Filmmaker Robert Rodriguez turns to El Rey Network to leave new mark

Filmmaker Robert Rodriguez in Univision Offices in Manhattan, NY.
(Jennifer S. Altman / For The Times)

Robert Rodriguez helped ignite an independent film movement in the 1990s with his film “El Mariachi,” shot for a mere $7,000, before moving on to blockbuster fare such as “Sin City” and the “Spy Kids” franchise. Now the restless filmmaker, 45, is trying to revolutionize the small screen with the recently launched cable network El Rey, targeted at a young, English-speaking Latino audience. It’s available on Time Warner and DirecTV, among other outlets.

You’ve had a lot of success in films. So why start a television network?

I had always loved television, in fact even networks were interested in me doing TV as far back as “El Mariachi.” But I had so much creative freedom in the film world, whereas I would have a friend trying to make TV shows and they had no control over it. I didn’t like the process of TV, but I did like the medium, so I just stuck with movies. Movies always seemed like the safer bet, until about three years ago when John Fogelman, who used to be Salma [Hayek]'s agent, came to me with a proposal.

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Comcast is giving away networks as part of their merger with Universal. The first four had to be minority and my hand went up right away. It just hit me on a personal level. I have five kids. They are bilingual but really they live their lives in English, like most second- and third-generation Hispanics, and there really wasn’t anything on television that represented who they were. I looked at the landscape, there were around 110 English-language networks in the U.S., about 10 or 11 are African American. The largest minority is Hispanic, and there wasn’t one English-language network aimed at them, but there’s two dog channels. It needed to happen.

The network’s first original series is “From Dusk Till Dawn,” adapted from your movie and premiering March 11. What made you want to revisit that material?

For the first show, I didn’t think it would be a good idea to present a property no one’s heard of on a network no one’s heard of. I thought it would be better to have a known title to help point people towards the network. I thought it was worth revisiting the film, especially having a Hispanic slant. You can dive into this Mayan and Aztec culture, explore in a way that you never see on TV, and give all the original characters a bigger life on-screen. We added a character, a Hispanic American cop who doesn’t really speak Spanish but who travels to Mexico after his partner is killed, and he’s the eyes of the audience.

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El Rey Network is aimed at young Latinos but is there a common thread between the programming — “Starsky & Hutch” reruns, genre movies, “From Dusk Till Dawn” — other than you?

It’s funny, Quentin [Tarantino] called me up the other day and said, “‘Starsky & Hutch’ is on your network. What’s Latin about that?” A lot of the programming that we eventually want to do for a Hispanic audience has to be created. There’s not a lot of stuff right now that we can license, so we’re licensing stuff that I love until we can create our own. A lot of the identity that I’ve had, that Quentin has had, is educating people about older movies, cult classic films and TV series. They are all affordable to license and here they’re given a lot of love and context on El Rey, with some filmmakers introducing their films.

In the meantime, we’ll begin to make shows that fit the mold. Right off the bat, “From Dusk Till Dawn” will fit that. Half our cast is Hispanic, most of our directors are Hispanic, most of the writers are Hispanic. I want to cultivate more voices, more people who can contribute. You always go up against closed doors in Hollywood; well, once you have your own network you do the opposite, you open the doors and turn the pyramid of power around where it can really become a people’s network with true diversity. That’s the vision, anyway.

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El Rey Network arrives at a time when the Latino vote is becoming more and more important. Do you have plans on getting into political and social issues facing the community?

I haven’t decided yet. We certainly have a way to reach people with things that are important. I’ve worked with the president and the White House before when they’ve asked for help in reaching people in the community. I think that could become part of it, but for now it’s all about the entertainment and making something that has a brand and an identity that people can feel good about and they can go there and feel taken care of. That’s kind of why it’s called El Rey. Everything you could possibly want is right there.

You’ve got a track record as an innovator. Any other big ideas for the network?

I want to do a show called “The Mariachi Project” where I give $7,000 to a filmmaker to go make a feature. We’ll show it on the network, give it some critiquing. At the end of the season the winner, chosen by the audience, will get to remake the film with a bigger budget, a real crew and bigger actors. If I did “El Mariachi” now it would cost like $700. The biggest expense was the film stock and now everybody shoots digitally. The film camera I had was so noisy, I had to record the sound separately. It sounded like all my money running away.