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OFF-CENTERPIECE : MOVIES : He Hit It Big. He Hit It Fast. Let ‘El Mariachi’ Play

You’ve got to knock on a lot of doors and get ready for years of disappointment to make it in Hollywood--right?

That’s not the way it worked for Robert Rodriguez, a 23-year-old filmmaker from Austin, Tex., who knocked on one door and within two months had a two-year, writer-director deal at Columbia Pictures, where he’ll soon direct his first feature film.

Of course, he picked the right door: International Creative Management (ICM), one of Hollywood’s most powerful talent agencies. Several ICM executives decided after seeing “El Mariachi,” Rodriguez’s $7,000 Spanish-language, feature-length action-adventure movie, that he could have a career in Hollywood. And apparently, so did a lot of other people.

“Robert is a born director,” says Columbia production vice president Stephanie Allain, the executive instrumental in the signing of Rodriguez, who was pursued by several other studios as well. Allain says Rodriguez has a lot of the qualities of another filmmaker she helped bring to Columbia--writer-director John Singleton. “He’s very visual, can tell a story and has a great narrative sense, everything you look for in a director.”

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By now, Robert Townsend’s credit-card financing of “Hollywood Shuffle” is Hollywood lore. Rodriguez’s creative financing for “El Mariachi” gives Townsend a run for his money. He raised part of the film’s $7,000 budget by checking himself into a drug research center in Austin, where he was a human guinea pig for a new cholesterol-lowering drug. Rodriguez, though, put 30 days there to good use--he watched videos and wrote the “El Mariachi” screenplay. A month later, he checked out of the facility with $3,000, a finished script, a few actors for his film--and lower cholesterol. The rest of the money came from one of the film’s actors.

Rodriguez began shooting “El Mariachi” last summer in the small Mexican town of Acuna, just across the border from Del Rio, Tex. Directed, written, produced and edited by Rodriguez, the film, which is the story of an out-of-work mariachi musician who is mistaken for an assassin, was shot in two weeks. He worked with only one assistant. Loaded with machine-gun shoot-'em-ups and impressive stunts, most of the film’s scenes were shot, Rodriguez says, with a hand-held 16-millimeter camera--in one take. “It’s all I could afford,” says Rodriguez. “The film stock used up almost half our budget.”

In February, after finishing his film, Rodriguez sent a subtitled copy of “El Mariachi” to ICM agent Robert Newman, along with a trailer for the film and another short he made while a student at University of Texas’ film school in Austin. Newman, who is besieged by hopefuls from around the country, says that Rodriguez stood out.

“I see a lot of first-time filmmakers and generally when you see their films, you’re seeing an autobiographical story and while that can be great, you wonder what they can do for a follow-up,” says Newman, who formerly distributed Spanish-language films for Miramax, and who compares “El Mariachi” to the early work of such filmmakers as Sergio Leone (“A Fistful of Dollars”) and George Miller (“Mad Max”)."Robert . . . was working within a genre that has its own demands and constraints and he obviously had command of the elements of drama, action, humor and romance.”

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Within weeks, ICM was representing Rodriguez and copies of “El Mariachi” were making the rounds of studios and production companies. Many of the studios, including Columbia, TriStar and Disney, flew Rodriguez in from Texas for meetings, anxious to get the young filmmaker to sign. Other studios sent executives to Texas. By April, Columbia had signed Rodriguez, who said he was impressed by the studio’s success with John Singleton. “One of the reasons I went there, was because of the deal they gave him,” Rodriguez says. “They really believe in letting people go off and write their scripts. Some of the other studios didn’t seem like that.”

According to Rodriguez, his first film will be an English-language remake of “El Mariachi,” budgeted at about $6 million. Rodriguez says he’d like to use Latino actors. “There are no parts for Hispanics right now except bad guys or gang members,” he says. “Maybe as a writer-director, I’ll be able to create some action-adventure stories for Hispanic actors.”

Rodriguez is ready to shoot a moderately budgeted movie with a large cast and crew, but he says he’s not accustomed to the pace of Hollywood productions. He recently visited the set of Singleton’s “Poetic Justice.” “They had only done three shots since 9 in the morning and they were on schedule,” he says. “I’m used to getting a lot more done.” Did Singleton offer any advice? “He told me not to let the studio water down my work.”

Can we expect to see Rodriguez at the Malibu Colony and Spago? “I’d never get any work done in Los Angeles,” he says. “When I go to L.A., they pick me up in a limousine and I go to a lot of lunches. When I get home, I’m back in my car that can barely make it down the road. I’m back on Earth and I can go back to work.”

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