COVER STORY : Cranking Up the Volume : Robert Rodriguez made ‘El Mariachi’ with a borrowed camera on a wheelchair doubling as a dolly. Now his second film has big stars, a big budget--and lots of really expensive equipment.
Get a load of this: Antonio Banderas, all decked out in bandit black, scampering across the bar in a dingy cantina, a blazing pistol in either hand, mowing down bad guys as he twirls his arms this way, that way, any way, like a flamboyant bullfighter facing death in the afternoon.
Filmmaker Robert Rodriguez can’t help grinning at his own handiwork as the action explodes across the twin video monitors.
“ Awwww riiiight !” he exclaims, turning up the volume on the Lightworks editing unit. “You know, we can’t get a stunt double for Banderas. Nobody can move like this guy.”
Rodriguez’s voice is drowned out by another volley of gunfire. On the video screens, Banderas is allowing the bad guys to take their best shots. “You missed me!” he jeers at a particularly poor marksman.
“Of course, the Mariachi never misses,” Rodriguez notes. “He just keeps coming up with these new shooting techniques. This movement here--we call this ‘The Whip.’ And it works, see. The bullets go around corners and hit people.”
Rodriguez pushes another button on the console; another image appears on the twin monitors. Would you look at that: It’s Quentin Tarantino, the exuberant auteur of “Reservoir Dogs” and “Pulp Fiction,” trying to talk his way out of a dangerous situation. He’s in the back room of the bar, trying to score a drug deal with a couple of thugs, when Banderas begins to blast away bad guys. The thugs in the back room think Tarantino has set them up.
“Look, man,” Tarantino desperately explains, “I had nothing to do with . . . “ Blam! A single gunshot to the forehead ends his conversation. Tarantino appears to die as messily as a character in one of his own movies.
“See that?” Rodriguez asks, beaming with pride. “Let me show you again. This is a real cool editing system. They made this stuff real easy so, like, you learn to work it in a half-hour.”
But isn’t it ironic that this Lightworks system, this network of monitors and disc drives and whatnot that takes up most of a motel room, costs more than the entire budget of Rodriguez’s first movie?
“Are you kidding?” Rodriguez replies. He picks up, seemingly at random, a small black rectangular box that looks like a CD player you would connect to your living room stereo. “Man, this alone cost more than ‘El Mariachi.’ ”
Well, yes. Three years ago, Rodriguez filmed “El Mariachi,” his debut feature, in the hard-scrabble border town of Acuna, Mexico, just down the road and across the Rio Grande, on a frayed-shoestring budget of $7,225. Now he has returned to the scene of the crime with nearly 1,000 times that amount, to film a new adventure for Columbia Pictures.
Now he can afford the star power, the production values and the post-production hardware he couldn’t afford last time. In fact, just about the only thing he’s lacking--so far, at least--is a title for his latest effort.
Depending on what day this is or who you ask, the new movie Rodriguez recently wrapped in Acuna, due out early next summer, is titled either “Pistolero” or “The Return of the Mariachi.” Or maybe “Desperado,” even though only the Hollywood Reporter and Exhibitor Relations have ever referred to it as such.
“Actually,” producer Bill Borden joked one morning during breakfast at an Acuna location, “I think that when it comes out next summer, we should have on the poster ‘Pistolero: The Return of the Mariachi Desperado.’ Just go ahead and call it everything it’s ever been called.”
By any name, it will have a tough act to follow.
For the benefit of those who tuned in late: Two years ago, Rodriguez astonished film festival-goers at Toronto and Telluride with “El Mariachi,” the stripped-to-essentials yarn that he filmed with a borrowed camera, a minimum of props and a handful of friends. For all its rough edges, the movie--a fast-paced, no-frills adventure about a mariachi musician who’s mistaken for a vengeful hit man--was immediately recognized as a work of considerable accomplishment and exceptional promise. Just as important, the story behind the movie’s production was the stuff of Hollywood legend and film-school fantasy.
At the time he made it, Rodriguez was a University of Texas film student with an audacious plan for extracurricular activities. According to the original scenario, Rodriguez, a San Antonio native, and Carlos Gallardo, a friend and UT classmate, would film three micro-budget action flicks about a mariachi-turned-vigilante. They would make the movies back-to-back--selling the first to pay for the second, then the second to pay for the third--for the Spanish video market. That way, they could gain all the benefits of hands-on experience without risking the embarrassment of having a potential employer actually see the mistakes they made.
“I figured no one (in Hollywood) would ever rent it,” Rodriguez, who is now 26, says. “I mean, do you ever go to the Spanish video market and rent a movie? And even if you did, would you ever rent an action movie called ‘The Guitar Player’?
“I never even intended to make a print of (“El Mariachi”). I just wanted something that looked like a real film, that I edited on video, so I could sell it.”
But in December, 1991, while in Los Angeles to negotiate with video distributors, Rodriguez figured, what the heck, while he was in the neighborhood, he might as well leave a calling card or two. So he dropped off one of his award-winning student short films and a makeshift trailer for “El Mariachi” with International Creative Management. The tape greatly impressed ICM’s Robert Newman, who signed Rodriguez to an agency contract, then sent cassettes of “El Mariachi” to every major studio in town.
Much to Rodriguez’s surprise, Columbia Pictures signed the young filmmaker to a two-year development deal. And much to his astonishment, the studio also made an offer to buy and distribute “El Mariachi.”
“At first,” Rodriguez admits, “I didn’t want that to happen. What I did, I didn’t think it was a movie. I thought it was just fooling around with the camera. I told the Columbia people, ‘Look, it’s just a home movie.’ ”
But the Columbia brass disagreed. The studio successfully tested a technically enhanced version of Rodriguez’s movie at the 1992 Toronto and Telluride festivals--where Rodriguez became friendly with Tarantino and actor Steve Buscemi, who were then busy publicizing “Reservoir Dogs,” and who agreed to appear in Rodriguez’s next film. By the time “El Mariachi” won the Audience Award for favorite film at the Sundance Film Festival in January, 1993, Rodriguez was willing to admit that his extracurricular project might attract ticket buyers.
The unlikely rise of Rodriguez and his no-budget movie became a much-hyped Cinderella story. But a key detail somehow got overlooked in most of the press coverage after “El Mariachi” hit theaters in early 1993: The ending of this fairy tale wasn’t nearly so happy as most people assumed.
“El Mariachi” wound up grossing “only about $1.8 million,” producer Borden says. “Now, if you look at it in terms of percentages--the movie only cost $7,000, and then Columbia put a couple of hundred thousand into finishing it, bringing it up to 35mm and re-dubbing it so you could release it in big theaters. Well, you know, to invest a couple of hundred thousand dollars into a movie that returned $1.8 million was not such a bad investment.
“But the reality of that investment is, it didn’t make them any money. Because by the time you put in the cost of (prints and advertising), and flying Robert around for all the publicity trips and all that stuff, it was a break-even proposition.”
All of which goes a long way toward explaining why the folks involved with Rodriguez’s latest effort--including Rodriguez himself--are more than a little ambivalent about what to call the new film, and how closely to associate it with its predecessor.
“Certainly,” Borden says, “the first film has a name value that’s sort of seeped into the moviegoing community. . . . And it seemed to have done a lot better than it really did, because of the stories that followed it.
“So the decision to invest substantially more money in this sequel was actually a fairly easy choice. Because you had a new, young, talented director. And you had ‘El Mariachi,’ which has definitely made its mark on the public, and has been very successful as a videocassette, as a rental item.”
‘Pistolero”--the title that appeared on the scripts that circulated throughout fall shooting in Acuna--is intended as a sequel that can stand on its own. Or as Rodriguez puts it: “This is what ‘The Road Warrior’ was to ‘Mad Max.’ It’s like, the same character in a different movie. If you didn’t see the first movie, it doesn’t matter. You can still have a good time with this one.”
The second movie has a hot property in the lead role: Antonio Banderas, the Spanish-born hunk who has managed the tricky transition from imported art-house fare (“Matador,” “Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!”) to mainstream American movies (“Philadelphia,” “Interview With the Vampire”). Banderas takes over the job from Rodriguez’s partner, Carlos Gallardo, who is content this time to remain on the other side of the cameras as associate producer with Elizabeth Avellan, Rodriguez’s wife.
“I wanted to make another movie with a Latin hero,” says Rodriguez, the third of 10 children of a close-knit Mexican American family. “A movie that was bigger (than “El Mariachi”), that would go around the world and be seen. And it just seemed easier to me, because there were no other scripts around like this, to just use this character again to accomplish that.”
For all his jocularity, Rodriguez fully realizes that there’s more riding on his second feature than merely the question of whether he can survive the sophomore jinx. With all due respect to Edward James Olmos, “who has always been an inspiration to me,” and Luis Valdez, who made “La Bamba” with producer Bill Borden, “You see hardly any Mexican American filmmakers,” Rodriguez said. “And their movies come out only once in a while.
“But I think if (‘Mariachi 2’) would be successful enough, if it made enough money, other Latino movies would be made. It’s like with African American films. As soon as Spike Lee made his movies, everyone was giving checks for other black filmmakers to come up. And they started making great films. And that opened up a whole new market.
“It comes to a point where you realize, ‘I’m going to have to step forward and try and be a role model, because nobody else seems to be wanting to. Or if they are, they’re pretty well hidden.’ ”
At the end of the first “El Mariachi,” the hero was seriously wounded by the bad guys, and left unable to play his beloved guitar. Even so, the wound wasn’t so serious that he couldn’t transform himself into a heavily armed avenger. Which is exactly what he has become as “The Sequel With No Title” begins.
“Yeah,” Banderas jokes in his heavily accented English, “the audience may say, ‘Hey, this guy, he can’t play the guitar anymore, but he can shoot people like hell.’
“I am not killing just one guy once in a while. I go into a bar, and I kill 20 guys at once. So it’s over the top. The movie starts, and in 20 minutes, I kill about 40 guys in two different bars.”
Banderas’ Mariachi is a one-man army who wages war on Mexican drug dealers, who travels everywhere with a lethal array of weapons in his seemingly innocuous guitar case. His only allies: Buscemi (played, appropriately enough, by Steve Buscemi), El Mariachi’s advance scout, and Carolina (Mexican television star Salma Hayek), a bookstore owner. Number One on El Mariachi’s want-to-hit list: Bucho, a suave but sinister crime lord who has more in common with El Mariachi than either man suspects.
Originally, Raul Julia was cast as Bucho, and the entire shooting schedule had been plotted around his availability. But shortly after he suffered the stroke that preceded his death Oct. 24, Julia was replaced with Argentine actor Joaquim de Almeida (“Clear and Present Danger,” “Only You”). On the day Julia’s death was announced on the Acuna location, producer Borden led the cast and crew in a moment of respectful silence. After that brief reminder of mortality, it was back to the world of blood squibs and fake deaths.
“This movie will be as wild as anything Sam Peckinpah ever dreamed of,” promises Bob Shelley, a veteran special-effects coordinator working on the sequel. More important, from Columbia’s point of view, the mayhem is being accomplished at cut-rate prices. Rodriguez, who often placed his camera on a wheelchair for dolly shots in “El Mariachi,” has remained true to his low-budget roots here.
“We’ve got an item that Robert’s nicknamed the Guacamole Gun,” Shelley says. “We couldn’t afford a lot of prosthetics on this show. So what he’s done is, since we shoot a lot of people in the forehead, he’s rigged this gun that will shoot out a tremendous amount of blood. We can hit the guy in the forehead, or in the back of the head, and it looks like we blow their brains out. But if you look real close, you can see the blood flying toward them. So what Robert does is, he edits out one or two frames, and the flying blood is gone.”
And what remains, Rodriguez insists, really isn’t all that graphic. At least, not so graphic that he’s worried about an NC-17 rating. “It was such a goof while I was shooting this stuff, I never took any of it seriously,” he says.
On and off the set, Rodriguez dresses like a grunge rocker-- bandanna, baggy shorts, wrinkled shirt, scuffed sneakers--and moves with the sleepy ease of a bear recently awakened from hibernation. But while directing his movie by day on location in Acuna, or editing a rough cut by night in his Del Rio motel room, he often sounds like a 33 1/3-r.p.m. record that some prankster has revved up to 78.
“When the movie comes out,” he mock-seriously promises, slipping into the voice of a TV pitchman, “we’ll have our very own action figures! You’ll see the commercials, and it’ll be, ‘El Mariachi and his missile-firing guitar case! Batteries not included!’ ”
Judging from the mood of his cast and crew, Rodriguez’s enthusiasm is highly contagious.
“The way Robert understands action, he’s like a kid,” Banderas says. “And in a way, he’s an actor’s dream. An actor is someone who probably stopped growing up, and decided to be a kid forever, playing games. And that’s what I’m doing here: things that I saw on TV when I was a kid--that I wanted to do when I was a kid.”
When Banderas and his wife, Ana Leza, saw the first “El Mariachi” in a Hollywood screening room, “I thought, ‘This guy has incredible energy,’ ” the actor says. “It reminds me of the first films I did with (Pedro) Almodovar. Not in his style, of course. But it’s like, you know, the same thing, when you don’t have any money and you’re working outside the studio, with no trailer, no nothing, just waiting on the corner to do your shot. And I thought, ‘Wow! That’s the kind of cinema I would like to do again.’ ”
Rodriguez insists that success hasn’t spoiled him so far, and isn’t likely to in the future. He and his wife still live in Austin, far away from L.A., in a conspicuously unglamorous apartment. And while he’s enjoying the relative ease of directing a film bankrolled by a Hollywood studio, he claims that if his second “Mariachi” is a financial dud, he can always go back to making movies with borrowed cameras mounted on wheelchairs.
Still, Rodriguez admits there is something to be said for having a bigger budget.
“When we were making ‘El Mariachi,’ we didn’t have any money,” Rodriguez says. “So, in order to have something to drink between takes, we wound up buying this Gatorade powder. And since we didn’t have very much, we had to mix it with a lot of water. A lot of water.”
Rodriguez smiles at the memory. Then he grabs a plastic bottle of the sports drink--full-strength, premixed stuff, purchased in a Del Rio convenience store--and takes a healthy swig.
“Now,” he says, “we can get real Gatorade. That’s how far we’ve come.”
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