A Career Hooligan Looks Back, But Mostly Forward
Robert Rodriguez on a lifetime of innovation and the movie, 'El Mariachi,' that started it all
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.)
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.'
"It's a very different process, but he trusted me and when he left he said, 'I don't want to work with anybody but you. I'm so spoiled now.' So the word is out [about Troublemaker]. People are like, 'Something's going on down there.' Imagine, you can come be in a movie, it's only going to take you a day, we can't pay you very much but you're not going to feel ripped off, and it's going to be the best creative experience of your life. So people are talking. [Robert] De Niro came down because he heard about [me] from George Clooney. He was on his way from New York to go do Little Fockers and stopped here four days. We shot him in four leisurely days and he's in the whole movie. And that makes it easier to get other guys, like Mel Gibson."
Indeed, one of the hallmarks of both Rodriguez's adult action fare and his family-oriented films is the caliber of talent he's been able to corral over the years. After El Mariachi was picked up for distribution by Columbia Pictures 20 years back – Rodriguez later forged a fruitful distro relationship with the Weinstein brothers' Dimension Films, beginning with 1996's From Dusk Till Dawn – the director made a pointed effort to include as many Latin actors in his films as possible. Antonio Banderas, then-unknown (in el Norte, anyway) Salma Hayek, Cheech Marin, and permanent Troublemaker badass Danny Trejo all kicked off a series of what would become recurring appearances in Los Hooligans/Troublemaker films that continue to this day.
The idea of using Latin actors and crew has been a guiding principle behind Rodriguez's artistic vision since well before El Mariachi: One of his earliest home video productions, which he shows me, was "Ismael Jones and the Eyes of the Devil." Watching it now is like watching the birth of the Rodriguez style: rapid cuts, dizzying zooms, nonstop action. It owes as much to the Shaw Brothers' crazed chopsocky style of the Seventies as it does to the director's famously DIY work ethic.
Throughout his career, the lack of Latino actors in mainstream Hollywood films had been a sore spot for Rodriguez. If he could do it in his films, why weren't others following in his wake? It's a tough question that, until recently, had no easy answers. Until, that is, March of this year, when Rodriguez announced the pending creation of his own television network, called El Rey, which would serve as a venue for Latin programming in English, the first of its kind in the U.S.
He explains: "It's going to be a Latin network that competes with Univision and Telemundo. And we can do this because Comcast just merged with Universal, and to become that big they have to designate 10 channels to independent operators, four of which have to be minorities. So, via a government loophole, you can own a network. If you put in a pitch and they like it, they'll give it to you. Shit, I'm a believer in affirmative action if that's what it takes!
"El Rey is the missing piece. When I went to Hollywood there were no Latin actors. Even when I went to make Spy Kids, the Weinsteins were like, 'Why are you making the kids Latin? We don't understand. The film is in English, it's American.' And it's because when you write what you know – I'm Latin, and all my characters are going to be Latin, even though they're speaking English and playing rock and roll with action and adventure. [Spy Kids] was based on my family. My Uncle Gregorio was a special agent in the FBI – that's who Antonio's based on. The kids are based on my sister and brother. It's my family. But still, they couldn't figure out why I was making it Latin. Finally I said, you don't have to be British to enjoy James Bond, and they went, 'Okay.'
"The problem is there's not enough Latin filmmakers to push that agenda to make it more diverse. Otherwise, you know, it becomes a token character, and that's not going to feel authentic. So El Rey allows us to do something a little more authentic that's still going to be for everybody. It's going to be totally in English, so anybody can watch it, just like anybody could watch Machete or From Dusk Till Dawn or whatever. It provides a forum for Latin characters written by Latin filmmakers."
It is, to be sure, the biggest game changer that Robert Rodriguez has ever been a part of. Check it out: La revolucíon will be televised!
Elizabeth Avellán, producer and co-founder/owner of Troublemaker Studios: "Our dream had always been to make movies here in Austin. We knew it could be done because Rick [Linklater] had done Slacker and Dazed and Confused, and movies-of-the-week were happening all the time, too. We knew there was some sort of a crew here, that was being trained by working on these films. Ned Blessing had been done here, Barbarosa, and people like William Wittliff were working out of Austin. There was obviously a local film scene happening and what they were doing was training the crew that, ultimately, we ended up using for The Faculty, which was the first film we did here in Austin."
There's a precedent for what Rodriguez and Avellán have created here in Austin, but you have to go back a long way. All the way to 1919, when D.W. Griffith, Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, and Douglas Fairbanks – in a bid to control their artistic license and manage the means of production on their films – broke rank with the studios in the earliest years of Hollywood and formed United Artists.
The parallels between Troublemaker's self-contained, self-sustaining digital world and the fledgling indie United Artists Corporation are striking, but the historical echoes of what Rodriguez is doing go back even further, to the birth of filmmaking as we know it, when pioneering inventors and artists like the Lumière Brothers, Georges Méliès, and Thomas Edison literally made it up as they went along.
And now, Rodriguez is doing the same thing: from reenergizing 3-D (with 2003's Spy Kids 3-D) to trailblazing totally digital filmmaking (via Once Upon a Time in Mexico, shot in 2001 but not released until 2003), all while building his own filmmaking empire – some might say dynasty, considering the amount of familial involvement – separate and distinct from Hollywood. Love him or like him (seriously, who could hate this guy?), you can't fault Rodriguez's rampant creativity or wild ambition. And it all goes back to that $7,000, funded by lab rat stints in Pharmaco medical studies, which led to the roll of the dice that was El Mariachi.
"Why work for a studio anymore?" Rodriguez asks. "Studios don't even pay for their movies these days, they have to go get independent financing themselves. So why not bypass them completely? Why use them as a broker? Why are they owning your product?
"People think 'independent' means it has to be independent subject matter, but it doesn't, necessarily. You have a lot more freedom because you can go right to the financiers who love working directly with the filmmaker. And if you can build up a trust with them, then they just write you the check and then you go get the distributor. And then you and the financier own it. With the studios, as soon as you make a big production out of it, you're making a big production out of it."
Dear Diary ...
In 1993, The Austin Chronicle asked Robert Rodriguez to keep a diary detailing his experiences at the Sundance Film Festival, where El Mariachi would go on to win the Audience Award. "Sundancing As Fast As I Can," Feb. 12, 1993.
20th Anniversary of 'El Mariachi' Event
The Austin Film Society, AMD, and El Rey Network will present a special El Mariachi anniversary event on Thursday, Aug. 30, 7:30pm, at the Paramount Theatre. The evening's festivities include a 35mm print of El Mariachi, the first public screening of Rodriguez's early short "Ismael and the Eyes of the Devil," a Q&A, and a live performance by Rodriguez and his band, Chingón, who will play songs from the Rodriguez canon as the corresponding clips, from films starting with Desperado up through Machete, play behind the band on an enhanced digital screen. Tickets are on sale now; see www.austinfilm.org for more info.