Small-budget film pulls big-league offers


AUSTIN, Texas -- The phone is ringing. Again.

"Hi, Robert . . . !"

Robert -- Robert Rodriguez, the 24-year-old filmmaker whose "El Mariachi" has cast him as Hollywood's newest Boy Wonder -- lets the answering machine take the call. The voice of Hollywood rings out.

"You did a fantastic job on the script. Just great. We'll wait to hear from the guys at Columbia." The voice is that of Mr. Rodriguez's agent at International Creative Management.

The day before, Mr. Rodriguez express-mailed the screenplay for his sequel to "El Mariachi," the movie he wrote, directed and co-produced on summer break after his senior year at the University of Texas. He is sitting in an apartment that looks more like the outpost of a struggling UT film student than that of a filmmaker who struck it big with his first feature film and now has people like Oliver Stone sending him scripts for consideration.

Mr. Rodriguez made "El Mariachi" ("My little movie," he calls it) for $7,000. The film, about a wandering Mexican guitarist who is mistaken for a killer, was picked up by Columbia Pictures, which spent an additional $100,000 enlarging the film, adding English subtitles and enhancing its sound and color.

In the two months since its national release, the film has been called "an example of low-budget chic at its best" (the New York Times) and the filmmaker, "an energetic and imaginative manipulator of tried-and-true genre conventions" (the New Yorker).

Mr. Rodriguez says, "As soon as Columbia and the other studios started going crazy and wanted me to work for them, it was just overwhelming. I just thought, 'There's no way I am going to pick up and move to that crazy town where they treat you funny.' So I told them I'd like to stay here.

"That was the deal."

The deal: Sign Mr. Rodriguez to a two-year contract, finance "El Mariachi" II and III at $5 million apiece, set him up in an office on the Columbia lot to develop other films -- and hope he'll do for Latino movie-making what Spike Lee and John Singleton ("Boyz N the Hood") have done for African-American movie-making.

"El Mariachi" already has made more than $2 million -- or as one of Mr. Rodriguez's agents at ICM, Robert Newman, points out: "400 times" the original investment.

It is the summer of 1991. Mr. Rodriguez and Carlos Gallardo, film students at the University of Texas, have an idea: Make a series of movies for the Spanish home-video market, turn a profit and use the money toward making legitimate films. Mr. Rodriguez, who has been making movies since he was 12, already has won film festival prizes with homemade videos starring his nine brothers and sisters.

To help finance the project, he checks into a research hospital. For a month, he is paid $100 a day to be "a lab rat" for an anti-cholesterol drug. He checks in with little more than the idea ("about this cool dude who has a guitar-case full of weapons and wanders from town to town dressed in a beat-up mariachi outfit") and several blank legal-size pads of paper. He checks out with $3,000 and the completed screenplay.

Within a month, he and Mr. Gallardo arrive in the border town of Acuna, Mexico, for an intense, two-week shoot. Mr. Rodriguez dismisses much of what he's learned in film school -- the part about hiring a crew, delegating responsibility, raising lots of money -- and films around available assets: a pit bull, a school bus, a motorcycle, a hotel, two bars. Not counting the lead actress and Mr. Gallardo (who plays the mariachi), he casts locals who agree to work in exchange for lunch..

By December, he and Mr. Gallardo are ready to peddle the film. They set out for Los Angeles in Mr. Gallardo's truck and stay in a friend's apartment. When they meet with resistance from the Spanish home-video distributors, Mr. Rodriguez looks up the bigger agencies. Remembering Mr. Newman's name from an article in Premiere magazine, he calls ICM. "El Mariachi" reminds Mr. Newman of Sergio Leone's "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly." "It's gripping, it's exciting, it has heart," he says later.

Mr. Newman calls Mr. Rodriguez and tells him ICM wants to represent him as a writer-director. He sends copies of the film to the major studios. Paramount, TriStar, Disney, Columbia -- they all express interest. Mr. Rodriguez signs with Columbia Pictures.

It is the sort of irony that Hollywood loves: filmmaker with a bright future who couldn't get into film school.

Not at first, anyway.

In the mid '80s, his father's business (selling cookware throughout South Texas) had gone the way of the Texas economy. Mr. Rodriguez attended UT on a partial scholarship and worked assorted jobs to cover room and board. He began drawing a comic strip for the Daily Texan, the school newspaper. "Los Hooligans," about the mishaps of a young girl, was based loosely on one of Mr. Rodriguez's sisters.

It was through "Los Hooligans" that Charles Ramirez Berg -- an assistant professor in the radio-television-film department -- first glimpsed Mr. Rodriguez's potential. "You could see a lot of what he would bring to films: the framing, the composition, the characters he came up with," Mr. Berg says. "But he couldn't get into Film I [an introductory film course]." His grades kept him from being accepted. Finally, he talked his way in.

When the film students showcased their work at the end of the semester, Mr. Rodriguez submitted a short film called "Bedhead," about a little girl who is tormented by a bullying, older brother. "It just blew me away and almost everyone in the theater," says Mr. Berg. "It was just so far superior to everybody else's."

As a youngster, Mr. Rodriguez had already directed the entire Rodriguez brood in a spoof of "Our Gang" comedies. By high school, he was developing the style that would later surface in "El Mariachi." While he was a student at St. Anthony's, an all-boys Catholic school, Mr. Rodriguez made a short film on gun-toting priests in the year 2050. Even then, notes friend James Archuleta, "he didn't have the resources. He'd use plastic guns and Johnson's Baby Powder for the smoke."

He hasn't traded up. His current surroundings can only be described as early post-college -- though not the pile of manuscripts in the living room, required reading for the young filmmaker. ICM sent them to Mr. Rodriguez as samples.

One script is from Michael Mann ("The Last of the Mohicans," "Miami Vice"), who wondered if Mr. Rodriguez would be interested in directing the piece. The assumption is that such offers are exciting for a young filmmaker.

"Yeah," Mr. Rodriguez says. "Well, I don't know." He pauses. "I want to do my own stuff. Some of them [the scripts] are so bad. I figure I could write my own bad script. I've been writing everything I've ever directed. As long as I'm going along as a director I might as well continue to develop as a writer. That way, you're very valuable to them."

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