If Robert Rodriguez didnt exist, independent filmmakers would have to invent himan unknown 23-year-old makes a terrific first feature for $7,000, is snapped up by ICM, signed to a two-picture deal by Columbia, and then applauded at the Telluride and Toronto film festivals. It sounds too good to be true, but I saw the film, El Mariachi, at the Toronto film festival where I met Rodriguez. He really does exist, the film is a startling debut, and the story of his development as a filmmaker is as remarkable as it is inspiring.
Rodriguez got hooked on movies when he was young at a San Antonio revival theater; he loved action-adventure films and comedies. After his father bought an early model VCR and camera, he started making video shorts. "Im from a family of ten children, so there was a seemingly endless supply of cast and crew." Inspired by Hitchcock, early Spielberg and Scorsese, he wanted to make films with a lot of movement. "The more action I could generate, the more fun it was to do."
After making numerous shorts, he entered the University of Texas but couldnt get into the film department because his grades werent high enough. Soon after his compilation of three shorts, Austin Stories, won first prize at the Third Coast Film and Video Competition, he confronted the chairman of the film department. "I beat your students. Can I get in the department now?" he asked, and was finally accepted. Rodriguez remembers, "I didnt have the money to rent equipment. I wanted to be in the film department for the free equipment. I didnt go there to learn how to tell a story."
Determined to make an award-winning short, he wrote a script with his younger brother David; carefully storyboarded it; shot preliminary version on video; and then participated in a drug-testing study to earn the cash he needed. Using his brother and sisters as the cast, he made his first 16mm film, Bedhead, which he shot handheld with no crew. He filmed only one or two takes, cutting in the camera. Bedhead won awards at festivals across the country and gave him the confidence to do a feature. "Since it was eight minutes long and cost $800, I figured I could make an 80-minute feature for $8,000."
Rodriguez firmly believes,"If you want to make movies, the best way is to make movies since you get better with each one." The planned El Mariachi trilogy was designed to improve Rodriguezs skills, before he made his first "real film." El Mariachi was not designed as a résumé film since "no one is going to do a $7,000 action movie to get work." His belief that no one would ever see El Mariachi freed him to cut corners he would not have dared to cut if he had believed his future was at stake.
Rodriguezs goal was simply to sell the film for enough to finance a sequel and give him more practice. He wanted to tell the video company it had cost $70,000, "So we tried to make it look big with lots of action and cuts, and as much production value as possible."
Shot in August, 1991, the film was finished before Thanksgiving. El Mariachi came in way under budgetonly $7,225 was spent of the $9,000 raised. Rodriguez went to Los Angeles to sell the film to a Spanish-language video company in December. While there, he dropped off a trailer for the film at ICM (International Creative Management), one of Hollywoods most influential talent agencies. Robert Newman, director of special projects at ICM, agreed to represent Rodriguez. While Rodriguez kept waiting for the home video company to finish the paperwork to acquire U.S. and Mexican rights to the film for $20,000, Newman sent cassettes of El Mariachi to the major studios. For Rodriguez, it was as if "my trunk novel was going around to all the publishers." In April, Columbia (the studio of another young phenomenon, John Singleton) signed Rodriguez to a two year writing/directing deal. Columbia also acquired the worldwide distribution rights to El Mariachi, and discussed the possibility of an English remake or sequel. According to Rodriguez, "I asked them what they considered a low budget. They told me $7 million. I told them I could make one thousand El Mariachis for that. I would have enough films to fill my own cable network."
Once Columbia acquired El Mariachi, Rodriguez had the resources to cut the movie on film. He had to laboriously sync it again and then edit it by continually comparing it to the cassette. He was able to tighten up some things, and add some sound effectsbetter gun shots, traffic. Columbia also paid for subtitling and a 35mm blow-up. Rodriguez estimated that the blow-up cost $100,000 and noted that the Columbia logo now attached to El Mariachi "probably cost more than my whole movie."
Under this deal, Rodriguez owes Columbia two scriptsone is expected to be for a second El Mariachi. In his future scripts he intends to create parts for Hispanics. "There arent enough Hispanic actors working in Hollywood, nor are there many positive Latin roles."
Rodriguez remains a firm believer in no-budget filmmaking. He was shocked when a friend who wanted to follow the same path called to tell him he had just spent $20,000 making a four-minute short with a full, paid crew and a Steadicam operator. "Part of the problem with student films with 100 people in the credits is that you cant tell what exactly is the directors talent. On El Mariachi, I took the creditor blamefor the writing, direction, camerawork, and editing." He then added, "The nice thing about making a movie by yourself is that you can take credit for any aspect of it anyone likes."
His experience has made Rodriguez even more convinced that filmmakers must figure out ways to make films with whatever resources are available. "A lot of people are sitting around waiting for someone to hand them money. Its never going to happen."
See sidebar: A Song for a Film