Desperado Hours For a Few Dollars More

by Marjorie Baumgarten Just add a few zeroes." That could very well summarize the production strategy adopted by Robert Rodriguez on his brand-new film Desperado, the follow-up to his runaway action hit of 1993, El Mariachi.

One of the lasting effects of El Mariachi was a redefinition - downward - of the term "low-budget film." Made for a sum regarded as pocket change in Beverly Hills, El Mariachi had a production budget of the startling and much-quoted figure of $7,000. The mechanics of bringing in a feature-length project for such a ridiculously tiny sum is wrapped up in Rodriguez's philosophy of filmmaking: a mostly do-it-yourself process that solves problems with ingenuity rather than bucks, a process Rodriguez calls "Mariachi-style." Though Desperado was financed by Columbia Pictures and quotes a production cost of $7 million (a figure that's still chump change in the current Water(logged)world of action filmmaking), the movie still very much reflects Rodriguez's DIY approach. Just look at the opening credits: Rodriguez is listed as Desperado's director, screenwriter, editor, and Steadicam operator.

The other thing about El Mariachi is how the story of its making became the stuff of instant legend. It's the kind of bleed-for-your-art story the film industry might have invented for itself had it not been handed to them, more or less real, by Robert Rodriguez. El Mariachi burst into the public consciousness as one corker of an action movie that came out of nowhere (or close, anyway... Austin, via San Antonio and Mexico), made by a student nobody for $7,000. From there on out, the rest of the tale practically wrote itself. This cocksure shoot-'em-up grabbed viewers with a lean hyperkineticism that commanded attention. The story behind the making of the movie was just as good.

El Mariachi was made by Rodriguez mostly for the experience, with his grandest hope for it a sale to the Spanish-language home video market. It was shot in the Mexican border town of Ciudad Acuña by a 23-year-old, Latino jack-of-all-film-trades who had been refused admission to the film school at the University of Texas at Austin because of poor grades but later swaggered and cajoled his way into the department by going out on his own and making a prize-winning short film, "Austin Stories." Rodriguez raised a good chunk of the money for El Mariachi's budget by selling his body to science, becoming a "human lab rat" in a month-long drug trial at the Austin research company Pharmaco.

The more one probed, the richer the story became: One of 10 children, this San Antonio native starred his siblings in his engaging short films; for three years, he authored a widely read and award-winning comic strip called "Los Hooligans" for the Daily Texan; the comic strip was published in a book collection, and an autobiographical book, Rebel Without a Crew (a portion of which was published in the February 12, 1993 Austin Chronicle), is just hitting the bookstands; the early El Mariachi tape circulated around Hollywood faster than working girl Heidi Fleiss and sparked various studios and concerns into a competitive courtship for Rodriguez's favors. Rodriguez's alacrity, humor, and break-the-rules production attitude has made him a popular interview subject and something of a poster child for low-budget filmmaking.

Rodriguez ultimately signed with Columbia Pictures, which decided to foot the expense of making El Mariachi theatre-worthy by blowing it up to 35mm and cleaning the original sound and edits. And why not? There really wasn't anything to lose. The tough thing to decide was what Rodriguez should do next. An American remake seemed pointless in light of the release of the Mexican original. A sequel? Ultimately, Desperado is more like a new chapter of the El Mariachi saga. Its story is similar to the original but also differs significantly. New actors are cast in the pivotal roles, but the characters are essentially the same. It was shot again in Ciudad Acuña and only the stunts got bigger and more complicated. Variations on a theme perhaps, like Howard Hawks' reworking of Rio Bravo in El Dorado and Rio Lobo or Sergio Leone's For a Few Dollars More sequel to A Fistful of Dollars.

Rodriguez's career path is the stuff of legend, all right. Somehow, that seems appropriate for the inventor of the legend of El Mariachi, an antihero who thrives on myth. In Desperado, we see El Mariachi perform feats no ordinary human could - he is able to decimate dozens in the wink of an eye and leap tall buildings in a single bound. He is the baddest, bravest, quickest, craziest, and handsomest gunslinger around (and it doesn't hurt that the character comes to life through Antonio Banderas). Most of the characters in Desperado believe El Mariachi is a hyperbolic myth, yet they fear his arrival anyway. It seems to me that both Rodriguez and El Mariachi function at similar mythic levels - cultures would have to invent them if they did not already exist.

When a regional Columbia rep invites me to attend a Los Angeles publicity junket for Desperado, I accept gladly. I've been a Rodriguez observer for several years now and I'm dying to see this new movie. I'll be able to interview several of the principals, and it's a story with a local Austin angle. (And I'd be lying if I were to discount the trip-to-L.A.-and-get-out-of-Austin-in-August factor.) I see the movie shortly after my arrival and, from the opening moments, I'm psyched. So much activity, so many questions. I'll have to wait until the next day before I can pose them to Rodriguez.

Now, I know not to expect too much. These are not one-on-one interviews. They're what are called "round robins," where separate groups, each with 10 or so journalists, are seated together to ask an interviewee questions, en masse. The principals - in Desperado's case, stars Banderas, Salma Hayek, Joaquim de Almeida, and filmmaker Rodriguez - rotate from group to group answering questions for approximately 20 minutes a pop. For the most part, each group poses variations on the same questions and whether you catch the speaker during the first go-round of the morning or the last can be relevant.

I expect all this - the uniformity and the struggle to make your questions heard. What I do not expect is to be seated at a table full of radio journalists. For me, the next two hours are a school-of-hard-knocks crash course on the differences between print and radio journalism.

I take my seat and grope in my purse for my trusty microcassette recorder, a stalwart device that suddenly feels flimsy and inadequate amidst all this finely tuned, on-air-quality recording equipment. My table companions instantly sense an outsider (reluctantly) invading their circle and hasten to brief me on the etiquette of radio interviewing. "Please," says one of them instantly, "try to remember that it's important for you to not respond to things said by the interviewee. At least not audibly." Alarm overcomes me because I have no idea of how to conduct an interview without responding, and I realize that there will be little possibility for conversation or interrogatory give-and-take. This is not to be an interview in the recognized sense; we are about to embark on a quest for the perfect sound bite.

They aren't through cautioning me. Another helpful soul points out that it is also important to abstain from laughing in the event that the interviewee says something funny. The taped laughter might muffle the sound bite and would certainly destroy the illusion of spontaneity when played on the air later. Then, as if I'm not already uncomfortable enough, they all pitch in with helpful examples of the ways in which they regard print journalists as rude. Mostly, it boils down to the feeling that print scribes step on the interviewees' answers before the end of the sentence or thought is reached. It's that old sound bite problem again. I try to defend my print colleagues, but I'm clearly outnumbered, and there's little point in arguing whether an interview should be conducted like a dialogue or a "sound op" (the radio equivalent of a photo opportunity). Our objectives are at cross-purposes. Occasionally, during the next two hours, I look up to see one of my tablemates frantically pressing her forefinger to her lips in the universal sign of silence but without any shushing sound escaping her mouth.

First up is de Almeida, the Portuguese actor best known in the U.S. for his work in Clear and Present Danger. He had the unfortunate task of replacing Raul Julia as Desperado's villain when Julia died unexpectedly just a few days before shooting started. He seems to be a nice man who possesses keen insight into the remarkably non-American nature of this Hollywood-financed production. Desperado does represent new levels of Hispanic participation in the dominantly American film industry.

Next comes leading lady Hayek, a popular, award-winning Mexican TV star who only recently set up stakes in Hollywood. She is gorgeous and casts a stunning figure in her long, slinky, spaghetti-strapped dress. She speaks articulately and passionately about her resistance to Mexican stereotyping and her wonderful new friendship with Robert Rodriguez and his co-producer and wife Elizabeth Avellán. She also starred in Rodriguez's Roadracers, the Showtime movie he made last year, as well as a couple of his upcoming releases: the Quentin Tarantino-scripted From Dusk Till Dawn and Rodriguez's self-scripted Til Death Do Us Part. The couple is expecting the birth of their first child this September, and Hayek is to be Elizabeth's birth coach. (Midway through Hayek's interview, I begin feeling weak and desperately hot and am convinced that I am about to pass out and this group of strangers will have to resuscitate me and call EMS. Then, as soon as Hayek leaves the room, one of them leaps up and flips a wall switch. Suddenly, cool air pours into the room. These radio geeks had cut off the air conditioning in search of their precious sound bite.)

Antonio Banderas... now we're getting somewhere. Before the newly crowned sex symbol enters the room, some flack comes in to warn us not to mention the "M"-word. Does that mean Melanie, as in Griffith? The torrid story of their love affair is currently plastered all over the media, but we're warned that it would be tacky for us to bring it up. And how about that other "M"-word: Madonna? Banderas is signed to play Che Guevara in Madonna's film version of Evita. He also makes a cameo appearance in Rodriguez's segment of the soon-to-be-released omnibus film Four Rooms, which includes segments by three other independent directors of note: Quentin Tarantino, Allison Anders, and Alexandre Rockwell. Banderas' command of the English language is extraordinary for someone who had to learn all his lines phonetically for his U.S. film debut in 1992's The Mambo Kings. He is articulate about his career choices and the pleasure he derives from his participation in Desperado. The word around town is that Banderas is hot to play Zorro and get Rodriguez to direct. The pairing seems a natural given what they accomplished with Desperado. As an actor and director team they seem as fluidly connected as John Wayne and John Ford, Toshiro Mifune and Akira Kurosawa, or Clint Eastwood and Sergio Leone. And, yes, Banderas appears even more handsome in person. But what are these radio folks most concerned with? The rattle his teacup makes when he puts it back on the saucer. Good thing the man doesn't slurp his tea.

Finally... Robert Rodriguez. I have so many questions for him: his thoughts on the current state of independent filmmaking; the reasons for the curious anticlimax of Desperado's final climax; his impressions of his new book Rebel Without a Crew, which I find to be a fun read but unnecessarily repetitive and marred by grammatical errors and misspelled names (including Martin Scorsese and Michael Lehmann!); his favorite John Woo film; and so on. Only I never get to ask them. The time is eaten up by the others in my group, who want to know what it's like to work with Antonio Banderas and blow up Quentin Tarantino, and how he answers the critics of violent movies, and, of course, by the woman who asks each interviewee about their first memory of hearing the Beatles. Do we even want to know what radio station she works for?

By the time the interview is over, I'm ready to add my own contribution to the El Mariachi legend: Paul is dead; he now walks in the shoes of El Mariachi. Just don't play Desperado's soundtrack album backwards. n

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