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Once Upon a Time in Mexico

Sharp Shooter: Robert Rodriguez

By Stephen Phelan
The Sunday Herald (Scotland)
September 21, 2003

Toward the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones turns up at the docks in Cairo to catch a lift on a cargo ship, having battered across Egypt in pursuit of relic-thieving Nazis. The captain takes one look at him and laughs.

“I’ve heard a lot about you sir,” he booms. “Your appearance is exactly as I imagined.”

Meeting Robert Rodriguez, I have to fight my own mouth not to say the same thing in the same voice. Rodriguez, a happy Texan-Mexican who makes movies with the roughest sense of adventure, sits with his feet up on the coffee table in a blandly expensive London hotel suite. He’s wearing cowboy boots and a cowboy hat on top of a bandana. There are mirrored sunglasses, beads and crosses hanging from his neck. He looks like a man who would, and did, name his three children Rocket Valentin, Rebel Antonio and Racer Maximilliano. He looks like a man who has written, directed, photographed, edited and soundtracked films about a truck-stop strip-bar run by Aztec vampires (From Dusk Till Dawn), a brother and sister team of techno-savvy junior secret agents (the Spy Kids trilogy) and a musician/assassin who carries guns in a guitar case (El Mariachi, Desperado).

“I don’t call it work,” the 35-year-old says straight off. “I call it play. I love playing. I find it hard to stop. I want to stay inside the creative tornado.”

The standard lexicon of film-making techniques is a bit too formal to define what Rodriguez does. After 10 years of bashing out movies fast and loose, he’s gone the whole hog with Once Upon a Time in Mexico, which is released on Friday. Rodriguez doesn’t even call it a film. In the opening title sequence, which comes after a folkloric reconstruction of a gunfight in a shadowy cantina, the credits announce this as a “flick” which has been “scored, chopped and shot by Robert Rodriguez.”

“I could call it whatever I wanted,” he shrugs, “because I made it in Mexico under Mexican union rules. It is a flick, and I didn’t want to call it a film because I used digital video. Plus, I didn’t photograph this movie, I shot it. I didn’t edit it, I chopped it. It was very fast and very raw, which is how I like to do things.”

This flick was originally his friend Quentin Tarantino’s idea. The mondo-aficionado has always shared Rodriguez’s love of cheap, nasty classics from the back racks of old videoshops. Even before they worked together on From Dusk Till Dawn—Tarantino wrote the script, and played an atrocious supporting role as George Clooney’s sick-minded brother—Rodriguez had invited him to do a cameo part in 1995’s Desperado, the amped-up sequel to his super lo-fi debut El Mariachi. That day, through a faceful of fake blood, Tarantino suggested that Rodriguez should make a third movie, and build a saga like Sergio Leone’s immortal Dollars trilogy.

“And he said I had to call it Once Upon a Time in Mexico,” says Rodriguez. “Now I’ve finally made it, the whole series seems like a statement about a time and place that doesn’t exist. Like a Mexican legend, a made-up world. Quentin told me this is, like, the best-directed movie of all time. He’s a little over-enthusiastic, I know. But I think the best kind of movies are made this way, the ones you just throw out there and you don’t even think about as you’re doing them.”

Rodriguez makes all his movies like that.

“When you work fast, you come up with better stuff, because you don’t have time to overthink it, or worry about it. You just do it on creative impulse, like a musician on stage. Before he even knows what he’s playing, he’s played it, and he couldn’t repeat it.”

Actually, Once Upon a Time in Mexico is a holy mess of mythic bad blood, tacky iconography, crazy allegory and tangled spaghetti western plotting. Rodriguez talks about his small, hard-working crew as a “commando unit, who hit between the eyes every time,” but like all his films, and even more so, this movie fires wildly in every direction. Antonio Banderas returns as the killer troubadour, avenging his murdered chica, saving El Presidente and kissing the Mexican flag. Ridiculous Latino pop idol Enrique Inglesias plays a fellow lethal minstrel. (“He was worried about fucking up my movie, but he was great.”) And Johnny Depp plays maybe the least predictable character in the history of cinema, a cheerfully amoral CIA agent transformed by a drug-cartel torture session into a magnificent blind gunslinger who walks tall through a revolutionary riot with the help of a little amigo. He was created the Rodriguez way.

“I had this wacky idea for a guy who used a fake arm to hide a gun, but I only had half a character, so I added the rest from this sci-fi story I once wrote about a guy who has his eyes pulled out and his son becomes his seeing-eye dog, directing him where to shoot. It’s two really cool characters from two different scripts put together.”

The fact that this flick is number one at the US box office—already Rodriguez’s biggest success—may have something to do with the presence of Depp, who has, between this and big summer swashbuster Pirates Of The Caribbean, become a madly watchable and idiosyncratic action hero. But it also has a lot to do with the loco spirit of B-movie fun that attracted Depp to the project in the first place.

“Johnny didn’t want to leave the set,” says Rodriguez. “He signed up for Pirates straight afterward. He said he never liked action movies but I converted him, ha ha. Spinning around and shooting some dude in the head—he loves all that stuff now.”

And Rodriguez does give off a pretty infectious energy. I’m compelled to honor his style by writing up this interview with two pens, one in each fist. As far as actors are concerned, they like this man’s attitude to work-as-play. Depp, Banderas, Clooney, Steve Buscemi, Mickey Rourke, Willem Dafoe and even that meatball Sylvester Stallone, who recently played the endearingly soft villain The Toymaker in Spy Kids 3, have all signed on to find out just how much easier it can be to make movies when you take a break from “the old, old Hollywood methodology.”

“If you do it the right way, it’s impossibly hard,” says Rodriguez. “That’s why most directors take so much time between projects, and most actors are always afraid of getting fucking fired, or the studio watering down what they liked about the script. They’re all exhausted by all this convoluted process. Very little of their time is spent being creative, making the movie, which is the fun part.

“So I strip it right down. There’s no sitting around. We’ll be running around trying to get the scene shot before the sun goes down, and everybody loves it. That way the energy is real, not fabricated.”

Rodriguez is a semi-mythic figure himself. The kid who loved movies so much he would sell a kidney to make one of his own.

“Yeah, ha ha. I probably would have considered it.”

Actually, he volunteered for clinical drug trials to help fund El Mariachi—he still has rivets in his arm from where they inserted an experimental “speed healer.” That movie was made for $7000 dollars, specifically for the Spanish-language video market, based around a guitar-case, his pet tortoise and a small border town. It’s still his best film, a fizzing work of ingenuity that continues to inspire far more people than Rodriguez ever dreamed would see it. Bought and distributed by the acquisitive studio Miramax, some still refuse to believe that it cost so little.

“It makes me feel good when people say it’s impossible. Really? It is? Because I did it. And I’ll gladly explain how. What in that movie cost money? The lightbulbs? The bathtub?”

Rodriguez has always been keen for young film-makers to follow his example, and he’s given them simple advice in his essays 10-Minute Film School and Anatomy Of A Shootout—use whatever you see around you, borrow what you need, do your printing and editing on video—but he says “most of them want to make a big first impression these days, get noticed at film festivals, and they spend so much they can’t even finish their movie.”

He has since kept total control over his work—as undisciplined as it is—by keeping the cost down.

“Having a big crew and a lot of money is like gaining 500 lbs before running a race. You’re going to have a heart attack.”

He’s a cut-price Sergio Leone, a comparison Rodriguez finds neither inaccurate nor insulting. Every production throws up great new anecdotes about his idea of the creative process—squeezing an orchestra into his garage to do the music for Spy Kids 2; writing a new scene in 10 minutes for Once Upon a Time in Mexico, to be set in a drinking den he discovered that day “with a pisser right next to the bar.”

Rodriguez has no plans to ever make a serious film devoted to character and dialogue.

“I don’t even like to watch those movies. Why would I want to make one? I like the visual medium. They’re moving pictures, not moving lips.”

Once Upon a Time in Mexico is released on Friday.

-- donated by Theresa

-- photos added by Zone editors