Robert Rodriguez and Rebel Filmmaking

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How one renegade filmmaker shook the indie landscape.

It’s hard to believe that it’s been 25 years since director Robert Rodriguez first stormed onto the scene with his debut indie smash, El Mariachi. It feels like just yesterday that the young kid from Texas was wowing audiences for the first time with violent action handled like a delicate ballet. Of course when you actually look at everything he’s been up to in the last quarter century it’s kind of amazing that’s it’s only been 25 years.

Rodriguez certainly isn’t the first indie filmmaker to hit it big. Plenty succeeded before him, plenty have succeeded since and plenty will continue to succeed in the future. His quick rise, however, is unprecedented. I can’t recall a single other independent filmmaker that ascended to the elite level of Hollywood players quite like Rodriguez did.

El Mariachi was shot for a measly $7,000. Even by indie filmmaking standards that’s not very much. He shot that in 1992 so maybe adjusting for inflation would change things a bit? $7,000 in 1992 money would roughly be about $12,000 in 2017 money and $12,000 still ain’t much when you’re talking about shooting a feature length film. Remarkably, that low budget isn’t the most impressive thing about the making of El Mariachi.

In 1995 Rodriguez wrote a book entitled Rebel Without a Crew. The book chronicles the making of El Mariachi and then what Rodriguez, and his partner Carlos Gallardo, did to pitch the movie to studios after. The book is incredible and has probably inspired me more than anything else I’ve ever read. If you’re an aspiring filmmaker you have to read this book. If you’re just a cinephile you have to read this book.

I won’t go into too much detail on what the book covers, because you should read it, but the pre-production, production and post-production behind the film is truly fascinating. In order to raise the film’s small budget Rodriguez went to great lengths which included putting his body up for medical experiments in Austin. Here’s a kid who was so passionate about living out his dream that he was willing to subject his body to medical testing, the negative side effects be damned! Meanwhile I’m hesitant to take four Tylenol in a day out of fear that it will kill me.

Carlos Gallardo as El Mariachi

After Rodriguez had the funds he didn’t even intend to make a “real” feature film. El Mariachi was supposed to be nothing more than a practice film. It could be dumped on the Mexican home video market but nothing more than that. It would have been the equivalent of a feature length demo reel. Once filming wrapped Rodriguez and Carlos headed to California to sell the movie. Their pitch was basically, “Hey, look what we did with no money. Give us money and will make a good version of this movie.”

Amazingly a studio, Columbia, did decide to give Rodriguez money but their catch was, “We’re gonna release this theatrically and then we can make a sequel.” That $7,000 budget ended up bringing in $2million at the box office. Of course Columbia spent a lot more on marketing and what not but the point is Rodriguez turned a $7,000 investment into a bit of a box office smash.

Since El Mariachi Rodriguez has had roughly $10million or more to work with for his budgets. The massive upgrade in funds haven’t changed him as a filmmaker. He continues to maintain that DIY attitude that got him started, choosing to be more hands on than most other directors working in Hollywood. His films have had varying amounts of success over the years and he’s dabbled in different genres but he’s remained true to who he is as a filmmaker. Whether you’re watching Spy Kids or Sin City or Planet Terror it’s always very obvious that you’re watching a Robert Rodriguez film.

Robert Rodriguez did everything he could to raise $7,000 to make his first movie. He then turned that $7,000 into an empire consisting of his own studio and television network. He sticks to his roots, electing to film and produce most of his work in his home state of Texas and continues to operate with a rebel attitude regardless of budget or stature. Best of all he continues to support the indie scene, giving opportunities to and inspiring the next generation of renegade filmmakers.

My name is Chris Coffel and I usually write about Nicolas Cage. When I'm not writing about Nicolas Cage I'm usually thinking about writing about Nicolas Cage.