The Geckos Go Chameleon

The sun rises on Robert Rodriguez's 'From Dusk Till Dawn' TV adaptation

The Geckos Go Chameleon

It's a dusty, windy day at the Mexico border. Texas Ranger Freddie Gonzalez is sprinting between cars, hunting for the most dangerous men in the state: the bank-robbing, blood-spilling Gecko brothers.

Over in video village, behind a rack of monitors, director Joe Menendez calls cut on another scene in the TV adaptation of From Dusk Till Dawn. Actors Zane Holtz and D.J. Cotrona, aka Richie and Seth Gecko, are hanging out with Robert Patrick, who plays lapsed pastor Jacob Fuller. Under Gonzalez's big black ranger's hat, actor Jesse Garcia turns and saunters over to the fence where visiting journalists are gathered to chat. Up toward the border crossing – actually the Austin Country Flea Market out on Highway 290 – Robert Rodriguez wields his DSLR and grins.

The Geckos Go Chameleon

The show keeps Rodriguez busy, directing three of the first season's 10 episodes, plus producing and scripting. When he's not patrolling the set, he's still able to keep up with the action remotely via video link. He said, "Right now, I'm talking on the phone, but I can also see the shooting on the lake." In part, that's his job as producer, but it comes with perks. "I kept getting drawn to the screen, and Robert Patrick is doing this amazing performance. That's must-see TV right there."

Back in 1996, he and Quentin Tarantino were the enfants terribles of American cinema, their respective sophomore efforts – Desperado and Pulp Fiction – proving they weren't just indie darlings. Their first collaboration, From Dusk Till Dawn, was a cult hybrid: part dusty neo-noir, part Return of the Living Dead. Eighteen years later, Rodriguez has revamped the story for his fledgling TV channel, El Rey Network. "The film was the short story," he explained. "This is the novel." Unlike most producers, he didn't have to worry about selling an overly explosive pilot – after all, he runs the network. That space changed the script and how he directed the opening episode; Machete Kills' screwball speed is discarded in favor of a Peckinpah-esque slow burn. "I really enjoyed getting to let this breathe," he said. "What's cool is that you take Quentin's original script and get to make this epic tale where you can fill several seasons."

Characters like Ranger Gonzalez are new creations for the series. Others are resurrected from the original with major makeovers, and none more so than Richie Gecko. Played in the movie by Tarantino as a twitchy psychopath, Holtz's version is darker, weirder, and plagued by strange supernatural visions even before sunset brings the plague of bats. The change was in part inspired by a friend of Rodriguez's who suffered from paranoid schizophrenia and couldn't distinguish reality from the voices in his head. Rodriguez said, "It was very troubling to me, but I found a way to work that out through From Dusk."

Holtz described his Richie as "a classic horror character, in that he's a guy whose actions are not driven by his own problems, but that he's haunted by these demons." That said, it's not all nightmares and gloom, as he and Cotrona bonded through the criminal siblings' banter. "We're bickering about day-to-day things, but when the guns come out, we're the Gecko brothers." It helps that they get to wear the iconic garb of Tarantino killers. "I've worn a black suit in my life, but when you're doing a Robert Rodriguez film, and it's me and D.J. and we've got the guns and we're saying the lines and we're in the muscle car, it's a very cool feeling."

Somehow, that's always been the story of the Geckos: The legend gets bigger. The original movie concept was just vampires in a bar, and it was Tarantino that added the long crime intro as the brothers and their hostages break for the border. Rodriguez said, "He loved the desperados so much that he spent half the movie with the characters before they got to the bar." That became the film's radical second-act left turn, when the crime caper becomes a full-blown horror comedy. In the show, he said, "You feel the supernatural elements right from the beginning."

The long story arc allows Rodriguez to conjure up more of the Mesoamerican pantheon, too. Before the movie, Mexican vampires were rarely seen in the U.S. outside of tape-traded wrestling movies like Santo vs. las Mujeres Vampiro. As Rodriguez started researching the Mayan and Aztec gods, he found a rich mythology that had never made it to the screen before, and that he could only tease in the film in moments like Santanico Pandemonium's seductive performance. "That's where I came up with the snake dance, because I found this sculpture of a woman with a skull face, holding two snakes." With a guaranteed TV run, he said, "I now want to explore that world."

From Dusk Till Dawn: The Series

Episodic, World Premiere

Saturday, March 8, 4:30pm, Vimeo

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South by Southwest, SXSW Film 2014, From Dusk Till Dawn, Robert Rodriguez, Robert Patrick, Zane Holtz, D.J. Cotrona, Quentin Tarantino, supernatural, cult, remake, horror, paranoid schizophrenia

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