Tuesday, August 12, 2003

The Truth About Robert Rodriguez

Submitted by Peter John Ross

It's been ten years since El Mariachi burst onto the scene and it's still as prevalent in the filmmaking community as ever. How many independent filmmakers have been affected by reading Rebel Without a Crew or by watching the DVD extra Ten Minute Film School? Hundreds? Thousands? I know I was. I remember renting the laserdisc back in 1994 and seeing the movie made for $7,000 and even listening to the rare pre-DVD commentary track, which Robert himself dubbed “how to make a feature film for under $10,000.” I can say that without a doubt, I felt empowered by the commentary and everything I read about Rodriguez and how he became a major Hollywood player with a movie that was meant to be a Spanish language video release.

After having been down the path of making my own movies now for a little over four years, I recently re-read the book Rebel Without a Crew and went back and watched Ten minute Film School with a new set of experienced eyes. Let's just say that a few clarifications are in order.

1) $7,000 was only kinda-sorta the budget. Rodriguez never hid it, but Columbia Pictures and ICM Talent did. The $7,000 got Rodriguez a ¾” master tape of the movie and that's it. Columbia spent a hell of a lot more money to get a 35mm print made that they could screen at festivals. The $7,000 bought 16mm film stock, processing, transfer to video, and a few dollars worth of props. This is important to note because there is a misconception about what the movie cost and what that means. It means saying that the movie cost $7,000 is a great marketing ploy that paid off well.

2) One of the only reasons you, me, or anyone has ever heard of Robert Rodriguez is because the state film commissioner of Texas gave him a referral to International Creative Management. The dichotomy of Hollywood is that you cannot get in unless you know someone. It's an insider’s club, and Rodriguez got a free pass. This is underplayed by the book, Rebel Without a Crew, but it's crucial to understand that the second largest talent agency in the world can manipulate the studios. I do not mean to denigrate Rodriguez’s obvious talents, but based on seeing movies like Glitter and From Justin to Kelly, there is evidence that talent is not a prerequisite for getting a movie made. Rodriguez was lucky that he had the talent and the skills to back up the promise that El Mariachi displayed.

3) No one seems to remember that Rodriguez had made well over 200 movies on video from the time he was nine years old. How many other filmmakers, even in our cheap DV 1394, non-linear world, can claim to have made over 200 movies? I've been making movies for four years, and I'm barely over thirty movies. Let's just say that Rodriguez had a distinct advantage when he decided to make El Mariachi. It’s called experience and it's highly undervalued if you went solely by the descriptions made in Rebel Without a Crew and in the Ten Minute Film School.

4) “All you need to know about filmmaking, you can learn in about ten minutes.” I have never heard anything more dishonest in my entire life. This coming from a guy who had been making movies, and honing his skills, and mastering his craft for over ten years, not ten minutes. I think if Robert had never made a movie before, and this was his first or second effort, then maybe I could take this at face value. Instead we get a lot of alleged “rebels” that have no clue how to tell a story with a camera or even the slightest concept of editing. Too many people feel like they can do as good their first time out. Try making 200 movies first and then maybe you can pull off El Mariachi.

5) Rodriguez suggests to not use a film crew. A film crew, specifically a cinematographer, is not a bad thing. Yes, Hollywood big budget movies spend too much money, but honestly having a sound guy or a camera man who has a clue can enhance your movie. A good production assistant can save serious money when you need something fast. Rodriguez preaches not to use a crew at all if you can help it (a notion which caused him serious union problems on From Dusk to Dawn) and I think that is a filmmaker’s choice, although not usually the right one. A good crew can add a lot of support to a director's vision, not detract from it. Shooting your own movies can also shut down the input from someone who can offer options you never considered. Again, a bit misleading is that fact that Rodriguez shot all of his own movies and knew more about framing a shot than most NYU film grads. A wise friend of mine constantly reminds us all that filmmaking is a collaborative art, and it takes several people to make a movie. Even Rodriguez had actors. They are collaborators and bring something different to the table than a one man show. Also note, Rodriguez has never made a movie without a crew since El Mariachi.

When I watched the Ten Minute Film School all I could think was how this guy really, really knew what the hell he was doing. When he made his choices of shots and describes how he would edit it all together, I was in awe. There is no way in hell a person who has never shot a film before would have a clue as to what he was really doing. It's taken me nine years to start to get a grasp on the genius of what Rodriguez pulled off. Rodriguez barely had a 1.5:1 shooting ratio (if you don't know what a shooting ratio is, then you need to take more than ten minutes to learn). The kind of risk that shooting on 16mm presented was only viable because he had a great deal of pre-planning and experience. Not everyone, I daresay hardly anyone could have done what Rodriguez did and had results that good.

I am not saying that everything that Rodriguez advises is bad. The idea of writing a script for the locations and props that are already available to you is very true. There is a lot of wisdom in what he writes and says, but be aware that this came from someone who already learned what not to do from making 200 movies before he wrote and directed El Mariachi. Don't expect the same quality results if you've never made a movie before.

I don't dislike or disrespect Robert Rodriguez. As a matter of fact, I have met him twice and found him to be the most unpretentious and modest filmmaker on Earth. But I lost count of how many filmmakers quote his book or El Mariachi as the inspiration for kick starting a digital video endeavor. It's just that he has started a trend of “anyone can direct” and it's misleading. Everyone can direct, but not many people can direct well. The inspirational words from Ten Minute Film School and Rebel Without a Crew are great, but you have to read between the lines. There was a lot more to it than the way it is presented. I still believe everyone should go out and make their movie, I just think a more realistic approach is required.

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