6 Filmmaking Tips from Robert Rodriguez

The filmmaker behind 'Spy Kids,' 'Machete,' and 'From Dusk Til Dawn' gets technical about shooting on digital, loving deadlines, and living creatively.

Robert Rodriguez For Machete Kills
Troublemaker Studios

Robert Rodriguez, one of the most accomplished members of the 1990s indie film boom that also includes the likes of Steven Soderbergh and Quentin Tarantino, is also arguably the most iconic guerilla-style, outside-the-system filmmaker. After all, he literally wrote the book—Rebel Without a Crew.

A proud Texan, even as Rodriguez has taken on large mainstream projects, most notably his latest film, Alita: Battle Angel, he has resisted moving to LA. He’s a strong supporter of digital and keeping a DIY attitude with work running the gamut from kid’s film (the Spy Kids series) to R-rated blood bath (From Dusk Til Dawn, Once Upon a Time in Mexico). Some filmmakers wear many hats, but he quite regularly makes a go at wearing basically all of them.

As to be expected, he’s learned some things along the way. Here are six of Rodriguez’s best tips:

Keep the Camera Rolling

Rodriguez was a huge supporter of filming on tape, now digital. He might call Tarantino a close friend, but their thoughts on celluloid vs. the alternatives could not be further apart. One of Rodriguez’s reasons for liking the newer formats, as he elaborated as part of “Film Is Dead: An Evening with Robert Rodriguez,” is that it means you can just keep the camera rolling:

“I just keep the camera rolling. It’s an hour’s worth of tape—it’s just tape. I’d rather not break the moment. And it really changes how you shoot. Because even a seasoned actor, as soon as you call ‘action,’ suddenly there’s a little tension because you feel, ‘Okay, now we’re doing it.’ But if you never call action, you never call cut, you’re always in rehearsal mode, which is just a really free time to be. And you get really great performances.”

You can watch the full talk below. The featured quote starts at 5:41:

Necessity Breeds Creativity

As all but the absolute most disciplined of souls know, procrastination isn’t merely a bad habit, it’s a lifestyle. But Rodriguez has some suggestions to help you break the cycle. At a special South by Southwest Q&A hosted by the University of Texas at Austin in 2013, interviewer and UT Austin faculty member Charles Ramirez Berg commented on the filmmaker’s prolific output and the frequency with which he juggles a wide range of projects. In response, Rodriguez elaborated on his creative process, including the following advice about getting shit done:

“You’re not going to start figuring it out until you’re given a call to action. […] So what you want to do is constantly create projects where you’re forced to come up with answers to fill in the blanks. […] Deadlines are a good thing.”

You can watch the full Q&A below. The featured quote begins at 11:53:

Write First Thing in the Morning

You’ve probably read those articles about how successful creatives get up at 6 am, brew some coffee, and write for three hours, or something along those lines. Unless you are the earliest of early birds, however, putting this advice into actual practice is highly unlikely, if not impossible. Rodriguez, while a natural night owl (“I love waking up in the afternoon”), found that his writing skills weren’t the sharpest late at night. As such, he figured out a more feasible “morning writing” schedule involving dragging your laptop into bed first thing in the morning that he now swears by, as he told Creative Screenwriting in a December 2015 interview: 

“That first eye-opener is when I pull the computer onto my lap. You can’t even spell your name. But man, talk about focus, all this stuff comes your way. I get great ideas. And your Negative Guy is still asleep. The trick is not getting up to get coffee or other distractions. Hours will fly by. I would put my computer away and the rest of the day would be great. For writing, it’s a better subconscious stage to be waking than falling asleep.”

Robert Rodriguez And Antonio Banderas

Live a Creative Life

At the 2015 SXSW Film Festival, Rodriguez stopped by the Samsung Blogger Lounge, where he was once again asked about his creative process. He gave the following as his best tip for nurturing creativity:

I do one thing: I live a creative life. Everything you do, you apply creativity to it. Whether it’s the way you meet with a friend and make them dinner, or you do stuff with your kids, and then when you go and you’re working on an idea, and you’re doing music at the same time while you’re on the set. You’re never in a block because you’re always actually in a flow. If you don’t live your life creatively, and then you set aside some time at night to go write your novel, you’re going to get a block because you’re not in the flow. But if you apply creativity to everything in your life, everything is available to you […] when you’re in a creative flow, you can do just about anything.”

You can watch the whole short interview below; the featured quote starts at 0:31:

Bribe People with Fun

Speaking in 2010 with Scottish newspaper The Scotsman, Rodriguez addressed his ability to attract big-name actors to his smaller budget projects. While he can’t offer them the same kind of salaries they could expect from a glitzier Hollywood production, he can offer them fun and the absence of big studio bureaucracy, which he says goes quite a long way:

“If I tell them a part’s going to be a certain way, they’re not going to find out that the studio’s already told you [that] you can’t do it that way. Really artists just want to be able to create, dress up, have fun, and challenge themselves. Giving them the opportunity is how you make them happy when they’re getting paid nothing and when they’re coming down filming in the hottest month of the year.”

You Have to Become Technical

All DVDs of Rodriguez’s earlier films include a “10 Minute Film School” bonus feature—or in the case of Sin City, 15 minutes (a kind soul gathered them all here). The earliest one, from all the way back in the heyday of 1993, features some kickass advice about how to get ahead in the entertainment industry:

“Being creative is not enough in this business. You have to become technical. Creative people are born creative. You’re lucky. […] Too many creative people don’t want to learn how to be technical. So what happens? They become dependent on technical people. Become technical. You can learn that. If you’re creative and technical, you’re unstoppable.”

You can watch the whole clip, which is actually only 8 minutes long, below. The featured quote starts at 0:45:

What We Learned

Robert Rodriguez is a go-getter. And more than that, he’s a go-getter that regularly encourages others to embrace a proactive approach. Back in the early ’90s, micro-budget filmmaking still meant $7000—mostly for video cameras and tape—and Rodriguez rented his body out to science for pharmaceutical trials in order to scrounge together the money. With better and better in-phone cameras coming out all the time and editing freeware available on all platforms, the filmmaker has cited that what cost him $7000 then would be more like $700 now. So if you want to make a movie, what are you waiting for? Figure out what (and who) you’ve got available to work with, and get started.

Human being who writes about movies and other things. Sometimes I try to be funny on Twitter.