A Career Hooligan Looks Back, But Mostly Forward

Robert Rodriguez on a lifetime of innovation and the movie, 'El Mariachi,' that started it all

A Career Hooligan Looks Back, But Mostly Forward

Aspiring filmmaker? Don't go back to school. Seriously. No matter how much your parents plead with you, it's no longer necessary.

Instead of amassing the soul-crushing mountain of student loan debt that you will incur over four years spent learning film theory and practice, why not just take one-half of a semester's tuition and buy a prosumer camera, Final Cut Pro, and – this last bit is key – every single Robert Rodriguez DVD/Blu-ray you can? Study them. Listen to his director's commentaries. Absorb at a molecular level the lessons and advice he offers in his "Ten Minute Film School" videos. Note his remarkable progression as a filmmaker: from 1992's now-iconic El Mariachi to the forthcoming Machete Kills, and from his recent creation of the Quickdraw production and animation facilities to the planned 2014 launch of his Latino-oriented Comcast network El Rey. Watch everything he has done, study everything he has crafted, then do it again. And then go do it yourself.

Most important: Be inspired by Rodriguez's lead. Learn by emulation and osmosis. Remember that the man who shattered the moribund Hollywood system and, along with visionary peers George Lucas and James Cameron, predicted the demise of 35mm filmmaking as far back as 2002, was also the kid who used his little brothers and sister in 30-something short films on video before he headed down to Ciudad Acuña, Mexico, with pal Carlos Gallardo, a battered 16mm Arriflex borrowed from some friends (full disclosure: I was one of them), and a guitar case full of promise (and guns).

Film school? Sure, Rodriguez spent two years at the University of Texas, penning the great daily cartoon "Los Hooligans" for The Daily Texan prior to exiting with a bang in 1991 after his 9-minute, 16mm student film project "Bedhead" blew everyone's mind nearly a decade before the word digital became filmmaking's new lingua franca. But frankly, all the core information you need to kick-start your own career can be found in Rodriguez's films (and in his many talks and lectures available on YouTube). You could reasonably divide independent filmmaking into two categories: pre-Mariachi and post-Mariachi. Columbia Pictures' gamble on that little Spanish-language shoot-'em-up changed, well, everything.

It's 2012, PM: Do you know where your hooligans are?

Danny Trejo, actor, Machete, Machete Kills, etc.: "I love making movies, but there have been some movies that I've worked on that have really been a job, you know? The director's in a bad mood, the makeup people aren't happy, maybe the film is having financial problems, and they brought all this stuff to work with them, so there's just tension, tension, tension. On Robert's movies, man, you talk about loving your job! You might be working 15-hour days, you might be exhausted, but it's all good because you're loving what you do. And Robert pushes that. He wants every single member of the cast and the crew to be loving what they do, all the time, because that kind of enthusiasm will show up onscreen."

It's mid-July, midafternoon, and it feels like 102 – minimum – degrees in the shade. That is, it would if there were any shade. There's not, though, at least not any cast by nature out here, 30 or so minutes due west of Fredericksburg, Texas. I'm in a working rock quarry watching one of the final days of shooting for Rodriguez's Machete Kills. All around me are crew members quietly scuttling about, setting up lights and lugging cables, and the director, fittingly attired in the filmmaker's equivalent of a Dune stillsuit – a black vest fitted with Velcro pockets into which bars of frozen coolant are slipped, a concession to the unrelenting heat reflecting up off of the white-dusted, rocky ground. Somewhere on set, Key Special Effects Makeup Artist Meredith Johns, of Austin's Hawgfly Productions, Inc., is desperately trying to keep various prosthetic body parts from melting. (To my right is a bucket full of severed human heads. They look okay to me.)

Robert Rodriguez at Troublemaker Studios
Robert Rodriguez at Troublemaker Studios (Photo by Sandy Carson)

Rodriguez and his camera, shielded by a tarp, are shooting a scene in which William Sadler – whom Rodriguez first worked with on his sophomore film Roadracers – is getting his right arm severed just below the elbow. Well, the severance itself will be digitally inserted later. For now, the actor just has to draw his gun, make like he caught a seriously edged weapon somewhere north of his humerus, and holler. Rodriguez shoots several takes, then moves the camera. An unnervingly realistic prop forearm, clad in the same white cotton shirt Sadler is sporting but ending in a crimson shred, is cast down repeatedly into the dust. And again. And again. And again.

Later, Danny Trejo, Machete himself, will come out to kick ass, take names, and be devoid of bubblegum. But for now, it's just body parts in the dirt, crew-chat, and idle laughter between setups. Another day, another flesh wound. Badass.

Charles Ramírez Berg, the Joe M. Dealey, Sr. Professor in Media Studies at the University of Texas at Austin: "El Mariachi pretty much set the template for digital, independent filmmaking before there was digital filmmaking. Today, everybody has a video camera in their pocket and editing software on their computer. The do-it-yourself, digital cinema we have now, though, I think Robert pretty much created that a full decade before there was digital.

"One of the things that I really admire about El Mariachi, and the El Mariachi aesthetic, is his notion that [Hollywood] doesn't want you to make films like that. [Hollywood] wants you to make films that cost $150 million dollars. And Robert said 'No, you go out and make your film. If you want to figure out all the reasons not to make a film, that could be a long list. You've got to figure out a way to get that list down to zero and then just go out and do it.' And that's exactly what he did."

"I come from a cartoon background," explains Rodriguez, "and I love the freedom of taking a blank sheet of paper and knowing that in ten minutes there'll be something here that didn't exist before. It's just gonna happen. I don't know what it is, but it'll appear.

"If I had to run an obstacle course to get there I'd never pick up the pen. That's why a lot of filmmakers take years between productions, to build up their stamina, not for the work but for the process. It saps them of their energy."

We're sitting in the heart of Troublemaker, the film studio the director built from scratch with his now ex-wife and longtime producer Elizabeth Avellán on the site of the old Robert Mueller Municipal Airport, off 51st St. From the outside it looks, for all intents and purposes, like any other bland block of warehouse warrens. There's no sign above the guardhouse gate, no indication of the countless hours of cinemagic that have been created here, not even any snarky Los Hooligans graffiti scrawled almost imperceptibly on a wall. Nada.

Inside, however, is another story. While much of Rodriguez's editing, sound, and other gear is stored in the converted garage(s) at his home outside of Austin (search "Inside Troublemaker Studios" on YouTube for a video tour), this is where Sin City was shot, on the studio's not-so-huge green-screen stage. This is where most of Planet Terror's climactic zombie-helicopter-Rose McGowan's-killer-gam battle was staged, and this is where much of Rodriguez's non-ultraviolent, fully family-friendly films (the Spy Kids franchise, The Adventures of Shark Boy and Lava Girl in 3-D, Shorts) were digitally lensed. This is where, as they say, the magic – and mayhem – happens. Speaking of digital conjuring, Rodriguez continues:

"The process [of traditional filmmaking] just wears me out. The filmmaking itself is actually fun, but it's a process that somebody arbitrarily created. So [at Troublemaker] we've stripped all that away and created our own process, which is very unusual but people [love it]. That actor who got nominated for an Oscar this year [for A Better Life], Demián Bichir, was one of the last guys to come and film [for Machete Kills]. He kept calling me asking when he was going to get the script, and I told him, 'I can't send it to you because I know you're going to memorize it and I'm going to change it the day after I send it to you, because I haven't gotten to your part. It's going to be real laid-back: You're going to come in, I have a few costume ideas, you'll put it on, you'll feel the character, and you get into it.'

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Robert Rodriguez, El Mariachi, Carlos Gallardo, Elizabeth Avellan, Troublemaker Studios, El Rey, Ismael Jones and the Eyes of the Devil, Chingón, Danny Trejo, Machete, Machete Kills, Charles Ramírez Berg, From Dusk Till Dawn, Meredith Johns, William Sadler, Planet Terror, Mel Gibson, Robert De Niro, Quickdraw, Demián Bichir

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