|» 29 Nov 2010
There’s no one in the American film business quite like Robert Rodriguez, who plays completely outside the rules imposed by Hollywood studios. They offer him big budgets to make films which their executives will supervise, amend and (in their minds) make more commercial. Rodriguez tells them he’ll make a film for a far smaller budget and deliver the finished product – but without interference. Given his success rate, it’s clear his method works.
“Low budgets force you to be more creative,” Rodriguez told me at the Venice Film Festival. “Sometimes, with too much money, time and equipment, you can over-think. My way, you can use your gut instinct.”
Though best known for the successful children’s film franchise Spy Kids (he shoots those cheaply, too), Rodriguez usually devises blood-and-guts stories that are outrageous, violent and over the top – all adjectives that fit his new film Machete snugly. The title is the nickname of its hero, played by the formidably tough-looking Danny Trejo.
He’s a former Mexican cop with what you might call an aggressive attitude, now working in a Texas border town. Robert De Niro plays a corrupt anti-immigration politician, and Don Johnson is a vigilante who patrols the US-Mexican border.
To give some idea of Machete’s flavour, you need to know that it contains gratuitous violence, nudity, relentless action and frequent belly laughs – plus a very big man with a very big knife (Trejo’s Machete).
And then there’s the comedy casting. Lindsay Lohan has a scene in which she is dressed in a nun’s habit, brandishing guns on a killing spree. Yes, it’s tasteless – but it’s also a hoot.
Rodriguez, 42, first introduced the Machete character when he collaborated with his friend Quentin Tarantino on the 2007 double feature Grindhouse, a homage to exploitation movies. Its two films were separated by spoof trailers, one of which featured Trejo as Machete.
“After they’d seen Grindhouse, a lot of people asked me when the Machete film was coming out,” recalled Rodriguez. “Of course, there was no such film. But that trailer fed the audience’s appetite – we knew we had an audience. I felt like even if the film didn’t exist, it should.”
Rodriguez has long been a hero to independent film-makers. In 1992, he made his first film, El Mariachi, for just $7,000 when he was still a student at the University of Texas in Austin. He wrote the script while holed up for weeks in a drug research clinic as a paid subject in a clinical experiment. The cheque enabled him to shoot the film in Mexico, with no crew or professional actors.
Rodriguez directed, photographed, edited and sound-recorded El Mariachi, which he thought might work in the Mexican video market. Instead, Columbia Pictures snapped it up. The cheapest film ever released by a major studio, it grossed $2million (300 times its budget) in America alone. Then Columbia asked him to direct a remake of El Mariachi with a far more generous budget, big-name stars (Antonio Banderas, Salma Hayek) and a new title – Desperado. Rodriguez wrote a book about the experience, Rebel Without a Crew, and has never looked back.
He has an amiable manner, laughs easily and is relaxed about working with big stars, including George Clooney, Johnny Depp and Harvey Keitel. He remains in Austin, Texas, far removed from Hollywood, and always wears a battered cowboy hat.
He’s as busy as he needs to be. He has started shooting the fourth in the Spy Kids series and will then turn his attention to the sequel to Sin City, his animated comic-book adaptation, which will probably be in 3D.
Rodriguez calls Machete a “Mexploitation” movie. Growing up in San Antonio to Mexican-American parents, he recalls that in all the films he saw, “Latins were the bad guys. So I’ve changed that quite a bit. It’s a very multicultural mix of heroes and villains.”
He says there’s no tradition of exploitation movies in Mexico and Central America. “But you can create your own mould, and call it Mexploitation. It has to have social relevance, a multicultural cast – and comedy.
“It has to be over the top. You get to create your own rulebook. For me, Mexploitation seemed like something that should have existed, but didn’t.”
He first discovered Trejo, 66, when he hired him for a small part in Desperado. Trejo had a past – he had been a petty criminal and former drug addict who served time in prison. But Rodriguez, contemplating the notion of a Latin movie hero, noted the effect of Trejo’s charismatic presence on people in the small Mexican town where Desperado was shot, and thought some day he could create a character around him.
Still fearsome-looking, but with a gentle, soft-spoken manner, Trejo wandered around Venice, smilingly telling his one-sentence life story to anyone who would listen: “I’m an ex-con who became an icon.”
“Danny has a history and a strong personality,” says Rodriguez approvingly. “Anyone else you hired would be acting tough. He is tough. You really believe he could go up against a drug cartel and rip guys’ heads off.”
Rodriguez has a unique way of casting his films. “If you do a film with a studio, agents step in, they start saying, 'My actor has to get this amount of money’, and it becomes about deals. But when it’s a film-maker [producing] a movie, it’s more artist-to-artist. You deal directly with actors. I’ll call them personally and say, hey, do you want to be in this movie? If they say yes, then they go to their agent and say: 'I’m going to make this movie for almost no money!’”
Still, he is reluctant to disclose Machete’s budget: “You’ve seen it, what would you think? We told the studio [Fox] that it cost $20million to $25million.” He smiles slyly. “But it was much less. Still, you don’t want to tell them that, because they won’t sell it as hard.”
He breaks into laughter: “And that’s how I conduct my business!”