After bursting into the film world in the 1990s, Robert Rodriguez has consistently shown an inclination towards the unconventional approach — but it was still a bit of a surprise when he decided to become the figurehead of the El Rey Network in 2013, devoted to programming the sort of television that, well, Rodriguez would want to watch.
Why did the network’s flagship series become a TV adaptation of his 1996 cult classic “From Dusk Till Dawn”? Who will be featured in future installments of Rodriguez’s incredibly intimate interview series “The Director’s Chair”? Indiewire got a chance to ask Rodriguez at the TCA press tour this summer — an edited transcript of our conversation is below, starting with my observation that, in the chaos of a press day:
I imagine you’re being maneuvered a lot from one place to the other, right now.
Oh, it’s fine. They just tell me where to go, that’s the easiest. At least, I don’t have to figure it out. When you’re directing, you have to have all of those answers. It’s nice to be just sent around sometimes.
I can imagine. It’s so interesting to talk to you, because of course directors are moving to TV all of the time these days — but not a lot of them go out and make their own network.
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I think big.
Yes, clearly. Talk to me a little bit about that initial decision, to create El Rey.
It was a very odd thing. It came out of nowhere. I was always interested in TV, but I didn’t care so much for the process of TV. The TV process seemed very complicated compared to movies, and in movies, I had a lot of freedom, from very early on. Where I would go to a studio, we’d agree on a movie we’d make. We’d work on it together. We knew when it was going to come out. We knew what the ad campaign would be. We knew what we were going for.
Whereas with TV, it seemed like when I’d go take meetings for TV, it would be maybe you’d come make a pitch, maybe we’ll commission a script, maybe that script will be made into a pilot, maybe that pilot will be made into six or seven episodes or 12 episodes, 13, maybe it will stay on the air for more than a week. It’s just a bunch of maybes for us. It seemed like a lot of work for not really knowing or not having a lot of control.
But I was designing the posters for my movies and stuff. I love the TV medium, but the process seemed very strange. Then again, when it works, it’s like the same thing I said for the movies. Now I know my show is going to go on. We can commit for 10 episodes. We can make sure we do this. We can know what the ad campaign is going to be like. We can literally go to an actor and I can tell them definitively you’re going to come be in this show and you’re going to be on for this amount. I can give them some definites. So that is what my relationships are based on.
The network just came out of nowhere. There was an opportunity when Comcast merged with Universal — there were networks available that they had to give away to independent owners and operators, not conglomerates, not corporations.
So that let guys like me go in and be able to put in an idea — I gave an idea for El Rey, a mainstream network with sort of a Hispanic skew but English language. Hispanic as in my movies like “Desperado,” “Spy Kids,” “Sin City,” “Machete” — you just think of them as being mainstream entertainment but they actually have an eye leaning towards Hispanic creators, in front of and behind the camera.
Univision came aboard as sort of a financier and helped us get more distribution, so we were in like 40 million homes right away. To let people know about the network, I wanted to do some premiere programming, not just licensing movies, which most new networks, that’s what they do for the first five, 10 years, 20 years sometimes. AMC didn’t make their first show for 20 years. I wanted to come out swinging with a bunch of original stuff so people would find us, and it shows that it had a marquee name like “From Dusk till Dawn.” Since people would know that title, they would go, “Oh, what’s that?” Then they would discover El Rey, so it was a way to bring people to the network.
And Quentin [Tarantino] and I controlled the rights for “From Dusk till Dawn.” Even the people who wanted to make it for a long time, we didn’t allow them to, so it was a good premiere title to have.
Did you always control the rights?
It was part of your deal with Dimension?
Yeah. Way back, we had all the freedom to control all of our properties, so no one could just go make a show without our approval.
That actually speaks to something I want to ask about, which is what went into the decision to have “Dusk till Dawn” be the flagship show?
I didn’t want to do a show that no one had heard of, on a network that no one had heard of. I thought that I needed to have–
You could do one or the other.
Yeah, one or the other would work, but it would be hard to try and sell people two things. So “Dusk till Dawn” was such a popular title and I just knew Quentin and I got all these people coming up to us, saying, “‘Dusk till Dawn,’ I love ‘Dusk till Dawn,'” and we’ve heard that since ’96. I knew it was still a title and a movie that people really loved and Quentin’s characters had never been on television and those are great characters.
I added a lot to that story that wasn’t in his original script. The whole Aztec mythology, that I added in to that. It was something I had brought to it. It took place in Mexico and the characters were trying to get there, so it fit the network really well. It had horror. It had action. It had Quentin’s characters. It had stuff that I had put in as classic cult film. It checked a bunch of boxes and it was a title that we knew other studios and other networks were interested in because they were always asking for it. We knew it was a coveted title, so fail that, it seemed like the most logical one to try first.
It’s a blast, too [laughs]. It’s so fun to go back and remake. I wanted to use [Tarantino’s] characters, but you couldn’t just make a sequel to the movie because a lot of the characters died. I needed to retell the story in the first season in a way that is built for more seasons. Now this new season is all fresh and new stuff that nobody knows what is going to happen, so it’s really cool.
And Season 2 sounds like it has a real opportunity to just go crazy.
Yeah, I just finished the last episode of the season and it was bonkers.
So you’ve got “Dusk till Dawn” and then it comes to building programming around it. With “The Director’s Chair,” do you feel like it’s the centerpiece of the network, or is it more of a passion project?
Wow, that’s interesting. It was a passion project that became a centerpiece of the network. It really shows what we are all about. It’s one of our premiere shows, but it came about very organically.
It came about because last year, in the month of May, we were going to have four John Carpenter movies. I thought I knew John would let me go film him introducing each one of those movies real quick, so we would have some original content to go along with the movie we licensed. It’s nothing too expensive, because we don’t own those movies, but any time we show them, we will have some little thing that I got where I can ask him a couple of questions. Oh — but while I’m there, bothering John enough to get him into a chair and light it up, might as well have him talk about his whole career and see if that can’t be a show.
I came up with this title, “Director’s Chair,” and it’s kind of interesting — a director asking another director questions is different than someone who doesn’t know filmmaking, because the level of questions is going to be much more engaging and different. You’re talking “when you did the thing and you were trying to use this lens. This didn’t happen; it froze.”
I tried it and [Carpenter] was so great that I went and got Quentin [Tarantino], I got [Guillermo] Del Toro, I got [Francis Ford] Coppola, I got Michael Mann, Bob Zemeckis. The more I did, the easier. I would send one to the directors and they would go, “Wow, this is awesome.” They literally would say that this is the best interview that they had ever given, because it was just at a different level and the product comes out so good. I shoot them for three hours and I cut them down to one episode, so it’s really potent. It’s only the best info. In most of the interviews you see, it’s like a one-to-one ratio, so there is a lot of “ums” and “ahs” and not a lot of information. This is really potent, so I was really just happy about the show. That’s one of our most prestigious shows.
You’ve got your classy show.
We got our classy show. It’s a super classy show. I have some new surprise guests that I think I’ll announce today.
[NOTE: Those guests were Sylvester Stallone and George Miller.]
For you, what’s been the biggest part of how El Rey has evolved since you started?
We came out with a clear idea of who we were, a very sort of kick-ass visceral network that had shows likes “Lucha [Underground]” and “Dusk till Dawn” and curated programing of movies that I’ve always just loved, everything from kung-fu to grindhouse movies to Brass Knuckle Monday, bad ass tough guy cinema, to comedies and then classic television, cinematic television series, like “Miami Vice” or “Starsky & Hutch.” That was our schedule, and creating these franchises that people come back to like Brass Knuckle Mondays, Creature Feature Fridays, Kung-Fu Thursdays and now Sundays. You know people can kind of rely on these franchises and they show up because of the night.
I love finding that people dig franchises the same way they would in movies on television. It’s been interesting playing with the programming and creating these originals and serving the audience and seeing how they react. It’s different than a movie. When you put a movie out, that’s it. It either performs or it doesn’t. With a network, you can keep experimenting and trying things. We want to always be bold, to try things. By trying things, that’s how you find “The Director’s Chair,” that’s how you find “Lucha.” You never know what’s going to work, but you don’t have to know. You can just try and see how people react. It’s a great feedback from that. It’s very different from movies but in some ways it’s the same.
What’s really cool about it, as well, is that you’ve still managed to keep it very personal. Do you feel like the El Rey Network is your network?
Oh, my God, yeah. There’s not that many of us, so when I have to go make a new promo, I’m doing the music, I’m putting the thing together. It’s a very mom and pop operation. It’s very fun, but that’s how my movies are, too — it’s got that personal feel. It’s very different from a regular network for sure, but that’s what we wanted to do, build a new network from the ground up in Austin, Texas. It would be completely different from a Hollywood network and it would just make sense. It would be about creating really cool product, putting it on, curating great stuff, so we are genuine fans of everything that is on the network. We have actually really seen it, really love it, and cut it together and promo it with passion because we know that material. We love that material. It’s very different from another network. Any other network head probably hasn’t seen 90 percent of what is on their network.
You love it all?
Love it all. I only put on the stuff that we love, that way we are always selling it with a passion. There is an authenticity to it. Curating, I think, is very important today. You want to go somewhere. There are so many options. If you can go to a network, turn it on, and someone has already done the work of saying this is cool for these reasons, this is important in film history for this reason, this is where all this other stuff came from, this is the beginning of it and these two things go together. That’s what Quentin would do for me. I would go to his house and he would show me things that I had never heard of and it would become your favorite film.
So now you’re playing Tarantino for the rest of television?
This is like your cool buddy. El Rey is your cool friend who shows you where the cool shit is [laughs].
“From Dusk till Dawn” Season 2 premieres Tuesday night on El Rey.