Director Robert Rodriguez, wearing his trademark black shirt, black jeans, black sneakers, and black cap, took the stage before the premiere of his latest movie, Red 11, at SXSW Film Festival with a black binder. In his hands, he held the outline of his masterclass presentation and details of the new project, which he shot, produced and edited for less than $7,000. That was the magical number that afforded Rodriguez to make his first feature El Mariachi that launched his career, and it’s a number he says continues to follow him throughout his career decades after he wrote a book about his low-budget first film, Rebel without a Crew.
Red 11 is closely tied to the scrappy beginnings of Rodriguez’s career. Not just in the budget (which Rodriguez did not scale for inflation), but in the parameters he set to make the movie. He chose his son, Racer, as his only crew member – a role previously filled by El Mariachi star Carlos Gallardo – and would also fill a walk-on role as a mysterious character. Rodriguez limited himself to using only a few lights, mostly practical or easy computer effects, cheap costumes, and settings he could film around his Troublemaker Studios, including some exteriors of his other recent movie, Alita: Battle Angel. The studio is a kind of cheat (few aspiring filmmakers would have access to such a location) but serves the project’s ethos of “do what you can with what you have.”
Based on Rodriguez’s experience as a human lab rat to fund his first film, Red 11 follows a young man, Rob (Roby Attal), looking to pay back his $7,000 debt to a cartel by signing up as a test subject for new drugs. The colored shirts like teal, yellow, violet, and magenta mean those participants are in different drug trials and each of them is given a number, which is how Rob becomes rechristened as Red 11. The research staff encourages the different groups to keep to themselves, creating tribalism in these tense conditions. Rodriguez then sends his thriller down several twisting paths – like superpowers, delusions, and frightening side effects – playing on Red 11’s paranoia and vulnerability. He amps up his cinematography by making the research facility a bleaker shade of blue while the encroaching cartel head (Gallardo) appears to bask in the orange light of a fading sun.
Although the movie qualifies as a thriller, Rodriguez has so much fun with the premise, the challenge of producing on a shoestring budget and poking fun of himself, even landing a perfectly timed jab at his finest works. Joining Rob on his misadventure is a sizable cast of extras and weirdos including a Magenta shirt-wearing mystery girl (Lauren Hatfield); a career lab rat known as Red 7 (Eman Esfandi); a knife-wielding teal shirt (Rebel Rodriguez, Robert’s other son); Score (Alejandro Rose-Garcia a.k.a. Shakey Graves), who might have the most annoying premise for a supporting character (he’s a composer who’s always composing music on his iPad) but Rose-Garcia’s performance makes him much more tolerable than Spoiler (Pierce Bailey), a bully who lives to – you guessed it – spoil the end of movie and ruin Movie Guy’s (Michael Fischer) day.
On its own, Red 11 is a functioning B-movie, outfitted with strange characters, inexperienced actors, a busy plot and a DIY aesthetic that makes certain aspects look charmingly makeshift. Rodriguez didn’t intend for it to be shown but relented to use it as a teaching tool for filmmakers. Not many directors would throw themselves back into doing everything for next-to-nothing after enjoying the luxury of over $150 million budgets, but Rodriguez wanted to make a point that he still has what it takes to be resourceful and to lay the foundation for other filmmakers to do the same.
Back in the ’60s and ’70s, a number of up-and-coming directors like Martin Scorsese, Ron Howard, James Cameron, Joe Dante, and Francis Ford Coppola worked for B-movie maestro Roger Corman. The director’s low-budget, quick-turnaround approach helped young filmmakers learn their craft on the cheap and often gave them their first big break. Red 11 and its accompanying documentary works like an instructional manual to be viewed by anyone who wants to pick up a camera and make a movie.
At last year’s SXSW, Rodriguez presented the works of the filmmakers who entered his reality TV show competition, Rebel without a Crew: The Series. Now, Rodriguez debuts his own 90-minute feature with an accompanying making-of documentary that could be just as influential as his groundbreaking book. In the clips Rodriguez shared at the Red 11 premiere, he patiently walks through his screenwriting method through notecards, shows his son the casting process and how it can influence the screenplay, how he sets up certain shots and created practical effects on the fly, staging fight scenes for safety, and how to punch up his sound and aesthetics in post-production. If you couldn’t make it to SXSW, then watching the two films would likely be the next best way to learn from the man himself.