The Reformation of a Rebel Without a Crew

With Banderas on Desperados:
Don’t wash your problems away with a money hose, do it with
your imagination.

Russ Thompson
(MM):
Is Desperado a sequel, or a remake of El
Mariachi?

Robert Rodriguez (RR): When
I first made El Mariachi, I got a deal with Columbia to make
more movies. The first project I suggested was a remake of El
Mariachi
, with Antonio Banderas and music by Los Lobos, for about
five or six million dollars. And that was the course we were
going to take, until we decided to put it in film festivals to
test it with an audience and see how it played before remaking
it. It did so well, they decided to just release it as it was.
But they said, "No matter what happens with the movie, we
would still like to do another one with the same character, but
starring Antonio.” So we ended up doing a follow-up, you know,
where it’s the same character, just in a different adventure.

MM: So what was the budget?
Five or six million?

RR: Well, once we got
Antonio we got more like seven. Which is great, which is plenty
for me. It’s like, I’m there. My real problem is that when you
work with a studio, they allocate a lot more money for areas
that I wouldn’t spend on. So we ended up having only three-point-two
million to actually shoot the movie, not counting above-the-line
and post-production costs. It looks really big, though. Kind
of what I wanted to prove was that I could take their money and
make it look like the rest of the summer movies–which are anywhere
from fifty to one hundred eighty million dollars.

MM: You made El Mariachi for seven thousand dollars. We all know that part of the story.
But give me a quick overview of how the theatrical release came
about. You sent the movie to an agent, right?

RR: I shot it for a very
particular market– the Spanish video market. The Spanish video
distributors were here in Los Angeles, so Carlos Gallardo and
I drove up to Los Angeles to show it to them. The video action
movies they make are really, really lame. Just awful. Some of
them are shot with video cameras. So we thought, "Well,
we can compete with that." So we just tried to make the
movie as good as we could, hoping that by having more action
in it, we could get them to buy it from us for 15 or 20 grand.
That’s why we had to keep the budget so low. When we came to
Los Angeles, one distributor was getting ready to buy it for
20 grand. They were getting the contracts together, and while
we were waiting I dropped a tape off at agent Robert Newman’s
office [at ICM]. It had a short film on it called Bedhead that
had won many film festivals–it was like eight minutes long–and
a trailer from El Mariachi that was about two minutes long. And
I told him, "If you could watch the tape and let me know
what you think–I’m trying to make a demo tape for coming to
Hollywood later on." Bedhead had my brothers and sisters
in it, but I figured I could get him to look at it if they knew
it had won awards. And he checked it out right away and called
back and said, "We want to sign you up as a writer/director." I
was like, "Wow, I didn’t realize I was a writer, but I guess
I’ve always written my own stuff. That sounds cool–writer/director." He
signed me up early in January ’92 and I started sending out videotapes
of Mariachi and Bedhead all over Hollywood, endorsed by ICM.
All the studios watched it over the next two weeks. I never could
have gotten anyone in Hollywood to watch a Spanish-language low-budget
movie like that, but because it came from the agency, they all
watched it right away and jumped right on it. I started getting
calls immediately from Columbia and Tri-Star and Disney saying
they wanted to make some kind of development deal with me–hear
what other scripts I had, maybe pay me to write a script, maybe
direct it. It was going to be kind of a slow track, but I was
going to start getting work. The agency stirs the pot by getting
everybody interested in you, and then getting you a better deal.
So they started saying, "Well, he won’t write for you unless
you give him a two-year deal." So Columbia came forth and
said, "We’ll give him a two-year writing/directing deal
to develop pictures with us." The first project was going
to be the remake of El Mariachi, and it went from there.

MM: How much money
did Columbia put into
El Mariachi to release it?

RR: Most people who make
a 16-millimeter film will edit on 16 and make a release print.
And that costs another 20 grand. What I did was, I cut it on
video because that’s the market I was selling it to. It was so
much cheaper to make copies of videos and send them out. Everyone
could watch it right away on a VCR. But when they said they wanted
to send it to festival, I told them, "I don’t have a film
print. You’ll have to project it on video." And they said, "We’ll
make you a film print." The only way theaters will take
a movie is if it’s 35 millimeter with a stereo mix. So the distributor
covers those costs. All you have to do it is get it to a point
to sell it to a distributor.

MM.: Were there any
movies in particular that inspired
El Mariachi?

RR: Carlos and I were
fans of the Road Warrior films, and we said, "Let’s make
a Mexican character that’s really cool like the Road Warrior.
You know, one of those guys that walks in to town, blows up the
town, then leaves. I see a lot of first-time filmmakers who make
more of a personal story. I knew that this was going to be my
first practice film, and I asked myself, What would I do if I
didn’t have to send this to festivals–if this is just for fun?
Even though we don’t have a lot of money, let’s just try and
make a full-blown action movie. I had this idea for a recurring
character, a guy with a guitar case full of guns, walking around
dressed like a mariachi. The mariachi is, like, the wimpiest
character in Mexican culture. So I said, "We’re gonna make
an action movie, but rather than making a revenge picture about
an ex-cop who’s lost his family, let’s make him an ex-musician
or something really wimpy, and make him really cool." I
thought for the first one we’d show how he became that cool character,
and then parts two and parts three would follow him on a journey.
He no longer plays music, so what happens to an artist when an
artist can no longer create? He begins to destroy.

MM: Some of the editing–the
slow-motion shots, the quick close-ups–looks straight out of
Peckinpah.

RR: It’s a funny thing.
I’d never even seen The Wild Bunch. My shorter films,
like Bedhead,
which is on the laser disk and videotape of El Mariachi–when
you see that, you’ll see what I was really doing. That film is
sped up and slowed down a lot. A lot of camera tricks. In Mariachi there are also a lot of shots that are sped up, then slowed down.
As a kid I just loved the whole idea of illusions: how to create
something out of nothing. I shot some of Mariachi in slow motion
because I knew it would stretch the movie out and also make it
look more expensive. You take an image of this guy with a guitar,
put him on the road and slow it down–suddenly it has this epic
feel to it. And the slow-motion for the gunshots and stuff–I
had to slow down all the death in order to play the sound effects
over it, because the guns had blanks in them and we could only
get one burst out of each. Later on I started seeing some Peckinpah
stuff because people mentioned it–all that real stylized motion.
But I think I mainly got my ideas from people who got their ideas
from him.

MM: Give me a brief
chronology. After
El Mariachi, you shot something for Showtime?

RR: I wrote the script
for Desperado in January of 1993. Mariachi was released a couple
months later. In the fall of ’93, I was doing promotion, and
then that Christmas I prepared and started shooting Roadracers for Showtime. It’s a remake of the old AIP rebel films.

MM: Roadracers?

RR: It’s a really lame
title. The only stipulation was that we had to use it. We could
do whatever else we wanted, as long as it was about teen angst
in some way. So we made, like, Happy Days or Grease–but imagine
Fonzie flipping out and shooting everyone in the end with a shotgun
and everybody dies. I wanted to feature a Latin actress, Salma
Hayek, whom I’d once seen in a television interview saying how
she couldn’t get work in the States. There weren’t any parts
for people like her–they would say her accent was too thick.
I thought she was really beautiful and really strong and really
funny, so I wanted to put her in Desperado. The studio was, like, "We
want this blonde actress," but I was able to convince them
with a screen test that she was good for the part. Turns out
she’s the first Mexican lead in a Hollywood film since Dolores
Del Rio back in the 30s. It’s so hard to change people’s minds
around here. You gotta show them or they won’t think of it.

MM: You took Steadicam
classes before shooting
Desperado. Why do you operate the camera?
I mean, you had millions to shoot this thing. You could’ve afforded
an operator.

RR: Well, it doesn’t really
save you anything if you know what you want and you really enjoy
operating, especially because I do a lot of hand-held and change
my mind very quickly. While the shot’s going on, I don’t have
to cut and explain it to somebody else. That’s just too much
delegation. It makes more sense to operate the camera, get what
you want and give it a real energy. I just love that. I would
hate to be sitting behind the camera and looking at the monitor.
You just don’t feel as involved. The Steadicam is an extra step
to be able to get smoother shots. I still have the freedom to
change my mind and grab stuff as the scene is going, when inspiration
really hits. It’s fun, strapping that thing on and moving around.
People get out of your way and listen to you really closely.

MM: Did you get to
edit
Desperado?

RR: The studio wouldn’t
let me edit. They said, "We can’t let you edit your own
picture." I said, "But I
always edit my own pictures. They came out okay before!"

MM: Did you get first
cut, or final cut?

RR: Well–and this might
be why they didn’t want me to edit–if they didn’t like something,
they would have to tell the editor. And since I was the editor,
I could pretend, like, "Oh that footage doesn’t exist." So
in a way I had final cut–I was the only one who knew where any
of the footage was. Fortunately when they saw it they liked it
the way it was, so it didn’t matter. But I didn’t officially
have final cut on the picture. If they wanted to change the end,
they could have.

MM: Tell me about your
new movie.

RR: I’m shooting From
Dusk ‘Til Dawn
. It’s a cool horror/action film, a bizarre movie,
one of those things people are just not going to believe. It’s
a Quentin Tarantino script. He’s co-producing with me, and it’s
just nuts.

MM: And you do have final
cut?

RR: Yeah, it’s cool! They
let me edit, they let me shoot, do whatever I want. When people
second-guess your instincts, you start questioning your instincts,
too. And then you’re screwed. Then you need everyone’s advice
to do anything. That’s when everything goes haywire.

MM: What’s the budget
on
From Dusk ‘Til Dawn?

RR: I think it’s 11 million
dollars. A lot of make-up effects, computer stuff, opticals.
I figured out a real trick: In order to make a movie look more
expensive, you just have to shoot faster. On a Hollywood set
they shoot very, very slow. You’ll see them getting maybe five
or 10 shots a day–15, 20 if they’re really fast. If they get
shots before lunch they feel good. On Desperado, we averaged
55 a day.

MM: Fifty-five shots or
55 set-ups?

RR: Set-ups. That was
the average. It was mostly 60, 70. The record day was 77.

MM: How long a day was
it?

RR: Twelve-hour days.
I don’t like to do longer days. I try to work real hard and finish
the day off. We shot for 42 days, instead of shooting for months
and months. We’re doing that right now on From Dusk ‘Til Dawn,
getting an enormous amount of set-ups and doing so many things
a day. Some of the actors are going, "Wow, I’m not used
to shooting this fast. I’m not sitting in the trailer all day…."

MM: Who are the stars
in
From Dusk ‘Til Dawn?

RR: Harvey Keitel, George
Clooney from E.R., Juliette Lewis, Quentin Tarantino. Salma Hayek’s
in it–she’s a vampire goddess. Cheech Marin. It’s a cool cast.

MM: How do you work with
actors?

RR: It’s different on
each film. On Mariachi I fed them the lines, one line at a time.
I’d say, "Say this line. Now say this back. Cut. Forget
that line. Here’s the next one. Say it like this." I was
like the puppet master. On Desperado I told them what I wanted,
and they were more trained as actors. They would say the lines,
and if I didn’t want it said that way I would give them a suggestion.
I’d even do it for them, which you’re probably not supposed to
do. But they didn’t mind. They’d say, "Oh, I don’t want
to do that." You have to direct different actors different
ways. With Antonio, I could tell him, "Say the line, and
say it like this," and he’d do it. Some actors get kind
of p.o.’d about that. You never know who you’re working with.

MM: How much rehearsal
time do you have?

RR: From Dusk ‘Til
Dawn
is the first movie where I’ve had real rehearsal time. We rehearsed
for two weeks–not bad for a horror film–which helped because
we got a lot of the kinks out and I got to see where the shots
were going. And it helps to give the actors a little more background.
There’s one thing I realized. If there’s a television series
that you’ve followed awhile, look at the pilot. It’s pretty lame.
Everyone’s stereotypical–they haven’t grown into their characters
very much yet. But by the end of the first season, everyone’s
sustained, got their own personality. Rehearsal period helps
you do something like that. The actors get to find different
ways of doing a scene.

MM: How is Keitel in rehearsal?
Do you guys just do the script, or do you do any improvisation?

RR: I wanted him to improvise
a lot in rehearsal so I could be ready for it on film. When it
came down to film, it went very quickly, and the stuff he does
is amazing. I learned so much about directing actors through
him. That’s a tricky thing, trying to ask another director, "How
do you do this?" Because you’re not sure, you think you
need to find out if there’s some trick–but there really isn’t.
When I was just starting out as a cartoonist, I went to another
cartoonist and asked, "What kind of pens do you use? What
kind of paper do you use?" "Oh, I don’t know," he
said. "Find out what’s right for you," "Don’t
tell me that!" I told him. "I don’t have money to go
figure it out!" But he was right. I tried his method, and
it sucked. It took me 10 years to find what paper and pen combination
worked for me. Same thing with directing. You’re not doing it
wrong, you’re just not doing it like somebody else. You figure
it out. And then your way will be what other people want to do.

MM: I made a short
last year. I shot it on Super-16mm and paid for it myself.
This very
small production and distribution company in L.A. was looking
for product, so they’re paying me a pretty modest amount to make
a full-length feature based on the story. But already I’m dealing
with the idea of having to compromise. They’re saying, "Well,
maybe we should make the movie more hopeful," which is an
ominous term. What advice do you have for someone like me? When
somebody offers you the money to make your film, should you take
it, or should you hold out for that completely independent vision?

RR: I had complete freedom
on El Mariachi, but if someone had said, ‘Here’s 30 thousand
dollars–make the ending happy,’ I think I would’ve gone ahead
and done it, just to get a movie made. It’s good that you already
had a short film to show them what you could do. But you have
to tell them, "If you want me to make you a movie, you have
to understand: I’ll listen to everything you say. I will take
advice that I feel is worthy. But if I decide to do it this way
. . . " I would shoot a second ending, and show them your
ending first and say that’s the one you want to use. They might
read it on paper and say, "That doesn’t sound hopeful enough," but
they’re not seeing what you’re seeing. You have to prove it to
them. So yeah, keep the vision, but also get their funding. Even
if you have to make the ending hopeful, turn it into an artistic
challenge–how to keep what you want, and still learn from it,
and still be able to go on. I have seen too many filmmakers make
one movie and try and shove it down people’s throats for years
on the festival circuit. Sometimes it’s just not good enough
to be their big break. So shoot it, cut it, learn from it, put
it in the can, go do another one. Because they do get better
with time. The best thing I could have done was make a bunch
of short movies first. That gave me a lot more experience and
a lot more confidence. No matter what you want to do, there’s
always a different way to do it. You should question everything,
every standard, or make up your own way.

MM: You went from making
these short films and this quick-and-dirty feature intended for
the Spanish video market, to suddenly making studio pictures.
How’s it been, dealing with the producers and the business people?
You know, the bean counters.

RR: Fortunately I’ve gotten
to produce these movies myself. That makes a big difference.
The studios are anxious to see how I can make a movie for less.
They think, "Hey man, you made a movie for seven thousand
dollars." So much of moviemaking is just waste, and there
are a lot of crooked people out there wasting even more. Often
people don’t realize how they can get around things, because
a lot of people are very specialized–they only know one job.
The sound guy comes up and says, "It’s gonna cost X-amount
for this." They don’t know any better, so they just believe
it and they pay it. It’s like the Pentagon spending 500 dollars
for a hammer. I try to use common sense and not throw money away.
Usually what happens is, somebody will make a movie, and when
they go on to the next movie they take their old budget from
the last movie and just modify that one. So they keep doing everything
the same way, being afraid of taking chances. There are such
new technologies and new ways of doing things, you don’t have
to be that old-school wasteful anymore.

MM: Steven Soderbergh
said he’d like to have a career like John Houston’s, where each
film that he does is completely different from the last one.
You can’t say, "Oh, that’s a Soderbergh film," in terms
of the subject matter, theme or whatever. Do you aspire to that,
or do you think you’re more comfortable with a particular genre?

RR: So far I’ve gotten
to do different genres. Bedhead and Four Rooms are my family
comedies. Roadracers was my period film, Desperado and Mariachi are my action films. I’m doing a horror film right now, and I’m
writing a sci-fi film. But a lot of them have themes that are
kind of similar. The style is still very much the same because
I don’t have a different camera operator, editor, writer for
each project. I like for people to be expecting something and
get it. Right now I like high-energy films, whether they are
comedies or action, because I enjoy editing–putting that stuff
together, really staging things. Desperado has some bizarre,
really fast, crazy set-ups and situations. It’s almost like a
series of short films that have their own beginning, middle and
end. The way I watch movies now, I don’t sit and watch them all
at once. I’ll watch different scenes. So I try to make my own
scenes more complete ideas that can be taken out of the movie
and watched on their own, and still make sense in their own context
and be entertaining.

MM: I’ve watched some
of the hand-held running sequences in
El Mariachi over and over
again. There’s something about them . . . they’re almost abstract,
everything’s happening so fast.

RR: I told the actors, "I
want to get a big chase down the sidewalk. I’ll get in the back
of the truck and follow you, and make it look like this is a
big-budget movie just by running through the streets. If you
slow down the tape, you can see my mirror reflection. I’m in
the back of the truck with a little Vivitar plastic tripod. It’s
braced by the spare tire in back. I’m using a long lens, so I’ve
got all my weight on the camera because I’m trying to hold it
steady down these bumpy-ass Mexican streets. I just shot Carlos
going down one block, then I shot another guy going the same
route. I had to put so many cuts in because the shots were so
erratic and leaving frame. And people go, "Wow, that’s production
value!" Most of it was because of the limitations of how
cheap I was shooting. That’s something I love about low budgets
and shooting fast. I’m not a good operator, but sometimes the
shots are a little more interesting because they’re not so locked
down and smooth. A real Hollywood movie would’ve set up a nice
dolly track. And it would be so sterile that it would probably
be boring. It’s nice–the less money you have, you kind of have
more energy. That’s something to take advantage of.

MM: You’re right. You
just make the limitations work for you, and people think you’re
revolutionary.

RR: People at film festivals
would say, "We loved the shots of the dog," I’m listening
to them, thinking, I had to cut to the dog. Since I didn’t shoot
sync-sound, I was syncing everything by hand. As soon as a few
words go by, it’s slipping out of sync because I taped the sound
later on location. I was shooting with this real noisy old camera
I’d borrowed. I’d shoot the thing silent, then I’d put the camera
away, put the tape recorder close and say, "Okay, repeat
the lines in a real natural rhythm. Then I had to take each line
and sync it by hand. Watch the lip-sync: it’s dead on every time,
because two or three words go by, and before they go out of sync
I cut to another character or to the dog or something. Then I
cut back to him and he’s back in sync. So all the dialogue seems
to have a really fast energy. Dialogue scenes usually bore me,
but I like bouncing around and jump-cutting into someone’s face,
from a medium to a close-up without cutting away. With the seven
thousand dollars I had for Mariachi, I could’ve just had two
people at a dinner table, talking, but I didn’t want to do that.
I wanted to make an action movie. So, take a small budget and
made that big movie you want to make. And you can end up with
fun, cool results because you end up using more creativity, which
is all a movie is anyway. Instead of washing away your problems
with a money hose, do it with your imagination.

Editor’s note: Penguin Books
has just published Robert Rodriguez’s book, "Rebel Without
a Crew: The Making of El Mariachi." MM

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