Austin film-maker Robert Rodriguez’s home movies of his brothers and sisters took him all the way to Hollywood.
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 weight and maneuverability, using strange angles and rushing in on his younger brother David and his sisters, as if the camera were flying around the house and yard.
Rodriguez titled the result of the semester’s work Bedhead. Co-written with David, Bedhead adds yet another twist to the little-sister-takes-on-elder-brother theme. This time the girl gains telekinetic powers. Aided by another inspired sound track, the film races along. Most first-year projects have twenty to thirty edits; Bedhead has more than two hundred. The opening, an animated sequence, required some three hundred drawings. Rodriguez continued to fine-tune Bedhead during the winter.
Meanwhile, Rodriguez’s friend Gallardo had shown some of their short action films to a video distributor in Mexico. The distributor encouraged them to make a Spanish-language feature in Mexico. Working from the distributor’s assurances, they calculated that they could make $20,000. The two were confident they could blow away anything else on the market.
By budgeting carefully, they figured, they could shoot an action feature in Mexico in two weeks during the summer for about $9,000. To get the money together, Gallardo sold some land and Rodriguez signed on with the drug-testing lab to earn $3,000. Before Rodriguez checked in at the lab, the two made a list of what they had in the way of assets. “We had a pit bull that was Carlos’,” says Rodriguez. “We had a motorcycle. We had a school bus that his cousin was lending us. We had a jail, two bars, and a ranch. So I wrote the script during the lab study, came out of there with not only a script but my actor for the bad guy.” Rodriguez hired Peter Marquardt, who slept in the bed next to his. “Then we just went down there and shot it.”
El Mariachi was a blast to make. Stretched a little thin over ninety minutes (it had to be that long to be released on tape), the extremely bloody story involves two warring drug lords and a wandering musician (the mariachi) who gets caught in the middle. Also prominent are a pit bull, a school bus, a motorcycle, a jail, two bars, and a ranch.
It was an easy shoot. At lunchtime they would go to Carlos’ house, where his mother would spread out a feast. Evenings, they were free. The film came in $2,000 under budget.
In December 1991, while visiting Los Angeles, Rodriguez dropped off Bedhead and an El Mariachi trailer—a stylish rhythmic montage of quick shots from the movie—for agent Robert Newman, the director of special projects at International Creative Management. Rodriguez didn’t know Newman, but he had seen his name on the schedule of speakers for the Texas Film Alliance’s aborted celebration on behalf of the Texas Film Commission’s twentieth anniversary and figured he might be sympathetic to a young Hispanic filmmaker.
Newman was impressed. “It’s fantastic; I want to work with you,” he said, and he offered Rodriguez a one-year agency contract. After Rodriguez finished editing El Mariachi, Newman sent copies of the film to all the studios, with his endorsement that it was the best thing he had seen in a long while. Within two weeks the calls started coming in. Paramount, Columbia, TriStar, and Walt Disney Studios all expressed interest. But true to Hollywood form, some studios were leery. One executive loved the movie but wanted to fiddle with the concept a little. “Could we make it less ethnic?” he asked. “How about if, instead of a mariachi, the lead was a rock guitar player in the U.S. who gets wounded and taken to an Indian reservation, where an old mentor nurses him back to health and teaches him to play?”
Luckily, executives at other studios liked the film just the way it was. One of those was Columbia’s Stephanie Allain, who worked with Boyz N the Hood director John Singleton. Not only was Columbia interested in a big-budget remake of El Mariachi, but when Rodriguez pitched four additional ideas, Columbia was receptive to all of them.
In every way, Rodriguez’s timing has been right. Over the past few years, Hollywood has awakened to the viability of the ethnic market, and black directors such as Singleton, Bill Duke, and Spike Lee have become hot both commercially and critically. If Rodriguez’s case is an indication of a trend, it may be a good time for young Hispanic directors. El Mariachi is both ethnic enough to appeal to the untapped Hispanic market and enough of a dead-ahead adventure to cross over into the mainstream market.
Many promising independent filmmakers have been lured to the big leagues and have never been heard from again, either lost in the power maze—because they didn’t have the talent, the skills, or the stamina—or lost to drug and alcohol abuse. It is hard for young directors to survive the process, to focus on which films they really want to make, which is what Warren Skaaren meant two years before: In Hollywood the hardest thing is to remember who you are. Rodriguez says that John Singleton advised him, “Trust yourself, follow your heart. Don’t let the studios water down your ideas.” That’s easy to say but more difficult to do. The demands, the negotiations, and the considerations—all the noise and clutter involved in getting a film made—make it difficult to stay focused.
But Rodriguez is confident that his voice will prevail. Aside from his cinematic skills, he has shown a commonsensical approach to blending the creative with the commercial. He took his lifelong obsession with drawing and turned it into a successful college-newspaper comic strip. He designed Bedhead to win prizes, and it did. He made El Mariachi to sell it, and he has. If El Mariachi enjoys some measure of financial and critical success, Rodriguez should have the muscle to continue filmmaking on his terms.
Rodriguez also has a secret weapon, his family, to remind him not only of where he has come from but also of where he should be going. Only two years after he edited together three home movies starring his brothers and sisters for a local film contest, Rodriguez is at work on one of the ideas he pitched to the studio: Robert Rodriguez wants to do a film or TV series about ten kids growing up in a Hispanic family. And Columbia is very interested.