If you needed to raise money to make a film, would you submit to being a human lab rat for experimental drugs? That’s exactly what filmmaker Robert Rodriguez did 25 years ago to raise money for his first film, El Mariachi. This year, at the SXSW Conference, which ran in Austin March 8-17, he shared his techniques for low-cost filmmaking and premiered a new low-budget film, Red 11, based on his notes written 25 years ago while a human guinea pig.
Both the class and the film contained surprises and the event was much more emotional than I had expected. The lessons they contained are valuable for all filmmakers.
The class was a combination of remarks by Rodriguez and excerpts from his TV series, Rebel Without a Crew, based on his book of the same name, which explored low-budget filmmaking. What made the class special was Rodriguez’ passion for the subject matter and its greater implications for life in general and his family.
Rodriguez, for the first time, worked with his two sons, Rebel and Racer, on a film. The lessons he was teaching were about dedication, believing in your dreams and learning your craft, whether filmmaking or something else. Rodriguez wrote and directed Red 11, Rebel wrote the musical score, and Racer was co-producer, co-screenwriter, camera operator, stunt coordinator, sound mixer, boom operator and probably a few more things.
The point, Rodriguez said, was that if you are going to be a director, you need to understand the jobs of everyone on the crew. The boot camp he put Racer through was what he had done to himself during El Mariachi.
Rodriguez said he didn’t intend to actually finish Red 11. “Let’s just start it in order to teach people,” he recalled thinking. “I used my studio, but not the sound stages, just the hallways. As we got into it, I realized that it needed to be more exciting, so I changed it from a comedy into a thriller and a horror film.”
Rodriguez recalled that when he volunteered to be experimented on, the types of drugs that volunteers were receiving were color coded to the t-shirts that they were given to wear. Blue was for pain killers, yellow for antidepressants, red for healing compounds. Patients had numbers. Rodriguez was Red 11.
As the character Red 11 checks into the hospital for a one-month experiment, he becomes confused. He’s not sure if the staff is trying to kill him or he is just suffering side-effects of the drugs. He does know, however, that if he doesn’t complete the month and get paid the $7,000 , the mobster waiting for him on the outside will try to kill him.
One of the surprises in the film is that the mobster after Red 11 is played by Carlos Gallardo, the actor who played El Mariachi in Rodriguez’ first film.
What was Rodriguez trying to get across to the approximately 400 people in attendance?
The lowly index card has power. When you first start writing screenplays, you are told to put each scene on an index card. Most everyone then moves on to various computer programs. Rodriguez still uses index cards, spreading them out on the floor, taping them up, carrying them around with him to jot down ideas.
“When you write your idea down,” he said, “your brain can move on to the next thing.” He thinks so highly of them, he gave packs of index cards to the audience members who asked the best three questions.
Don’t Spend Money
“You don’t want to be watching the money,” Rodriguez explained. “You want to be watching the talent and creativity.” Although he started out to show how you could still make a movie for $7,000, like El Mariachi, he didn’t spend even that much. “This was not a $7,000 movie,” he said. “Mariachi was on film, so that was expensive. On Red 11, we spent $1,700 on camera and sound; lighting and support gear, $450; wardrobe and props, $400; and for the cast, $3,000.”
He shared that the animated logo at the beginning of the film – Double R Films – cost more than the entire movie.
He also encouraged filmmakers to look for free tools. He cited DCP-o-matic as an example: an open-source program that creates digital cinema packages (DCPs) for showing in theaters. This alone can save a filmmaker thousands of dollars.
Rodriguez also demonstrated how you never need more than two lights for any shot. To my surprise, he showed how when you move your main light closer to the subject, it softens the effect. Then set your second light up for fill or hair highlighting or background.
Tricks for Action and Sound
There is a sequence in Red 11 where the protagonist’s partner is taken up to the top of a building and the mobsters threaten to throw him off. Rodriguez explained that the actors were only a few feet off the ground, and he was lying on his back, shooting up at them. The illusion is enhanced by showing the actors appearing to look over the edge of the building, then cutting in shots actually taken from the top of a building. Good editing saves money.
Another example: There is gunfire in the film. Rodriguez explained that he did not have to buy prop guns or blanks. He just added the flash and sound during editing.
Life and Art and Attitude
Rodriguez was happy that he had his sons work with him on this project, because, he said, it was about more than just making films.
“Free yourself from the idea that you have to be ‘ready’,” he said, “or it’ll be on your tombstone. ‘He was never ready.’ Don’t look at the mountain, just start. If you start you get momentum, then you can climb three mountains. Once you’re hooked, you make time for your project because you’re not picturing the mountain anymore.”
Rodriguez continued, “Life and art are the same. If you have a positive attitude you’ll get farther in life and art. Even though I’ve done this for many years, it’s not like I know what I’m doing. I make it up as I’m going along. Write the script with what you already have. Shoot the story. People are so brainwashed about needing money. That’s the industry. That’s not creativity.”
Want more money-saving ideas? Watch the episode on the making of El Mariachi from Robert Rodriguez Ten-Minute Film School, below.