matanza Cueto, the ferocious, murderous man possessed by a bloodthirsty Aztec god. When Chaisson chose this cold storage site as the location for “Lucha Underground”‘s season 4, which concludes this week on El Rey Network, he knew that it would be the perfect place to set up a lair for the show’s most fearsome foe.

“The moment we came in here, all these ideas just came into my head,” Chaisson told TheWrap, sitting among the warehouse’s rusted machinery. “It was rich with locations that we didn’t need to change at all except for lighting. And this back area with no windows and a bunch of broken down machinery and dark corners just felt like this great place for Matanza; a lair where victims would be thrown in and he could hunt and murder them.”

Taking place in an alternate Los Angeles, “Lucha Underground” follows heroic and villainous luchadors from America, Mexico, and beyond as they fight in the titular underground promotion run by the unscrupulous Dario Cueto. But amidst the violence, a small band of luchadors seeks to avert an apocalyptic Aztec prophecy, one that Dario’s shadowy employers are determined to fulfill.

Though the wrestling is at the core of “Lucha Underground,” Chaisson is in charge of directing the dynamic vignettes that have given the show its devoted cult fanbase. In the WWE, backstage interviews and dialogue are filmed with a single camera, with the wrestlers standing almost shoulder to shoulder to stay in the frame and fight scenes being exaggerated with frantic camera zooms and shaking.

But Chaisson’s cutscenes are inspired by the work of the show’s producer and El Rey Network creator Robert Rodriguez, as well as the gritty B-movies that iconic luchadors like El Santo and Blue Demon starred in back in the 1970s. The colors are saturated. Lights cast noir-esque shadows across the faces and chiseled bodies of the luchadors. The grappling, flips, and exaggerated chest chops of pro wrestling are replaced with Bruce Lee-inspired martial arts.

But Chaisson’s favorite technique to use since the first episode has been the camera angles. Many of the show’s scenes are filmed with the camera looking up at the wrestlers, giving them a larger than life feel and the musty environments they fight in a surreal tenor.

“In the old El Santo movies, luchadors were superheroes fighting vampires and werewolves,” Chaisson said. “So we want to make every one of these characters feel like superheroes and supervillains. We’ll film below eye level, put something in the foreground to make them feel bigger.”

The Season 4 warehouse also provided room for Chaisson and his crew to build full sets, including the office of Dario Cueto’s heartless, elderly father, Antonio. While Dario’s office was made out of a pre-existing room at the show’s old filming site in Boyle Heights, California, Antonio’s is a standing set designed to look like a morgue, complete with fluorescent lighting and tiled flooring.

“Dario’s office had this wooden paneling and these warm colors and we always saw him with a drink. He was this character who, while greedy, still had some humanity in him,” said Chaisson. “Now we are seeing his father, who sacrificed Dario’s brother to the Aztec gods, and he’s this shriveled, cold monster who is sacrificing wrestlers to strengthen Matanza. With the added space, we were able to create an office that reflects who he is from the ground up.”

For the wrestlers, working on these scenes has been a highlight of their career. T.J. Ballester, who plays the Afghanistan veteran turned street fighter Dante Fox, says that aside from wrestling, movies are his biggest passion. When he joined “Lucha” in season 3, he found the opportunity to craft a character not just in the ring, but through cinema as well.

“Skip and I got to work together on creating these vignettes that explained Dante’s character, and I just wrote out several pages where I really explored the war trauma he faces and the skills he learned in war that he uses in the ring, and we worked that all into the vignettes where I did all these army combat scenes,” Ballester said.

“With ‘Lucha,’ I’ve had this opportunity to combine my two biggest passions in a way I never thought I could do, and it’s amazing watching the show and seeing what the final result of all that filming looks like.”

Jake Hager, one of the cast members who has been in WWE, is even more impressed. On “Lucha,” he’s known as Jake Strong, a blue-blood athlete who just might be working for a much darker force.

“Coming into ‘Lucha,’ the vignettes were one of the big selling points,” Hager said. “I had to do a lot of catching up since I don’t have a chance to watch a lot of wrestling, but I went through the last three seasons in a few days, and I can’t say enough how so different this show is. Skip makes it so easy to express your own ideas and everyone on the roster is willing to help each other to make the entire show come together. It’s so different from any other show I’ve been a part of.”

And then there are the luchadors that, more than anyone, are transformed into otherworldly forces of nature through Chaisson’s lens. Take Aerostar, known in Mexico as a daredevil who dives on his opponents from the highest ledge possible, becomes a time-traveling warrior determined to avert the end of the world.

“The luchadors are definitely the most fun to film,” Chaisson says. “They already come with the most elaborate outfits, especially Drago, who has this crazy, scaly vest and mask and Aerostar, who has a light up mask and suit and glow-in-the-dark nunchucks. They already have these great characters to start with, and they offer so many chances to create some great shots with lighting or set dressing or music.”

Even when the cameras aren’t rolling, being in the presence of these luchadors is a surreal experience. During the shooting of one pivotal scene on the warehouse’s rooftop, Drago and Aerostar stood in the background reading their Spanish scripts. One of the crew members offers Aerostar her cell phone light to read the lines, only for the warrior from the cosmos to grin and flick on the LED lights on his mask, giving him all the illumination he needs.

“See?” he tells the laughing crew with a grin. “It’s practical too!”

The season 4 finale of “Lucha Underground” airs this Wednesday on El Rey Network, with previous seasons available on Netflix and iTunes. Check out the gallery below to see Skip Chaisson’s favorite backstage vignettes from the series and what cult movies inspired them.