A C(hat) with Robert Rodriguez
This 3,000 word interview (cut down from one almost twice that length) comes from a different world. A world before the internet. A world before viral marketing allowed a movie like The Blair Witch Project to prove you could have a big hit with a cheap film and long before Paranormal Activity came along and did the same again. Nowadays, literally anyone can make a film and get it seen. This was not the case before cheap HD video and internet distribution. Back then, making and releasing El Mariachi was a unique and almost miraculous achievement.
It was 1995. On the train coming down to London for a press-screening, I finished reading a book called Rebel Without a Crew. It is a film diary telling of the year in the life of a 23-year-old Texan who made a home movie called El Mariachi for $7,000, then sold it to Columbia Tri-Star for a quarter of a million.
Rebel Without a Crew is a startlingly honest and inspirational book which leaves the reader with the unshakeable belief that any shmo with a little money, a lot of gullible friends and a determined streak a mile wide can make a movie. It’s certainly a philosophy that has made Rodriguez one of the most interesting and creative film-makers working in (or around) Hollywood.
I arrived at Columbia Tri-Star’s preview theatre in London’s West End, sporting my favourite baseball cap (well, it’s always a good idea to dress up for these formal occasions). It bore the legend Hard Boiled in bolshy gold letters. The choice of this hat was a strategic move on my part as I was about to interview Robert Rodriguez, the fore-mentioned Texan one-man film crew, post-Tarantino phenomenon and, not coincidentally, lover of John Woo films.
This’ll get his attention! I thought ...
First they screened Desperado, the sort-of-sequel-sort-of-remake to El Mariachi then, as the lights rose, in wandered the director, dressed in jeans and a lumberjack shirt with the sleeves rolled up. Oh good, I thought, at least I’m not the only scruffy bugger here! After our brief introduction I switched on my microphone and set about checking levels on my tape machine, the first words it recorded were: “Cool hat! Wow, where do I get one of those? Damn.”
“Ehm ... who distributed the film? Metro Tartan, I think. I got it off them!”
[Trying hard to act surprised] “Thank you. Ehm ... So, has your reputation for making films cheaply helped or hindered you in Hollywood?”
“Oh, completely helped! I’ll work forever off Desperado alone, because Hollywood just doesn’t know how to make movies that look big, that can be sold like a big movie, but that cost under ten million. It’s really funny, ’cos they just can’t see how to do it, and I dunno why.
“Desperado cost seven million which is, y’know, a lot for me but it’s nothing for a big action film. Action movies start at thirty and, if it’s a summer movie, which this one was in the States, they start at fifty. In fact, there was an article in one of the industry magazines and it showed all the hits and all the disasters - the big bombs that cost a lot and made nothing - and there were only seven films on the list that made it. Desperado was one of ’em, simply by the ratio of what it cost to what it made.”
“No one in Hollywood really knows what they’re doing, they’re all dependent on somebody else. The studio guys don’t know how to make movies, they’re all accountants who’re totally dependent on guys like me, who can tell ’em anything. They don’t know. They haven’t learned what you need. They should, then they wouldn’t get shafted so much! On the other side, creative guys aren’t usually very technical so they’re dependent on technicians and on the crew, who tell ’em it’ll take so long and cost so much to do, so there’s another waste.
“Something I learned from my first job in high school was that the last thing a creative person does is learn to be technical, they’re just too lazy to do that. But, if you’re creative and you become technical, then you’re unstoppable. That’s what I did, I learned how to make a movie from the ground up, I learned all the camera stuff, I learned how to cut it, all so I wouldn’t be dependent on anybody.”
“And you’ll continue doing it this way?”
“Yeah, ’cos once I’d set the precedent with El Mariachi (and then they made the mistake of letting me do it again with Desperado) that really locked it in. I was able to persuade them to let me direct and shoot and edit Desperado like that because I was doing it for so little money. They had nothing to lose, so they let me do it. Now it’s standard operating procedure. From now on, when a producer hires me, he knows already that I’m gonna shoot it and edit it and arrange the music myself, he won’t even question it.
“It used to be that you either made big movies which everybody had to go see so were really watered down, and had no one person in control or you had to make really small independent movies where you had a lot of freedom, but no one would go see ‘em. But movies like Pulp Fiction, Desperado. and From Dusk Till Dawn don’t have to appeal to everybody because we make ‘em cheap enough that the investors’ll get back their money back plus a little profit.”
They want me to make movies that make money and don’t cost anything. True, when they see how cheap I can work, they sweat a little it makes it harder for them to justify such great expense. But that’s good! The whole industry has gotten too big, it’s time it was shaken up a little bit. That’s what young people are supposed to do, shake things up. Then I’ll be there in a coupla years and some new guys’ll breeze into town and tell me what an idiot I am. I guess what goes around comes around! I’m just making the most of it while I can.”
“But a lot of film-makers get on the ladder by calling in favours, getting someone high up to give them a break, and they do on condition that later on you do them favours back ...”
“That’s one way to get in, but I tried not to do that. There are people who borrow money from their parents to make their first movie, but I tell people “Go sell your body to science for a few months, then you can do it with your own dime. Put yourself on the line, don’t drag someone else into it.” That’s what I did, and if it’s your own risk you’re actually more careful with the money.
“Does working so cheaply make the job easier?”
“Well it’s never easy with any budget, but with a bigger budget you’ve just got other kinds of problems. You’re always gonna have problems, it’s just that you solve ‘em differently when you don’t have a lot of money. It wasn’t like “Hey, now I’ve got seven million dollars, I can relax”, ’cos I was making something that, by Hollywood standards, would cost much more. So it was still a struggle, but when you don’t have very much money you end up solving your problems creatively. What a movie is, is a whole series of creative problems that you have to solve, that’s why big movies get into trouble, ’cos when they get a problem they don’t stop and think about how to fix it creatively and make the movie better, they just wash the problem away with the money hose. That’s easy and it doesn’t really solve your problem.”
“So how does seven million dollars get spent?”
“I shot the whole movie, put everything in the can, for $3.1 million. The rest went on wages for the actors, producers, post-production, the SDDS eight-track sound mix, the release prints, all the post stuff which we didn’t think we needed to spend so much on, but the studio thought we did. I’ll be controlling more of that from now on! But to actually make the movie, all the sets, all the explosions and all the stunts came in at 3.1. That’s nothing.”
“Does more money mean bigger names?”
“On Desperado, Antonio Banderas cost a little bit, not much. He was on the way up. The same is true of George Clooney in Dusk. You can either pay twenty million dollars for these big actors, or you can find new guys and make them into twenty million dollar actors. We got George Clooney for a song ’cos no one was offering him movie roles when I hired him, now he’s been offered Batman, which is great. I’d rather make someone a star and then not be able to afford ’em, so have to go find someone else and make them a star instead! That keeps the budgets down and sparks your creativity.”
“Do you resent the way that you and Tarantino are grouped together in people’s minds?”
“I think film makers have always worked together, Spielberg and Lucas worked together for years, and that happens all the time, because Hollywood is a small community where you find that people you relate to are few and far between. Quentin and I worked together three times in a row [Desperado, Four Rooms and From Dusk Till Dawn]... but on Desperado, he was only there for one day.
He always wanted to be an actor, he studied acting, and he took it very seriously on Dusk. After I saw him in Desperado, he seemed like a real natural. It’s true that he needs a strong director while he’s still learning, especially when he comes up against a guy like George Clooney who’s been in awful stuff for years, but got away with it because no one even paid enough attention to dismiss him. The critics wouldn’t say “George Clooney was terrible in this movie” because they didn’t even care who George Clooney was. He had years to get the seasoning that Quentin has to get very quickly and, as you see in Dusk, he got there very fast.
“How do you respond when your films are compared to John Woo’s?”
“That’s great, ’cos that was our major inspiration. American action movies were getting really stale because, I found out, action is usually shot by second unit, a stunt guy who takes the camera and a whole other crew and shoots the action stuff. They usually move so slow on a big movie that the director will spend all his time directing the main sequences with the main actors while the difficult stuff is passed on to second and third crews. We did everything first unit on Desperado, I wanted to shoot everything. I was horrified when I found out that I was supposed to hand all the fun stuff to somebody else, that’s what I was waiting for the most, I didn’t wanna do the dialogue scenes, I wanted to blow things up.
“It was the John Woo movies that made me realise that the difference between our films and films from other countries is the way they would commit to the action. I hadn’t been excited about an action movie like The Killer or Hard Boiled since I was a kid watching James Bond movies, and I thought it was just ’cos I was getting older, but I realise now that it’s just that our movies are getting stale. Those Hong Kong movies made that catharsis come back again, they made you wanna be Chinese and do all that neat stuff.”
“Where do you find your actors?”
“All over the place. People sometimes have very little acting experience because they don’t get the chances, so I start them sometimes from nowhere. I saw Salma Hayek on Spanish television saying how she couldn’t get work in the States ’cos of her accent, even though she is a big soap star in Mexico. In Desperado, for instance, since we were shooting in this little town, we couldn’t afford to fly a lot of actors out of Los Angeles, so a lot of the actors, even in bigger parts, are my crew people. I deliberately hired a Mexican crew, so my first assistant director’s in the movie, my director of photography, my grip, my gaffer, my make-up artist, they’re all in there.
“You know that bit where Antonio slides across the bar and the other guy slides up to him and they run out of bullets and they’re shooting empty guns at each other [a sequence ripped whole and bleeding from John Woo’s A Better Tomorrow, it must be noted!], well that’s my second assistant director. As soon as we killed him he went back to work. I just looked at my crew and said “Man, you guys look like movie stars”, so I put ’em all in. That was fun, every day a different crew guy got to be in the movie, which kept the morale up!”
“Did you get much co-operation from the small town you filmed in?”
“Tons. We’d shot Mariachi there, but they didn’t notice us when we were there first time because there was no crew, just me with a camera running around shooting one take and then off to the next location, really fast. That’s how we made it look expensive by filming on the real streets, with real cars rolling by. Normally you have to pay the city to clear the streets, hire people to rent cars, bring in guys to drive ‘em - it’s all that backwards kind of thinking, the old way is just to let real cars go by and film your actors running between ‘em. This time we wanted to go back because we wanted to pay back the town. Everyone got to work on the movie in some capacity, ’cos it’s only a small place.”
“Will there be a third Mariachi movie?”
“We’ll see. Maybe I’ll call it Once Upon A Time In Mexico. I heard about this small town in Mexico where all they do is make guitars, so I thought, maybe that’s where he’ll be holed up, building guitars.”
“Obviously you’ve got a reputation for action movies, but in Rebel Without A Crew you talk about starting out with animations -”
“ - And family comedies, yeah, that’s mainly what I do. I’m the blood and guts guy now, but what I’ve always been is Mr Family Comedy. I wrote a comic strip for a few years called Los Hooligans, which was based on my family, and that’s what’s coming next. I mean, From Dusk Till Dawn is by far the capper on all this, I can’t go any further than that, it’s like completely an exploitation, drive-in, horror, action, splatter thriller with Tarantino and me together at our most extreme. You can’t go beyond that. So it’s time to go the other way, I’ll probably do a family comedy and after that maybe a biopic on Stevie Ray Vaughan.”
“Does your drawing lead you to storyboard everything?”
“Not so much these days, ’cos there’s so many shots if I had to draw ‘em all ... If I didn’t operate the camera myself I’d probably do that, but since I’m framing the shot anyway and I’m choosing the lens, I just tell people to move fast and follow me. You just use a storyboard to tell your crew what you want. That’s what directing is in Hollywood, it’s more of a power position where you tell people what to do I don’t like to do that. I don’t wanna be the boss, I wanna be making the film, so rather than telling the crew what to do, I’ll work with them and lead by example, that’s how we can move so quickly and make the movie so cheaply, not because I’m cracking the whip but because I’m leading the way, and I’m moving very, very fast.
“You’re not good at deputising then?”
“No, I don’t deputise. I can’t imagine who even thought of that. Editing is the best part of making a movie. Who thought to give that to someone else? In fact, they don’t just give someone else the chance to have all the fun, they pay them to have all the fun, that’s ridiculous. To call yourself a cook when all you do is buy the groceries doesn’t make any sense, y’know. Too much of this and not enough of that can screw up the whole thing, so editing’s very, very important, the most important part of the job.”
“Rebel Without a Crew almost reads like a manifesto of how you think people should make films ...”
“I’ve had several people tell me that, does it really sound like that? When people quote me they say “You said ‘You should do this’.” But I never said “You should do -” anything, ’cos I hate it when people tell me that. All I said was what I did, and I wrote it to show you that it is all completely against everything you’ve ever heard, but it worked for me. It should make you realise that all that stuff you thought you needed to know, all those people you thought you needed to be in with, you don’t need that at all.
“I just wanted to demystify it, make it seem less frightening, because that’s what held me back for so long - just not knowing the nature of the beast I was confronting. It turns out to be a little rabbit. So, I thought I’d better tell some people, ’cos no one else wants to let people know or there’ll be too much competition, but I don’t care. I know what I can do, it’s the other filmmakers who are scared they didn’t want anyone to know how easy it all is, which makes me mad, so I decided I’m not gonna keep the secret, I’m gonna blurt it out.”
And with that, his next appointment arrived. However, so won over was I by the man’s disarming honesty, by his refusal to be precious about his ‘art’, I felt foolish getting him to autograph my copy of Rebel. Instead of just acting like a fan-boy, I offered him a trade. Consequently he went to his next interview happy in a new hat, and I walked to the tube clutching my treasured book and my signed photograph, while the wind whipped around my now hatless head.