Low-budget movies put a wall in front of you and only creativity will allow you to figure out how to get around that wall.
–Robert Rodriguez, Rebel Without a Crew
BY AMBER KELLY-ANDERSON
The early 90s brought an influx of indie filmmakers who would shape the landscape of movies for years to come. Robert Rodriguez was a 23-year-old film student struggling to keep his place at the UT Austin film school (while winning film festivals) when he elected to spend his summer vacation learning to make a feature in the best way he could imagine—doing it all himself.
Armed with a borrowed camera, rough script, some cash earned from a drug study, and fierce determination, Rodriguez travelled to Mexico to shoot El Mariachi with his friend Carlos Gallardo. The goal was to learn through application, sell the film to the Spanish video market, and fund his next film with the proceeds. Less than a year after wrapping, Rodriguez found himself the centre of a Hollywood bidding war and El Mariachi was a buzzed-about film, eventually winning the Audience Award at Sundance. Constructed from his diary entries with some additional commentary, Rebel Without a Crew: Or How a 23-Year-Old Filmmaker with $7,000 Became a Hollywood Player is the story of Rodriguez’s journey of making and selling El Mariachi.
The book is in essence a humble-brag. Rodriguez flips between pointing out how hard he worked and being baffled by the wastefulness of the studio filmmakers, and feeling overwhelmed by the attention he and his film received. He talks about how easy it is to do alone many of the things a crew might do, only to note how much time and practice he had to gain those skills. His section entitled “The Ten-Minute Film School” implies that he can teach anyone about filmmaking in that short time (this feature is also on the DVD commentaries for various films); what it really means is he can impart the information, but it will take years of application to hone the skill.
I will confess that while I enjoy some of Rodriguez’s films, I’m not necessarily a fan. It’s less to do with his work and more to do with him popping up on my radar around the same time as his frequent collaborator Quentin Tarantino. After reading Rebel Without a Crew, I get Rodriguez. He may not have the dialogue writing chops of QT, but his strengths lie in his innovative and plain smart approach to filmmaking (such as writing into his scripts props and locations he already had access to rather than hunting things down).
Rodriguez is a fellow Texan (still primarily working here in Texas) and his vibe is familiar. Reading his diaries, he’s the guy I know many less successful versions of: the Austin-honed creative guerilla who doesn’t buy into the waste of industrialized artistic endeavors. His account of pre-production through the film’s première is straightforward and honest, making a viewing of El Mariachi even more impressive.
It would be intriguing to read an update that addresses how his style and vision has evolved since working on studio films like Spy Kids and Sin City.