Sour Notes For Robert Rodriguez

Robert Rodriguez runs into conflict with the Austin musicians' union over scoring his new release.

<i>Desperado</i>
Desperado

The music stopped this week for Once Upon a Time in Mexico -- or at least for the orchestral scoring of the upcoming Robert Rodriguez release, which had been scheduled for mid-October post-production in Austin.

According to Elizabeth Avellán, Rodriguez's wife and co-producer, for budgetary reasons she had asked local musicians (primarily from the Austin Symphony) to perform the work nonunion, while promising that the next Rodriguez film -- Spy Kids III -- would be done under union contract, as was the very successful Spy Kids II. But the Austin Federation of Musicians (Local 433 of the American Federation of Musicians of the U.S. and Canada) balked, saying their members couldn't work nonunion without both violating their membership agreements and depriving themselves of health care and pension contributions.

Moreover, the musicians would only earn after-market payment -- future income from use of the music in "secondary markets" such as video, foreign release, or the soundtrack CD (which have already been considerable for Spy Kids II) -- under a union contract. Such residuals only materialize if the film is successful -- but it's fair to expect that Rodriguez's third film in the popular El Mariachi series, starring Antonio Banderas, Salma Hayek, Johnny Depp, Rubén Blades, and Willem Dafoe, is pretty close to a sure thing.

Last week, in the wake of much mutual finger-pointing, e-mail flaming, and a union threat to picket the scoring sessions, most local musicians either withdrew or declined to sign on for the project. "The musicians here refused to do it," said AFM President Randy McCall, "unless it was done union." As a result (barring an unexpected reversal), Avellán said the producers have decided to do the score elsewhere -- possibly at George Lucas' Skywalker Ranch studios near San Francisco -- and they expect to do the same for Spy Kids III.

Both sides agree that the sticking point is not the cost of labor itself -- up-front wages on nonunion sessions are normally higher, and any California sessions would also be under union contract. But a Texas recording would also involve the added expense for tech equipment which must be rented and trucked in from outside Austin, since there is no nearby facility that has both the space to perform and the equipment to record, mix, and complete a film score. That extra expense, said Avellán, motivated the request to go nonunion -- partly because distributors dislike adding after-market payments to their overall budget. The distribution rights for Once Upon a Time in Mexico are split equally between Sony and Dimension/Miramax.

"We love Austin and Texas musicians," said Avellán, "and we're trying to build an industry here, that is already putting millions of dollars into the economy." Avellán said she and Rodriguez "have nothing against the musicians here in town that decided not to do it," but added, "This would have never come up if Robert and I hadn't decided, 'Hey, wouldn't it be cool to do this movie in Texas -- a wonderful thing for Texas film.'"

But in letters to its members, both local and national union leaders wrote, "While it may seem harmless to do some 'nonunion' recording sessions, it sets the stage for even more abuse of musicians," and argued that the practice pits musicians against each other in a "race to the bottom." Representatives of the national union could not be reached for comment.

For the moment at least, the fallout means that the musical camaraderie generated by Spy Kids II -- Rodriguez proudly dubbed that film's orchestra the "Texas Philharmonic" -- has dissolved, at least temporarily, in bitterness and ill will. Avellán expressed anger over the union reaction -- particularly over a union e-mail suggesting the producers were implying that Texas musicians are "inferior." She said she's not certain the producers will try to do scores in Austin again any time soon. "I'm going to keep making movies and we have to score them somewhere," Avellán said, mentioning Northern California, Seattle (where symphonic musicians left the AFM some years ago), and Prague. The city of San Francisco, she said, offers 30% cost "rebates" to producers willing to do post-production scoring there.

Tom Hale is a union member, the principal horn player for the Austin Symphony, and also the contractor who initially tried to put together the sessions for Once Upon a Time in Mexico. He would say only, "We appreciate and applaud Robert Rodriguez's efforts to bring film score recording to Austin and Central Texas, and it's unfortunate that Austin lacks a suitable venue with equipment to do this kind of project."

Avellán added, "I don't think we'll stop making movies in Austin, but I just don't know what I can do to change the situation" regarding post-production scoring. Surveying the aftershock, one disheartened musician concluded, "If we don't do anything for ourselves, then we're abused like all contract labor. If we stand up and fight for our rights, we lose the work."

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Robert Rodriguez, Elizabeth Avellan, Once Upon a Time in Mexico, Spy Kids, Austin Federation of Musicians, musicians' union, film industry, film scoring, Randy McCall, Tom Hale

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