King of Dreams
Over the past two decades, Robert Rodriguez has been one of the most ambitious, least restrained directors in America. Now he's working on his biggest idea yet.
When Robert Rodriguez was a teenager, he built a film-editing console in his room from two VCRs he’d filched from his dad, a cast-off stereo system, an old TV, and a tape deck and splicer for adding music. He used it to edit short films he made with his nine siblings, as well as school projects and mash-ups of scenes taken from his favorite movies. One day, he took some scenes from a Mickey Rourke movie and cut them together with some scenes from a Rutger Hauer film. The Rourke movie was in black and white, so he drained the color out of the Hauer clips by dialing the color down on the TV. Years later, after he had become one of the country’s most prolific filmmakers, Rodriguez cast Rourke in Sin City, a moody, mostly black and white adaptation of Frank Miller’s noir comic book series. At one point, Rodriguez needed to shoot a scene in which Rourke’s character, Marv, kills a bad guy, but he hadn’t yet cast the bad guy. He decided to go ahead without him, figuring he’d put all the pieces together in post-production. Eight months later, he finally found someone to play the villain: Rutger Hauer.
Rodriguez told me this story during lunch in Austin last December, and he paused here to let it all sink in: Rutger Hauer. In black and white. In a scene with Mickey Rourke. “It wasn’t until I was done that I realized I’d done this before,” he said, a note of awe in his voice. “There’s a lot of weird events like that over the years. I feel like maybe I’m doing the thing I’m supposed to be doing.”
As usual, Robert Rodriguez is busy: last fall he released Machete Kills, the follow-up to his 2010 “Mexploitation” film Machete, and in August the next Sin City film will hit theaters. But the thing he’s talking about, the thing that has woven together the various loose threads of his life into something that feels to him like what he’s “supposed to be doing,” is El Rey, a brand-new cable-TV network he is launching this year. El Rey, which debuted in December, is aimed—though not exclusively—at a millennial Hispanic audience that Rodriguez contends is woefully underrepresented in the mainstream media. Despite the high profile of a select few (Sofia Vergara, Demi Lovato, and Eva Longoria, for example), the visibility of Latino characters on television remains relatively low. As Rodriguez told me, “I have five kids. There’s really nothing on television that shows who they are in this country.”
Like Univision’s recently launched Fusion network, El Rey, which means “the king,” hopes to capitalize on that void by catering to an audience of young, English-speaking Hispanics with a multicultural sense of themselves. But unlike Fusion (or Telemundo’s Mun2, which has been around longer), El Rey is also a high-octane network featuring the kinds of genres—action, cult, sci-fi, horror, and exploitation—for which Rodriguez is known. The network launched with seasons of The X-Files, one of Rodriguez’s favorite shows. The first round of original content began last month with From Dusk Till Dawn: The Series, a borderland crime/vampire show with Mesoamerican themes based loosely on Rodriguez’s 1996 movie. Future programming includes Matador, an original spy drama about a professional soccer player who moonlights as a secret agent (a kind of “Latin James Bond,” as Rodriguez puts it), as well as grind-house and kung fu films, reality TV, sports (notably lucha libre, or Mexican wrestling, which he fully believes he can popularize in this country), and more. In other words, El Rey occupies the section of the Venn diagram where Latinos, non-Latinos, and people who like vampire shows and flamboyant sports intersect—the world of Robert Rodriguez. It’s a sensibility manifested as a network, a televised compendium of personal taste. Arguably the first Hispanic-skewed network to not strictly target Hispanics, it doesn’t so much fill a niche as explode one.
The network’s unusual genesis dates back to 2009. Civil rights groups have for years objected to the scarcity of programming by and for minorities on cable television, so during negotiations with the FCC over a proposed merger with Comcast and NBC Universal, Comcast agreed it would grant eight new independent channels to African American and Hispanic owner-operators. John Fogelman and Cris Patwa, co-CEOs of the media incubator FactoryMade Ventures, saw an opportunity. They had recently come off the successful launch of a children’s network, called Hub, and were looking to replicate the experience. So they approached Rodriguez with an idea for a Hispanic network aimed at millennials. (Fogelman, who used to be a talent agent, knew Rodriguez through his former client, Salma Hayek.) The three met at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills. Fogelman and Patwa brought the business plan; Rodriguez brought his cowboy hat. They told him, “There’s an opportunity at Comcast. You could put in a bid for a Hispanic network, and you might get it.”
“And my hand went up,” Rodriguez recalled. “I went, ‘I’ll do that!’ ”
After the initial meeting, Rodriguez went home to Austin, knocked some ideas around with his siblings and friends, and came up with a pitch. The network would be called El Rey. The name was a placeholder at first, but gradually Rodriguez began to think that it fit his vision perfectly: El Rey would be a feeling, a mind-set, a way of being in the world. He also liked that El Rey is a common brand name in Mexico—sort of like Acme—a generic catchall that’s at once humble and proud, mythical and commonplace. “ ‘El Rey’ is used for everything,” Rodriguez explained. “I mean, there’s El Rey chocolates, there’s El Rey cabs, there’s El Rey tacos. What’s cool about it, is you’ve seen it so much that when you see the El Rey network, people go, ‘I’ve heard of that.’ It’s like it’s always been there, but it’s only now raising its head. Almost like the culture itself.”
There are other meanings as well. El Rey is the name of a classic mariachi song by José Alfredo Jiménez that “guys sing when they get drunk and want to feel good about themselves.” Loosely translated, the lyrics go something like this:
I know I’m on the outside
But the day I die
You’ll have to cry
And cry and cry
With or without money
I always do what I want
And my word is law
I have no throne and no queen
And nobody understands me
But I’m still the king
The initial idea was that the network would be aimed at Hispanics, but it soon evolved into something more inclusive, a network for millennials, primarily males and “kick-ass females.” The network was announced in February 2012 (along with two African American–oriented networks, Aspire and Revolt, run, respectively, by Magic Johnson and Sean “Diddy” Combs, and BabyFirst Americas, with programming targeting Hispanic infants and their parents; the remaining networks will be developed over the next five years). Afterward Rodriguez began fielding calls from actors, many of whom he’d helped discover. Benicio del Toro took him to lunch and after several hours got up saying, “I have to get away from you, I have too many ideas.” Something similar happened with the actress Michelle Rodriguez (who is no relation). The idea seemed to click, to take on the qualities of a movement. Rodriguez began to see El Rey as the answer to a problem that had always vexed him: Why were there so few Latinos in Hollywood?
So now Rodriguez is on a mission: he’s been making the evangelical rounds, pitching the network as a promised land where U.S.-born Hispanics can express and behold their collective fierceness, where the invisibility and existential homesickness of the multicultural kid can be assuaged. “It’s bigger than a network,” he told me. “It’s this mythical other place where you can go and be yourself and say, ‘That’s me,’ with some pride. ‘That’s me—I do have a place in this country.’ ”
Robert Rodriguez is tall, broad-shouldered, and square-jawed. He has the jet-black hair and tea-colored eyes of an anime hero and emanates what Fogelman describes—not entirely in jest—as “quiet strength.” Though he is the most prominent Mexican-American filmmaker in the country, he keeps a relatively low profile, working and living in Austin with a loyal coterie of longtime collaborators, family members, and old friends. As befits someone running a network called El Rey, he lives in a castle and is known for exerting total control over his projects, which he famously writes, directs, shoots, edits, and scores.
Rodriguez refers to this “one-man film crew” approach as “mariachi-style,” after his first feature film, El Mariachi, which was released in 1993. The story of its creation has become the stuff of legend. In 1991, the summer after his first year at the University of Texas film school, Rodriguez and his longtime friend Carlos Gallardo showed some of their short films to a production manager working on the movie Like Water for Chocolate, which was being shot in Gallardo’s hometown of Ciudad Acuña, a border town in Coahuila, Mexico. The short films, Rodriguez told me, all had the same plot: “Guy comes into town, meets bad guys, gets beat up, leaves town.” The production manager suggested that they make a straight-to-video Spanish-language film. These were schlocky, low-budget movies, the production manager explained, that usually starred a soap actor, cost between $30,000 and $40,000 to make, and sold for about $50,000. “We thought, ‘Thirty or forty thousand dollars?’ ” Rodriguez told me. “ ‘They’re shot on home video! They’re terrible! There’s no action in them! We can make something a hundred times better. Probably for five thousand dollars. And shot on film!’ ”
Rodriguez estimated that he could keep costs low if he wrote a script based entirely around the props and locations he already had access to. These included a school bus, a dog, and a ranch. His plan was to shoot it quick and cheap in Mexico and use the profits to fund two more movies, from which he could cut together a demo reel to circulate in Hollywood. He raised money by volunteering for drug trials at a testing facility called Pharmaco. During the month that he was a lab rat, he finished the script, which was about a harmless musician (played by Gallardo, who also co-produced the film) who comes to town and is mistaken for a fearsome hit man known for carrying his weapons in a guitar case.
Somewhat miraculously, El Mariachi worked. A gritty, cheapo homage to the movies of Sergio Leone, it was also a sly commentary on the sad lot of the artist in a world ruled by money. He cut together a trailer, which he managed to get into the hands of an agent at ICM named Robert Newman, who loved it and asked to see the whole film. “This guy walked in,” Newman recalled, “and had on one of those string ties, and he started telling me about his plan to do these action movies for the Spanish home-video market.” Newman didn’t even know there was a Spanish home-video market, but he admired Rodriguez’s confidence. The 23-year-old explained that he wanted to make a trilogy, and he had a plan for how to turn a profit. Near the end of the meeting, Newman noticed that Rodriguez was wearing a Keith Richards–style skull ring. “I said, ‘Nice ring,’ ” Newman told me. “And he said, ‘My mother gave it to me.’ And I thought, ‘This is an unusual guy, if his mother would give him a skull ring.’ ”
Newman sent El Mariachi to executives at Columbia, who signed Rodriguez to a two-year writing and directing deal. The plan was to remake the film with a bigger budget and a better-known actor in the lead role instead of Gallardo. The studio executives were worried about the downer ending, though, so they tested it. Much to their surprise, it tested well, so they decided to show it at a couple of film festivals. Rodriguez quickly became something of a folk hero. He would get up in front of the crowd beforehand and recount how he’d made the movie—how he’d written it around what he had—and then the audience would cheer when the school bus showed up. Finally the studio took the film to the Sundance Film Festival, where it won the Audience Award. The plan to remake the film was scrapped, and it was given a major theatrical release. With a production bill of $7,000, it was the least expensive film ever released by a major studio.
Suddenly Rodriguez had clout. Desperado, his next movie, was more conventional, faithfully adhering to the Hollywood action formula, save for the fact that he cast two obscure Latin actors, Hayek and Antonio Banderas, in the lead roles. Next Rodriguez contributed a segment to the four-director film Four Rooms and began production on his new pal Quentin Tarantino’s script From Dusk Till Dawn, a self-conscious genre mash-up that careered from road movie to crime caper to horror flick. Because the budget was too small to shoot on a Hollywood soundstage, much of From Dusk Till Dawn was shot inside a vacant Lawry’s spice factory in downtown Los Angeles. One day during production, it occurred to Rodriguez that he could just as easily do this back home in Texas. His next film, The Faculty, a 1998 supernatural teen horror flick written by Kevin Williamson, was shot in an empty warehouse in Austin.
By then, he had found his niche: he was a genre filmmaker who quoted heavily from other genre movies, someone big studios could count on to work with small budgets. But he wanted to try something different. He’d always imagined making a film about his unusual family—Rodriguez has four brothers and five sisters, his mother was briefly a nun, and his uncle, Gregorio, was an FBI special agent who brought down two top-ten most-wanted criminals. Working off a seed of an idea that had first taken root while he was filming his segment of Four Rooms, he developed Spy Kids, a script about a suave family of spies. He began production in 2000, intending to shoot it at the same warehouse where he’d shot The Faculty. During production, however, he heard that a large hangar at Austin’s old airport was available. He had several films lined up whose budgets would cover the cost of the hangar, so he signed a lease with his producing partner and then-wife, Elizabeth Avellán (the two divorced in 2007).
It was never exactly Rodriguez’s intention to build his own studio, but that’s essentially what he did. Money from each successive movie was reinvested in the space. First, it was soundproofing, then air-conditioning, then a lighting grid. The post-production and visual effects on Spy Kids were so involved that they required a tailor-made digital facility in order to be cost-efficient, so he built that too. The setup suited Rodriguez’s renegade vision of himself. “You’re way off the reservation,” he told me. “You’re not in L.A., where people would say, ‘That’s not going to work,’ or ‘Oh, you can’t do that.’ No one is there to tell you no.” Three years after leasing the hangar, Rodriguez was shooting Sin City and walking from his office to his green screen—the biggest in Texas at the time—when suddenly the thought popped into his head, “Oh my God, I’ve got my own studio!”
It all made sense, of course. Rodriguez, who is 45, has always been obsessive about being in charge. After his initial deal with Columbia, Newman got him a contract with Miramax that was, as the agent describes it, “all about ownership and participation and control.” And he’s spent the bulk of his adult life shielding his creative process from the obstacle course that is the entertainment industry. His notion of himself as an outsider has not been softened by twenty years of successful films. In his ubiquitous black cowboy hat or Mao cap, Rodriguez is alternately an outlaw and a revolutionary. One day, when I asked him if the name of his new network could be interpreted as a reference to himself, he objected strenuously. “I’m more like the court jester,” he said, “the troublemaker, the hooligan.”
It’s undeniable, though, that Rodriguez has become, intentionally or not, the sovereign ruler of his own private fiefdom. In addition to Troublemaker, he owns Quick Draw Productions and Quick Draw Animation. He founded Tres Pistoleros Studios, a TV and film production company, with Fogelman and Patwa, and recently, with Tim League of the Alamo Drafthouse and Fantastic Fest, he started Mercado Fantastico, an international co-production marketplace where genre films are bought and sold. What began out of necessity as a scrappy, DIY, guerrilla approach to filmmaking has evolved into an economic engine complete with an infrastructure, which has helped transform Austin into an important filmmaking hub.
It’s also given Rodriguez the freedom to experiment with technology in ways that he would never have been able to do had he stayed in Hollywood. His 2003 feature Once Upon a Time in Mexico was one of the first high-definition digital feature films. The third installment of the Spy Kids franchise, which also hit theaters in 2003, was the first digital live-action feature to be shot in 3-D. Sin City was one of the first films to be shot primarily on a green screen. Though these innovations have had a profound effect on the industry, they were driven less by high-tech zeal and more by Rodriguez’s relentless desire to do things efficiently and cheaply so as to maximize his own creative freedom.
“I was very aware when we moved here that we were moving to Robert’s town,” said Janet Pierson, who came to Austin with her husband, producer John Pierson, in 2004, and took over the South by Southwest film festival in 2008. “Of course, Richard Linklater was here, and he’s a sort of godfather to all of us, but Robert had a thriving film production center. He had created this way to work with great people in a great place, to make what he wants to make on his own terms.”
In other words, despite his protestations, Rodriguez himself is seen by a lot of people as, well, El Rey. Not in the sense of a despot or tyrant but in the sense of a benign overlord ruling a make-believe space in which he can extend the creativity and imagination of his childhood in perpetuity.
Rodriguez was raised in San Antonio, in a stately two-story, five-bedroom stone house in the historic neighborhood of Monte Vista. His father, Cecilio, was a cookware salesman who grew up on the border, in Rio Grande City; Cecilio went to college at St. Mary’s University on a jazz-drumming scholarship. (“We very much represent what Texas is all about,” said Rodriguez’s younger brother Marcel of Cecilio’s self-reliance. “We know where we come from.”) His mother, Rebecca, was born in El Paso, lived in an orphanage for a short time, and was adopted at a young age. She planned on becoming a nun and entered a religious order, but the nuns sent her off to finish her nursing degree, and in the end, she met her husband and had ten kids instead. The Rodriguez kids are fifth-generation Mexican Americans, though when I asked Marcel how long the family had been in the state, he said, “When Texas became Texas, we were already here.”
Rodriguez is the third child. When he was born, his parents had already produced a jock and a brain, so they encouraged his artistic pursuits, which came naturally. Life at home revolved around the arts: Cecilio kept a drum set in the house, and Rebecca took guitar lessons when the kids were young. “She would have us sing like the Von Trapps,” Rodriguez said. “Spanish songs, for anybody that came by the house, even the mailman.” State senator Leticia Van de Putte, a family friend, recalled that Rebecca encouraged her kids to draw, write, play music, and dance. “I got the trick of using butcher paper from her,” she told me. “She would get butcher paper cheap at a restaurant supply store and put it on the wall so they could paint. Then she’d change it out the next week.” Marcel, the sixth kid, remembered that long before Rodriguez got interested in filmmaking, he was drawing, taking photos, sculpting with clay, and even trying his hand at animation. “By the time I came around,” he said, “home was an art school.”
Rebecca, a movie buff, liked to take her kids to the Olmos Theatre, a local revival house, where they would sit through multiple viewings of classic double features. She also had a taste for the macabre. “My mom is very Catholic,” said Marcel. “And if you want to hear some good horror stories about people being dismembered and ripped apart and nailed to a cross, just read the Bible.” Rodriguez maintained a collection of meticulously labeled horror and exploitation bootleg videos, which he kept in a locked cabinet in his room. Between the double features, the Bible stories told with a nurse’s tolerance for gore, and the curated home-video collection, the kids developed a shared sensibility.
Cecilio’s work ethic and self-reliance had a major influence on Rodriguez as well. “He’d come home, and my mother would say, ‘We need three more sets of braces for the kids,’ ” Rodriguez recalled. “And he’d calculate how much extra cookware he’d need to sell, and then he’d go back out and sell it.” Much later, after Rodriguez had started his studio, he took a tip from his father. He never set out to find other movies to shoot on his stages. Instead, he generated his own work. “It’s like my dad selling cookware—‘Oh, we’re not going to make rent this month? Well, let me just go write another script, and we’ll make another movie to cover us for the rest of the year!’ ” Marcel agreed. “The fearlessness of our dad having ten kids played into a fearlessness that has driven Robert in his career.”
When Rodriguez was eight, his dad gave him a Polaroid camera, which he used to create elaborate movie stills of films that existed only in his mind. Once, at school, he spent days creating an animated flip movie on the edges of his dictionary pages. “I thought, ‘I’m not going to get a good job at all when I grow up!’ ” he said. He played the saxophone for a year, the piano for a year, the guitar for a year. “I was always trying to find what my thing was.”
One day, when Rodriguez was twelve, Cecilio brought home a JVC video player/recorder. The camera had no viewfinder, so he had to hook it to the TV with a twelve-foot cable and watch the screen while shooting. Rodriguez’s earliest forays into filmmaking involved dragging the whole contraption as far as the back door and then directing his younger siblings in dozens of action and kung fu movies out in the yard. Van de Putte’s kids were occasionally recruited as well. “The kids stayed out of trouble, because they were doing what Robert told them to do,” she remembered. It was for this reason that Rodriguez always preferred babysitting to other chores. “He’d just put us to work making movies,” his sister Rebecca recalled.
In 1981 the film Escape From New York was released. Around that time Rodriguez read an article about the film’s creator, John Carpenter, who wrote, directed, shot, and edited all his own movies. In Carpenter’s new film, a dystopian sci-fi action movie, he had simply declared that New York City was a giant maximum-security prison, which struck Rodriguez as the ultimate creative freedom. So he told his mother that he and his brother wanted to see The Cannonball Run, and after she dropped them off, they snuck in to see Escape From New York. The deception ate away at him for a few days (“I was a really good kid,” he says). When he finally came clean, his mother took him and his brother back to the theater to see it again.
After that, Rodriguez began to focus on filmmaking. He attended St. Anthony’s Seminary, a Catholic school across the street from his house, where his teachers gave him permission to hand in “term movies” instead of term papers. “All his movies were slasher films or shoot-’em-ups,” one high school friend recalled. “For one religion class, he had a terminator-priest-robot-type character, and it made perfect sense.” Rodriguez was also entrusted with taping the football games, then summarily relieved of his duties. “I didn’t understand how sports worked,” he explained. “I was just getting hero shots of my fellow classmates throwing the ball, and the camera would be tracking the ball in the air dramatically, and then the guy would catch it, and I’d edit it all to music. The players loved it, but the coaches said, ‘No, no! Aim at the field and hold it so we can see the plays!’ ”
After high school he enrolled at UT, where he intended to study film. He also found time to work as a cartoonist for the Daily Texan. His strip, Los Hooligans, was about a pair of mischievous Mexican American siblings. The relentless pace of a daily deadline taught him to work fast and let go of perfectionism—to put things out in the world and move on. “Drawing a daily comic strip, like anything, takes creative discipline,” Rodriguez said. “I would come home sometimes and wish I could go just lay back, clear my mind, and let the idea for that day’s strip come to me. Wouldn’t that be the best thing? But no. It wouldn’t work. After wasting two hours, I’d have to sit at the desk and just start drawing and drawing, until finally the strip would start to unfold.”
In 1990 Rodriguez entered film school at UT and shot his first real movie, Bedhead. Like Los Hooligans, Bedhead was based on his experience growing up—with some obvious artistic license. He cast his little sister Rebecca as a kid who develops telekinetic powers after her older brother accidentally knocks her down and she hits her head. The film, which won awards at several small festivals, contains many of the themes that would go on to recur throughout Rodriguez’s work: the lawlessness of childhood and the transcendent powers of imagination (at one point, Rebecca’s character fantasizes about becoming “the first Mexican American female president of the United States!”). It’s also notable in its effortlessly ordinary depiction of Mexican American kids, and its expectation that all audiences will identify with them. As Rodriguez later said, “I was just going for something more mainstream and including us [Mexican Americans] in there as if to say, ‘We are mainstream.’ That’s all the statement it needs.”
Still, Rodriguez hasn’t exactly spent his career trying to subvert dominant ethnic stereotypes. He’s just always wanted to see himself and his family reflected in the films he made. Upon arriving in Hollywood, in the early nineties after making El Mariachi, he was surprised to discover how few working Hispanic actors there were for him to cast. “I had to find Salma Hayek. I had to bring Antonio Banderas from Spain. I had to cast Cheech [Marin], and Danny Trejo. I just started building up my own star system.”
It never occurred to him to make his characters non-Hispanic. “Spy Kids was based on my family,” he said. “And my family was Latin.” The script he handed in caused some consternation at the studio, however. “Why are you making them Latin?” Rodriguez remembered being asked. “Isn’t this going to be confusing to people?” Rodriguez found himself trying to explain over and over again that the movie wouldn’t play to only a Latin audience. That it would be mainstream. That it was in English. But the questions kept coming. Finally Rodriguez reframed his answer. “ ‘You don’t have to be British to enjoy James Bond,’ ” he recalled telling them. “And they were like, ‘Oh. Okay.’ ”
It was an awakening for Rodriguez. He realized that the movie’s characters would have never retained their original ethnicity if it hadn’t been personal to him. “If I wasn’t Latin,” he says, “I would have given in. I would have folded completely.” But he prevailed, and Spy Kids, the first installment in what would become a wildly successful four-film franchise, went on to gross more than $148 million worldwide. Rodriguez gradually came to the conclusion that Hispanic underrepresentation in film was a symptom of the lack of Hispanic filmmakers working in Hollywood. “You can’t just go to someone who’s not Latin and say, ‘Put me in your film, make me the lead,’ ” Rodriguez told me. “It’s not their point of view.” Part of the reason he felt compelled to launch El Rey, he said, was to create a place where U.S.-born, mainstream-identified Hispanic screenwriters and directors like himself could tell stories rooted in their personal identity and experience without ever being asked “Why are you making the characters Latin?”
After signing the deal for El Rey, Rodriguez started kicking around some ideas for shows. He met with his friend Rene Ortiz, a chef, and suggested they open a restaurant together and make a show about it that explored family, community, food, and culture. (Ortiz, who is also from San Antonio, helped open La Condesa, an interior-Mexican restaurant, and Sway, an upscale Thai place, both in Austin.) Rodriguez himself is an avid cook who makes homemade tortillas with his grandmother’s recipe. (His “Ten-Minute Cooking School” videos, which you can find on YouTube, contain irreverent instructions such as: “First step, flour tortillas. Get those flour tortillas, the ones you usually find at the store—you know, they feel like rubber? Get them out of your fridge and throw them in the trash. They are garbage.”) But when he pitched Ortiz on the idea, it fell flat. “I started seeing that Hispanic humility,” Rodriguez told me. Ortiz hung his head and mumbled something about his Spanish not being very good. Rodriguez replied that it didn’t matter; the programming would be in English.
“And then he gave me an even more distasteful look,” Rodriguez recalled, “and he said, ‘You mean pocho?’ ” In Mexico “pocho” is a derogatory term for Mexican Americans, people who don’t know the culture and can’t speak the language very well. It was a moment of revelation. “I said, ‘Wow, you’ve got a negative view of yourself. You just called yourself a pocho!’ And Rene said, ‘Oh, I never thought about it—but I struggle with that every day.’ ” Rodriguez was amazed. “Every day you struggle with that? Well, that’s a problem!”
He began to think more about the challenges facing native-born, English-speaking Latinos in the United States. According to the projections based on the 2010 census, this population is expected to nearly triple by 2060, when one in three Americans will be of Hispanic descent. From the perspective of the entertainment industry, this represents a major opportunity, but how to take advantage of it is up for debate. Should this group be seen as a market that’s distinct from the so-called mainstream market? After all, they’ll be acculturated second-, third-, fourth-, or even fifth-generation English speakers—people like Rodriguez.
In the eighties, amid growing awareness of the Hispanic population, marketers began separating Latinos in the United States into three demographic segments: unacculturated or recent arrivals, bicultural, and acculturated. According to Gabriela Gonzalez, a senior strategic planner at Dieste, a multicultural advertising agency in Dallas and New York, those early ideas stuck. “To this day we have big clients who can’t move away from those segments,” said Gonzalez. “But as an agency, in order to be able to sell them a good creative product or a good strategy, obviously we’re trying to push them precisely toward a mind-set. You can’t reach them based on segments.” She pointed to the fact that an estimated 40 to 45 percent of millennials are multicultural. “Once we have identified the mind-set, we figure out how many people from an ethnic group are there. You look to see how many of them are Hispanic, how many speak Spanish or English, and you use that tactically.”
This is how the more-sophisticated agencies operate nowadays. They try to identify mind-sets and attitudes composed of many identities that don’t necessarily align with a single ethnic group. “Millennials have reached critical mass to the point where it’s absurd to continue targeting based on demographics or language,” Gonzalez said.
This doesn’t mean that a special approach isn’t required, though. Rodriguez explained, “When someone says, ‘Oh, they just consume like everyone else,’ they don’t understand what it’s like to feel as if you’re not reaching your potential. The feeling of not knowing who you are, that shit just rolls downhill to your kids. There’s a whole culture that is growing—we’re at one in six now, we’re going to be one in three—and they don’t know who they are. It’s terrible for the country! It’s people who can never achieve their full potential because of the negative view they have of themselves. Because they don’t see themselves reflected in a media that they don’t have any say in.”
Rodriguez is troubled by the fact that there haven’t been many more U.S.-born Hispanic filmmakers to come after him. “I think it’s because they just don’t have a place to go.” Foreign-born Hispanic filmmakers, like his friends Alfonso Cuarón and Guillermo del Toro, both of whom are from Mexico, have the chance to develop as filmmakers in their own countries before arriving in Hollywood as proven entities. But Hispanic filmmakers in the United States have a harder time gaining a foothold at the start of their careers, when they’re more likely to want to do more-personal projects.
“When I made El Mariachi, I didn’t make it for Columbia Pictures,” Rodriguez said. “I never would have gotten off my ass to go make it for Columbia Pictures! Why would they put that out? In Spanish? The only reason I made it was because there was a straight-to-video market that I knew would buy it. I had a place to go.” That, in essence, is what he imagines the network will be: a kind of media homeland. “It’s like the kingdom on the mountain where everything will be wonderful,” he said. “So the next time that somebody says, ‘Are you a pocho?’ you go, ‘No, I’m El Rey. ’ ”
In 2012 Rodriguez went to Washington to talk to the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute about the importance of diversifying the distribution networks. While there, he was invited to take part in a presidential roundtable discussion. Rodriguez is a dedicated chronicler of his own life, and as he related this story, he handed me his phone, not for the first time, to show me some pictures. One was of Rodriguez seated across from President Barack Obama. The president is leaning back in his chair and laughing. Rodriguez explained that he had just told Obama the story about how Ortiz, his chef friend, had been dubious about a pocho network at first. “I told him, ‘One in six people are Hispanics right now in this country,’ ” Rodriguez recalled. “Even Hispanics are shocked by this number. They go, ‘Where is everybody? Where are they?’ I said, ‘If they’ve all got their heads down like my friend, that’s why you don’t know. If you give them reason to raise their heads, you’ll feel the number. In fact, it will go from being a number to being a people. And that’s really what we need. You’re only going to be able to do that with the media.’
“The media is so powerful,” he continued. “People don’t realize how powerful it is. They’re going to wonder what changed.” I asked him for an example. “I was talking to a senator—you know, Anglo, Republican. And I’m talking about the idea and the potential of the network and the movies I’ve done, and he goes, ‘Oh, Spy Kids. I know Spy Kids.’ And I go, ‘Hey, what are you doing watching a Latin film?’ And he said, ‘Oh, I didn’t know it was a Latin film!’ And I say, ‘Exactly!’ He got it really quickly. He said, ‘That’s really cool.’ ”
Comcast is relying on Rodriguez (as well as Magic Johnson and Diddy) to attract audiences and advertisers with his celebrity, so the pressure is most definitely on. He’s already raised the money to fund the network for the next four years. And El Rey recently signed a product integration deal with General Motors, under the terms of which the network will slip GM vehicles into all its original content.
But Rodriguez has always displayed an uncanny knack for knowing what the industry wants before it knows it wants it. He is credited with or blamed for (depending on your point of view) hauling ultraviolent exploitation flicks and kid-focused action-adventure comedies into the mainstream. Newman, Rodriguez’s agent, attributes his client’s longevity, financial success, and ability to live the creative life that he wants to his willingness to blaze his own trail in a famously hidebound business. “Some people are afraid of change and some people embrace it,” Newman told me. “Robert has always been the person who embraces it. He’s been a visionary.” A visionary, however, whose secret seems to be his guilelessness, his naivety about what’s possible and what’s insane.
On a freezing, blustery day a couple of weeks before Christmas, I visited Troublemaker Studios to see Rodriguez film a bit of the Dusk Till Dawn series. It’s a cavernous space. The main hangar (there are now two), which once housed the governor’s plane, is now home to several sound stages, production offices, and the green screen. (A second hangar contains the prop and costume shops.) The day I was there, Rodriguez was shooting an episode written by Marcel, who was there to supervise. The atmosphere felt genial and relaxed—Rodriguez played his guitar between takes (as I was told he always does), and somebody passed around a tray of burgers from the brand-new In-N-Out Burger. In the scene they were shooting, D. J. Cotrona and Zane Holtz, who play Seth and Richie Gecko, knocked on the door of a motel room, about to take a preacher’s family hostage. The knock got several takes: A pounding. A light rap. A shave and a haircut. A minimalist conk. Rodriguez invited me to come over and watch the action on the monitor, apologizing for the lack of excitement that day. He’d intended to have me visit on a location day when they were doing something fun, but the weather hadn’t cooperated. Whipping out his phone, he showed me some highly pyrotechnic scenes they’d recently shot, and sure enough, it was considerably more rousing than a couple of guys knocking on a door over and over again.
Still, there was something about that particular set visit that felt appropriately intimate; these sorts of details are the minutiae that make up a large part of filmmaking, after all, and the whole thing had the feel of the director at home, puttering around in his slippers. Rodriguez does what he can to foster that feeling of hominess. A little later that day, one of his assistants showed me a cache of paintings stacked against a wall of the studio. They were portraits of actors who have appeared in Rodriguez’s films: Hayek, Rosario Dawson, Bruce Willis, Joseph Gordon-Levitt. But there was more to it than that. Rodriguez paints the portraits, then invites the actors to embellish their own images during downtime when they’re shooting. The idea is to make them feel as if they’re just kids playing in the backyard. Eventually even the skeptical ones get obsessed.
“We’ll call cut, and they’ll run back there,” Rodriguez later told me. Once, one of the actors’ girlfriends came over to Rodriguez and asked where everyone kept sneaking off to. “ ‘Are you guys doing drugs?’ she asked. “You run off, then come back bouncing off the walls.” And I said, ‘No! We’re painting!’ ” Rodriguez is a firm believer in the snowballing effects of uninterrupted creative flow. “You paint for a while, and you come back to the set, and any problem you had before you can solve immediately, because you’ve already been solving creative problems on a whole other level,” he explained. “It’s like no big deal at all. And everybody’s in that mode, because they’re being creative all the time, not just when we go, ‘Now, action! Be creative!’ ”
His own working methods reflect this approach. “I work out of my house a lot,” Rodriguez said. “That’s really the secret to it. When the kids were smaller, people would wonder how I did one movie after another.” The answer, he said, is that he’d work at home on an entirely nocturnal schedule. This was vastly more efficient, he explained. “There’s no one calling you, and you don’t get any emails.” In the morning he’d have breakfast with the kids, they’d go to school, and he’d go to sleep. Then he’d pick them up at three and they’d play or go swimming or draw. “I’d cook them dinner, goof off, put them to bed at eight o’clock, and then I’d work from eight until eight. That’s twelve hours of uninterrupted work. You can’t even find distractions—everything is closed. I’d be editing, and then I’d be done editing and have three hours to go, so I might as well score that scene I just edited. I’d be done so fast. I’d be putting out two or three movies a year, sometimes. And the kids never saw you work. You were like an elf. It was the best schedule. You never came home late because you’d work while they were asleep and sleep while they were at school.”
I asked veteran film producer and Sundance fixture Ted Hope what he made of Rodriguez’s path from scrappy outsider to empire builder. Part of it was timing, he said. It’s unlikely somebody coming off the equivalent of El Mariachi today would be able to achieve what Rodriguez has. “But I definitely appreciate the impulse to own the means of production,” Hope said, “and find a way to fund [his films] completely from the outside.” Rodriguez is unique, he pointed out, for choosing to take on the management of such a large and ever-growing apparatus. “Most artists are unwilling to do what it takes to be completely in charge of their own destiny and own it, which is why the whole business of middlemen, brokers, and agents exists.”
And yet the more Rodriguez talks about his life and work, the more the DIY, mom-and-pop, work-from-home routine makes sense. Art, home, and a kind of anarchic freedom are thoroughly intertwined for him, and he seems to experience any system that would sort them into separate categories as unnatural. Since the beginning of his career, Rodriguez has grounded his work in his formative experiences in one way or another. He seems to have emerged from childhood with his artistic vision fully formed—which is probably why his work evinces both a childlike purity and the maturity level of a twelve-year-old boy.
Controlling the means of production has been crucial to this because it has allowed him to replicate the frictionless creative conditions he grew up in. All this writing with brothers and editing with sisters, all this hiring of cousins and casting of nieces and collaborating with kids, all this shop ownership and franchising, even the ongoing professional partnership with his ex-wife—how else to interpret it but as an effort to extend his childhood, only with more freedom and bigger toys? When I asked Marcel about this, he acted as if the answer was obvious. “You try to reach back to that moment when you were inspired or awed and make that real for other people,” he said. “It’s about staying connected to us as a family, I think. To the way we grew up.”
With El Rey, Rodriguez is building a place where those conditions can exist for others. “Movies take so long,” he says. “And the process wears you down. A lot of what I’ve been doing is creating a method where it isn’t such an effort to get films or shows out.” He hypothesizes what would happen if painters had to go through what filmmakers do before touching a brush to canvas. “You’d give up! It’s so tiring. And then, by the time you were done, you wouldn’t want to paint again for another four years. It’s not the filmmaking, it’s the process that sucks the life out of them. The politics and the methodology of it just sucks. That’s why people find it very refreshing to come down here. They go, ‘This is what I’ve always wanted to do! I don’t want all the other stuff. I just want to do this!’ ”