Friday, July 18, 2014

Robert Rodriguez's Rebel Without a Crew and the Mexico Trilogy

As many of you who follow me know, for the last two years I've been working on a couple of inter-related short films called Targeted. In an effort to possibly learn some new tricks about how to make a film cheaply, I picked up the book Rebel Without a Crew: Or How a 23-Year-Old Filmmaker with $7,000 Became a Hollywood Player. I knew of Rodriguez before, having seen a couple of his films and knowing him primarily from work he did together with Quentin Tarantino, though I wouldn't have called myself a fan of his movies. I just knew that $7,000 was basically unheard of for most independent films of the time period, and I wanted to see how he did it. To give you a state of comparison, Clerks was made for about $27,000 not long after.

The book is very informal, being largely a transcription of Rodriguez's diary entries from the time he made the film as well as the process he went through with the studios to get a deal and the tour he did with the film El Mariachi on the film festival circuit. I feel pretty confident saying he only lightly edited these entries, as he repeats some information on different days as if he forgot he already wrote the stuff down. It's not bad by any means, as he's got a decent writing style even in this informal way and he goes into a fair amount of detail about what he was doing.

He raised most of the money for the film by agreeing to submit to medical testing, something I personally could not see myself doing. He goes into detail about his time in the tests, and how he used that time of being locked in the medical facility to work on the script. He also did it because he didn't want to go into personal debt (like Kevin Smith did for Clerks) and he also didn't want to gain any outside financing from a production company or studio (what most people do when making films). So even if his method isn't one most of us would follow, I think the spirit is a good one.

The majority of his cost for the movie were related to the fact that it was shot on film, and as such aren't really relevant in this modern world. If he was making this film now with the good quality digital video cameras available, his budget would have been non-existent. Unfortunately this also means a lot of his advice in the book is now largely irrelevant, as with digital you can do as many takes as you want before you get it right, there's no cost of film or transfer, etc. But he does also emphasize the idea that instead of just going out there and spending money on things you're "supposed" to have, just get creative and get it done. That's great advice regardless of the time period and technology available.

If you're curious, Targeted's budget is currently just under $3,000 and that's mostly because being a period piece we are forced to buy costumes/props. I anticipate that our next film should come in much lower.

I also found the part of the book where he talks about dealing with the studios pretty fascinating, how they started out presenting this film to straight to video companies and getting blown off and shown the door, but a stroke of luck with a guy who was trying to run a film festival in Texas ended up getting him referred to an agent. Then suddenly major studios were beating down his door, telling him how much they loved the film and wanted to work with him. And even while they are wining and dining him wanting him to sign, he's at home unable to afford groceries and barely making the rent since no contract has been signed and he's flying to L.A. so often he can't work another job.

By the end of the book I was also really wanting to watch El Mariachi, curious how a film that was made so cheaply (and which Rodriguez himself kept calling a practice film that he initially didn't want shown theatrically) could have gotten so many people in Hollywood excited. If you were to watch the film blind without knowing the story behind it, I think you would still be impressed. Not blown away by any means, but it shows that he had a good understanding on how to make an action film and was also capable of telling a simple but action packed and touching story. Having read the book before hand added a lot more to it though, knowing exactly what he went through and the tricks he used to make it work with the little he had.

There are a couple minor mistakes, particularly that his close ups are a little too tight, and the actors are all amateurs so there's no real mind blowing performance here. The movie is largely told through action, with only the most basic dialogue for most of the film. But the action is dynamic and the story has the capability to make you feel something when it counts. I can see how this helped launch his career.

The DVD for El Mariachi has a special feature with the same name as a section of the book, "Ten Minute Film School." In it he guides you with examples on some of the things he did to make the film cheaply. It's got some nice pointers on how to work creatively. The director's commentary for the film also mirrors a lot of the details he goes through in the book.

There are points in the book where he mentions that he really wanted to remake El Mariachi with a proper budget, that this was just a practice film to show people what he could do. He had originally intended to only sell it on the Mexican straight to video market and use it as footage to show people. But Columbia insisted on giving it a proper release, and instead he went on with them to make a sequel called Desperado. I remember seeing at least parts of this film before on television, and I also remember my high school boyfriend developing a man crush on Antonio Banderas after he had seen it. Having now watched it all the way through, I certainly understand why.

You can see where Rodriguez was at least trying to do a partial do-over for El Mariachi in parts of the film. While it's definitely a sequel, there's enough of a similar structure here that he's almost trying to show you that he could have made El Mariachi so much better. And clearly with a proper budget for effects and a strong cast, he could. Desperado is an incredibly fun movie, full of amazing shoot out sequences and great performances from Steve Buscemi, Danny Trejo, Banderas, and Salma Hayek. It's got a great sense of humor and is just a ton of fun to watch. I was also happy to see that he brought some of the actors from El Mariachi back in small roles, no doubt to give them a paycheck as well as some acknowledgement for helping him get where he was at that point.

I'll admit though that the ending does fall a bit flat. The reveal of the relationship between El Mariachi and Bucho doesn't quite work, and the fade out is really weak - what happened? Did they just let them go? Did he kill them all somehow? Why not show us that moment? There's a lot of tension building up, and to fade out rather then see some kind of resolution is a little disappointing. Apparently it was done because the MPAA was going to give the film an NC-17 rating with the violent shootout left in. I still think a re-shoot or a trimmed version of the scene would have been a better alternative. This is where his "get it done quickly and just work around it" style hurt a little bit. Still, making a movie like this for $7 million was still pretty amazing, and showed that even in Hollywood he could do these films for cheaper than most other directors.

There's a bonus feature on Desperado called "10 More Minutes... Anatomy of a Shootout" where he once again shows some of his techniques. It was fun to see him suggest something we had already done on Targeted, that being going to the location ahead of time and getting your storyboards on video rather than drawing them, and going through the action with your actors ahead of time so things run smoother the day of. With action scenes, I think that's essential if you want them done consistently on time.

While Rodriguez spoke of his intentions to make this story a trilogy pretty early on, audiences had to wait 8 years for the last film. In the time in between, there was Four Rooms (a film of four interconnected shorts, one of which he wrote/directed), From Dusk Till Dawn (written by Tarantino), The Faculty (written by Kevin Williamson), and two Spy Kids films, where Rodriguez showed he was capable of making films appropriate for all ages as well. His short in Four Rooms is probably my favorite of the bunch. From Dusk Till Dawn though, I don't really care for. The story feels like it wanders too long before we get to the vampires, and there are some moments in there clearly just for Tarantino's foot fetish and it's super creepy. It's interesting from an effects perspective, there's some really gross stuff there, but I just don't care for the plot. I've never seen the others listed above but I plan to check them out soon.

Also in between El Mariachi and Desperado he did a made for television movie Roadracers. Writing credit for the film is split between Rodriguez and Tommy Nix, and I don't know which one of them to blame, but the movie is terrible. All of the characters are one note and cookie cutter, and the plot feels like there are chunks missing - there are brief lines of dialogue that mention more history between the characters but it's not explained well and leaves you wondering why they seem to hate each other so much. The cast is solid and gives decent performances, but the story is a mess. The film was also made in 13 days, and I'm not sure if that hurt it as well. Rodriguez was able to work just as fast on El Mariachi, but that film also had a lot less story.

Because of the long span of time before he shot Once Upon a Time in Mexico, it also ended up being experimental in its own way - it was the first film Rodriguez shot in HD rather than on film. I had heard that a lot of people don't like the film, even seeing one review that stated that Johnny Depp was the only good thing about the movie, and I have to wonder just what it is that people were so disappointed by. Yes, it's a little different from Desperado, but it's still primarily an action film, has a lot of great shoot out sequences and humor, and Banderas is still great in the role. Perhaps hearing it compared to The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly ahead of time helped my expectations, but I feel like it's a good film on its own merits. He handles a fairly complicated plot and a large cast of characters well and I found the film really enjoyable. My only complaint is the way he kills off Salma Hayek's character, but that was done because she was filming Frida and couldn't appear full time in the picture.  I also thought the digital effects he used worked really well and knowing he did the score this time as well as shooting, editing, and directing makes me wonder if there's anything he can't do.

Once again the DVD contains a lot of bonus features, including "10 Minute Flick School" that was all about shooting digitally, a tour of his at home studio where he edits, mixes, and records the score for his films, and a good look at the special effects as well. There's even a "10 Minute Cooking School" where he shows you how to make puerco pibil, the dish that Depp's character is obsessed with in the movie.

I really, really wanted to do a tasting video for you guys, like  I did long ago tasting both versions of brass monkey when I did my Beastie Boys post, but I could not find annato seeds or achiote paste anywhere around here.  I did end up making the dish, substituting chipotle paste into the recipe, but it doesn't seem fair to review a modified recipe. (For the record, it did taste really good.)  Here's hoping one of the other 10 Minute Cooking Schools on his future releases are easier to recreate!

Of his work after the trilogy, the only one I've seen before was Sin City, which I found creative and nice to look at but didn't care for the stories very much. However I'm willing to put the blame on Frank Miller's shoulders for that one, as I'm not a fan of his gritty style in general. I probably won't be seeing the sequel. I guess I should also count Predators among his work I've seen as well, because while he only gets producer credit he did write the original script for the film. The Machete films I very much want to check out, as they look as silly and fun as Desperado. Danny Trejo has such a wonderful imposing presence that I'm looking forward to having him get to survive a film for once.

I recently watched Grindhouse, but I think I'm going to save that for a future review since there's a lot more there than just Planet Terror to talk about.  Plus there's JT's barbecue recipe to try...

I don't know that you have to have an interest in making films of your own to truly appreciate Rodriguez, but I do think anyone who is certainly deserves to give his films their attention. Or maybe I should say specifically his DVD releases, as the director's commentaries and bonus features are a wellspring of knowledge. He's clearly enthusiastic about the process, and wants anyone with an idea to join in on the fun.  His best advice?  "Stop saying 'I want to be a filmmaker and just go be one.'"

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