You can never have enough time talking to Robert Rodriguez. That’s how I felt putting together the interview, below, which is comprised of two separate conversations, and after having listened to the filmmaker-turned-TV network founder speak about his career and latest ventures at different press events over the past few months. Rodriguez earned himself a place in the indie film canon forever by funding his $7000 1992 debut “El Mariachi,” which he wrote, directed, shot and edited, by participating in medical research studies. He’s since gone on to make much bigger features, including “Spy Kids” and “Sin City,” while maintaining the same run-and-gun approach, something he’s also brought to El Rey, the cable network he founded in December.
Rodriguez’s ideas about practicality and production in the business of filmmaking and, now, television production are fascinating. Regardless of whether you care for the pulp sensibility of his work on screen, one he brings to El Rey’s first original drama “From Dusk Till Dawn: The Series,” premiering tonight at 9pm, Rodriguez has managed to combine his passion for what he does with a capacity to cut through industry bullshit and barriers that’s flat out remarkable. It’s reflected in the personal angle Rodriguez brings to El Rey, which is aimed at the underserved English-speaking Hispanic community. Rodriguez intends to use the network to put more Hispanic talent in front of and behind the camera, something that’s both important to him and good business. Here’s Indiewire’s conversation with the director, who in addition to the new network and series has “Sin City: A Dame to Kill For” due in theaters this August.
You’re well known for taking on many roles in your films — what’s your day-to-day involvement in El Rey like? Obviously, you can’t do everything yourself.
I do everything but turn your TV on for you — I’m very busy. It’s a startup, so you know going in there’s going to be a lot of work in the beginning. There aren’t many employees. The hardest part of it is going to be the best part of it. From the promos — everything. I still do that on my films, too, because I just love doing it.
You’d think after 20 years I would have given up 90% of that and just been a director like everyone else, but you can’t. Once you see it the other way, it’s so much easier to just have less people. To have communication, be really clear and to just get there faster. With movies it seems counterproductive that it’s not. Whenever I had a big movie to do in a shorter amount of time I’d tell everybody I need less people. You’ve got to just strip down to the basics.
Does that apply to “From Dusk Till Dawn: The Series” as well? Are you approaching this as a traditional setup of a TV drama or are you trying to reinvent your approach?
What’s great is that I don’t know, because I’ve never worked in a typical one. We are so outside of the system; we’re just doing what makes sense. We’re adapting how we’ve done our movies — we put more money on the screen, we end up shooting much faster, we end up being much more succinct than people ever are. I only know that from people who have worked on my movies who have worked on other movies and go “wow, it is so much more efficient here.” I think we are bring that to the TV arena — the results have been really great. Even though we have similar budgets to other shows it feels like we have more because of how much we put on the screen.
You greenlit El Rey’s second series, Roberto Orci’s spy drama “Matador,” off a phone call pitch, which is very far from the typical pilot process. Is that what you’re doing to do going forward with original series? Is it just a question of working with people whose work you know and who you trust?
It will be different from each show, but people that I’ve talked to already who have show ideas, it’s like that — you hear a pitch and you go “I believe in these people as artists, the idea is great, and I know it’s a journey to get there — you’re not going to have it figured out at the table.” We’re really betting on the talent. I know what they’ll need to have a chance to be successful.Being intrusive is the opposite of that.
My writer Juan Carlos Coto, we were first talking about ideas for “Dusk Till Dawn,” going back and forth on the cool things we could do with the show, getting really out there. And he stopped me, like, “That’s great, but how are we going to get past the executives?” Then he said, “Wait — there are no executives.”
You have innovative ideas and you have people who are not innovative questioning everything, normalizing it all — that’s the struggle. The shows that actually break out and are really successful are those anomalies that are so weird that you wonder “How did this ever get on?” What if that’s all you made, were shows like that?
What kind of current TV do you like? Do you watch a lot of TV?
I don’t watch a lot, but I loved “Breaking Bad.” I watched all of that. I’ve watched all of “The Walking Dead” so far. I’ve always loved TV and I was always interested in getting into it, but I never took the leap because I just didn’t like the process. It just seemed like a waste of time.
What about the process bothered you?
I worked with the Weinsteins for a number of years — even a medium-sized/small picture, that was their tentpole picture. We always knew when it was going to be released and we worked together on the promotional campaign. With television it always seemed like the process was everyone jockeying to get to the same time slots. A network will hire you to do a pilot… possibly.
You make a pilot, they may greenlight it, they may not. They make 100 pilots and pick three or four, and your pilot is dead if it didn’t get picked up, and you’ve got to start all over again. You do get an order for six episodes, they try you out. They might stick you on the wrong night, not find your right audience and they’ll cancel you. It just seemed like, “Wow, there are a lot of hoops to jump through,” so I never really could embrace it that much because it felt like a lot was out of my hands.
When this El Rey opportunity came up, I thought, “Okay, when we build this network, we’re going to build it differently.” That’s how we’ve been able to attract great talent. You come to me with an idea, if we like it, we’ll talk about it and end of the day, if we’re into it, I’ll give you a 13-episode commitment, primetime guaranteed, a certain amount for each episode. That’s a whole different ballgame. It’ll really be exciting for future projects and network endeavors, as people see the level of quality we’re getting out of “Dusk Till Dawn” and the speed and efficiency of it, the lack of that slew of executives to knock you around and slow things down.
Do you see more people from the film world coming over to make series for you?
I think people would probably like to do both. People still love films, they love the bar that film has set. But they want to do cool things, and if the cool thing is on television and there’s a part they won’t get on the feature and can make it easy the way you shoot it, we could be very flexible on how much time it takes somebody and have ultimate freedom to track people who normally wouldn’t want to do TV. That would be cool, to have something exciting on television that people don’t normally get to see.
El Rey is being pitched as a network representing more what the country actually looks like in terms of diversity. Why do you think that Hollywood has been so slow in reflecting that?
Because you are trying to tell them to reflect society when they’re not, themselves, that authentic voice. It’s not ever really correct to a writer and say “Make this character Hispanic now, the lead, because that’s big right now” because that’s not his point of view, so he’s not going to even write it right. You’ve got to create a whole other Hollywood called El Rey where the filmmakers can come bring their work, I can put it on the air if I like it and have them cultivate their talent so that we can have more voices.
I don’t want it to just be me. I’m not the El Rey network, I work for the El Rey network. I want El Rey to be everybody. I want it to be very inclusive. Instead of going to Hollywood where the doors are closed, mine is going to be where the doors are open. I’m going to flip the pyramid of power around outwards, where people all have a say, because that’s what you want.
You want to open it up so that then it changes. But somebody has to do it first — so this network has to be the first one to show [the industry] that there is a difference when you have creatives making this content for everybody, but also for Hispanic audiences, and you need a place for Hispanic filmmakers to come and practice, get seasoning, and see the results of some work. Because it’s not happening otherwise.
Are you going to be involved in directing all the series coming along?
I don’t know — let’s see what the third one is. I would certainly use that to see filmmakers or writers bringing a show to the network. I would offer my services first up if it was a show I really love — I probably would want to direct it. If they don’t want me, that’s fine. I won’t force myself on anyone’s project, that’s for sure.
Can you tell me about the relationship that “From Dusk Till Dawn: The Series” will have with the film? What are some of the things that you’re going to have the space to do on the show that you didn’t in the film?
It’s really evident even in the very first episode, It’s almost a re-telling of the story in order to create a much richer, bigger one, for other seasons to follow. If the first film was a short story, this is a novel. You’ll see characters behaving in completely different ways, new characters added, offshoots of story lines that weren’t there before.
There’s a basic story that is the core for the first part of the season, but it’s being completely retold so that all these other threads can come together and take it in a different direction. It’s cool to have a benchmark like the film to reference at certain points, then twist it and play on people’s expectations.
A lot of people now consume films on the same screens they consume television, what with VOD and the rise of streaming. Do you see that line between film and television getting blurry?
I think you can still tell the difference between a film and a series. But the quality levels are so fantastic for television that people just consume entertainment as to whatever story and characters they gravitate towards, whether it’s film or television.