With insightful analysis of films ranging from El Mariachi to Spy Kids 4 and Machete Kills, as well as a lively interview in which the filmmaker discusses his career, here is the first scholarly overview of the work of Robert Rodriguez, the most successful U.S. Latino filmmaker today.
Robert Rodriguez stands alone as the most successful U.S. Latino filmmaker today, whose work has single-handedly brought U.S. Latino filmmaking into the mainstream of twenty-first-century global cinema. Rodriguez is a prolific (eighteen films in twenty-one years) and all-encompassing filmmaker who has scripted, directed, shot, edited, and scored nearly all his films since his first breakout success, El Mariachi, in 1992. With new films constantly coming out and the launch of his El Rey Network television channel, he receives unceasing coverage in the entertainment media, but systematic scholarly study of Rodriguez’s films is only just beginning.
The Cinema of Robert Rodriguez offers the first extended investigation of this important filmmaker’s art. Accessibly written for fans as well as scholars, it addresses all of Rodriguez’s feature films through Spy Kids 4 and Machete Kills, and his filmmaking process from initial inspiration, to script, to film (with its myriad visual and auditory elements and choices), to final product, to (usually) critical and commercial success. In addition to his close analysis of Rodriguez’s work, Frederick Luis Aldama presents an original interview with the filmmaker, in which they discuss his career and his relationship to the film industry. This entertaining and much-needed scholarly overview of Rodriguez’s work shines new light on several key topics, including the filmmaker’s creative, low-cost, efficient approach to filmmaking; the acceptance of Latino films and filmmakers in mainstream cinema; and the consumption and reception of film in the twenty-first century.
Foreword: A Teaser before the Show by Charles Ramírez Berg
Art and Industry: The Films of Robert Rodriguez
Good, Bad, Ugly . . . and Beautiful
El Mariachi (1992)
Once Upon a Time in Mexico (2003)
Regenerative Aesthetics of Degenerate Genres
From Dusk till Dawn (1996)
The Faculty (1998)
Familia Redefined, Chocolate Rivers, Rainbow Rocks, Dreamscapes, and S'mores
Spy Kids 1 (2001)
Spy Kids 2: The Island of Lost Dreams (2002)
Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over (2003)
Spy Kids 4: All the Time in the World (2011)
The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl in 3-D (2005)
Tour de Noir Comic-Book Film
Sin City (2005)
Otherworldly Mutants, Bandidas, Borderland Vigilantes . . . Fight Back
Planet Terror (2007)
Machete Kills (2013)
It's a Wrap
Interview with Robert Rodriguez
A Teaser before the Show
Long before Frederick Luis Aldama could have conceived of the resplendent journey he recounts in The Cinema of Robert Rodriguez, in the summer of 1991 Robert set out to make a film he didn't expect anyone to see―at least not on the U.S. side of the U.S./Mexico border. The film was El Mariachi.
You will learn of other details and nuances as captured by the different angles presented in Aldama's book, but for now let me offer a teaser―a trailer, if you will―that provides a snapshot of Robert's vision, practice, and significance.
He made El Mariachi for $7,000 and hoped to sell it to the Spanish language video market for $15,000. With that money he intended to make Part 2. Then he'd repeat the process and finish the Mariachi trilogy. "Those three films," he says now, "were going to be my film school, because the only way you learn to make movies is to make movies."
But his plan failed because El Mariachi was too good. He took it to LA, where he waited for a Spanish-language video company to call back. One day, he decided to drop off a tape of his nine-minute student film, "Bedhead," and a two-minute trailer for El Mariachi, at International Creative Management, one of the world's largest talent agencies. He just walked in off the street and handed the tape to the receptionist, so I imagine he got a variation of the standard "Don't call us, kid, we'll call you" line. ICM called him the next day.
They loved "Bedhead," and were really interested in that trailer. Was it for a feature? Was it finished? Could they see it? He immediately delivered a feature-length copy of El Mariachi. "Why didn't you just drop off the complete El Mariachi the first time?" I asked him later. "I wanted them to ask me to see it," he said, "instead of me asking them." You see how that changes the dynamic of the relationship, and how savvy this junior in the Department of Radio-Television-Film at the University of Texas was―and still is today. ICM loved El Mariachi, signed Robert, and got him a contract with Columbia Studios.
Columbia's first notion was for Robert to remake it in English (eliminating those dreaded subtitles) with a star in the lead. But to get an idea of how the film would play, Columbia sent Robert and El Mariachi (with subtitles) on the festival circuit. Festival audiences ate it up―subtitles and all. It won Audience Awards at the Sundance and Deauville Film Festivals, and Columbia decided to release it theatrically just as Robert made it. Receiving glowing reviews by critics (two thumbs up from Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert) and aided by the entertaining appearances Robert made on the Today Show and David Letterman, the movie was a sleeper hit, and Robert's career was off and running.
To bring the movie's journey full circle, in December of 2012 El Mariachi was added to the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress as an American film that will be preserved because of its cultural, historical, and aesthetic importance. Looking back, El Mariachi was a landmark film for at least three reasons.
First, it was a milestone for Latinos in U.S. film. There had never been a prodigious Latino talent like Robert in the Hollywood system―someone who wrote, directed, coproduced, edited, recorded and edited the sound, edited the music, and acted as cinematographer and camera operator on his first film. This was an unprecedented and unexpected kind of Latino filmmaker, a Mexican American combination of Orson Welles and Steven Spielberg.
Moreover, we'd never seen a Latino action hero in a Hollywood-released film either. Robert had smuggled a Latino protagonist into a popular genre, something he'd repeat again in the Spy Kids franchise and then in the Machete movies. All of a sudden audiences were cheering for Mexican guitar players, rooting for a young brother and sister named Cortez, and following the exploits of their mysterious Uncle Machete.
Second, it was a milestone for independent filmmaking. Yes, there were other indie hits released around the same time-.this was, after all, the time of breakthrough films by Spike Lee, Steven Soderbergh, Rick Linklater, and Quentin Tarantino. But none of them had as compelling a making-of story as El Mariachi―an against-all-odds tale of a Mexican American college kid who made a hit feature film for $7,000 during his summer vacation. Indeed, Robert's book-length diary of the making of the film, Rebel Without a Crew, became the manifesto of new indie filmmaking.
Third, it set the template for DIY digital filmmaking―a decade before digital filmmaking existed. The "Mariachi Aesthetic," the movie-making method Robert devised to make El Mariachi, was revolutionary. Strip the list of things you think you must have to make your film down to zero―because that laundry list is only preventing you from getting to the business of actually making your movie. Instead, make a list of the resources you do have, then fashion a movie around them. (For El Mariachi it was an antique bathtub, a sleepy dog, a bus, two bars, a hotel, a borrowed Arriflex camera, and a cooperative, one-take turtle.) Don't ask for permission. Don't wait for more money. The lack of money is a blessing, because it forces you to be more creative, and creativity will improve your movie more than money ever will. Get off your butt and go make your damn movie.
Robert's DIY Mariachi Aesthetic was a direct challenge to Hollywood's established Rules for Filmmaking. With budgets skyrocketing and the dependence on special effects growing exponentially, studio moviemaking in the 1990s was essentially a warning to beginning filmmakers to stay away. "Don't try this at home," big-budget Hollywood movies said. "Leave filmmaking to highly trained professionals with piles of money." By ignoring the warning and making El Mariachi his way, Robert burned the rule book.
Robert broke into studio filmmaking by doing the impossible: he made a really good, entertaining movie, on his own, for less than 1/10,000 of the budget of Batman Returns, 1992's blockbuster hit. To put it another way, for the cost of Batman Returns, Robert could have made 10,000 El Mariachis―and had $10 million left over. Incredibly, the cinematic boy wonder from Texas beat Hollywood at its own game.
Robert's unique qualities as a filmmaker―his originality, inventiveness, and healthy skepticism―are perfectly captured by Aldama. Combining his customary insightful analysis and lively prose style, Aldama examines Robert's entire career (so far) and explains what appears to be a contradiction.-that while Robert has grown as a filmmaker he has basically stayed the same. He's spending way more than $7,000 per picture, yet the Mariachi Aesthetic remains intact: the innovation of ideas as well as vitality of creation realized in his cinema of possibilities continue to trump concerns over exorbitant blockbuster budgets. It was putting innovation and creativity ahead of big-dollar budget preoccupations that allowed him to make a special effects–intensive film like Spy Kids look like a $100 million movie for \F1/3 of that cost. As Aldama so eloquently shows, Robert's healthy questioning of how studio movies are made led him to become one of the great pioneers of the silver screen; his firsts are many, including being the first filmmaker to switch to digital and the first to use green screen in such a way as to create one of the most remarkable graphic novel adaptations―Frank Miller's Sin City.
As his former professor, I am happy to have been one of the people around when Robert launched his career with El Mariachi. And I am equally happy to see the publication of Aldama's book. In many ways Aldama represents that generation of scholar who is not only engaged and intrigued by Robert's films, but who also can write a full-length book on this abundant corpus: from his earliest (including those shorts made in high school) to his latest (Machete Kills). To do so, Aldama completely immerses himself in the world of Rodriguez to share its riches with readers of all kinds across the globe. Aldama delivers a book made with some of that Rodriguez DIY sensibility that is alive to the richness of his topic, alert to the surprises he discovers along the way, and able to bring it to life with ease and grace. The Cinema of Robert Rodriguez represents something wonderful and significant: a top Latino critic looking at a top Latino filmmaker.
Charles Ramírez Berg
University Distinguished Teaching Professor in the Department of Radio-Television-Film at the University of Texas at Austin
“Aldama does more than hit his marks: he has created an exhilarating, accessible and much-needed study of one of the most inventive and multifaceted directors to come along during the last thirty years. It is a ‘must read’ for anyone who wishes to become a filmmaker or who simply loves movies.”
“Rodriguez gained cinematic notoriety with the image of a guitar case that concealed not a musical instrument but a weapon. In similar fashion, Aldama’s book contains many surprises and sharp-edged tools for thinking about the crossroads of film, politics, and identity. . . An explosive text!”
Alex Rivera, director of Sleep Dealer
“Aldama provides an engaging and wide-ranging exploration of one of the most iconoclastic directors working in Hollywood—someone who has pushed the boundaries of how films get made, how they tell stories, and who gets to tell these stories both in front of and behind the camera. The most comprehensive book on Robert Rodriguez not written by the director himself!”
Chon Noriega, Professor of Cinema and Media Studies at UCLA and author of Shot in America: Television, the State, and the Rise of Chicano Cinema
“The Cinema of Robert Rodriguez is a foundational text on one of the most significant artists of this generation. Applying a diverse range of approaches—cognitive, film theoretical, philosophical, and cultural and media studies—Aldama examines Rodriguez’s entire multi-genre corpus within its aesthetic, sociopolitical, and cultural contexts. This virtuoso analysis shows how Rodriguez’s films create new aesthetic objects and fictional worlds that partake in and impact the social realities to which they refer. Aldama shows how these visual texts expand our perceptions and widen our affective landscape, making us open to new possible futures. This is a truly remarkable work that will fascinate fans, film lovers, and film scholars alike.”
Camilla Fojas, Vincent de Paul Professor of Latin American and Latino Studies at DePaul University and author of Border Bandits: Hollywood on the Southern Frontier
“Exhilarating to read, Aldama’s brilliantly argued and refreshing take on Rodriguez’s career and accomplishments is a very welcome addition to the Latino studies bookshelf. Much talked about but rarely studied in depth, Rodriguez’s extraordinary and extensive cinematic oeuvre has long been deserving of the kind of critically astute analysis and detailed attention Aldama offers. Read The Cinema of Robert Rodriguez and you will know why Rodriguez is our new millennial Latino filmmaker par excellence.”
Ana M. López, Professor and Associate Provost at Tulane University and coeditor of Ethnic Eye: Latino Media Arts
“The Cinema of Robert Rodríguez is a fascinating book that makes you see Rodríguez’s films in a new way. Meticulously researched, imaginatively conceived, and eloquently written, the book tells a captivating story about the filmmaker’s visual sensibility and inventive DIY approach to making films on his own terms. A masterful critical guide, Aldama takes us into the heart of Robert Rodríguez’s creative universe. This book is a true pleasure to read!”
Rosa-Linda Fregoso, Professor and Chair at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and author of The Bronze Screen: Chicana and Chicano Film Culture