In 1999, The Blair Witch Project (co-written and co-directed by Eduardo Sanchez) would become one of the most successful independent films of all time, netting nearly $250 million at the box office from a modest $60,000 budget. What is perhaps less known is that, in 1992, another film (also helmed by a Hispanic director) would make box office history, too: El Mariachi, made with an original budget of just $7,225, became the lowest-budgeted film ever to make over $1 million. This is the remarkable story of The Wizard, the original Troublemaker. This is the story of Robert Rodriguez, and how his career changed horror and cinema as a whole, forever.
As is the case with most stories, this one is best told from the beginning. That beginning is none other than John Carpenter’s Escape from New York (1981), a sci-fi classic which captivated then-12-year-old Robert’s imagination and inspired him to be a filmmaker himself (with the Hollywood grapevine ripe with whispers that he’ll get to direct a remake of that very film). Getting his first taste of movie-making on the family 8mm camera, it was a video camera (included with his dad’s VCR purchase) that really made the bug take hold. The rest, as they say, is history.
But instead of sounding like a Wikipedia biography, let’s take a look at the films he’s made, the people he’s worked with, and the projects he’s been a part of, and let his career do the talking.
From Dusk Till Dawn (1996)
We’ll return to The Mexico Trilogy in a moment, but I want to take a look at what is, arguably, one of the most important films in Rodriguez’s remarkable career. For one, it would touch on many of what became staple themes in his later films: religion, family, the military, the supernatural and, of course, perceived notions of what it means to be Hispanic, and the relationship between the US and Mexico. From Dusk Till Dawn becomes the first wide international release directed by Rodriguez to touch on social issues, and it’ll mark a cornerstone of his ability to blend them and present them with a thick veneer of gory, retro-inspired fun. We would see a similar approach in Planet Terror (2007), a film that once again showcases his love for 70’s exploitation films, while at the same time conveying commentary on the dangers of excessive militarization. Win-win!
His first entry into the horror genre as a director, this crime caper-turned vampire flick’s cast list reads like a who’s who of 1990’s and 2000’s Hollywood sweethearts. There are heartthrob names like George Clooney and Salma Hayek, indie staples like Harvey Keitel and Cheech Marin, and of course, Quentin Tarantino (as both co-writer and actor). It’s also one of the first “big” films shot by Mexican DP Guillermo Navarro, who would go on to shoot Guillermo Del Toro’s El Espinazo del Diablo (2001) and El Laberinto del Fauno (2006), the latter of which earned him Goya, Ariel and Oscar prizes for photography, along with a BAFTA nomination. This film acted as a trampoline, launching the careers of so many people who are influential to horror and cinema, that it could very easily be turned into an article all of its own. Perhaps one day!
Suffice it to say that the gamble Miramax took on distributing this weird little film paid off, as it was a surprise commercial hit at the box office and quickly gained “must-watch” status within communities of film fans around the world. It was this success that allowed Rodriguez to continue making and releasing weird, but awesome, films.
The Faculty (1998)
Though decidedly much lower-key than From Dusk Till Dawn, The Faculty is undeniably cool in its own right, and it also helped push the career of many of the actors we continue to see on the screen 20 years after the film’s release.
The reason for bringing up The Faculty is that, in terms of what it represents in Rodriguez’s career, it differs substantially from From Dusk Till Dawn: while the latter was both directed and written by him, in the former he is only the director. The film was instead written by Kevin Williamson, an absolute horror powerhouse, responsible for writing Scream (1996), two of its sequels, I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997) and Cursed (2004), among others. Not enough? He also created the TV shows The Vampire Diaries, The Following and Stalker. Oh, and Dawson’s Creek, too!
Therefore, The Faculty required a very different approach from its director than From Dusk Till Dawn. Rodriguez now needed to showcase that he could shoot a more conventional film (as conventional as Dimension/Miramax films can get, anyway), with wider mainstream appeal, and for a widely different audience. Even his recurring themes of ethnicity, law and order, and 70’s throwbacks were gone. A teen scare at heart, The Faculty needed something that Rodriguez hadn’t shown until then: restraint.
I’m happy to report that he succeeded: the film, produced on a modest $15-million budget, made four times as much at the box office. It also gathered a following from genre fans, who indeed praise its directorial approach, as well as its fantastic imagery.
And it’s no wonder: The Faculty was shot by Ecuadorian DP Enrique Chediak, who would go on to shoot tons of horror films, such as Turistas (2006), 28 Weeks Later (2007), Intruders (2011), as well as big blockbusters such as Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours (2010) and Travis Knight’s Bumblebee (2018). Its cast featured a pre-Lord of the Rings Elijah Wood, who aside from taking the One Ring to Mordor, is a surprisingly recurring name in horror: as an actor in films such as Maniac (the 2012 remake), and as a producer from his company SpectreVision, which focuses on the genre and has been home to 2015’s The Boy and the Nic Cage-driven Mandy (2018), to name but two movies.
The Faculty‘s success would prove crucial to Rodriguez’s reputation as a versatile director, capable of handling material outside of his perceived “wheelhouse”, and no doubt played a huge role in landing him the helm for big-budget, mainstream films like Sin City (2005) and Alita: Battle Angel (2019).
I think we can all agree that the world is a better place for having Danny Trejo in it. The ex-convict-turned-actor-and-activist is truly a great example for people all around the world. His filmography as an actor alone has almost 400 entries. But it could be argued that Trejo’s career would not be what it is without the roles given to him by Robert Rodriguez. Sure, Danny’s career started in the 80’s, but it wasn’t until Robert cast him in Desperado (1995), the much-awaited sequel to El Mariachi, that the world would get its full dose of Daniel Trejo. After that, Danny’s face became a Hollywood staple, finally achieving lead-man status with 2010’s Machete. You know who directed Machete? Yep, Robert Rodriguez.
Other notable names in Rodriguez’s career-making list include: Salma Hayek (I know I mentioned her before, but the world needs more Salma Hayek), Antonio Banderas, Tim Roth, Bruce Willis, Michael Biehn, and of course, Fergie. Yes, seriously. The truth is, Fergie has actually been acting since I was a wee kid over three decades ago, with notable appearances in Poseidon (2006), Nine (2009) and of course, Planet Terror. As a matter of fact, between acting, music, composing, producing and other assorted credits, Fergie’s IMDb page has over 400 entries. Impressive.
Trejo’s example is only one of many. Robert Rodriguez has dedicated most of his career to increasing visibility for Hispanic talent, as well as improving representation and changing perceptions around Hispanic culture in Hollywood.
But it’s not only mega-famous people that Rodriguez has been in contact with since “making it”: while his production company Troublemaker Studios has been in charge of film franchises such as Sin City and Machete, it’s his relatively-new network EL REY that is really pushing to give voice to new creators and legacy (but adored) content.
A home to classic films as well as original programming, EL REY has established itself as a conduit between cult content and its audience. Be it reruns of Xena: Warrior Princess or Rodriguez’s own show The Director’s Chair, the network is a cult-driven, creator-focused endeavor that matches its founder’s personality perfectly.
One of its shows in particular, Rebel Without a Crew (loosely based on his book by the same name), is a reality show that gives up-and-coming filmmakers the opportunity to make a feature film of their choosing with the same budget Rodriguez had for his own first film. While $7,000 isn’t much money to make any kind of film, let alone a feature, the show provides filmmakers access to EL REY’s experts and equipment (to a degree), encouraging participants to problem-solve and use ingenuity instead of money to get their films made. It really is a fantastic watch, and incredibly inspiring to anybody even remotely interested in making films.
One of the participants, Josh Stifter, fondly recalls the influence that Robert Rodriguez and the show had on his own career as a filmmaker:
“When I first read Rebel Without a Crew, it made filmmaking seem possible. When I stood on the Alita set and talked with him and his crew about how they made the set, it made creating anything seem possible. There’s a quality of punk rock to anything Robert does, whether it be a $7,000 movie or a $200-milllion movie, that just makes a filmmaker want to go create.
When something goes wrong, Robert never took a moment to pout or get mad or try to place the blame, instead he would start discussing how to fix the situation. The excitement for Robert’s creativity is probably the reason I make movies now.”
As you can see, Rodriguez’ decades-long career has influenced a huge number of people in all walks of filmmaking: from genre masters like Guillermo Navarro and Quentin Tarantino, to staple-name actors like Elijah Wood and Danny Trejo; from Hollywood darlings like Salma Hayek and Antonio Banderas, to up-and-coming filmmakers like Josh Stifter and who knows how many others.
It’s literally impossible to imagine the world of cinema as it would be without his influence, his down-and-dirty approach to filmmaking, and his very obvious qualities as a kind, creative and caring member of the human race.
The truth is, Robert Rodriguez changed the perception around Hispanics in cinema. Through his films, millions across the world are able to see people of Hispanic heritage represented in a different light: one of power and intricacy, rather than overused stereotypes. Not only can Hispanics all over the globe aspire to emulate Rodriguez’s success as a storyteller, but his characters also empower the next generation through seeing themselves (and their aspirations) represented on screen.
In a 2005 interview for Time Magazine, Rodriguez put it perfectly: “Now, you don’t have to cast Latins in just Latin roles anymore”. From Jessica Alba to Salma Hayek, from Antonio Banderas to the one and only Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez’s choice to put Hispanics front and center has created ripples that will continue to reverberate through the annals of filmmaking moving forward. When named as one of the “25 Most Influential Hispanics in America” by the publication, he said: “It is cool because you know a lot of Latin kids will look up to that and see it’s not a strike against you”. It’s cool, indeed.
Even putting representation aside, his celebration of visually impactful cinema continues to resonate with both filmmakers and audiences, as seen by the success enjoyed by franchises like Machete and The Mexico Trilogy, as well as the testimony of up-and-coming filmmakers who, like Josh Stifter, have benefited from the trail he’s carved in the movie-making business.
So, next time you watch a film that has been made for under $10k, or see Machete slicing his way through a crowd of baddies, and even when you go to the cinema to see Quentin Tarantino’s next (and perhaps last) film, remember the original Troublemaker, The Wizard, the one and only Robert Rodriguez.
EXTRA TREAT: Watch Robert Rodriguez’ Bedhead (1991), the film that got him into film school.