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Once Upon a Time in Mexico

Robert Rodriguez's Legend Continues

by William C. Martell
additional research by Anthony C. Ferrante
Scr(i)pt Magazine
Vol. 9 No. 5
September/October 2003

In 1992 Robert Rodriguez made his first film El Mariachi with $7000 and a lot of imagination. Eleven years later he’s completed the Mariachi trilogy with Once Upon a Time in Mexico, a film made with just about as much imagination and a few more dollars. Rodriguez takes time to share his techniques on creating effective action scenes, developing memorable characters and writing dialogue for the man of few words.

By now everyone knows the legend of El Mariachi. Texas filmmaker Robert Rodriguez had been making short films for several years and wanted to attempt a feature. So, he became a guinea pig in the medical research experiment—using the time to pen a script and the money he earned to finance the film.

The result was a $7000 action film for the Mexican home video market about a traveling guitar player who wanders into a crime-infested Mexican border town looking for work. While there, he is mistaken for a notorious assassin who carries his weapons in a guitar case. Because $7,000 barely covered the film cost Rodriguez was a one-man crew—directing, operating the camera, setting up the lights, recording the sound (non-sync) and later editing the film. The screenplay was written to take advantage of props, locations and vehicles to which he had access. The original plan was to make three films for Mexican home video as practice before tackling Hollywood. “I thought it would be a great learning experience,” Rodriguez says. “I figured, if I make the movie cheap enough I can sell it to the Spanish market, get all of my money back and maybe make a couple of thousand profit. Back then, at 21 years old, that was the dream—to make a couple of grand doing what I love and learning.”

But a video copy of El Mariachi ended up at Columbia Pictures (a Sony Pictures Entertainment Company), and the plan soon changed. The company hired Rodriguez to do an English language remake of El Mariachi and sent the original film out to festivals where it received such positive response from audiences that the plan changed again. The film would get a theatrical release, and Rodriguez’s new script would be a sequel rather than a remake. “Only sort of a sequel,” he laughs. “I couldn’t do a straight sequel because a lot of people hadn’t seen El Mariachi and probably never would.” So, to bring the audience up to speed, the story was devised to stand on its own with a quick flashback of the pivotal scene when the Mariachi’s girlfriend is murdered and his hand becomes injured.

The budget for Desperado was only $7 million, enough to make a small film similar to El Mariachi using Hollywood methods. But Rodriquez decided to use the same creative methods he had used on El Mariachi and write a much bigger screenplay. The result was a movie that looks as if it cost $30 million and contains some of the most imaginative action sequences ever put on film. One such scene is the flamenco bar shootout where the Mariachi (Antonio Banderas) dances down the bar, rhythmically shooting at heavily armed bad guys until his guns run dry … which leads to a funny sequence where the Mariachi and the last bad guy frantically move from one fallen gunman to the next searching for a weapon that still has the ammunition in the magazine. As each scrambles for a gun and aims it at the other—CLICK—they have to dive for the next firearm. Instead of massive explosions of expensive car stunts, the scene uses an inventive and amusing idea. It proved that a little creativity in the script stage can save a lot of money in the filming stage.

Now we come to the final chapter in the El Mariachi trilogy, Once Upon a Time in Mexico. The first film (1992) serves to introduce the Mariachi, ending with his guitar hand permanently injured, his girlfriend dead and him leaving town with a guitar case full of weapons. A wandering minstrel becomes a wandering vigilante. In Desperado (1995) he tracks the drug kingpin responsible for the murder of his girlfriend to a town where everyone is on the cartel’s payroll and learns that revenge always has a price. In Once Upon a Time in Mexico the legendary guitar-and-gunslinger gets caught in the middle of a battle between the head of the drug cartel (Willem Dafoe) and a renegade CIA Agent (Johnny Depp) in a plot to overthrow the Mexican government.


Very few screenwriters have created an original character that has spawned a series of successful sequels. Shane Black’s Lethal Weapon series, Adam Herz’s American Pie stories and John Carpenter’s Halloween films are the only ones that come to mind. Die Hard began as a novel, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider started life in a videogame and Batman was initially a comic book. Creating an original franchise that clicks with an audience is tough to do … but how many screenwriters have created two popular franchises? Only George Lucas with Star Wars and Indiana Jones and Robert Rodriguez with Spy Kids and the El Mariachi trilogy come to mind. Back in July, Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over opened number one at the box-office making over $33 million, beating a major studio's new releases Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life and Seabiscuit.

I conceived this trilogy of movies based on a guitar player with a case full of guns. It’s a ridiculous concept for an action movie, but I wanted to do something a little more comedic and goofy,” he says. Rodriguez had only a vague idea of what the other two films might be, and all of that changed when El Mariachi became a theatrical release. “Quentin (Tarantino) came down to the set of Desperado to shoot his bit and said, ‘This is great! This is your Dollars trilogy. You have to do part three now!’ ‘What do you mean part three?’ I asked. “Mariachi was Fistful of Dollars, Desperado will be For a Few Dollars More and next you have to do The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly’ he said. And I said to Quentin, ‘Let’s just finish this movie and I’ll think about it.’” Rodriguez filed the idea away and went on to make other movies. “Then Desperado made back triple what it cost and became one of Sony’s biggest sellers on DVD. Sony kept calling and saying they wanted a sequel to Desperado.” Rodriguez told them, “It would have to be called Once Upon a Time in Mexico.” Sony agreed, and Rodriguez began working on the script.


I work for the CIA, and Mexico’s my beat, and I’m walking it.
–Agent Sands (Johnny Depp)

Rodriguez began brainstorming ideas and characters for the new film. “Over the years I started creating these characters. My favorite is the one Johnny Depp plays, a really corrupt CIA Agent.” Agent Sands thinks of Mexico as his country to do what he wants with. He’s always pulling strings and setting up situations that will get him the results he wants. For example, whenever Sands goes into a restaurant, he always orders the same dish. It’s his favorite. In one restaurant he orders the dish, and it tastes so much better than any of the other restaurants, Sands decides to kill the chef to maintain balance. After his meal he pays the bill and goes into the kitchen—BANG!

The script is a combination of many different stories I heard from my uncle who was in the FBI,” Rodriguez says. “Some are true, others have been twisted into fiction. Ruben Blades basically plays my uncle in the movie. I used some of the stories he told me to connect all of the characters together.”

With Depp as the “bad” character, Rodriguez began thinking of the other characters he’d need to tell his story. “I made Antonio one of the main ‘good’ characters. There are four or five main characters in the movie with intersecting storylines. Over the years I started building up those ideas.” Once he had the characters and story ideas, Rodriguez began outlining the story that would bring all the characters together, using the Mariachi character as the hub. Once he was happy with the outline, he went to script.

Even though the story was conceived as an epic, Rodriguez planned on making this film El Mariachi-style on a limited budget. “I told Sony I would make it for under $30 million, and we just squeaked by at $29 million. You can use something other than money to make a film look big. You can use creativity.

One of the ways the filmmaker saved money on El Mariachi and Desperado was through planning the movie before he got on set. As a former cartoonist, Rodriguez likes to do storyboards or conceptual drawings for major scenes. Having a plan for the script also allowed him to be creative. “Once Upon a Time in Mexico is more than just the third segment of the El Mariachi story. It also contains flashback elements for the audience. It’s almost as if this is part four of the story—only part three doesn’t really exist. As we flash back to the ‘phantom movie’ it influences this film and adds elements that give the movie a more epic feel.” Flashbacks to the “phantom movie” reveal how the Mariachi (Banderas) and Carolina (Salma Hayek) fell in love, married and had a child. “The flashbacks also bring the audience up to date so that even if they’ve never seen the other movies, they know what the El Mariachi and Carolina are like together and that they are a force to be reckoned with,” Rodriguez says.


El Mariachi: I’m here for my guitar.
Fideo: I never thought you’d come back for this thing.
El Mariachi: Neither did I.

Guitars play a major role in all three films. In El Mariachi the protagonist lives to play the guitar. Music is his passion in life. But the world is changing, and most night clubs don’t have live music anymore or the places hire a guy with a synthesizer that can replicate the whole band. There are two identical guitar cases in the story—one contains a guitar and the other contains an entire arsenal of weapons. When the Mariachi picks up the assassin’s guitar case by mistake, the trouble really begins.

In Desperado guitars symbolize the murder of the Mariachi’s girlfriend, the end of his career and the death of his dreams. When he tries to show a little boy how to play the guitar, he only manages a few notes before the pain overwhelms him. The guitar, which was once the Mariachi’s source of joy, has become his source of pain—a reminder of the life he left behind. Now his guitar case is filled with weapons, and his heart is filled with rage and a need for vengeance.

Guitars are used by the drug kingpin Bucho (Joaquim de Almeida) to transport drugs. The little boy’s father used to play the guitar, but now he just sits at home and watches TV when he’s not swapping guitars filled with drugs in return for guitars filled with cash for Bucho.

When the Mariachi finds a new love, Carolina (Hayek), she gives him a guitar as a gift. She is a new source of hope, giving him his old life back. By the end of the film, the Mariachi and Carolina drive out of town to find a new life, and the Mariachi throws his guitar case of weapons as far as he can, releasing his pain and rage.

Once Upon a Time in Mexico opens with the Mariachi and Carolina living in a town that manufactures guitars. We get to see each step in the creation of a guitar, ending with the Mariachi testing the instrument. This is his version of heaven. When we look inside his guitar case, we now find a beautiful instrument that he seldom plays—no weapons. The violence of his past is far behind him.


Agent Sands: I need you to kill a man. He’s being paid to kill the President.
El Mariachi: So why me?
Agent Sands: Well, frankly, because you have nothing to live for.

Without a massive summer movie budget, Rodriguez had to create action scenes that used creativity instead of cash. A good example is what he calls “the best shootout you’ve never heard.” It was actually a scene that he came up with for Desperado but never filmed. “This big gunfight is in a church where all of the bad guys’ guns have silencers. You see people being shot, but without a sound,” Rodriguez explains. The scene begins with a chase where the Mariachi is trying to escape the villains, careful not to lose his guitar. Finally he’s cornered and smashes the guitar over a bad guy’s head exposing the gun inside—the only weapon left from his past life. But his gun doesn’t have a silencer, and if he fires it in the church everyone will hear. This adds a new dimension to the shootout, using creativity to up the ante. “At the end when El Mariachi fires his gun, which doesn’t have a silencer, the sound reverberates though the church,” Rodriguez says.

This is more than just an action scene. It’s a character scene as well. The Mariachi is forced to choose between his peaceful life (the guitar) and his violent past (the gun within the guitar). He can’t live both lives—he must destroy the guitar to get to the gun.

Because the budget of El Mariachi was only $7000, Rodriguez couldn’t afford sync sound and the dialogue was in Spanish (a language he didn’t speak at the time), so he had to rely on visual storytelling methods. Scenes that showed character through actions rather than dialogue. Throughout El Mariachi the evil Moco (Peter Marquardt) lights matches off the unshaven faces of his henchmen. This shows that Moco keeps his men in line through brutal intimidation. At the end of the film, as Moco lays dying, one of his henchmen leans over and lights a match on his face. Without a word of dialogue, we know exactly how the character feels.

That sense of visual storytelling has carried over into the other two films within the trilogy. The Mariachi is not only a man with no name (he is called El in the script), he is also a man of few words. When shooting began, Antonio Banderas was a little concerned because he had almost no dialogue. Johnny Depp’s Agent Sands had pages of dialogue but his character uses words as his tools, as his weapons. After a few days of shooting, Rodriguez says that Banderas was cutting his own dialogue—asking if he could use a look or an action to convey that information. Banderas explains, “The character El Mariachi comes to life through action and movement rather than dialogue. He is basically a classic hero in that sense. He speaks very little and moves like a bullfighter or a flamenco dancer. When he shoots a gun, it’s like he’s playing a guitar. They are the same thing to him.” Rodriguez wrote the scenes that showed the character through actions, such as the Mariachi smashing his guitar to retrieve the gun from his violent past.


Then I guess I have no choice but to kill you all.
–El Mariachi

One of the highlights of Rodriguez’s films is his characters. When Navajas (Danny Trejo) steps onscreen in Desperado wearing that vest of throwing knives, you instantly know who the character is. One of Bucho’s henchmen in Desperado is known as Shrug because all he ever does is shrug. He has no opinions of his own and shrugs off responsibilities. Shrug is Bucho’s yes-man, and we know exactly who his character is even though he never says a word in the film. “I like to go for these big, iconic characters—very visual and very modern Spaghetti Western. Not only do we have The Man With No Name, we have The Man With No Face and The Man With No Eyes,” Rodriguez says. There’s also a Man With Three Arms and several other characters who capture our interest the moment they step onscreen.

In Agents Sands the filmmaker wanted to create a CIA Agent we haven’t seen before, a man who is stationed in Mexico but doesn’t like the country very much. A man who thinks of people as chess pieces he can move from square to square. A man who has no regard for human life. “Johnny’s character is very edgy, and you have to find an actor who’s willing to embrace that, because many actors don’t want to be unlikable,” says Rodriguez. “But Johnny didn’t care. He not only wanted the part, he took it even further, and that’s what was fun about working with him. Sands is the character who orchestrates the entire assassination plan in the story and has to watch as it slowly falls apart.”

Rodriguez likes to find a certain archetypical behavior for each character that serves the story but is still personal and emotional enough to add texture to the character. Mickey Rourke plays an American fugitive working for the drug cartel. When Rodriguez first met Rourke the actor had his little Chihuahua that he takes everywhere with him. He was wearing a coat with big, puffy sleeves, and the dog kept crawling into his sleeve. Rodriguez told him he was going to write a part for the actor in Once Upon a Time in Mexico, and for Rourke to make sure he brought his dog. The character of Billy (Rourke) is an American criminal living in Mexico—his only friend is his little dog. He works for the head of the drug cartel (Dafoe), who hates dogs. So Billy is constantly hiding his little dog in his sleeve—caught between his job and his only friend.

Dafoe plays the Mexican drug lord, the villain of the film. Though he’s ruthless, Rodriguez tempers the character by giving him a love of music (like the Mariachi) and making him an accomplished piano player. “In great Scarface tradition I cast a non-Latin actor to play a Latin character. I remember Willem called me and said, ‘You really want me to play a Mexican drug lord? I don’t speak Spanish and I don’t play the piano.’ I said, ‘Don’t worry about it, I’ll show you a couple of tricks.’ Sure enough, the second day on the set Willem was playing the piano and speaking Spanish.”

When creating characters and action scenes, Rodriguez looked at dozens of Spaghetti Westerns from the 60s and 70s, not to copy ideas but to figure out what he needed to do to top the ideas in existing films—to make the ultimate Spaghetti Western. One of the characters actually loses his face in the film, becoming another iconic figure, The Man Without A Face.

As the story progresses, one of the key characters loses his eyes and becomes a blind gunfighter. He knows he has little chance of survival but feels compelled to fight the opposing forces anyway. The character puts his fate in the hands of a kid, a seeing eye kid. Rodriguez thinks of the boy as the same kid in all three movies; they are even dressed the same. In Desperado the boy is shot in the crossfire of the big gun battle, and the Mariachi risks his life to save the kid. It’s the boy’s injury that makes the Mariachi decide to throw away his guitar case full of guns. In Once Upon a Time in Mexico the Blind Gunfighter and the boy have to depend on each other to survive. The man needs the boy’s eyes and the boy needs the man’s protection. Of course, the relationship is not without humor, as in the shootout when the boy yells to the Blind Gunfighter that a bad guy is coming from the right and the Blind Gunfighter asks, “Your right or my right?”

I couldn’t believe I killed off some of my best characters in Desperado like Cheech Marin and Danny Trejo, but I brought them back in the Sergio Leone-tradition as different characters,” the writer-director says.


Once Upon a Time in Mexico is the last film in the El Mariachi trilogy, and Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over was the last film in that series. So what’s next for the filmmaker? “I just started a new project today, a CG-animated movie I’ve been writing for the past couple of years. That’s something I can work on at home. It’s all virtual sets. It’s going to be a lot of fun, something that my boys and I can work on—a fun family project. I’ve also been working on a thriller and a huge science fiction script which might be the next live action thing I shoot,” Rodriguez explains. Whether his next film is a science fiction film, a thriller or an animated kids’ film; it’s sure to be filled with larger-than-life characters and imaginative scenes … and be made for a fraction of the price of a big studio film.

Can you dig it?
–Agent Sands

-- donated by DeepinDepp