Between September 15 and October 15, AE will be running a series of articles celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month, in which we elevate and celebrate Hispanic contributions and representation in the world of cinema, starting today with the induction of our newest Cinema Saint, Robert Rodriguez.
His name is Robert Rodriguez. Hell, you’re probably familiar with the guy. You either know him as the kickass director of the Mariachi trilogy and From Dusk Till Dawn, or you recognise him as Quentin Tarantino’s cinematic partner-in-crime. Either way, the man likely needs no introduction.
It’s easy to talk and write about Robert Rodriguez now. He’s an established filmmaker and a beacon of Hispanic excellence in cinema. But how about 23-year-old Robert Rodriguez? The one who had never shot a feature length movie; the one with very little money to his name. Ultimately, the one who would change the landscape of independent cinema forever.
In 1992, just as his buddy was touring the U.S. with a little film titled Reservoir Dogs, Robert Rodriguez had his name plastered on every news publication. He was still a college student at the time but found himself at the forefront of film discussion. His debut movie, El Mariachi, premiered at TIFF – and so the hype begun. After all, how else were you supposed to react to a feature length movie being created for a mere $7,000? Not only that – how else were you supposed to react to it being great, despite budgetary constraints? There was only one way you could react: excitedly. The future of filmmaking had been altered this hungry, energetic 23-year-old Mexican-American.
In retrospect, El Mariachi still holds up as an excellent movie. The dialogue flows well, the cheesiness still reverberates throughout and the story itself is as compelling as ever. Granted, the opening segment of the movie is perhaps the most amateur looking. While initially off-putting when revisiting it, everything collectively improves as the runtime increases–be that the performances or the general aesthetic of the film. One of Rodriguez’s biggest decisions to stay on budget was shooting the picture sequentially. That means that, as you are viewing the film, the opening shot was the first that he filmed and the final shot, well, the last. It makes sense, then, that the movie’s amateurisms decrease as we zip-line from scene to scene. It is within that amateur aesthetic that El Mariachi thrives. Everything feels unpredictable. Risks are taken within the plot, doubling up with Rodriguez’s interesting array of camera movements.
The opening prison scene was Rodriguez’s first day on set. He gained access to a real jail, situated in Acuña, Mexico. To avoid hiring extra cast members and clothing, the O.G. guerrilla filmmaker convinced the real prison warden and guard to act out their roles on camera. All of these little loopholes and hacks enabled Rodriguez to stay on budget and focus his money on improving the aesthetic of the film.
$7,000 is an incredibly small amount in world of movies. To a 23-year-old student, it’s a fortune. Rodriguez raised a large chunk–over half, in fact–of the money by undergoing experimental drug testing in various clinics across Texas. One thing is acquiring a budget for a movie, another is literally giving up your body for the sake of cinema. That passion, hunger and insanity echoes throughout the entirety of El Mariachi. The tale is told with joy, the filmmaking equally as fun and rambunctious.
With such a limited budget, it would be easy to ask questions over what is a large cast. El Mariachi is run amok with extras, but very few of them actually undertook the role with money in mind. As aforementioned, Rodriguez convinced a warden and a guard to act natural in front of a camera. While filming in Acuña, some of the residents were growing frustrated at the noise and disruption created by Rodriguez. Two of the most vociferous locals were journalists Jesus Lopez Viejo and Ramiro Gomez. In fear that news outlets would take down his impromptu sets, Rodriguez sweetened both journalists up by offering them small roles in the movie. You can spot the two of them in the bombastic finale.
El Mariachi often displays multiple angles of the same scene giving off the illusion of multiple cameras on set. That would have completely derailed the $7,000 budget. Rodriguez was the only man on set. He lit everything up with clip-on desk lamps rather than studio lights and he shot the entire film on one camera. Those multiple angles are the director doggedly freezing scenes and asking the cast to resume when he set himself up in a different position. At every possible moment, costs were cut. Everything was micromanaged by a young Latino with a burning passion for cinema.
In order to save on reshooting and editing costs, Rodriguez intentionally kept in some bloopers. For hardcore fans of the film, they’re quite easy to spot and make for a fun viewing experience. Some of these bloopers come in the form of El Mariachi himself bumping into a street pole and Domino’s face twitching post-death. Other continuity errors–such as Rodriguez not showing El Mariachi paying for fruit–were patched up in the voice over. The sheer authenticity of it all, the fact that mistakes can be accepted and cherished, is the beauty of this period of filmmaking and El Mariachi in particular. Rather than being nit-picked to shreds, the movie was celebrated and championed as a trailblazing phenomenon. Twenty-five years later, it’s still as invigoratingly fun.
How about that heart-stopping, infinitely awesome, shootout in the final act? How Rodriguez achieves that bloodshed and palpable tension is quite amusing when one takes a peek behind the curtain. Fake blood was placed inside condoms so that they would burst a lot easier upon impact, for one. In regards to the guns, Rodriguez obviously couldn’t acquire real ammunition. Instead, he opted for blanks. The only problem is that the guns would jam after a singular blank being fired, meaning that Rodriguez would have to keep cutting the footage. He ordered actors to dump empty shells on the floor to give the illusion of the gun’s repetitive firing. When that proved too taxing, the Mexican-American decided that water guns were the way forward.
It’s still baffling how a film so monetarily restrictive still managed to tell a fascinating, enjoyable story while also looking beyond technically competent. Beyond that, it’s fascinating that the film holds up marvellously 25 years after its release. Rodriguez has since had blockbuster outings in the vein of Spy Kids and Sin City. His movies still contain a vibrancy regularly unrivaled in the industry. His championing of Hispanic culture, through the normalcy of the characters and families in his movies, is one of the reasons why he is so revered in the community. He allows Hispanics to be themselves, rather than letting their culture define them as we so often nauseatingly see in Hollywood.
From 1992 onwards, the door to Hollywood was blown wide open. Anyone and everyone had a shot at making it big. El Mariachi still holds the world record for lowest budget film to gross a minimum of $1 million at the box office. In the end, it grossed a healthy $2 million. Shortly after, Rodriguez signed a two-year deal with Columbia Pictures and would forever see his influence ripple throughout cinema.
The fact that independent, guerilla-style cinema is now cherished dearly by many cinephiles, and movies shot entirely on iPhones prover commercially successful, is forever indebted to the sacrifices and energetic excellence of Robert Rodriguez and El Mariachi.
Featured Image: Columbia Pictures