Here’s What We Learned from Robert Rodriguez About Making a Movie for $7,000

Photo of Robert Rodriguez courtesy of El Rey Network

As a young 23-year-old man driven by defiant bravado, Robert Rodriguez set out to make an ambitious action movie in 14 days with the meager budget of $7,000 – an amount that wouldn’t even cover the coffee bill of his most recent productions. Two years later, he turned that cinematic feat into a book, Rebel Without a Crew, that details the improbable making of his 1993 debut feature El Mariachi. His published work has inspired aspiring filmmakers for over two decades and remains part of the film studies canon for indie directors.

To commemorate the 25th anniversary of El Mariachi, the Mexican-American creator has adapted the grueling concept into an episodic series in which five emerging writer-directors are given the financial and time constraints to conceive a feature-length film from start to finish in Austin, Texas. In addition, they each were given the opportunity to bring along a guest or plus one as their only helping hand. Contestants were asked to have a screenplay ready to go before applying to expedite the process. They also had the extra pressure of a camera crew following their every move as they shot, directed, and sometimes even acted in their projects. Aside from submitting the young talents to this deranged artistic experiment, Rodriguez decided to create a new movie of his own under the same circumstances as part of this venture.

Rebel Without a Crew, The Series was introduced at the Violet Crown Cinema in Austin during the SXSW Film Festival, where a press conference preceded a screening of the five short movies produced during the filming of the docuseries. Two of the shorts were crafted by Latino participants: Phaedra by Scarlet Moreno, a multi-talented and bilingual content creator from Laredo Texas, and Monday by Alejandro Montoya Marin, who was also born in Laredo but raised in Monterrey, Mexico. Remezcla was there to cover the show’s presentation and gather some useful wisdom kernels from Robert Rodriguez.  Here are the highlights.

The first episode of Rebel Without a Crew is available on streaming service go90 and Tumblr and will soon air on El Rey Network.

On How Making El Mariachi Was His Film School

When I did El Mariachi, I shot on film, so there was very little money on the screen. I was trying to make it for $5000, and I went over budget, so I was trying to make it for as little as possible, because I didn’t know what I could sell it for.

I came up with the idea of this show right around the time I came up with the network, because I saw what a benefit that was to my career. Go make a movie all by myself, where I had to learn every job, and it made all of my experiences later so much better because I knew what all of the challenges of the different crews would be, and I knew each job pretty intimately. It was my own film school that I built for myself. I was like, “Wow, I’ll get to learn every job, and maybe even make movie if I can sell the movie, so that’s like the best film school you could go to. “

On Agreeing to Make His Own Microbudget Movie, Again

I was really curious to give other people that challenge to see how they would figure it out, using today’s technology and today’s cameras, and not even raising the budget for inflation at all, just saying $7000, 14 days, shoot it by yourself. I was so inspired, I took a look at the idea of doing one myself, and by the time we were putting it together, I knew I would enjoy the experience too if I did it as well.

‘Rebel Without a Crew, The Series.’ Courtesy of El Rey Network
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On the Power of Making a Movie Without a Crew

When you go to film school, they don’t teach you how to make a movie completely by yourself. They teach you how to make a movie in the system, which is to be your one job, and that’s another job. I found the value of doing it all yourself is that it empowers you. If you had an idea for a movie, and no one else wanted to help you, and you had no money, you could still go make your dream happen. By learning all of those jobs, it empowers you to just know every aspect of filmmaking.

On the Value of Having a Plus-One

On El Mariachi, my plus-one was Carlos Gallardo. He was the star of it, and he was the producer, because we shot it in his hometown, so he knew everyone in that town. That’s how we got guns from the cops to use, and stuff like that.

On Working With His Son

El Mariachi wasn’t sync sound, so I pretty much was my entire crew on El Mariachi, because I had to shoot the sound separately and sync it by hand. This time, when you’re doing sync sound, you need somebody to be doing boom, so my plus one was my son Racer. He’s the one who created Sharkboy and Lavagirl when he was seven. He’s worked with me forever, so he was my plus one. He’s my sound guy, he would mic everyone for sound, and he finished the script with me. It was an old script that I found, based on my medical research studies experiments in college. He was the same age I was when I was doing those experiments and making El Mariachi, so he co-wrote it with me, and he’s in it as well. He plays one of the main black-shirt characters, and he’s my plus-one.

On the Magic That Happens When Resources Are Scarce

What I remember happening when I was making El Mariachi, because I didn’t have anything and you’re stripped away from all resources, magic just happens, and things just fall in your lap. Circumstances bring you gifts that you never could have imagined or bought or rented or borrowed, and it was fun to see that happen to them. I was hoping that’s what would happen. We’re doing this for a reason, by pulling everything away from you. You think we’re taking away, and instead the universe is going to give you back, because there’s this phenomenon of endeavor, that when you go forward in a positive way to do the impossible, you’re going to be blessed somehow.

On How Making Movies Teaches You Larger Life Lessons

Most people just never start because they think I still need this crew or I still need this script, or I need this or I need that, and they never begin, and the reality is once you start, you figure it out on the job, you figure it out as you go, and if you just take that first step. You’re never prepared for anything life’s going to throw at you, you’re never ready, and somehow you have to get through it. Moviemaking is very much like life. It’s more like life lessons than filmmaking lessons, about how you just roll with it, how you can’t be too precious, how you have to just take what comes, know when you have a gift, and use it to its maximum. When things that fall by the wayside you figure your way around it, and you do it as you go.