Robert Rodriguez – Self-made Visionary

 June 2014          By Philip Berk

Could Robert Rodriguez have missed the boat?

You have to wonder.

The most important American Hispanic film maker — no argument there — he has always blazed his own trail.

Using credit cards to make his first film El Mariachi he turned that into a critical and commercial hit which Columbia picked up for $2m and signed him to a two year contract.  For them he made the successful sequel Desperado.

After that he was on his own — with Harvey Weinstein’s blessing — directing Tarantino’s From Dusk to Dawn. 

Then in a change of pace he made his first family movie Spy Kids which spawned two sequels. After that there was his collaboration with Frank Miller, Sin City, a sequel to which opens next month. 

Meanwhile as the Hispanic audience in the U.S. grew exponentially, he returned to his roots with Grindhouse and Machette.

And when Spanish language TV stations threatened the dominance of American networks, they were absorbed by behemoths NBC Universal and as we go to print CBS or Warner Bros.

So where was Rodriguez when all this was happening?

Making plans for El Rey which he finally launched last month as the first 24 hour English language Hispanic network.

Will it work? Time alone will tell.

Dr. Dre parlayed his Beats head set start up into a goldmine when Apple last month bought the company for a staggering $3 billion.

Will Robert be able to do the same, or is he on the wrong track. 

Will English speaking Hispanics choose El Rey over NCIS?

The numbers are not in yet, but the first episode of his first series Matador has been favorably reviewed, and not surprisingly it’s as good as TV gets.

But can it buck the TV networks?

At his press conference in LA for Matador, he seems to have gained a few pound, but he’s as charismatic as ever.

Once a devoted family man — with his wife, his close collaborator and producer, he fathered four sons and a daughter  —  but then suddenly during the filming of Grindhouse he became  involved with actress Rose MacGowan. It broke up his 16 year marriage, and although he and Rose are no longer together, they were divorced but continue to collaborate professionally.

Besides being a great family man, he’s the consummate auteur. Not only does he write and direct his movies, he also photographs them, edits them, and composes the musical score.

Where does he find the time to establish a new network and ready a new movie? I ask him.

“I do a lot of things,” he answers straight faced, “I do a lot of jobs. But I really do only one thing. I live a creative life. And when you live a creative life, everything is open to you. If you want to make music, you can make music. If you want to write a story, you can do that. If you want to cook a meal creatively… If you want to entertain the president creatively, I mean, anything that you do, you have to bring creativity to it. So now I have a distribution system like a network where we can go directly into people’s homes. When you have a lot of ideas and you have a lot of friends who have ideas and they want to serve an under represented group, like the Hispanic population, even though you’re in charge, it’s the audience that decides if they like it or not. And yet you can still be very experimental. So it’s really fun. You don’t have to go battle with studios and have them ask you, “Why… Why Hispanic… Why soccer…. Why Dusk Till Dawn is…” You just do it and let the audience decide. I really like that freedom. I love that it allows me to do many different types of things. So to answer your question creativity is the most important thing that I do. And that’s why I’m doing all this.” 

But why the need to produce, direct, photograph, edit, write the score?

“I do all those different jobs because they’re fun, they may seem totally different jobs, but they’re all the same. If you know how to be creative you can literally go from writing to shooting to making music to having a network. You’re just using your creativity.” 

Doesn’t he ever tire of pushing himself?

“No, because I changed the word ‘work’ to ‘play’ a long time ago. I’ve never worked a day in my life. I’ve always been playing. It’s all creative play. Creativity is play. So when you’re on the set, if you try to bring work to it, you’re going to kill it. Creativity needs to have life to sustain it. That’s why I have a guitar on set a lot of times. I’d rather the crew hear music than somebody yelling, ‘Go there, do that.’ They hear music and everyone’s relaxed,  everyone’s in a creative mode, and everyone does his best work. The same with actors, I try to keep them in a creative mood. If you call cut and you send them to their trailer and they sit there and then you bring them back  and you say, ‘Okay, action, you’ve got to be creative again,’ it’s very jarring. They’re not in a creative flow. So now when I call cut, they all run into my paint studio, and they’re all painting, until I call them back. And when I say ‘Action!’  they can act because they were creative.”

Sounds like a revolutionary idea?

“You can take a completely different approach to how movies are made when you have your own studio. That’s why if you come to my studio it’s unlike any studio you’ve ever seen. It’s more like a giant playground. Actors love coming there because they feel so free and so creative. And it taps into the best of their creativity. And it’s addictive.”

As director of programing for El Rey, how tough is it filling 24 hours a day of network time?

“People who watch the network say what they love about it is that they can just go to this one place and everything they think of as cool is there. They don’t have to go searching across the dial; it’s all there. It’s all been kind of curated. If you just sit there and watch you will be very entertained, and you’ll be educated at the same time in the history of cinema. Genre cinema, kung fu flicks you’ve never heard of, that have been seminal pictures. That the education process I’m after. Our originals are shows that I always wanted to see. I wanted to do an elaborate version of From Dusk Till Dawn, because Quentin’s characters are the best. And he’s never been on television. And even he was shocked that I could take one of his thinnest scripts and do a whole series based on it. But that’s how rich the characters were. And then with Matador, Roberto Orci (the writer behind Transformers, SpiderMan, Star Trek, who was born in Mexico City)  came to me and said, ‘Even after I’ve done so many shows and so many movies, this is the one I haven’t been able to do, and it would fit your network perfectly. It has an Hispanic lead, he’s a spy hero who plays soccer.’ And I was like… Do you think soccer will be big in the States? (that was before the current World Cup hysteria) and he says. ‘It doesn’t matter. It’s a character in the show, a story point.’ So I suggest, ‘Let’s make him not a fan of soccer either, like an audience might be, but someone who learns about it, who learns the beauty of it. Let’s make that part of the story.’ And he got just so excited about it, we just had to produce the show.”

So you’re once again your own boss!

“It’s different than working with a network that’s only thinking, What do audiences want to see next year?  We’re doing stuff that we really care about, stuff that we’ve always wanted to see. Passion is more important than productivity. When I do a show like The Director’s Chair, where I interview other directors, it’s an amazing show. I mean I’ll interview John Carpenter or Guillermo del Toro or Quentin Tarantino. His is two volumes, because we talked for 5 hours. It’s a director asking another director questions about the craft. It teaches you about all kinds of creativity;  you’ll hear questions that’ve never been answered before because it’s with an insider. People are going to love it. It’s all about what you are passionate about? Always trust the artist who’s passionate about something. He’ll always do something really special and new.”

Any reason he named his network El Rey?

“El Rey is Spanish for the king. Because the audience is the king. It’s from the song by that name; it’s about pride. Hispanic pride. It says, even when I don’t have anything, I’m still a king because I have my pride. They can’t take away my pride.”

 Where does all his self confidence come from?

“Self esteem comes from just being confident in who you are. I never really knew I’d get anywhere, but I did know that I was an artist, and I liked to make stuff. I always thought if I could make just enough money to live off doing what I’m happiest at doing, I’d be successful. I was going to be an at-home dad, draw cartoon strips, do some commercials. No filmmaker had ever come out of Texas. I didn’t dream that I would ever be a filmmaker. That probably was never going to happen. But I knew if I just did those things and lived my life honestly, did what made me happy, I’d make enough money to live on. I’m from a family of ten kids. I have a survival mechanism. I can survive on nothing. You know, frijoles, arroz, that’s it, I’m good. I didn’t need very much to live off of.”

A good lesson to be learned here.


Sadly El Roy shuttered last month after a successful seven year run

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