The Films of Robert Rodriguez
The Films of Robert Rodriguez are very much embraced by Hollywood even though they are made independently of the studio norm. Discuss how and why Rodriguez produces Mainstream films, while still remaining true to his Independent roots, both in terms of style and attitude. Robert Rodriguez has a lot more experience in film than most veteran directors working within the industry today. The 36 year old filmmakers training and career began very early on even before he had reached his teens.
Rodriquez remarks that his ‘earliest memories as a child were from the movie theatre’ (www. filmforce. com, 2003). Being raised on films from the silent era, by the likes of Chaplin and Keaton, Rodriguez quickly became interested in the art of filmmaking. Armed only with his fathers 8mm camera and a large family to act as his cast he quickly gained a reputation as the ‘Kid who made movies’ (www. imdbm. com) around his neighborhood.
Before Rodriquez even started film school he had made over thirty short films on both film and video editing them himself using the basic techniques of connecting two VHS cameras together, because he had spent the majority of his time dedicated to his “home movies”, his academic grades in other areas had suffered and this posed a problem when it came to applying to film school. It was only because of the fact that three of this “home movies” entitled Austin Stories had won a local festival, beating those submitted by some of the top film students at the University of Texas, that he was allowed to join the course.
Academically speaking his grades were well below the usual accepted entry requirements. His agenda for wanting to go to film school was possibly slightly different to other students, not being interested in the prestige the qualification had to offer and already being unconventionally self taught in the majority of filmmaking aspects, including Directing, Cinematography and Editing, Rodriquez only really wanted a place because as he puts it ‘ I knew as a student I could get my hands on 16mm equipment for free, its too expensive to rent’ (www. exposure. co. k), as so he could continue making his own types of films but with the benefits of using more professional tools, than he had access to previously. This kind of beg steal and borrow mentality and his guerilla style practices is still one of the key factors which makes him such a successful and influential filmmaker today. Utilizing the colleges facilities Rodriguez produced his renowned 8 minute short Bedhead (Rodriquez, 1991) which went on to win multiple awards in short film festivals, any prize money received went back into the film to polish it, before entering it in to the next festival.
The successful short began to get the aspiring filmmaker the outside attention he craved, but he was concerned that if he was asked to make a feature film, he wouldn’t quite know how, as he had always worked in the somewhat obsolete art form of the short film. As Rodriguez admits himself, he liked to produce shorts, they were entertaining and encouraged his relativity limited audience to watch again and again. ‘I wanted to make the movies entertaining enough that they’d want to rewind it and watch it again and again.
That’s why I stayed away from the longer movie, because it’s hard to keep that kind of energy up for an hour and a half’ (Total Film, 1999, issue 28). Taking this into account he also accepted that the” short film” really carried no weight in the industry and his next project would have to be longer if he was to move on to the next level of his chosen career path. From this point on he began preproduction for a project that would eventually lead to one of the most groundbreaking independent films of the 90’s and earnt him the title of a legend not only in independent, but also in ultra low budget filmmaking.
El Mariachi (Rodriguez 1992) was initially an idea dreamt up by Rodriguez and fellow student Carlos Gallardo, about a lone musician who becomes a hit man, hell bent on revenge after the murder of his girlfriend. The clichi?? d action movie was originally intended to be the first in a trilogy of Mariachi films aimed at the Mexican straight to video market. More importantly Rodriguez saw it as an opportunity to practice filming a feature, still utilizing his individual techniques, Rodriguez raised the money for the “practice” project by selling his body to science.
He checked into a drug testing clinic and was paid $30, 000 by being a human guinea pig for a month. During his stay at the clinic, he wrote the entire script and cast fellow patient Peter Marquardt to act as the main villain “Moco” On an overall production budget of less than $70,000 Rodriguez shot the film in Mexico, where production facilities were either cheap or free and fellow producer Gallardo took the lead acting role of “The Mariachi” to again save on cost.
The local residents of the town of Ciudad Acui?? a were hired as extras working for little more than ‘Beer and Doritos’ (www. jackasscritics. com). Rodriguez took the definition of Independent filmmaking literally by taking on the role off Producer, Director, Cinematographer, Editor and Sound recordist himself. Any assistance for grip work and lighting were provided by the cast who were not in front of the camera at the time.
Rodriguez again explored his beg steal borrow ideology by lending one 16mm Ariflex camera from a friend, and from previous experience shot similar shots from different angles to give the illusion there were multiple cameras on location, He used the camera handheld, whilst being pushed around in a wheelchair, making the picture look as if expensive tracking and dolly equipment had been used. This resulted in giving the impression that the budget of the movie was higher than it actually was, something which Rodriguez planned to rely on when selling the movie, so if nothing else he would at least recuperate his initial $70,000 investment. It was a win, win situation. It was like going back to school. It was completely hands-on, learning how to make a film by trail and error, and then being able to get back your investment. ‘ (www. exposure. co. uk). To cut very long story short the finished film, which was transferred to video and edited on Rodriguez’s home computer was sent to Los Angeles where many of the Mexican Video distributors are based. It ended up in the hands of Robert Newman an agent for ICM, International Creative Management. He offered to represent Rodriguez and sent copies of the film to all of the Hollywood major studios.
Suddenly Rodriguez was hot property and studios were falling over themselves to release the film not just to a straight to video market but in the context of a national cinematic release. The studio heads were not only amazed at the creativity of the film, but could not believe that it was all done by essentially a one man crew for such a small budget. Columbia Pictures spent an extra $1 million on the film, transferring the video back to film and making numerous 35mm prints for distribution. El mariachi became the lowest budget film to ever be released by a major studio and also was the first Spanish speaking film released in America.
It also much to Rodriguez’s credit went onto win “The Independent Spirit Award” and The “Audience Award” at the Sundance film festival the following year in 1993. ‘El Mariachi is a $7000 wonder. For less money than it costs to film a major television commercial, Robert Rodriguez took his crew to Mexico and filmed a gripping, tautly-paced action flick that outdoes most of Hollywood’s similar output. This is clear evidence that film quality often has little to do with a production’s budget. ‘ (Berardinelli, 1993, www. movie-reviews. colossus. net)
Rodriguez signed a two year writing and directing contract with Columbia pictures after the success of his debut feature although refused to move out to Hollywood and work within the restrictions of the studio. ‘One thing that kind of discouraged me from going to Hollywood is that you have to split up the work, you can’t operate your own camera if you’re the Director, you can only do one little thing. That has always bugged me, because I love the whole process. Directing on its own is not that much fun.. Pretty boring actually. All the fun is with the camera, the editing room and the writing. ‘ (www. xposure. co. uk) The first feature Rodriguez made, after signing with Columbia was Roadracers (1994). Made on a budget of $1 million, although not a huge hit by any means, it still made a considerable profit and confirmed Rodriquez’s status as a competent filmmaker. The film also proved he had what it took to make a more conventional American Action movie. Since the initial hype of El Mariachi had died down. Columbia pictures thought it would be a good idea to remake the low budget Spanish speaking movie for a more mainstream American audience. Rodriquez agreed, but again he had his own agenda.
Whilst planning the original he had always intended on making a trilogy of Mariachi films. Rodriquez used this opportunity to make his sequel Desperado (1995), with similar characters and plots, in the script the studio bosses were under the impression it was a straight forward remake and because Rodriquez only asked for $7 million, still considered a low budget for a mainstream action film, Columbia pictures left him be to get on with his project. Desperado was shot well under schedule and within budget, recalling on his previous independent experiences to make the most out the money available.
Rodriquez once more took on the role of a one man crew and “Directed, shot and chopped” the film. He saved on film stock by making editorial decisions on set and essentially cutting on camera, rather than doing multiple takes and hired experienced Latino actors, notably Antonio Banderas and Salma Hayek for the lead roles instead of expensive American stars. The film subsequently launched both of their mainstream Hollywood acting careers. Rodriquez also had cameo roles from two other well known independent icons Quentin Tarantino and Steve Buscemi. The Movie was co produced by Rodriquez’s own production company Los Hooligans productions.
Upon its release Desperado did well at the box office, giving the feeling of a huge budget explosive action movie. Rodriquez was quickly becoming well known for his fast paced filming method and was gaining a reputation within the industry as a man who could deliver the “goods cheap and on time”. Also due to the trashy style and well orchestrated action within his films, influenced by many of John Woo’s earlier pictures and the reoccurring motifs, comical exaggerated weapons, such as rocket launcher guitar cases and “the crotch gun”, Rodriguez was developing a loyal cult following among audiences.
His seemingly maverick way of filmmaking, although Rodriquez refers to it as “frantic” filmmaking hasn’t always served him well. On the set of From Dusk Till Dawn (1998) a retake on the B-movie horror, exploitation genre, a few of his crew threatened a strike which meant the eight week shooting schedule and the $20 million budget of the film could have been in jeopardy. The situation was caused because he was over doing much of what he is known for, with a minimum crew many people were doubling up on roles, to try and meet the tough deadline.
The work load got too much for many of the crew and they felt like they were being exploited, consequently threatening to strike. The situation was amicably resolved when producer Lawrence Bender bought in additional crew, to relive the pressure. Rodriquez defended his position ‘I wouldn’t tell someone they had to do four jobs, unless they saw me doing twenty. You have to lead by example’ (www. filmforce. ign. com) .
More recently his status as a member of the Guild of Directors has been questioned, as he co-directed his latest project Sin City (Rodriguez, Miller, 2005) with the author of the original comics Frank Miller. The Directors guild of America have a strict policy of one Director per film, as a result Rodriquez graciously resigned, and continued collaborating with Miller. Arguing that he didn’t just want to adapt the comic books, he wanted to translate them and to do that he wanted Miller involved, due to this; he has also had to be replaced on a future project The Princess of Mars which he was signed to direct.
Rodriquez makes no secret of his dislike for Hollywood bureaucracy and often refers to it as an “uncreative beast”. He sees the lack of communication and too many uncreative but technical people involved in a project as it’s down fall and the cause of many of Hollywood features ridiculous budget. Although he admits himself to being creative he has made a point of understanding and learning to use much of the equipment that surrounds his work so that he isn’t reliant on anybody but himself to portray his vision. To many creative people don’t want to learn to be technical, so what happens they become reliant on technical people, Become technical, you can learn that. If you’re technical you’re unstoppable’ (Rodriquez, 10 minute film school,1998) This is the message he conveys to want to be filmmakers all over the world through his documentaries on not just the theory, but the realities of working within the film industry. He also makes a point of embracing and experimenting with new technology.
Since George Lucas introduced him to the art of Hi definition video in 2001 he hasn’t shot a movie on film since, stating the only advantage of using film nowadays is for nostalgic reasons only, another one of his short teaching documentaries Film is Dead(Rodriguez 2003) gives us a practical demonstration of the advantages of using this new format. The ability for more actor improvisation where he can leave the camera rolling gaining a more natural performance, also the increased ability to shoot quickly, which is true to his style and add the often expensive special effects required, later during editing at a fraction of the cost.
Rodriquez has utilized these advantages in his latest films, Spy Kids 3-D (Rodriquez, 2003) and the Sergio Leone inspired Once upon a time in Mexico (Rodriquez 2003) the final Chapter in his Mariachi trilogy. He compares the quality of the new video format to the difference between vinyl and CD. Rodriquez is very much an independent filmmaker and always has been. His style of Producing and executing a project is exceptionally fast in terms of turn around time.
Since 1992 with the initial success of El Marachi he has produced and directed over 10 feature films, (inclusive of taking 3 years away from the industry to concentrate on his family) and built up his own production company Los Hooligans productions and owns his own studio Troublemaker studios, which is situated in his converted “garage” giving him the ability to work day or night and have complete control over his projects.
Even though he may not fully conform to many of Hollywood’s practices there is an element of give and take. He is fully aware that he has the ability to produce good products at a reasonable cost for the studios to sell on a conveyer belt system. His films are marketed like other mainstream films because they look like mainstream films. He attracts mainstream stars, many of whom want to work with Rodriquez purely because of his reputation, and the speed and quality of his work.
In many respects he is regarded with similar attributes to Tarantino with his films capturing and reinventing the ebb of popular youth culture, the two independent auteurs collaborated on From Dusk till Dawn (1995) launching popular TV star George Clooney’s film career. Because of his low budget techniques he is a safe bet for many mainstream studio projects. Worst case scenario the films at least make their money back, best case scenario they break box office records Once upon a time in Mexico (2003) ($25 million in the opening weekend).
Rodriquez, whatever the mainstream populace view on his unorthodox practices, he is a valuable commodity. His films make money and unlike other filmmakers he has successfully crossed genres from the Mariachi films action films, to science fiction The Faculty (1998) to family entertainment of kids films Spy Kids (2001) and back again, each time taking a dedicated audience along with him.
Whether or not Rodriquez can be considered a major Hollywood player or an Independent Auteur is debatable, it seems he is somewhere in between, having a foot in each camp. However it clearly goes without saying that he is very much an inspiration to many up and coming filmmakers with his independent successes and regarded somewhat as a financial asset by Hollywood.
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