In 1990, two years before he suddenly became very hot in Hollywood, Robert Rodriguez sat in front of the two videocassette recorders he had set up in his Austin living room and quickly edited together three of his short videos. His wife, Elizabeth Avellan, had called to tell him that the deadline for a local film competition was that day. In just a few hours he managed to splice the three tales and add a title, Austin Stories, to his entry for the Eighth Annual Third Coast Film and Video Competition, hosted by the Texas Union at the University of Texas.
Despite the pressure of the deadline, Rodriguez, then 21, loved what he was doing—building a film. Over the years, at every family gathering, from graduations to birthdays (and with nine siblings, there were always birthdays), he shot videos of his family—lots of videos, including half a dozen short narratives starring his brothers and sisters. Unlike most home videos, these had stories with beginnings, middles, and ends, as well as music and credits. For the contest, he chose three of those home movies, two of which had won Austin CableVision video contests, and added titles to provide a narrative link. Rodriguez submitted the tape, and Austin Stories won.
As a sometime film judge, I have seen a lot of film-school work. Student films tend to fall into predictable categories: the rape, the arty contemplation, the drug deal, the alien contact, the erotic fantasy. Nowhere in the gamut of subjects or styles does the home movie figure. Student filmmakers are intrigued by subject matter ranging from murder to social issues but not by their cinematically engaging brothers and sisters.
But Rodriguez is. The first vignette in Austin Stories chronicles the classic battles in the ongoing war between big brothers and little sisters and then explores what happens when a little sister, fed up with her bullying older brother, whips out a pistol and goes after him. The second is about getting up in the morning. The last is about how the Rodriguez family uses water. According to sister Rebecca, they use it to drink, to wash their mouths out when they’ve accidentally brushed their teeth with Ben-Gay, and to spit on siblings. Despite weak lighting, the film has a zippy style of smart edits and aggressive camera movements, coupled with a terrific sound track that borrows as much from horror films as it does from cartoons.
Austin Stories stood out among the standard film school and art institute fare. After the contest, I compared notes with another judge, late scriptwriter Warren Skaaren ( Top Gun, Batman, Beetlejuice). We marveled over the film’s energy and its charm; it was fresh. Skaaren wondered how Rodriguez’s sensibility would weather—especially how it would be affected by film school, filmmaking, and, maybe eventually, the film industry.
Two years later, in April 1992, both Variety and the Hollywood Reporter, the film industry’s major trade magazines, reported the signing of 23-year-old Robert Rodriguez with Columbia Pictures. Included in the two-year, two-picture deal was a $5 million remake of El Mariachi, a film Rodriguez had shot in Mexico last year. The cost for the two-week shoot had been a slim $7,000—about one week’s catering bill for a Hollywood production. A short time after the announcement, Rodriguez, wearing overalls, waited in his South Austin apartment for the studio-provided car that would take him to the airport. Columbia was flying him first-class to Los Angeles to put the finishing touches on the deal.
Rodriguez associates his earliest memories of both films and filmmaking with family. When he was young, his mother would take the whole brood to the Olmos, a San Antonio revival house, to watch the classics. To keep the venture economical, they would smuggle in food under a stack of the baby’s diapers. Then they would sit through the program twice, even though it was usually a double bill.
In the late seventies Rodriguez’s father bought a VCR system, complete with a camera and a twelve-foot cable. Robert, the third-eldest child and then eleven years old, went crazy taping the family. A few years later, Robert’s father bought a new VCR, and Robert quickly figured out how to edit by feeding videotape from one machine to the other. That’s when the Rodriguez family video chronicles really began.
While attending St. Anthony, a small private high school in San Antonio, Rodriguez became close friends with Carlos Gallardo, a student whose family lived in Ciudad Acuña, Mexico. In 1982 they began making short action videos together, both in San Antonio and in Acuña, during holiday visits to Gallardo’s family. Over the years, Rodriguez made more than a dozen of these—some without Gallardo, none longer than half an hour.
Rodriguez entered the University of Texas in September 1986, but not as a film major. Despite his impressive inventory of action and family films, he was turned down by the Radio-Television-Film Department because his grades weren’t good enough. Rodriguez took his required basic courses with hopes of improving his grade point average, and he achieved some notoriety by drawing Los Hooligans, a comic strip starring his younger sister Maricarmen, that ran for three years in the Daily Texan.
Then he won the Third Coast film contest. Austin Stories in hand, Rodriguez confronted film professor Stephen Mims. “Look,” he said. “I beat your students. Can I get into the department now?” Convinced that Rodriguez’s talent outweighed any academic deficiencies, Mims helped him get into the RTF program in the fall of 1990.
Rodriquez was determined to do his first film project right, and he knew that would require money, even if his siblings were willing to act without pay. So the summer before he entered the program, Rodriguez signed up to participate in a pharmaceutical-testing study at an Austin-based laboratory and earn some cash. Two thousand dollars richer when school began, Rodriguez set out to familiarize himself with the three-lens 16mm camera that film students use to shoot their first-year projects. He designed the movie to take advantage of the camera’s light