El Rey, the cable network filmmaker Robert Rodriguez launched in December, feels a bit like the channel he’s always wanted to watch. It debuted with a schedule packed with old grindhouse movies, including a lot of Quentin Tarantino favorites, and “Starsky & Hutch,” which Rodriguez used to watch growing up — curated programming, as the director described it, reflecting a particular sensibility.
But there’s more to the idea behind the network than just film and pop culture geekery — El Rey is a network aimed at English-speaking Hispanic audiences, and specifically aims to bring diversity to who’s on screen and behind the camera. “It felt like a network like this has been needed for so long,” Rodriguez said when addressing journalists today at a breakfast to promote the channel as it approaches the premiere of its first original drama, a series adaptation of the director’s 1996 “From Dusk Till Dawn” with D.J. Cotrona and Zane Holtz in the roles played by George Clooney and Quentin Tarantino in the film.
The series, which debuts on March 11th, represents Rodriguez’s first project for television — he directed multiple episodes. He spoke to the press today about the idea behind the network. Here’s an excerpt from what he said.
The movies I made, I wasn’t even trying to make them diverse. It’s just when you’re a filmmaker of any ethnicity, you’re going to write from your own experience. So all my scripts started with “Hispanic character…” then I’d be like, “Oh, gosh, now I have to find an actor to play this,” and then I’d find there were no actors in Hollywood. It was puzzling.
When I was doing “Spy Kids,” the Weinsteins asked me — not that they were being jerks at all, they were just wondering — “Why are you making the characters Hispanic? It doesn’t make any sense, isn’t this supposed to be for everybody?” “Well, it’s based on my family.”
They’d just never seen it. Hollywood is very much… no one wants to do it first, because what if they screw up? If someone else does it first and it’s successful, then that’s something we can imitate. It just makes business sense for people not to constantly be putting themselves out there.
[Weinstein] said that, and it really put me on the spot to come up with a reason. “Why not just give them American names? It’s America, it will confuse people.” I said “They are American — they’re based on my family, so they’re Hispanic, but they’re going to be speaking in English. It’s going to be for everybody.” But no one had done it before, so there was nothing to point to.
“But why?” They couldn’t understand why I was doing it that way, and I couldn’t come up with a good answer. And I realized, wow, if I wasn’t Hispanic, I would have folded, I would have changed the name. That’s why there weren’t more scripts like that. Somebody would have asked them at some point “Why are you doing it that way?”
Finally, I came up with the right answer. I said “You don’t have to be British to watch James Bond. Making him British actually makes him more universal because it makes him very specific.” And they were like, okay, that makes sense. And we did it, and “Spy Kids” was a big hit. And those who were Hispanic, it really meant a lot to them. People have come up to me for a lot of years since and said “You changed my kids’ whole life. They see little kids who are Hispanic that are spies and they saw your name as the writer and director and you changed their idea of what their future could be.” The ripple effects of that one movie were enormous.
[FactoryMade Ventures CEO and former William Morris agent] John Fogelman came to me and said “I just started a network called The Hub, and I think we can do it again. There’s an opportunity at Comcast where they’re giving away networks.” They have to give them away! In order to merge with Universal, they have to give away 10 networks to independent owner and operators. The first four have to be minority. “You should come with us to put in an idea for a U.S. English-language Hispanic network.” And my hand went up, right away.
It really spoke to me personally. I have five kids, and even though they grew up bilingual, they live and converse in English like most second and third generation Hispanics. I realized there wasn’t anything on television that represented who they were in this country. And I thought it was important — there was not a network like that, and we were growing as a population.
It’s something that I’ve kind of been doing over 20 years — “Spy Kids,” “Desperado,” “Machete” or “Dusk Till Dawn” or “Sin City,” you don’t think of them as Hispanic films, because everybody can enjoy them. But for those who are Hispanic — they are. I wanted to do something like that — a network that was for everybody, yet had an eye toward more diversity.
And be able to reach in a bring more filmmakers and give them a voice, give them a chance. I had made “Rebel Without a Crew,” this book I’d written about how to make “El Mariachi,” and it showed people how to make a movie for no money, 20 years ago. And “Blair Witch Project,” “Paranormal Activity” — people followed that, and it was revolutionary as to how people could just make their own movie. I was always surprised, though, that there weren’t more Hispanic filmmakers like myself. It’s puzzled me, why?
As I started thinking about this network, it started to make sense. Anybody else who saw what I did, said “I’m going to try that, I’m going to get two of three of my friends together, make a $50,000, $100,000 movie!” They probably went to start writing and were like, oh, shit, this is a Hispanic character — because it’s based on themselves — it’s going to be labeled a Latin film. What three or four distributors can I take this to that are going to have a bidding war and want to buy my movie? Nobody — nobody’s putting out that stuff! It would be labeled as something. They would have folded like I almost folded on that “Spy Kids” thing.
So they need a place to go. That’s why “From Dusk Till Dawn” is our first show — it ends up in Mexico at one point, and half the cast being Hispanic, naturally, because of the story. But people get drawn in because it’s like a “Walking Dead” show — it’s cool, it’s got a lot of action, a lot of fun, there’s Quentin Tarantino dialogue and characters. That’s what I wanted to do, is make something that’s mainstream, reaching a total audience and giving people who feel like they haven’t been represented in the media, opening up the doors of the network so we can find new voices, find new filmmakers. We have a lot of feature directors, a lot of Hispanic directors, writers, but also they’re just top talent in Hollywood — I wrangled the best of the best together. Some of our directors are guys I’m giving a chance to that are really fantastic and doing a great job and that will be our future filmmakers.