Robert Anthony Rodriguez was born and raised in San Antonio, Texas, USA, to Rebecca (Villegas), a nurse, and Cecilio G. Rodríguez, a salesman. His family is of Mexican descent.
Of all the people to be amazed by the images of John Carpenter’s 1981 sci-fi parable, Escape from New York (1981), none were as captivated as the 12-year-old Rodriguez, who sat with his friends in a crowded cinema. Many people watch films and arrogantly proclaim “I can do that.” This young man said something different: “I WILL do that. I’m gonna make movies.” That day was the catalyst of his dream career. Born and raised in Texas, Robert was the middle child of a family that would include 10 children. While many a child would easily succumb to a Jan Brady sense of being lost in the shuffle, Robert always stood out as a very creative and very active young man. An artist by nature, he was very rarely seen sans pencil-in-hand doodling some abstract (yet astounding) dramatic feature on a piece of paper. His mother, not a fan of the “dreary” cinema of the 1970s, instills a sense of cinema in her children by taking them on weekly trips to San Antonio’s famed Olmos Theatre movie house and treats them to a healthy dose of Hollywood’s “Golden Age” wonders, from Sergio Leone to the silent classic of Charles Chaplin and Buster Keaton.
In a short amount of time, young Robert finds the family’s old Super-8 film camera and makes his first films. The genres are unlimited: action, sci-fi, horror, drama, stop-motion animation. He uses props from around the house, settings from around town, and makes use of the largest cast and crew at his disposal: his family. At the end of the decade, his father, a salesman, brings home the latest home-made technological wonder: a VCR, and with it (as a gift from the manufacturer) a video camera. With this new equipment at his disposal, he makes movies his entire life. He screens the movies for friends, all of whom desperately want to star in the next one. He gains a reputation in the neighborhood as “the kid who makes movies”. Rather than handing in term papers, he is allowed to hand in “term movies” because, as he himself explains, “[the teachers] knew I’d put more effort into a movie than I ever would into an essay.” He starts his own comic strip, “Los Hooligans”. His movies win every local film competition and festival. When low academic grades threaten to keep him out of UT Austin’s renowned film department, he proves his worth the only way he knows how: he makes a movie. Three, in fact: trilogy of short movies called “Austin Stories” starring his siblings. It beats the entries of the school’s top students and allows Robert to enter the program. After being accepted into the film department, Robert takes $400 of his own money to make his “biggest” film yet: a 16mm short comedy/fantasy called Bedhead (1991).
Pouring every idea and camera trick he knew into the short, it went on to win multiple awards. After meeting and marrying fellow Austin resident Elizabeth Avellan, Robert comes up with a crazy idea: he will sell his body to science in order to finance his first feature-length picture (a Mexican action adventure about a guitarist with no name looking for work but getting caught up in a shoot-’em-up adventure) that he will sell to the Spanish video market and use as an entry point to a lucrative Hollywood career. With his “guinea pig” money he raises a mere $7,000 and creates El Mariachi (1992). But rather than lingering in obscurity, the film finds its way to the Sundance film festival where it becomes an instant favorite, wins Robert a distribution deal with Columbia Pictures and turns him into an icon among would-be film-makers the world over. Not one to rest on his laurels, he immediately helms the straight-to-cable movie Roadracers (1994) and contributes a segment to the anthology comedy Four Rooms (1995) (his will be the most lauded segment).
His first “genuine” studio effort would soon have people referring to him as “John Woo from south-of-the-border”. It is the “Mariachi” remake/sequel Desperado (1995). More lavish and action-packed than its own predecessor, the movie–while not a blockbuster hit–does decent business and launches the American film careers of Antonio Banderas as the guitarist-turned-gunslinger and Salma Hayek as his love interest (the two would star in several of his movies from then on). It also furthers the director’s reputation of working on low budgets to create big results. In the year when movies like Batman Forever (1995) and GoldenEye (1995) were pushing budgets past the $100 million mark, Rodriguez brought in “Desperado” for just under $7 million. The film also featured a cameo by fellow indie film wunderkind, Quentin Tarantino. It would be the beginning of a long friendship between the two sprinkled with numerous collaborations. Most notable the Tarantino-penned vampire schlock-fest From Dusk Till Dawn (1996). The kitschy flick (about a pair of criminal brothers on the run from the Texas Rangers, only to find themselves in a vamp-infested Mexican bar) became an instant cult favorite and launched the lucrative film career of ER (1994) star George Clooney.
After a two-year break from directing (primarily to spend with his family, but also developing story ideas and declining Hollywood offers) he returned to “Dusk till Dawn” territory with the teen sci-fi/horror movie The Faculty (1998), written by Scream (1996) writer, Kevin Williamson. Although it’s developed a small following of its own, it would prove to be Robert’s least-successful film. Critics and fans alike took issue with the pedestrian script, the off-kilter casting and the flick’s blatant over-commercialization (due to a marketing deal with clothing designer Tommy Hilfiger). After another three-year break, Rodriguez returned to make his most successful (and most unexpected) movie yet, based on his own segment from Four Rooms (1995). After a string of bloody, adult-oriented action fare, no one anticipated him to write and direct the colorful and creative Spy Kids (2001), a movie about a pair of prepubescent Latino sibs who discover that their lame parents (Antonio Banderas and Carla Gugino) are actually two of the world’s greatest secret agents. The film was hit among both audiences and critics alike.
After quitting the Writers’ Guild of America and being introduced to digital filmmaking by George Lucas, Robert immediately applied the creative, flexible (and cost-effective) technology to every one of his movies from then on, starting with an immediate sequel to his family friendly hit: Spy Kids 2: Island of Lost Dreams (2002) which was THEN immediately followed by the trilogy-capper Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over (2003). The latter would prove to be the most financially-lucrative of the series and employ the long-banished movie gimmick of 3-D with eye-popping results. Later the same year Rodriguez career came full circle when he completed the final entry of the story that made brought him to prominence: “El Mariachi”. The last chapter, Once Upon a Time in Mexico (2003), would be his most direct homage to the Sergio Leone westerns he grew up on. With a cast boasting Antonio Banderas (returning as the gunslinging guitarist), Johnny Depp (as a corrupt CIA agent attempting to manipulate him), Salma Hayek, Mickey Rourke, Willem Dafoe and Eva Mendes, the film delivered even more of the Mexican shoot-’em-up spectacle than both of the previous films combined.
Now given his choice of movies to do next, Robert sought out famed comic book writer/artist Frank Miller, a man who had been very vocal of never letting his works be adapted for the screen. Even so, he was wholeheartedly convinced and elated when Rodriguez presented him with a plan to turn Miller’s signature work into the film Sin City (2005). A collection of noir-ish tales set in a fictional, crime-ridden slum, the movie boasted the largest cast Rodriguez had worked with to that date. Saying he didn’t want to mere “adapt” Miller’s comics but “translate” them, Rodriguez’ insistence that Miller co-direct the movie lead to Robert’s resignation from the Director’s Guild of America (and his subsequent dismissal from the film John Carter (2012) as a result). Many critics cited that Sin City was created as a pure film noir piece to adapt Miller’s comics onto the screen. Co-directing with Frank Miller and bringing in Quentin Tarantino to guest-direct a scene allowed Rodriguez to again shock Hollywood with his talent.
In late 2007, Rodriguez again teamed up with his friend Tarantino to create the double feature Grindhouse (2007). Rodriguez’s offering, Planet Terror (2007), was a film made to be “hardcore, extreme, sex-fueled, action-packed.” Rodriguez flirts with his passion to make a showy film exploiting all of his experience to make an extremely entertaining thrill ride. The film is encompassed around Cherry (Rose McGowan), a reluctant go-go dancer who is found wanting when she meets her ex-lover El Wray (played by Freddy Rodríguez) who turns up at a local BBQ grill. They then, after a turn of events, find themselves fending off brain-eating zombies whilst trying to flee to Mexico (here we go off to Mexico again). Apart from directing, Rodriguez also involves himself in camera work, editing and composing music for his movies’ sound tracks (he composed Planet Terror’s main theme). He also shoots a lot of his own action scenes to get a direct idea from his eye as the director into the film. In El Mariachi (1992), Rodriguez spent hours in front of a pay-to-use, computer editing his film. This allowed him to capture the ideal footage exactly as he wanted it. Away from the filming aspect of Hollywood, Rodriguez is an expert chef who cooks gourmet meals for the cast and crew. Rodriguez is also known for his ability to turn a low-budgeted film with a small crew into an example of film mastery. El mariachi was “the movie made on seven grand” and still managed to rank as one of Rodriguez’ best films (receiving a rating of 92% on the Rotten Tomatoes film review site).
Because Rodriguez is involved so deeply in his films, he is able to capture what he wants first time, which saves both time and money. Rodriguez’s films share some similar threads and ideas, whilst also having differences. In El Mariachi (1992), he uses a hand-held camera. He made this decision for several reasons. First, he couldn’t afford a tripod and secondly, he wanted to make the audience more aware of the action. In the action sequences he is given more mobility with a hand-held camera and also allows for distortion of the unprofessional action sequences (because the cost of all special effects in the film totaled $600). However, in Sin City (2005) and Planet Terror (2007), the budget was much greater, and Rodriguez could afford to spend more on special affects (especially since both films were filmed predominately with green screen) and, thus, there was no need to cover for error.
Playing by his own rules or not at all, Robert Rodriguez has redefined what a filmmaker can or cannot do. Shunning Hollywood’s ridiculously high budgets, multi-picture deals and the two most powerful unions for the sake of maintaining creative freedom are decisions that would (and have) cost many directors their careers. Rodriguez has turned these into his strengths, creating some of the most imaginative works the big-screen has ever seen.
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