INT: Robert Rodriguez
This week, director Robert Rodriguez returns to adult fare with the release of ONCE UPON A TIME IN MEXICO. Prodded by his buddy Quentin Tarantino to make a sequel to DESPERADO, Rodriguez actually shot the film a few years ago, but was forced by SPY KIDS’ contractual obligations to shelve the project. Lucky for us, he came back and finished the job. True to his trademark indie style, the multi-faceted filmmaker pretty much does everything in this film. He’s the writer, director, DP, editor, caterer, key grip and “man on bus”. A little exaggeration, but you get the point.
Wearing a black cowboy hat, the native of Austin, Texas,
casually sauntered in and discussed his latest chapter of the El
It was wonderful. It’s the home of Sergio Leone over there, so they loved me. They were like, “So, how much do you love Sergio Leone?” and I said, “A lot! Can’t you tell?”
It think – and it’s something Quentin has always said,
too. He’s said that, the
more movies he sees, the more he thinks THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE
UGLY is the best-directed movie ever.
He’s the one who put me up to this.
When we were doing DESPERADO, he’s the one who raised the
bar up and said, “You have to do a third one now, so you can have
a Dollars trilogy. Because no
one has done this since Sergio Leone.
But you gotta make the third one epic and you gotta call it
Once Upon A Time In Mexico.”
This was nine years ago, in 1994, and I thought, “That’s
interesting, but let’s finish this one first.”
Because we were filming Desperado and I doubted there would
ever be another one. But
years later Sony called and said, “Desperado’s picked up a lot
of cult audience on video and cable.”
In fact, when they first put out DVDs, Desperado was the
first DVD that Sony put out. I
said “Ok, but if we do another one, it can’t be Desperado 2,
it’s gotta be more epic and titled Once Upon A Time In Mexico.”
So I started writing, and I thought about the Good, the Bad
and the Ugly. More epic, more
characters. Desperado would
only have to be one of the main characters, so how do you get
someone as strong as the guy with the guitar case full of guns?
So I started doing drawings of the man with no eyes, the man
with no face, and I thought, “Ok, now were getting somewhere.”
The first scene I wrote was the three arm scene with Johnny.
you write it with Johnny Depp in mind?
did it change once Johnny joined with project?
He doesn’t really change anything; he just comes in and
really takes it to another level.
It was my favorite written part, it was the first part I
The thing about Johnny is, we’d be on the set and he’d do
a scene, and I’d be constantly checking the script, and I’d be
like, “Was that the line in the script?
It is the line in the script!”
But it was just the way he would say it, I didn’t recognize
my own words. And then he
would paraphrase things or change a line to make it sound more like
the character he was building up. He
wanted it to be a much wimpier sort of character.
It was his idea to bring in the different t-shirts and bad
disguises. The idea I had was
that he was a CIA agent kind of running Mexico with a cell phone,
very arrogant. He thought,
“Why doesn’t he just be like a constant tourist, always wearing
tourist t-shirts and bad costumes that everyone can see through, but
he thinks he’s fooling everybody.”
I thought it was great.
You get somebody like Johnny to get those kinds of contributions. Because (the character) was already something I liked on the page, but I wanted to see how much more we could do with it. And he just turned it into something so fun.
shot the film pretty quickly.
It was just a very strange movie because there was an
actors’ strike coming up. And
I was so excited to use these new high-definition cameras. So I told the studio and Antonio – who was free, before the
strike – that we could make
another Desperado real quick, but I would only be able to shoot it,
because we have a tied-in McDonald’s date with our Spy Kids movie,
I have to right away go off and make that movie and make sure it
comes out on time, because it has a lot of effects.
So I told them I could shoot it now, but I wouldn’t be able
to edit it for more than a year. So
they let me shoot it, and I didn’t even edit it for a year and a
that like, to step away from a project for so long?
It was wild, but it was cool. I want to do it that way from now on, because it gives you a lot of
distance from it. And when I
came back, the first thing I remembered thinking is: “When did we shoot all this stuff?” We shot it in seven weeks. Johnny
Depp was on the set eight days. That’s
how fast we shot this movie. By
the end, Johnny was like, “Is there anything else I can do?
How ‘bout I play the priest?”
I said sure, and we shot the priest his last day.
When I went to edit it, it was much easier to edit, because
you have a lot of distance. I
cut it really quickly. I cut
it almost real-time, because I couldn’t remember what happened
next, because we changed the script so much on the set.
I had to edit to see what was going to happen next.
Then I scored it. Then
I left to go start SPY KIDS 3, and then I took a break from that to
mix Once Upon A Time In Mexico. So
I kept hopping back and forth. And
I didn’t change it all from what it was originally supposed to be.
In fact, the first cut I did, because I’d shot this and
written it before 9/11, I took out some of the more patriotic things
in the very first cut. And
then I realized, “Why don’t I just cut the movie that I shot?”
And I went back and put some stuff back in, which made it
play much better. So I’m
glad I let that stuff back in.
We just kept pushing the date. It was going to come out in March, and then they thought,
“Let’s wait until after the summer, because Eva will have 2
FAST 2 FURIOUS out and Johnny will have PIRATES
OF THE CARIBBEAN. It’ll
be like fine wine – it gets better with age.”
And sure enough, it was a much better way to go.
are so different from other directors, in that you do so many other
jobs. Is it a delegation
issue for you, or do you just feel more comfortable that way?
No. I mean, I
started that way. Kids coming
up today are going to be very similar, because they’re all using
digital video cameras and they’re editing on software that comes
with their computer. And
that’s kind of how I started. I
was very surprised that you could make a movie at home.
And when I got into filmmaking with EL MARIACHI, we didn’t have any money, so I had to be the whole crew. But I found it was so fun to shoot that way. And the bigger the movies got, the less fun they were getting. So I wanted to back to that. When I got to do this movie, I used it as an excuse to really go back and do production design again and photography and the score, etc. There’s something different about it: it’s actually easier. Everyone on the crew does multiple jobs. The actors love it; they didn’t want to leave. No one was sitting in a trailer. Making a movie is like running a marathon, and to let it get overblown is like gaining 500 lbs. and expecting to finish the race. You can just barely crawl across the finish line. This way, it’s much leaner and meaner, and you’re just moving.
And it’s all about the creativity – everything else gets pushed away. By simplifying that process, it’s actually fun again. I’ve had a lot of directors call and say, “You seem like you’re having fun. I want to have fun again. I’m not having fun anymore.” A lot of it has to do with how cumbersome things are. Look at how much movies cost today and how long they take. Then you see the movie and you go, “Wow. They had all that money and all that talent, and that’s it?” Because the process has gotten very, very cumbersome and very heavy and hard to maneuver. It becomes less about the actual fun creative part and more about just trying to get this horrible bureaucracy to work. The energy gets focused on all the wrong areas.
always been important to you to keep all of your budgets really low.
We’re you able to that with this one?
Oh yeah. I’d told
the studio that I could make it for $10 million, $12 million,
something like that. With all
the actors and everything, give me less than $30 million and we’ll
make that. And they’re
like, “Wow. That’s like
the cheapest movie we’ve made since Desperado.”
Everything’s over $100 million these days.
With this cast, we could have gotten three times the budget.
But, I prefer to just keep restricting it, time-wise and
money-wise, because it brings out a lot more camaraderie between
everybody and you’re just forced to be at your creative peak.
Because you have to figure everything out creatively.
You have no other resources. And
that’s more fun. It’s
more fun to always struggle, like it’s your first movie.
told that your uncle was the inspiration for the Johnny Depp
Not the Johnny Depp character, the Ruben Blades character.
Ruben Blades basically plays my uncle.
In fact, his character name is my uncle’s code name that he
would use when he would infiltrate drug rings.
He was Jorge Ramirez. And
he told me a bunch of great stories, and I thought, “That’d be
great in a movie.” So I
actually put a lot of it in the movie. And he was on the set doing security for us.
He was getting a kick out of seeing himself in the movie.
you talk about this style you’ve developed, with the Western
influences, the gore, etc.?
It’s very accidental. You
know, before I did El Mariachi all I did was family comedies. Like
Spy Kids, basically. I’m
from a family of ten kids. But
when I went to make my first movie for the Spanish video market to
get practice, they only wanted an action movie.
And I thought, “Action? I
don’t want to do action. If
I could make it funny, I could do it.
Well, maybe I’ll make it a fake action movie.
I’ll make it about a guitar player who becomes a hitman.
No one will ever see that. No
one will even rent that. I’ll
call it El Mariachi.” So, I
made that, and I made it very inexpensively.
And I thought, if someone has a sense of humor, they’ll
rent it and be surprised that it actually has some good action in
Columbia bought it and released it.
So then I had to do a sequel, so I did Desperado.
Again, it’s very humorous. Everyone’s
got gadgets, like the Spy Kids movies.
Guitar cases that shoot missiles.
Just crazy stuff.
I never thought there would be a part three.
And I thought, let me give him a band of guys.
And they’re Mariachi gigolos.
And a guy with three arms. I
thought, how far can this go? It’s so surreal.
actual feels like a chapter. It
sounds like there could be another.
There could be. I had
a really cool idea. I
thought, this series is so bizarre already.
Why don’t I just do Once Upon A Time In Mexico Part 2 and
3? That way, I would have two trilogies, but only five movies.
There’s a lot of freedom that comes with a sequel.
With all my sequels, I try not to make them just re-hashes of
the movie before. They’re
very different. There’s a
safety net that comes from the studio, which gives you a lot more
freedom. They know there’s
a certain audience that’s going to show up to see this, no matter
what. Given that, they
let you go. So, they feel a
little safer. And you feel
safer. When you’re making
an original, like when I made Spy Kids, I pulled back a little bit
on some things because I thought, “What if I put everything I’ve
got into this, and no one shows up?”
Because it wasn’t based on a TV show and no one had ever
heard of it before. But when
you’re doing a second or third one, you know there’s going to be
people there on opening night. So,
you don’t have to worry about that.
You just worry about making the best movie possible.