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. Hes 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 Mariachi saga.
How was Venice?
It was wonderful. Its 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! Cant you tell?
It think and its something Quentin has always said, too. Hes said that, the more movies he sees, the more he thinks THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY is the best-directed movie ever. Hes the one who put me up to this. When we were doing DESPERADO, hes 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, Thats interesting, but lets 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, Desperados 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 cant be Desperado 2, its 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.
Did you write it with Johnny Depp in mind?
How did it change once Johnny joined with project?
He doesnt 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 wrote.
The thing about Johnny is, wed be on the set and hed do a scene, and Id be constantly checking the script, and Id 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 didnt 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 doesnt he just be like a constant tourist, always wearing tourist t-shirts and bad costumes that everyone can see through, but he thinks hes 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.
You 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 McDonalds 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 wouldnt be able to edit it for more than a year. So they let me shoot it, and I didnt even edit it for a year and a half later.
Whats 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. Thats 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 couldnt 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 didnt change it all from what it was originally supposed to be. In fact, the first cut I did, because Id 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 dont 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 Im 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, Lets wait until after the summer, because Eva will have 2 FAST 2 FURIOUS out and Johnny will have PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN. Itll be like fine wine it gets better with age. And sure enough, it was a much better way to go.
You 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 theyre all using digital video cameras and theyre editing on software that comes with their computer. And thats 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 didnt 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. Theres something different about it: its actually easier. Everyone on the crew does multiple jobs. The actors love it; they didnt 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, its much leaner and meaner, and youre just moving.
And its all about the creativity everything else gets pushed away. By simplifying that process, its actually fun again. Ive had a lot of directors call and say, You seem like youre having fun. I want to have fun again. Im 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 thats 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.
Its always been important to you to keep all of your budgets really low. Were you able to that with this one?
Oh yeah. Id 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 well make that. And theyre like, Wow. Thats like the cheapest movie weve made since Desperado. Everythings 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 youre just forced to be at your creative peak. Because you have to figure everything out creatively. You have no other resources. And thats more fun. Its more fun to always struggle, like its your first movie.
Im told that your uncle was the inspiration for the Johnny Depp character.
Not the Johnny Depp character, the Ruben Blades character. Ruben Blades basically plays my uncle. In fact, his character name is my uncles 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, Thatd 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.
Can you talk about this style youve developed, with the Western influences, the gore, etc.?
Its very accidental. You know, before I did El Mariachi all I did was family comedies. Like Spy Kids, basically. Im 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 dont want to do action. If I could make it funny, I could do it. Well, maybe Ill make it a fake action movie. Ill make it about a guitar player who becomes a hitman. No one will ever see that. No one will even rent that. Ill call it El Mariachi. So, I made that, and I made it very inexpensively. And I thought, if someone has a sense of humor, theyll rent it and be surprised that it actually has some good action in it.
Columbia bought it and released it. So then I had to do a sequel, so I did Desperado. Again, its very humorous. Everyones 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 theyre Mariachi gigolos. And a guy with three arms. I thought, how far can this go? Its so surreal.
It 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 dont I just do Once Upon A Time In Mexico Part 2 and 3? That way, I would have two trilogies, but only five movies.
Theres 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. Theyre very different. Theres a safety net that comes from the studio, which gives you a lot more freedom. They know theres a certain audience thats 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 youre 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 Ive got into this, and no one shows up? Because it wasnt based on a TV show and no one had ever heard of it before. But when youre doing a second or third one, you know theres going to be people there on opening night. So, you dont have to worry about that. You just worry about making the best movie possible.
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