In order to raise money for his feature film, Robert Rodriguez volunteered for medical research studies to test experimental drugs. That effort paid off as the film with a $7,000 budget won the Audience Choice Award at the Sundance Film Festival. It caught the eye of big-name production studios. Columbia Pictures picked up the film, did some post-production editing (which cost a few hundred thousand dollars), and released the film in theaters. El Mariachi made over $2 million dollars in theaters and proved that independent films could be profitable for major movie studios. Therefore, beyond all his success with his subsequent films, Rodriguez’s biggest contribution to film is making production companies realize the value and potential profitability of independent films. Since then, the film festival circuit has only grown in popularity and exposure exponentially.
As such, Rodriguez’s career grew from humble places to become what it is today based on hard work and dedication to his vision as a Hispanic film maker. Following El Mariachi, Rodriguez directed the sequel, Desperado in 1995 to critical success. His next feature film would be his first collaboration with Quentin Tarantino, a partnership that continues to this day. That film was 1996’s From Dusk Till Dawn which received mixed reviews and moderate success at the box office, only to become a cult favorite years later. In 1998, Rodriguez paid homage to his favorite director John Carpenter when he directed The Faculty. Then after starting a family, Rodriguez’s next three films were kid-oriented. In 2001, 2002, and 2003 he directed the first three Spy Kids films to critical and commercial success. He returned to his roots by finishing his Mariachi trilogy in 2003 with Once Upon a Time in Mexico. Sin City followed in 2005 as perhaps his most successful film. Next was another kids film, The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl (2005) before he worked with Quentin Tarantino on the Grindhouse/Planet Terror double feature. The last three years Rodriguez has directed two more kids films, Shortz and Spy Kids: All the Time in the World and then the action movie Machete in 2010. His latest film, Machete Kills opens this week.
So the question posed is, if you are watching a Rodriguez film and you don’t know it, what are the things to look for that would identify it as such? Here are five of Rodriguez’s trademarks as director, in no particular order.
The One-Man Film Crew
Rodriguez is known for working on very small budgets. Even his films that have “large” budgets are fractions of what big-name blockbusters have been known to burn through. His feature-length directoral debut, Mariachi was made for $7,000, which was raised by Rodriguez himself. In order to make his films cost effective, and to have as much creative input as possible, Rodriguez usually doesn’t limit his role to director. He is usually involved as writer, producer, editor, actor, and even assists with the special effects. Furthermore, Rodriguez is known for having the final say on the final cut of the film and all the promotional and advertising material.
Rodriguez is known for action sequences that are both stylized and realistic. At first, this may seem somewhat conflicting, but compared to most over-the-top action flicks these days it makes sense. Main characters actually get killed or hurt when fighting, guns are actually reloaded during battles, and the heroes don’t always hit something on their first shot. Since Rodriguez’s films span the spectrum between very adult oriented and kid-friendly, he adapts his action styles accordingly. The action in his films for adults will be somewhat more realistic (i.e. violent) than his kid-oriented films, where the action is silly and typically super stylized.
Tone It Up
Rodriguez likes to use colored overtones to stylize his films. Often times, different scenes in the same movie may be colored differently. In Sin City the entire film is black and white except for a few bright colors sprinkled in here and there. Here, Rodriguez uses these colors to define a character or a particular story. In multiple films, Rodriguez uses a gold overtone for various purposes. In the Mariachi trilogy, in Dusk Till Dawn, and in the Machete films this gold overtone gives the films a dusty, dirty feel. In his Spy Kids films this color is used for warmth. In The Faculty muted colors combined with bright yellow light play homage to 80’s horror films.
The Antihero Hero
The protagonists in most of Rodriguez’s films are not typical heroes. In fact, they have few redeeming qualities, yet Rodriguez always finds a way to make us root for them. Part of the way he does this is making the tone of the film silly or surreal such that the audience feels more comfortable with a character who is otherwise pretty repulsive. Furthermore, most of his main characters have a suspicious or shady past and are running from something or seeking revenge. For instance, the main characters in From Dusk Till Dawn are criminals. Sin City is full of corrupt, perverted, and deranged characters. Machete is a hired assassin.
Tribute to Hispanic Heritage
Rodriguez was born in San Antonio, Texas to Mexican-American parents. He pays tribute to his heritage and upbringing by casting Hispanic actors and having his films take place in Texas or Mexico. Nearly all of his films have Hispanic themes, have some spoken Spanish, and feature Hispanic cultural elements. He often works with the same actors on more than one film. These actors include Danny Trejo, Antonio Banderas, Cheech Marin, Michelle Rodriguez, Selma Hayek, and Jessica Alba.
Previously: Directors’ Trademarks: Ron Howard