The Curious Career of Robert Rodriguez




This week-end marks the release of ‘Machete Kills‘, Robert Rodriguez’s grindhouse sequel to a grindhouse movie based on a fake trailer that appeared during Grindhouse. It once again stars Rodriguez regular Danny Trejo as a knife-wielding ex-Federale mercenary with a knack for disemboweling the bad guys, and disempanty-ing the ladies. The film promises to give us more of what we’ve come to expect from Rodriguez: equal measures of violence, sex and wry humour, all carried out by a surprising array of actors who might seem to be slumming it, if only they didn’t seem to be having such a great time. After over 20 years in Hollywood, Rodriguez is still an outsider filmmaker who operates with a level of creative freedom virtually unthinkable within the confines of studio blockbuster filmmaking. By choosing creative control over the traditional standards of Hollywood success, Rodriguez has stood the test of time as a pioneer of do-it-yourself filmmaking.

Before digital cameras and YouTube made filmmaking success attainable to anyone with talent, an idea, and the will to see it through, there was El Mariachi. Rodriguez first burst on to the Hollywood radar in 1992 with his simple tale of a man, a guitar case, and lots of guns. The film was famously produced for the still-low price of $7,000 ($2,000 cheaper than what he had originally projected to spend). As discussed in his thoroughly entertaining memoir Rebel Without a Crew, Rodriguez raised the money, in part, by working as a human “lab rat” testing a cholesterol-reducing drug. The gig paid him $100 a day for 30 days. He was a one-man crew, acting not only as director, but also writer, camera operator, editor, visual effects supervisor, sound recorder – virtually the only job that he didn’t do on El Mariachi was act. Rodriguez’s original ambition was for the film to break into the Spanish-language direct-to-video market, but it was received so well at the Telluride, Toronto and Sundance film festivals that Columbia Pictures bought the film and spent close to $1 million on promotion and additional post-production work. In the end, Rodriguez’s $7,000 exercise in do-it-yourself filmmaking earned over $2 million and was seen by audiences around the world.

Following on the spurs of El Mariachi, Rodriguez made 1995’s Desperado. Although ostensibly a sequel to El Mariachi, Desperado is essentially a Hollywood-ized version of the same Tex-Mex Western motif with bigger battles and prettier actors. Desperado nevertheless showed that Rodriguez could transfer his aesthetic to a larger canvass – the film was literally 100 times more expensive than El Mariachi.

Rodriguez then went on to direct his first filmmaking collaboration with Quentin Tarantino (excluding Tarantino’s brief-but-memorable cameo in Desperado), 1996’s From Dusk ‘Till Dawn. Rodriguez and Tarantino will forever be linked as indie filmmakers who emerged in 1992 with a similar taste for violence and irreverence. From Dusk ‘Till Dawn, which Tarantino both wrote and co-starred in, is a perfect meld of what they each do best. Tarantino’s dialogue and sharp eye for character gave audiences their first glimpse of the easy confidence that would make George Clooney a movie star. Rodriguez restrains himself for the first half of the film, then goes balls-out crazy in the vampire bar-set second half, directing a hand-held frenzy of throat-eating, limb-ripping, and Salma Hayek dancing with a snake. From Dusk ‘Till Dawn makes you laugh, then it makes you throw up, then it makes you laugh at how much you just threw up. It’s one of my favourite movies of all time.

Following 1998’s modestly successful sci-fi horror outing The Faculty, Rodriguez shifted his focus and made 2001’s Spy Kids. While it seems hard to believe that the director of this scene could make a family film, Spy Kids really works. The film features Rodriguez regulars like Antonio Banderas, Cheech Marin, and Danny Trejo (playing “Uncle Machete”) and successfully captures the frenetic energy of his earlier work while playing to a broad family audience. The legacy of the film has been somewhat diminished by its 3 sequels, the most recent of which (2011’s Spy Kids: All The Time in the World) is perhaps most notable for giving us “Aroma-scope”. Even while making large scale, expensive-looking family films, the budget of the Spy Kids films has never exceeded $39 million, and Rodriguez continues to act as his own cinematographer, editor, composer, and special effects designer. Collectively, the films have earned more than $550 million at the global box office on a budget of $154 million.

After completing the first 3 Spy Kids films (and returning to the Mariachi franchise with 2003’s Once Upon a Time in Mexico), Rodriguez stayed in the world of family films with 2005’s The Adventures of Shark Boy and Lava Girl in 3D. The film was poorly received by critics and not very successful at the box office, but it remains an example of Rodriguez’s innovative, uniquely personal filmmaking style. Rodriguez’s name appears in the credits 14 times, including credits as director, producer, writer, visual effects supervisor, editor, director of photography, camera operator, and composer. The film’s story is credited to his son, Racer Rodriguez.

In 2005, Rodriguez completed his long-awaited adaptation of the cult comic book Sin City. Rodriguez collaborated closely with series creator Frank Miller on the project, and wanted Miller to receive a co-directing credit. The Directors Guild of America has rules that permit only one individual to receive a directorial credit, with certain exceptions. Ever the indie auteur at heart, Rodriguez quit the DGA in protest in order to enable Miller to receive a co-directing credit. He continues to direct films as a non-member to this day. This decision has had significant commercial consequences for Rodriguez. Major film studios, such as Disney and Paramount, are signatories to the DGA’s basic agreement, meaning that these studios can only hire directors who are Guild members. By remaining outside of the DGA, Rodriguez has essentially blacklisted himself from working for major studios and directing the properties that they own. At one time Rodriguez was in line to direct John Carter of Mars for Paramount, but he was forced to drop out of the project after relinquishing his Guild membership.

Rodriguez teamed up with Tarantino once again for 2007’s Grindhouse, one of the most innovative cinema going experiences of recent years. The film was conceived as a tribute to B-movie double features of the 1970s. His installment, Planet Terror, was about a zombie outbreak and features Rose McGowan with a prosthetic machine gun leg. Tarantino’s installment, Death Proof, gave us Kurt Russell’s best performance in years as a murderous stuntman. Grindhouse was something of a dismal failure at the box office, taking in about $25 million domestically on a reported budget of $53 million. The film was a genuine double feature, and it turns out that getting audiences to sit through 191 minutes of neo-exploitation cinema was a hard sell. Dimension Films attempted to salvage the project by releasing Planet Terror and Death Proof as separate films internationally. However, Grindhouse has left behind a surprising pop cultural legacy. Two of the once-fake trailers that preceded the film (Hobo With A Shotgun, Machete) have gone on to become real films themselves, with at least one more trailer possibly coming to life in the future. Machete Kills has the unique distinction of being the first sequel to a “fake film”.

“Uniqueness” is the quality that seems to define Rodriguez’s filmography more than anything else. On one hand, it’s fair to suggest that Rodriguez has been disappointingly stagnant in his ambitions. While Tarantino achieves higher and higher levels of critical and commercial success with each subsequent film, Rodriguez is still making movies about tits and guns . But they’re really fun! And more importantly, after 20 years, Rodriguez has never lost his indie credibility. He keeps his budgets down by solving problems with creativity rather than money. Need a location that you can’t afford? Create it with a green screen. Even when working with names like Mel Gibson and Lady Gaga, Rodriguez is still a do-it-yourselfer at heart, and serves as a godfather to the digital cinema revolution that has enabled an emerging generation of filmmakers to tell the stories they want to tell and upload their work directly to an audience.

Rodriguez will probably never win an Oscar for Best Director, but he doesn’t have to – his legacy is already larger than that.

– The Sarcastic Squirrel