Plenty of creative people have their own production companies. Filmmaker Robert Rodriguez, of EL MARIACHI, FROM DUSK TILL DAWN, DESPERADO, GRINDHOUSE, SIN CITY, MACHETE, the SPY KIDS films and more, has been one of the stars of American independent cinema for decades. Rodriguez already has his own Troublemaker Studios in Austin, Texas. Now Rodriguez has branched out to having his own cable television network, El Rey.
El Rey continues to showcase the kinds of movies and TV shows Rodriguez loves – martial arts films, action flicks, reruns of the original STARSKY AND HUTCH and DARK ANGEL – but it also now has three original series. FROM DUSK TILL DAWN, based on the 1996 feature directed by Rodriguez and written by Quentin Tarantino, finished up its ten-episode run and will be back for a second season. MATADOR, the spy/adventure series starring Gabriel Luna as a DEA agent recruited by the CIA to pose as a soccer player in order to infiltrate a worldwide crime ring, is in its first season Tuesday nights at 9 PM (Rodriguez directed the series pilot).
There’s also THE DIRECTOR’S CHAIR, El Rey’s nonfiction series that has Rodriguez sitting down and interviewing fellow directors, including Tarantino, Guillermo del Toro and John Carpenter, in great depth.
Rodriguez is at El Rey’s portion of the Television Critics Association press tour to talk about the network and specifically THE DIRECTOR’S CHAIR. When the main Q&A session is over, he takes some time to discuss things in more detail with a smaller group of journalists.
AX: How does THE DIRECTOR’S CHAIR affect you as a director/creative person?
ROBERT RODRIGUEZ: Everyone will get that. Not just me. You’ll just watch them and you’ll see. It’s hard to pin down. You feel so many things, things that you never [feel] from an interview. It’s really a window into the creative process, not even just the filmmaker, but into the process. I think even the filmmakers are surprised [by what] comes out and suddenly makes sense. This is a different approach to it.
AX: Are there a lot of things you didn’t know, questions you didn’t expect?
RODRIGUEZ: I’m always in shock. I’ve always considered myself a student. I learned that from Francis Ford Coppola. He would come to learn from me, because he’s the student. I was like, “That’s awesome. I’m going to stay like that.” Literally, if I got two other directors to interview each other, let’s say if I got Danny Boyle to interview Scorsese, I would be there as crew, filming them, bringing them coffee, because I would want to hear. I want to learn.
AX: Have you learned something lately as a filmmaker that you were surprised you’d not known it before?
RODRIGUEZ: Oh, yeah. There’s no way to learn it other than experience, unless somebody had the thought to teach you. And it kind of defines you. Sometimes not knowing the right way to do something can be good. I didn’t know the right way to make a movie, and I made EL MARIACHI, which revolutionized independent filmmaking [laughs], because suddenly everybody said, “Oh, you can make a movie with no money and no crew?” I thought I was doing it completely wrong; there was just no other way to do it. So sometimes wrong is right. There is no one right way. There’s just that particular artist’s way, which is what’s so fascinating. Because we all do it differently, and the point of this – and I say this every time an episode begins – I’ll say, “THE DIRECTOR’S CHAIR is about – because we all do it differently – a director doesn’t really know how another director does it, even though we all know the craft, because we all approach it differently.” So how you do it really defines you as an artist, and really will give us all a better understanding of how the whole thing works, because no one has it nailed down, obviously, or somebody would just have a batting average that is solid.
AX: Have you found any common denominators in your director interview subjects?
RODRIGUEZ: It’s a little early to tell, but I am finding [it’s good to] not shy away from things that you might think are a sore subject, because those are defining moments. And I spend almost more time talking about those, because more people can relate to failure than success. And if you can highlight the failure as success, that is what’s really inspiring, where you go, “Wow. I’m going to go fail. I want to go fail.” [laughs] Because that’s where the gold is.
AX: Is running a network teaching you anything about filmmaking?
RODRIGUEZ: It teaches you so much. When you do one thing, and then step out of that and do something else, applying what you know, you’re going to learn more about your primary job. It’s why I go do many different disciplines. I’ll go study under a painter for two weeks, knowing I’ll learn more about directing by watching a painter paint than if I go watch another director. You learn more about the creative process. Running a network and thinking like that helps me go back to a set and go, “Okay, that applies here, too, but in a different way than it did. Before, I was just directing; now, I’m running the whole show, because I can see it from up here now.” So any time you can step out of your own comfort zone to learn something about the process, it’s a gift you can give yourself.
AX: To ask a FROM DUSK TILL DAWN question, when you made the original feature film, were all of the mythic aspects we see in the series things that you wanted to put in and just didn’t have time for?
RODRIGUEZ: Yeah. I knew when I was doing research on it for the movie that there was a lot that we could have put in, but the script wouldn’t allow it. It was one of the shortest film scripts. But I did keep the snakes and the temple – that was all stuff I added that wasn’t in the script. And it always stuck with me. People always liked the movie and I was wondering why. I think it was the mystery of it. It was almost like a PLANET OF THE APES ending, seeing the temple. I was always, “There’s a whole story here that I would love to see.” So we didn’t really explore that story in the sequels that went to video, but once I was doing a network, I knew that that would be the one to turn into a series that we could really explore the mythology. Because no one’s done Aztec/Mayan-type stuff on television before. I thought it would be really cool to explore and this would be a great way to do it, because it’s DUSK TILL DAWN, but it’s got all those elements.
AX: With MATADOR, your leading man Gabriel Luna is from Austin. Did you already know him before you cast him?
RODRIGUEZ: He was in a film that my brother directed that I had seen, but I was surprised – they were doing the casting, I was working on FROM DUSK TILL DAWN, they would send me their choices, because I knew they were seeing a lot of people. And he came in at the last minute and they said, “We really like this guy Gabriel Luna.” And I said, “Oh, that’s Gabe from Austin. His cousin’s in my band” [laughs]. So I didn’t have anything to do with it; I just happened to know him. I had met him before several times. But I wanted to meet with him again to see if he was right for the character and to see if he had developed as an actor and he was just the right guy. We brought several guys in to just test with each other, and he was clearly the standout. He was something really special.
AX: Did you always have an interest in storytelling and/or image creation?
RODRIGUEZ: Yeah. [At school], I would sit in the back of the room. I would be drawing flip-cartoon books, going, “I am never going to get anywhere in life. I cannot play attention to my teachers. They’re boring me and I’m back here and they don’t say anything to me. I hope they don’t ask me anything. And I’m making these little flip-cartoon books to amuse my friends, and they’re really entertaining, but I know that’s just not going to ever make me any money.” No filmmaker had ever come out of Texas. That was not something that you dreamed about. So I didn’t know what I was going to do.
From there, I started doing short films, since I was twelve. When I was nineteen, I started winning festivals. [To edit], I used an old VCR – I’d put two VCRs together. I was very resourceful. I’m from a family with ten kids, so these cutting-edge little low-budget techniques that I took with me to EL MARIACHI I still employ, because it’s using your creativity – you don’t get a money hose and wash away your problems. You have to go figure it out. It makes the movie really unique. I’m still the editor – I mean, on my first film, you can understand. I was the writer, director, editor, cameraman, sound guy, mixer. But now, you would think, twenty-two years later, that I would have given up a lot of those jobs. Still, I’m the composer, the editor, the cinematographer, the cameraman, the caterer now. I’ve actually added jobs [laughs].
AX: Speaking of catering, you hosted a fundraiser for President Obama. Did you make your famous pizza for him?
RODRIGUEZ: [laughs] Possibly. I might have.
AX: Doing everything in Texas, kind of having your own production house away from Hollywood – what’s the best part of having done that?
RODRIGUEZ: George Lucas told me, “You’re really smart. Just stay out of Hollywood. That’s why I’m in Marin County. You’ll just think out of the box because you’re living outside of the box. You’ll do things that are revolutionary without even trying, because you’re not surrounded by the tradition. Everyone is stuck doing what everyone else is doing, because they’re surrounded by it. It’s not even like they want to, it’s that everyone else is doing it that way.” Like, you [reporters] are all holding the mikes exactly the same way, but if I went to Texas, somebody would be holding it up here, because you’re not there to show them how it’s done. You would end up doing it differently accidentally. So imagine every decision falls like that. “I’m just going to do this more comfortably – I’m going to put it on a stand, I’m going to sit down.” So it was really smart to keep it there, because you were just following your nose. Nobody was there to say, “You can’t do that. It’s not going to work.”
AX: Do you have any advice for other creative people out there?
RODRIGUEZ: Basically, I’m creative all the time. Because if you try to block out time to be creative, you’ll probably get blocked, because you’re not in the flow. That’s what I do for my actors. I don’t make them act, go to their trailers and sit there. I have them paint. I teach them how to paint between takes, so when it’s time to get back to the set, they’re already in creative mode. If they come from the trailer and you just say, “Action!”, they’re not ready, they’re not immersed in the creative – they’ve been sitting there, waiting. But if they’ve been painting, they’re firing off a whole other part of their creativity. Because I find just by staying in a creative flow all day – how you take a meeting, how you come here, how you go talk with your kids, how you cook a meal, how you spend time with your wife – everything has to be immersed in creativity. That way, when it’s time for me to go, “Now I have to sit down and be creative,” you’re already there. You’ve already been doing it.
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Article: Interview: Robert Rodriguez on El Rey and THE DIRECTOR’S CHAIR