-- Francis Ford Coppola, "Hearts of Darkness"
It's the stuff dreams are made of: Robert Rodriguez, a film student on break from studies at the University of Texas in Austin, borrowed a silent film camera and some sound gear, took along his writing partner/lead actor, $9,000 and a few props, and in two weeks' time made a quickie action film, "El Mariachi," in the border town of Ciudad Acuna, Mexico.
Now, however, Rodriguez jokes that his movie is "The Little Film That Could." In an unprecedented move, Columbia Pictures is giving the $7,000 film -- yes, Rodriguez came in $2,000 under budget -- a limited national release in 52 theaters in late February. The film is currently playing in competition at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, and was a hit at festivals in Telluride, Colo., and Toronto.
"We thought it would be a great way to get experience and practice and not spend very much on it, so we could get our money back selling it to home video," Rodriguez explains. "And we could use that money to go make two more, for practice. I'd planned to make a trilogy based on 'EI Mariachi' – just crank 'em out very quickly."
Now Rodriguez won't have to worry about cranking out anything -- since he'll have the luxury of studio money. Still, this sort of thing has never happened before. In addition to costing a paltry $7,000 – probably less than the catering bill on a single day's shooting of "Hook" -- "EI Mariachi" is a Spanish-language film with English subtitles. Furthermore, "El Mariachi" has better production values than the likes of "The Gods Must Be Crazy" and "Roger and Me," other low-budget sleepers that cost up to hundreds of thousands of dollars more to make.
Rodriguez, 24 -- he turned 23 while making “El Mariachi” -- grew up in San Antonio. "I come from a family of 10 children, so I really couldn't afford to go out and spend money on film, because it's so expensive," he says by phone from Austin. Instead, he made home videos -- lots of them -- before deciding to dabble in film.
“I knew that if I was going to make a film, the best environment would be in school, because they give you all the equipment for free -- and all the editing equipment -- and all you have to pay for is the film." His only problem was his grade point average, which wasn't high enough to ensure his admittance to the film program.
"I spent too much time drawing pictures in class and writing movie ideas. The way I got in was with one of my home videos," he recalls. "I entered it into a film festival and it beat out movies made in the film department. So I took it to the professor and said, 'Hey, I beat your students. Could you let me into your class?' "
Rodriguez was admitted, and went into the film department determined to get some attention by making films that would win more student film festivals. He made a short film, "Deadhead," starring his brothers and sisters. It was a comedy with plenty of action and quick cuts, and it won a number of festivals.
At that point, he needed some experience making longer films, but wanted to do it with some secrecy. "In case it was no good I didn't want anyone to ever see it," he says with a laugh. "I needed the chance to experiment."
The plan was to film "El Mariachi" -- it's a mistaken-identity comedy, with violence, about a mariachi singer who is confused with a killer -- on the cheap, sell it directly to the Mexican video market for a profit and make a couple of sequels with the same character.
After that, Rodriguez figured he'd be able to assemble a demo tape showcasing the best bits of the three films, and use it to attract money for an independent feature.
"We borrowed the film camera from a production house that had gone to video and wasn't using their old film camera anymore -- they didn't even know if it worked. It was one of their silent cameras, a real old thing that had only one magazine. We figured the camera was going to break down at any time, and so I didn't take any crew or anybody because I was afraid the whole show was going to fold up; so we bought our film one roll at a time."
It's also worth noting that Rodriguez says he received no encouragement from the university faculty: "I was telling them that I was going to spend less than $10,000 and shoot with a very small crew -- I didn't tell them I was going to be the whole crew -- and they told me I was going to fail, that I was stupid for even trying. So I went off and did it, and realized these guys have never even tried it."
Rodriguez and his star/co-writer, Carlos Gallardo, fashioned a script around the props they had -- a pit bull, a school bus, a motorcycle, two bars, a ranch and a turtle -- and got together a group of their friends from Ciudad Acuna to make the movie.
"None of those people had ever acted before," the director says. "I didn't give them the lines to read beforehand; they never saw the script, because I didn't want them to see how many lines they had, or I figured they wouldn't come back."
After shooting the scene -- most were done in a single take -- Rodriguez would abandon his camera, strap on sound gear, have his actors repeat their actions and dialogue, and he would record them. After they were done shooting, Rodriguez transferred the film to video and hand-synched the sound. And when the actors' dialogue didn't match the filmed action?
"When the lines didn't line up, I cut away -- that's why you see shots of a dog or something."
After "El Mariachi" was done, Rodriguez went to Los Angeles in an attempt to sell it to a Mexican video company.
"They didn't want it because it didn't have any name actors in it," he says. So he took a demo tape -- including his short film, "Beadhead," and two minutes' worth of shots excerpted from "El Mariachi" – and dropped a copy off at the large talent agency International Creative Management in Los Angeles, in an attempt to get a professional assessment and some advice. He assumed nothing would come of it, but ICM called him in Austin and requested that he send them a copy of "El Mariachi."
"I was kind of wary," Rodriguez remembers. "I figured once they saw the whole movie they might not like it. So I made a subtitled version and sent it to ICM, and they called me back and said they wanted to sign me and that the paperwork was on its way."
The filmmaker signed with ICM, thinking maybe the company could get him some work as a writer.
"But what they did was start making copies of 'El Mariachi' and sending them to all the studios, which at the time really freaked me out, because I still didn't know how good the movie was. It was just for practice."
"El Mariachi" was so unambitious, in fact, Rodriguez says he decided to cut a few of his favorite action sequences out of the script and save them for the planned sequels -- "We thought they were too good for the first one," he says.
Columbia Pictures eventually signed Rodriguez to a two-year deal, writing and directing his projects.
"I suggested for one of the projects a remake of the movie, because it would be one of the first action-adventure films made in the U.S. with a mostly Latin cast. So I was really excited about that.
"But they liked the movie so much they decided they wanted to blow it up to (35mm) film and screen it in front of an audience. I begged them to let me take $2,000 and go re-shoot half of it. ... But they didn't listen to me; they blew it up, showed it at the Telluride festival and Toronto Film Festival and it got a really good response and they decided to release it theatrically."
Whether the film catches on with audiences seems almost irrelevant at this point, what with Rodriguez having already achieved something no one else has.
"All of this is accidental," he stresses, with no small amount of understatement. "I really lucked out."