ONCE UPON A TIME IN MEXICO - Q&A with ROBERT RODRIGUEZ
Filmmaker Robert Rodriguez became an overnight sensation in 1993 with the release of EL MARIACHI. A Mexican spaghetti western shot for the microscopic cost of $7,000 - the film went on to become an international box-office hit and, by default, made Rodriguez the patron saint of guerilla moviemaking. Ten years later, Rodriguez is now regarded as an established director in Hollywood - the man behind the lucrative SPY KIDS franchise. Following up on his 1995 film, DESPERADO, he completes his Mariachi trilogy this week with the release of ONCE UPON A TIME IN MEXICO, starring Antonio Banderas, Johnny Depp and Salma Hayek.
Can you explain your fascination with spaghetti westerns?
I've always loved spaghetti westerns and the off-shoots of such like the ROAD WARRIOR movies. I think other people are inspired by those movies as well. That vision of a loner in a strange land. That 'West' that Sergio Leone came up with - this very made up sort of 'West'. That's very much what these MARIACHI movies are about. They're set in a non-realistic Mexico. A mythical other place where you can go as an audience.
The films also have a strong comic book element.
When I had to come do this third one, I was trying to figure out who The Mariachi was. Well, he's a guy with a guitar case full of guns. It's not a realistic story. It's almost like a comic book movie without the comic book. So I had to start thinking what is the comic that this is based on. Because it is that type of made up world where anything can happen. You're dealing with very iconic, representative characters. So when I had to do the third one, I knew it had to be a little more epic, that it would have to have more characters, and that The Mariachi would just be one of them. I had to come up with equally iconic people to surround him with. It actually became kind of easy. I thought, "OK a man with no eyes, a man with no face and a man with no name." I started doing these little drawings. One guy with blood coming down his face behind glasses. Another guy his face completely bandaged. Him with his guitar case full of guns. You start playing with these elements. It's almost like constructing a comic book.
Why did you make this third film?
It was a mix of things. Originally I was going to make three very quickly in a row for Mexican video to practice making movies. That was the original MARIACHI plan. But then EL MARIACHI got picked up by Columbia Pictures and got released. So we did a sequel called DESPERADO. And that was as far as it was going to go. I didn't think I would ever really do a third one. But on the set of DESPERADO, Quentin Tarantino told me I had to do a third one. It was my "Dollars Trilogy" He loved the Sergio Leone movies more than I did. And he said this was my chance. That no one had done this since Sergio Leone. I had to do part three and it had to be epic. It had to be the big one. 'The Good The Bad and The Ugly' one. "But you've got to call it ONCE UPON A TIME IN MEXICO."
This was in 1994, when we were filming. I just thought, let's just get through this first. That sounds interesting... maybe someday. A few years later the studio called. DESPERADO had picked up quite an audience on video and cable. They said people would really come out and see another one. Even the first one only did so much at the box office, but people have picked it up and discovered it since then. I said, "Well if we do, we'd have to make it bigger and call it ONCE UPON A TIME IN MEXICO," because now that's in my head! I have to do it that way! And they said, "Sure, that's the way we want to do it." That's kind of how it came about. It was a mix of me wanting to complete that trilogy that I'd always dreamed about at the larger scale Quentin Tarantino talked about.
According to Antonio Banderas, you gave him three weeks notice before shooting but hadn't written a script yet.
SPY KIDS had just come out. I had seen these new digital cameras that George Lucas had. Even though I wanted to make the movie, I didn't want to shoot it on film. It would be too cumbersome and take the feeling of the first two movies away because it would be such a bigger movie. But when I saw these digital cameras, I thought we can make anything with these cameras. It'll feel like the first MARIACHI. We'll be able to move very quickly. And even though it will be a more epic tale, it will be done in the right way.
But three weeks?
Yeah. He asked me for the script and I told him I hadn't written it yet. I told the studio, "I've got a great new script for the Mexican movie - you want to make it?" They said "Sure, when are we getting the script?" I said, "I'll send it next week". Then I had to finish writing it. The actors strike was coming up, so we only had a certain amount of time to do it. Because then I would have to do these other SPY KIDS movies which we already had dates for. I said we have to make the movie right now. It's the only time we could make it.
What about the release date?
It was supposed to come out in March 2003.
Why the delay?
I told them I could shoot it before the strike, but then I had to go shoot and put out these other SPY KIDS movies. I couldn't get to edit it until I was done with those movies. I got to shoot it. Do another movie. Edit. Work on SPY KIDS 3, then score this. I kept jumping back and forth on each movie. It was cool to work like that because you got a lot of distance from it.
When you shot the first MARIACHI, you had to compromise on action sequences as you had no budget. Did any of those things you wanted to do end up in this film?
Kind of. There's a big scene that we couldn't do for DESPERADO, because it was too big and too hard back then. Well, that was the scene you see now - climbing down a building, handcuffed. That was straight out of the DESPERADO script. I cut that out. So this movie, of course, inherited it.
What is it about this character that stayed with you over the years?
I like the mystery of the character. Usually, it's a big 'no-no' to make a movie with an artist as the hero because they tend to be internalized characters. They should be ex-cops or something. That's what everyone says. But I liked the artist as the hero because he is more internal. He is a very romantic character. For me, each movie is like a different tragic love song you can add to his repertoire. It's also a good mix when you combine it with these other characters who are more active in the film. If you've got Johnny Depp talking the whole time, he doesn't have to say much. The only time we know what he's thinking is when he prays or he's playing his music. The music does a lot of the talking for him. So it is a very tragic romantic character and mysterious because of the guitar case. Instead of being a guitar in there, like he would like it to be, its guns. He always has to take them up against his will.
And Johnny Depp's character?
I just liked the idea of this character who just lives down there in Mexico and thinks he's running the country with his cell phone.
Did having 'Rodriguez' as a last name help shooting in Mexico?
I can get away with a lot more. I can cast Willem Dafoe as a Mexican. 'Well if Rodriguez is doing it, it must be alright'. There are some very non-P.C. things that I do that are part of the fun of these movies. In the end, the Mexicans do get the respect and take back their own country, though.
How much of a statement did you want to make with Johnny Depp playing a CIA agent?
Well, if you look really close at his CIA t-shirt, it says 'Cleavage Inspection Agency'... It's just a sideline. I just thought it was an interesting character - a meddling American going into yet another country.
And did Johnny Depp provide his own wardrobe?
Oh yeah! Johnny brought all his own tourist t-shirts that you see in the film.
What was the budget for this film?
$29 million. I wish it was 27. Then it would have been budgets of $7000, $7 million, $27 million (laughs).
Has your approach to filmmaking changed as a result of having bigger budgets at your disposal?
It's all relative. I actually tried to take it back much more to what I was doing on MARIACHI, especially on this movie as I shot it before SPY KIDS II and III. I wanted to do my own lighting and production design - all the things I did for MARIACHI when I had no crew. ...This being the third one, and since we were shooting it digital, I thought we could really strip it back down. Even though it's a bigger movie, it wasn't made in this big machine Hollywood way. It would really be much more like an independent film again. I really enjoyed doing all those things again.
But has having access to all the toys changed your approach?
No. You still keep it lean and mean. You have to be more creative that way. The technology just allows you to be more creative. You don't need as many people. It strips the process down to where everyone is just doing their best creative work and not being bogged down by the old creative 'film' system. I like where the technology has gone. I can do a lot more of the jobs, like when I started with MARIACHI. I'm going to keep that very personal system of making a movie. Even though the movie is bigger, it still feels hand made.
The violence factor in some of your films has drawn comparisons to Quentin Tarantino...
I don't know. Maybe in KILL BILL. KILL BILL has a much more of an over the top mentality. My movies never got criticized like his did, though, because his were so much more realistic. The tone is everything. My movies are so much more comic book and over the top, I never got criticized for the violence in mine.
Do you see a similarity?
No - because of that. His are more realistic, which is why people think his movies are more violent than mine. It's really a matter of tone.
You had to tone down the poster for ONCE UPON A TIME IN MEXICO, nevertheless.
Yeah. They have a 'two gun per person' rule at the MPAA [Motion Picture Association of America]. He had another gun strapped in on the poster so it actually looked like he had four. Well, I liked the sound of that rule so I complied. Sounds like a rule from Texas, don't you think? The thing is they just arbitrarily make these rules. You can fight them if you want, but I thought it was funny so I just went ahead and did it. Also the gun can't be pointed at the camera. Did you know that? So we had to move his hand over a little bit more as well.
Did you have any problems shooting in Mexico?
No. They were very accommodating. We had a great experience shooting there. A wonderful experience.
Did you have a Mexican crew?
It was mostly a Mexican crew working on it. It's a wonderful place to shoot. Everyone is really creative and we were moving very quickly. It felt like being in a traveling carnival. And it was all location shooting, so every day we'd be in a different place.
Was it a schizophrenic experience doing all these films so quickly and often overlapping?
I can make the movies in a very short amount of time. You don't need time to give you distance. Just changing the project gives you distance. So when I went back to do work on SPY KIDS, I came at it very fresh, as if I'd been away for a year. I can really see very clearly what I need to do. Then I go back to Mexico and study the footage and think "Wow when did we shoot all this stuff'. You edit it together to see what's going to happen next because I couldn't even remember.
It's schizophrenic for audiences though.... It's often hard to see you as the director of both films.
I can tell, just because they're both very strange and have my sense of humor to them! I think that's the consistency. Even if you go back and watch DUSK TILL DAWN, you notice it's full of gadgets and odd humour like the SPY KIDS movies. DESPERADO is the same, with the guitar case shooting missiles. There were always gadgets, even before SPY KIDS. I was always doing very comic book type odd humour. It's my cartoonist background, I guess. It's something I can't seem to hide.
Do you feel at all confined by doing sequels?
Just the opposite. You're freed up a lot. So much worry in a movie is about 'is anyone going to show up after all this work you do'. Will it draw an audience in? When you're doing a sequel, you know people are going to show up, because they already know the first one. You know that on the day the movie opens there's not going to be an empty theatre. With that worry gone, you can go experiment a lot with the movie that you're working on. Shoot digital. Try composing. Hire different actors and do strange things with them. Because you're not worried about an audience not showing up. You're making what you think feels right. And they'll enjoy it more because you're getting very free and very experimental. You can try wacky things because you're not worried that it might put some people off. Because they're going to show up anyway.
Did the studio give you more freedom this time?
A lot more freedom. When I tell them I'm going to shoot this digital and do my own production design, etc, they go, "Alright". Because they also know they'll get an audience.
There's a lot of Spanish and subtitles in the film.
Sometimes I would cast an actor who didn't speak English. Well, just say the line in Spanish and we'll subtitle it. Half the movie is in Spanish.
Didn't the studio object?
No. They didn't know [what I was doing]. I told them I'm going to shoot this movie in a couple of weeks. I went. I shot it. I came back. They said, "We can't believe you're done already. We have movies that are still shooting after a year" And I shot it in seven weeks. I said, "I told you I was going to shoot it quickly" "Yeah, we thought you were out of your mind." They were just happy to have a finished movie. It's probably the cheapest one they've made in 20 years.
Were you surprised by the success of the SPY KIDS franchise?
It's what I used to do before I made MARIACHI. I made nothing but family comedies, because I was from a family of ten kids. And they would always win awards. People loved seeing these things at festivals - little kids doing action and comedy. So I always thought it would be my biggest movie. It was also a new idea. No one had ever heard of it. It wasn't based on a comic book or TV show. But if people showed up and discovered it, I thought it would do well. My expectation was that it would do well.
As well as it did?
In my wildest dreams, yes! At that time family films weren't being made. There was a big drought of them. Plus no one had really made one to that degree. It's something that I had wanted to do for a long time. I put a lot of work and imagination into it and I thought it would catch on. Once it did well, I was like, 'Yeah, of course'. You don't go make a movie thinking it's not going to do well. You really put everything into it. Once it caught on, then it was easy. People knew what SPY KIDS was and we could just continue with that level of imagination and creativity. The first one's always the hard one though. You're just not sure how much fantasy people will enjoy. Remember, HARRY POTTER hadn't come out yet. LORD OF THE RINGS hadn't come out yet. So fantasy hadn't been around for a while. But I thought it was something people would enjoy it. And it turns out fantasy came back really big that year. A lot of it is timing also... You also have to remember my films aren't as big a risk for the studio. Even if people didn't come to see SPY KIDS, it was still a $35 million movie. They're going to spend a $150 million usually for something like that... That's why I try and keep my budgets lower. It's easier for me to come up with original stuff and not have to worry so much. It's a win-win situation for everyone.
Theoretically the studios would give you more money to make your films if you asked for it...
But you don't want it because then you'd have to water your movie down so much to make sure people would show up that first time. You end up questioning yourself all the time because so much more is at stake. But the movies that I do, even with SPY KIDS, I could take more risks because it wasn't that expensive a movie by Hollywood standards. Even if it tanked at the box office they would have made their money back by the time it came out on video.
Do you think the digital revolution in filmmaking will go so far as to replace traditional filming methods?
I don't know. It took a few years before people stopped cutting on film and switched over to digital editing systems. Now everybody does it that way. Today, you can put a gun to an editor's head and he still won't go back to cutting on film. That's the way it is for digital photography too though. A lot of filmmakers don't know that because they haven't tried it. They haven't even tested it yet. Creative people are always the slowest to adopt new technology. It's just part of their nature. Me? I put them up side-by-side, film and digital, when I did my first test on SPY KIDS. I shot the same scene on film and then in hi-def - the same scene - and I was shocked at how bad the film version looked. I showed the studio and they couldn't believe it either. And those were the old digital cameras... There are new cameras coming out in the next couple of months and I can't wait to see those. It just gets better and better...
When you first met Antonio Banderas did you imagine he would have the career he has now?
I wasn't surprised. Let's put it that way. I always thought he was talented. But with an actor it's difficult. The role has to be there. A director can always just go make his next movie. An actor, however, is dependant on someone casting him in a good movie with a good part. That's where your next job comes from. There are a lot of talented people who get in a bad movie and you never see or hear from them again. Antonio? He's a really hard worker. Very talented. And he can do many different things. That's why he's stayed around so long.
Why did you cast Enrique Iglesias?
I love RIO BRAVO. Remember Ricky Nelson was in that movie? So I thought, I got to do a little Ricky Nelson type thing here. The Mariachi has these two musicians that are with him all the time. Well, I thought at least one of them should be a real musician. You know, I always have these guys faking playing... Well, he was a bit scared when I first called him. Especially when he heard who was in the cast. "I don't know if I want to be in that movie. I don't want to screw it up. I've never acted before." In the end, he came, fitted right in, and did a great job.
Did the rest of the cast have a script? Or were they in the dark like Antonio Banderas?
I'm pretty sure I had a script when I went after the rest of those guys. But a lot of it was very skeletal, I have to admit. See, a lot of it I finish writing once I know who the actor is. Johnny Depp's character was the first one I wrote so that was pretty solid. But Mickey Rourke's character only had one line, I think. When I met him, I said, "Come be this character and I'll keep writing." I kept writing more scenes for him and putting him in them. He had his dog with him when I met him. So I told him to bring the Chihuahua too...
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