Robert Rodriguez began filmmaking by making Mexican American children’s comedies. Growing up in San Antonio, Texas, he became consumed with making films in his early teens. Using his father’s VHS camera, he made dozens of short family comedies starring his nine brothers and sisters (Black). By the time he was accepted to the University of Texas at Austin, he had thousands of hours of movie writing, directing, shooting, and editing experience. Not surprisingly, the final project in his first film production class was another comedic Rodriguez family short, Bedhead (1990). It went on to win five Best Short Film awards, including one from the prestigious Black Maria Film Festival. (Bedhead, IMDb).
Deciding to make a feature-length film next, Rodriguez raised $7,000 by volunteering for a month-long medical trial and spent the summer before his senior year shooting El Mariachi. It was filmed using a friend’s 16mm camera in Ciudad Acuña, across the Rio Grande from Del Rio, Texas, where a high school friend of his, Carlos Gallardo, lived. Carlos played the Mariachi and was the movie’s co-producer, assisting Robert by finding locations (a bar, a brothel, a jail, a ranch house), props (a pickup truck, a city bus, an antique bathtub), and getting his hometown buddies to play most of the parts. Robert did everything else: he wrote the script, lit, shot, sound recorded, and directed the film, then edited the footage into a finished feature (Rodriguez, Rebel).
His sensible if ambitious plan for El Mariachi was to sell it to one of the Spanish-language straight-to-video companies in Hollywood for $15,000, use that money to make a second film, then repeat the process. Making three back-to-back films single-handedly in this way would be his film school. But the scheme failed because El Mariachi was too good. While waiting for a response from the Spanish-language home video company, he dropped off a VHS copy of Bedhead containing a two-minute trailer for El Mariachi at International Creative Management (ICM), a top talent and literary agency. One of the agents watched the video, was intrigued, and asked to see El Mariachi. When he did, he was so impressed that he quickly signed Robert with ICM. In a matter of weeks, the agency had brokered a deal for Robert to direct two features for Columbia Pictures (Rodriguez, Rebel).
It was the beginning of a long and very active movie making career. And those two early films, Bedhead and El Mariachi, were early indicators of the two entertaining sides of Rodriguez’s creative output: light-hearted children’s comedy-adventures on the one hand and hard-hitting adult action flicks on the other. Looking at each group in turn is a useful way to appreciate his filmmaking output.
If you’ve ever sat on the floor to play with a four- or five-year-old, you know that the operative word for the session is “pretend.” Once the child says that, “real world” rules are suspended and anything imaginable is possible. What makes Rodriguez’s children’s films different from anybody else’s is his ability to access his five-year-old brain and pretend without limitations. Films like “The Misbehavers” episode in Four Rooms (1995), Spy Kids (2001) and its three sequels (2002, 2003, 2011), The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl (2005), Shorts (2009), and We Can Be Heroes (2020), are not only about kids who possess that boundless world view, they are written and directed by Rodriguez from that anything-is-possible perspective.
As opposed to most studio-produced children’s fare, which are made by adults trying to remember childhood, Rodriguez’s completely inhabit that worldview. If his kid flicks are often messier, noisier, and less-coherent than a typical family film, they truly do resemble a movie made by a post-toddler unaware of the rules of storytelling and moviemaking. They are more like, well, playing on the floor with a five-year-old—and that is part of their charm.
As for the full-tilt, hard-core action films, they are R-rated because they’re pushing the genre in new, unexpected directions. Films such as the Quentin Tarantino-scripted criminals-on-the-run-plus-vampire flick From Dusk Till Dawn (1996), the exploitation-movie celebration Planet Terror (2007), his violent and sexy collaborations with graphic novelist Frank Miller Sin City (2005) and its 2014 sequel, the explosive set-in-Mexico adventures Desperado (1995) and Once Upon a Time in Mexico (2003), the gritty revenge duo Machete (2010) and Machete Kills (2013), the manga-inspired Alita: Battle Angel (2018), and even his recent PG-rated El Mariachi-meets-Star Wars episode “The Tragedy” from The Mandalorian (2020) all operate on the basic premise driving the best action movies, namely the need to push familiar genre elements—fights, chases, rescues, shootouts, killings—beyond anything ever seen before.
Two more aspects of Rodriguez’s filmmaking deserve mention. First, his technological wizardry has made him a cinematic innovator. Along with George Lucas, he was one of the first filmmakers to switch to digital movie making in 2001. (Rodriguez, “Film Is Dead”). The adoption of high-definition digital video allowed him to set up his editing suite in his garage in Austin, Texas, and edit his films at home on his own—a move soon copied by other directors, beginning with his friend James Cameron (FULL SPEECH). Additional benefits of moving to digital technology were that it made his filmmaking process easier and cheaper. For example, his first released digital film, Spy Kids 2: The Island of Lost Dreams (2002) contained twice the number of special effects as the original for the same cost (Lee).
Digital also allowed him to make movies he couldn’t have made on film, such as Sin City (2005). Rodriguez admired Frank Miller’s graphic novel so much that he was determined to make a film that preserved the high-contrast black-and-white look of the book. He managed to capture the graphic novel’s distinctive look by shooting in digital with green screen technology, then refining those images with special effects post production (Rodriguez, Sin City). Furthermore, the artistic and financial success of Sin City was a major factor in shifting filmmaking towards more special effects-heavy films, from Zack Snyder’s historical epic 300 (2007) to the many superhero adventures that have followed.
Finally, one little-recognized facet of Rodriguez’s body of work, and one that makes him unique in film history, is his career-long dedication to teaching young—especially Latinx—filmmakers. By continually demystifying the process for the last 30 years, he has encouraged aspiring moviemakers to make their films. It started with the El Mariachi DVD. His director’s comments were entirely devoted to explaining—step by step, shot by shot—how he made the movie for $7,000 and telling wannabe directors that if he did it, they could too. That DVD also inaugurated a regular Rodriguez DVD feature, the “10-Minute Film School,” where he reveals how he solved trickly filmmaking problems. Other examples of his willingness to pull the curtain back to divulge his filmmaking process are his books such as Rebel Without a Crew, the diary of his making of El Mariachi that became a sort of DIY bible for beginning independent filmmakers (Rodriguez), and Sin City: The Making of the Movie, co-authored with Frank Miller, a detailed description of how he used green screen technology to bring Miller’s graphic novel to the screen (Miller and Rodriguez). In addition, there are his many online interviews, numerous appearances at film festivals, fan conventions, and conferences such as Comic-Con and South by Southwest.
His most recent and educationally ambitious filmmaking-teaching project was a series he developed for his cable channel El Rey. First of all, a word about his 2013 founding of El Rey, which was conceived of as the first Laxinx cable channel (Perren). Besides providing programming for a younger generation of Latinx viewers, Rodriguez has said that one of his main goals in creating the channel was to give budding Latinx filmmakers inspiration by providing them with a creative destination, somewhere they could send their work. (FULL SPEECH)
In 2018, he conceived of a youths-making-films series for El Rey. He selected five young filmmakers to support as they made their first feature films, holding them to the same constraints he had when he made El Mariachi—a $7,000 budget and a fourteen-day schedule. Their journey would be recorded by an El Rey film crew, forming the basis for a series titled “Rebel Without a Crew: The Series.” At the same time, Robert would join them and make his own $7,000 feature, Red 11 (2019). On top of that, he produced a making-of documentary feature covering how he made Red 11. Both films premiered at SXSW in the spring of 2019 and the series aired on El Rey later that year. (Ramírez Berg)
Contributing considerably to American film history, innovating the medium as he did, sharing his filmmaking knowledge with others, and never losing sight of his Mexican American identity, Robert Rodriguez is an inspirational example of a Latinx filmmaker.
Charles Ramírez Berg is the author of several books including Latino Images in Film: Stereotypes, Subversion and Resistance and The Classical Mexican Cinema: The Poetics of the Exceptional Golden Age Films. He has also written articles and book chapters on Latinos in U.S. films, film history, and narratology, Mexican cinema, as well as entries for the World Film Encyclopedia, The International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers, and The Oxford Encyclopedia of Latinos and Latinas in the United States. Most recently he published a photo essay on Robert Rodriguez entitled “Robert Rodriguez: Teaching Creativity,” in Texas Studies in Literature and Language.
Bedhead (1991), IMDb, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0165634/?ref_=nm_flmg_dr_50
Black, Louis. “Sibling Revelry,” Texas Monthly, August 1992, https://www.texasmonthly.com/articles/sibling-revelry-2/
“FULL SPEECH—Filmmaker Robert Rodriguez talks about ‘El Rey,’ his upcoming new cable channel.” YouTube, uploaded by Moody College of Communication (The University of Texas at Austin), 22 May 2012, www.youtube.com/watch?v=w4raILojZOA
Lee, Patrick. “Robert Rodriguez spies on the stars of his Spy Kids sequel,” Science Fiction Weekly Interview, SciFi.Com, June 3, 2008, https://web.archive.org/web/20080603060037/http://www.scifi.com/sfw/issue277/interview.html
Miller, Frank, and Robert Rodriguez. Sin City: The Making of the Movie. Austin, TX: Troublemaker Publishing, 2005.
Perren, Alisa. “El Rey: Latino Indie Auteur as Channel Identity,” in Derek Johnson, ed., From Networks to Netflix: A Guide to Changing Channels. New York: Routledge, 2018.
Ramírez Berg, Charles. “Robert Rodriguez: Teaching Creativity,” Texas Studies in Literature and Language, vol. 63, no. 2, Summer 2021, pp. 173-198.
Rodriguez, Robert. “Film Is Dead: An Evening with Robert Rodriguez,” Presentation at Sony Pictures Studio Cary Grant Theater, Los Angeles, CA, July 17, 2003. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ag7eNNtJLMQ
Rodriguez, Robert. Rebel Without a Crew: Or How a 23-Year-Old Filmmaker with $7,000 Became a Hollywood Player. New York: Dutton, 1995.
Rodriguez, Robert. Sin City Director’s Commentary – Sin City DVD Extended Edition, Theatrical and Recut Versions. Miramax, 2005. Online audio version at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8coTokXZf8E