From Rags to Riches
With "Desperado," Robert Rodriguez Learns To Make
Do--With Money, Star And Studio
By Michael Haile
Filmmaker Robert Rodriguez's rags-to-riches story
has become this decade's Hollywood legend. In 1992, a 23-year-old
Rodriguez directed, wrote, produced, photographed, sound-recorded
and edited an 80-minute 16mm Spanish-language action feature called
"El Mariachi," with money earned from a stint in a research lab
as a test subject for cholesterol medication. Shot in 14 days
with amateur actors and a budget of only $7,000, the film tells
the story of a traveling Mexican musician who wanders into a border
town looking for work, only to be mistaken for a dangerous killer.
Rodriguez naively sent a tape of "El Mariachi" to an agent at
ICM whose name he culled from a magazine. Not only was Rodriguez
signed for representation but within weeks he was being courted
by film executives impressed with his lively, inventive visual
style (and, one would guess, his frugality). The Texas native
signed a two-year development and production deal with Columbia.
In a fairy-tale twist, the studio decided to release "El Mariachi"
theatrically, spending $100,000 to improve the film's look and
sound. "El Mariachi" became the lowest-budgeted feature ever released
by a studio, and Rodriguez was acclaimed a Hollywood wunderkind.
"Nobody was supposed to see this film," Rodriguez says. "I was
just trying to hone my filmmaking skills, maybe sell it to the
Spanish home-video market. I didn't figure anyone would pay $7
to see a $7,000 film." He laughs. "The movie was just a rehash
of every other movie I had ever seen. The fact that they were
going to put this movie out was amazing. All the time I had wanted
to be a filmmaker, I was always led to believe that you needed
a lot of money, you needed to go to a top film school and then
work your way up the Hollywood ladder." Instantly, he was way
up the rungs.
The fruit of Rodriguez's Columbia deal is this August's bullet-riddled
actioner "Desperado," the much-anticipated sequel to "El Mariachi."
This time around, A-talent Antonio Banderas stars as the nameless
mariachi. Written, directed and edited by Rodriguez, "Desperado"
co-stars Joaquim De Almeida, Cheech Marin, Salma Hayek and Steve
Buscemi and bears certain imprints of such filmmakers as Sergio
Leone, Sam Peckinpah, John Woo and "Desperado" co-star Quentin
Tarantino. The character of the mariachi has shifted and he more
closely resembles the man he was once mistaken for. He was a peaceful
guitarist in the first film, but now he's been transformed into
a gunslinger set on wiping out a Mexican drug dealer and his henchmen.
I was influenced by `For A Few Dollars More' and `A Fistful of
Dollars' -- the idea of taking the same character and putting him
into a different kind of adventure."
With a budget a thousand times that of "El Mariachi" ($7 million),
Rodriguez entered into the different adventure of mainstream Hollywood
moviemaking. "Talk about autonomy. With `El Mariachi,' I didn't
have to answer to anybody. But the pressure now is actually less,
because this time it's not my own money." He laughs again. "Seven
million dollars is a good sum, but for a major studio action film
it's still a very low budget. I remember them telling me, `We
make mainstream movies. Don't put in any weird stuff.' I guess
Americans like their action straight -- Steven Seagal breaking some
guy's arm. So I said, `Okay, give me a mainstream action budget,
give me $40 million and Bruce Willis, and we'll make a mainstream
movie.' After that, they pretty much let me do what I wanted...as
long as there were going to be lots of explosions. I'm competing
against movies that cost between $50 million and $150 million,
so I had to make every penny count. We completed 60 or 70 shots
done per day, so the energy level is very high.
"People always ask me how I made a movie in this business so cheaply.
What I want to know is why the studios spend so much. I see so
much waste; the big movies often seem static and tired. Maybe
they are too polished. They've removed the grit that comes from
making films the hard way, by running around fast and sweating
it out, forcing yourself to be creative with a lower budget."
What also makes "Desperado" unlike the studios' status quo is
its largely Latin cast and crew. Hollywood has long ignored Latinos
(particularly when casting leads), but that's changing with the
recent success of actors like Banderas, Andy Garcia, Rosie Perez
and the late Raul Julia -- along with the fact that Latinos now buy
as many movie tickets (see sidebar) as do African-Americans.
"The main reason I did this movie was that I wanted to create a
Latin action hero and a different-flavored action movie," Rodriguez
says. "The Latin community needs more success stories before Hollywood
will know how to handle that market.
"Spike Lee put out his own movie and made back enough money for
Hollywood to take interest in the African-American market. This
is a business, and certainly they're not going to leave any gold
mine untouched. I hope we can make more Latin-themed pictures
that are universal enough for other audiences. That's the real
trick to making it commercially viable."
Rodriguez grew up in San Antonio, the third of 10
children, and early on developed an interest in cartooning and
filmmaking. "I drew little flip-cartoon movies in paperback dictionaries.
One day, my dad brought home a video camera, a real clunker, but
it had great special effects. I made little movies around the
house for fun with my brothers and sisters for years, shooting
and editing everything myself. By the time I made `El Mariachi,'
I had already shot and edited so much that I'd given myself filmmaking
training without knowing it."
Rodriguez attended the University of Texas at Austin, where he
drew a daily newspaper comic strip called "Los Hooligans" (now
the name of his production company, in which he's partnered with
his wife, Elizabeth Avellan). Although his grades were too low
for him to be accepted initially in the film program, out of school
he made nearly 30 Super-8 movies with borrowed equipment and no
money. Finally accepted into the film program, he went on to make
a number of 16mm films; one, "Bedhead," won festival awards and
aired on PBS.
The meteoric success of "El Mariachi" convinced him all the more
to maintain his hands-on approach. "I want to shoot that specialization
myth down. Be everything! The most powerful thing is to become
self-sufficient, to walk into a room knowing you could actually
make a film all by yourself. Then you're not begging. I'm used
to doing everything, and I don't want to give up the fun of wearing
many hats. I told someone at the studio I wanted to edit this
movie, and he said, `We can't let you edit your own movie. Directors
never edit their own movies. It's too much work.' Let me tell
you something: The day I don't edit my own movie is the day I'm
just doing it for the money. It's cool to make a good deal, to
know you're going to get paid, but it's really all about the work.
That's the real thrill."
Recently, Rodriguez directed a segment of the four-part
"Four Rooms" for Miramax -- with whom Rodriguez in May signed an
exclusive directing/writing/producing pact. "Four Rooms'" other
segments are helmed by three other new lions: Quentin Tarantino
("Pulp Fiction"), Allison Anders ("Mi Vida Loca") and Alexandre
Rockwell ("In the Soup"). "That project was a way to experiment.
We each had certain elements to make a story around -- a hotel room
on New Year's Eve, a bellhop -- and we didn't tell each other what
we were doing. It could easily have been a bad idea, but they
all tie together very well."
Next up for Rodriguez are two Miramax productions, the first a
horror/action film, "From Dusk Til Dawn," which Tarantino scripted
and stars in (with George Clooney from TV's "E.R."). A point of
financial note: The $15 million behind "From Dusk Til Dawn" doubles
Rodriguez's "Desperado" budget. At that rate of rise, the young
director will soon be making one of those $100 million movies.
But remember, studio brass: You won't have to include a separate
line item for an editor.