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Robert Rodriguez on Advice From James Cameron and How ‘Alita: Battle Angel’ Brought Him Back to His Roots

SXSW: As the filmmaker prepares to screen another $7,000 feature and a new docuseries, he reflected on the arc of his career to date.

Robert Rodriguez

Robert Rodriguez

Daniel Bergeron

Just a few weeks after making the biggest movie of his career, Robert Rodriguez is returning to his roots. While the Austin-based genre filmmaker’s James Cameron-produced “Alita: Battle Angel” has grossed over $350 million worldwide, Rodriguez already has a new movie on the market. He directed “Red 11” with his son Racer as his only crew member and a budget of $7,000, matching the paltry amount Rodriguez famously spent on his 1992 debut “El Mariachi.” That legendary experience spawned the filmmaker’s influential memoir-as-manual “Rebel Without a Crew,” as well as a docuseries with the same name in which filmmakers attempt to do the same thing.

“Red 11” was a dose of nostalgia for Rodriguez, who resurrected a screenplay he wrote in the wake of “El Mariachi.” Drawing on his own experience participating in medical trials in 1991 — the payment helped him finance his debut — “Red 11” revolves around exactly that: a filmmaker in need of cash who signs up for a clinical experiments (only this time, the experience leads to a sci-fi-horror outcome). Rodriguez also shot behind-the-scenes footage of the experience that he has turned into six 30-minute episodes that form a new docuseries, “Rebel Without a Crew: The Robert Rodriguez Film School,” and both projects will be up for sale at SXSW. Rodriguez will deliver a masterclass about the experience during the festival and screen clips from the new series.

The filmmaker spoke by phone about the impact of his early filmmaking experiences, working with Cameron on “Alita,” and how his television network El Rey extends from a desire to diversify the film industry.

When you made “El Mariachi” for $7,000, you had no other option. What value do you see in working on this microbudget scale when you can get more resources?

The first time I did it, I saw what an incredible value it could be to the rest of my career. A lot of the things I was able to do the rest of my career were direct results of me starting that way. When I made “El Mariachi,” it was a test film that was going to go to the Spanish market. I was going to sell two more to the Spanish market and then with the money that I made from those, I was then going to go make an American independent film that I could then put in festivals and that I could then get known for.

But I am so glad that is not how I got in. I’m glad that “El Mariachi” got into Sundance, because I wrote it, shot it, directed it, edited it, scored it — and the whole thing that changed how I made my movies. From then on, I kept a lot of those jobs. It kept me very independent. I knew at the end of the day that I could go make a movie that could win at a festival by myself. It’s incredibly empowering to know that if I have an idea, even if no one believes in it, I can go out tomorrow and make it.

Rebel Without a Crew

“Rebel Without a Crew”

Patrick Rusk

How does that relate to the way you’ve brought this challenge to other filmmakers?

I wanted to give that time to filmmakers so I started this series for my network. As soon as I knew I was gonna have a TV network, I knew this was going to be one of the first shows that I did, because I knew how empowering my book was to people. In the book “Rebel Without A Crew,” as influential as it was on filmmakers, you couldn’t see me do it. Seeing is believing. When you see someone actually doing it, a light bulb goes off in your head, almost like when you see someone break a record in the 100-yard dash that no one’s broken before. Suddenly, a thousand people can do it.

On the first season of “Rebel Without A Crew,” I gave five filmmakers $7,000 and I mentored them only and they had to go do it. Even though they had done a bunch of short films, a lot of them had a camera operator, or they’d always had an editor. I made them do everything, because it empowers you to learn every job. At the end of the day, you can go make a movie yourself after that.

And how did that lead you to direct your own movie, “Red 11,” with your son?

I wanted to do it again because I was curious: What if I could get that same sort of same magical experience that happened on “Mariachi”? Things show up on the set that just totally surprise you. When the movie comes out, it’s better than you’d ever expect. That’s the creative element of the unknown. But when you have money and resources, and have a crew, and you’re flying in actors, the attitude’s totally different. Everyone’s like, “Magic better fucking happen.” I mean, we’re spending all this money, we’ve got all these people here, flying people in. You don’t expect it on a movie where you’ve got nothing, and what happens is that you get blessed more because you’re trying something that’s so impossible. The less you have, the better the film actually seems to come out.

I’m more excited about the premiere of “Red 11” than any premiere I’ve ever had because it wasn’t a rehash experience. I was actually seeing it through my son’s eyes, who is the age I was when I was doing it. To see him discover creativity at that level, for the first time, was kind of like taking a time machine back to when I started. But I appreciated it even more this time, and I found it very transformative.

You were working on all this at the same time as “Alita: Battle Angel.” How did that impact your relationship to the challenges of a bigger-budget production?

I mean, they both involve creativity. Working with a crew and a budget and working like I did on “Alita” is an amazing experience, and totally different. You’re making something that you can’t do by yourself. You’re doing the opposite. You’re doing something that, even if you wanted to, you couldn’t do that particular movie. It doesn’t mean you can’t make any movie. You don’t want to confuse the two. You can still make a film completely by yourself. It has to be a good film, but you have to kind of reverse engineer it.

But “Red 11” wasn’t one that I would have normally have done if it wasn’t was the oldest unmade story I ever had. It was the one I wrote right after “Mariachi,” and it was based on the experiences when I was up there that happened to me when I was writing “Mariachi.” I mean, it’s the snake eating the tail. All of it was just too fantastic and way too big a task and logistics to do for no money. It needed to be more like a television series or something, but I thought, “Why don’t I go ahead and be ambitious? If I fail, it’ll be better behind-the-scenes footage.” It ended up working out great.

“Alita: Battle Angel”

Fox

I think the two experiences really gave me a more well-rounded view of what creativity actually is, because that’s what you’re working with day in, day out, whether it’s a big movie or a no-budget movie. Since I liked the freedom I had for “Mariachi,” I kept it in my career by taking less money from the studio and making a much bigger movie using creativity to fill the gaps so that I’d have a big movie at the end, but I would have freedom to cast whoever I want. I could do an all-Latin cast if I wanted. I could do any kind of movie or story that I wanted because I knew the tricks on how to maximize a budget and every take. I knew how to make it look like a much bigger movie. I would do that even with a big budget. I did that even on “Alita.” Jim [Cameron] said that movie would have cost twice as much if he had directed it. I mean, and you still try to take a budget and 10X it, using these methods, using that creativity and using these things that you learn on these low-budget movies.

How do you feel about the prospects of distribution these days? Beyond the studio arena, of course.

I think the documentary and “Red 11” work really well together, so I would like to try to find a steaming service that would distribute them together. For an independent film that’s always the biggest trick. I can show how you can make a movie, but then how do I get people to watch the movie? But if you can’t get somebody to listen to your pitch, then you probably don’t have a very compelling story.

What I love about that is that, since people can go make a movie pretty easily these days, it takes us back to the lowest breaking part of the whole project, which is the writing, sitting there with your index cards and blank paper, and you have to come up with something that’s compelling. That’s why there’s a whole section in the series on writing. You’ve got to figure out your angle.

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