Rodriguez, Robert: 1968—: Director, Filmmaker, Screenwriter

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Robert Rodriguez: 1968: Director, filmmaker, screenwriter

Filmmaker Robert Rodriguez amazed the moviegoing world in 1992 with his debut feature El Mariachi, shot for the unheard-of total of $7,000 when Rodriguez was 23 years old. That film introduced to the world a director with a dazzling visual style and a fabulous flair for storytelling. The making of El Mariachi was widely described and celebrated, and Rodriguez himself even chronicled it in a book called Rebel Without a Crew. An equally impressive accomplishment, however, was Rodriguez's successful self-transformation from independent filmmaker dependent on shoestring financing to established Hollywood directorwithout losing the artistic values that had made him fall in love with the art of moviemaking in the first place.

Rodriguez was born in San Antonio, Texas, on June 20 (some sources say July 20), 1968, but grew up in Austin. His mother was a nurse and his father a cookware sales manager. The third of ten children, Rodriguez felt out of place amid a sea of sports-loving siblings, and his parents encouraged the interest he showed in the family's Super 8 movie camera. Sometimes he made film-like flip books to amuse his siblings. Rodriguez began to dream of becoming a filmmaker after he saw John Carpenter's science-fiction thriller Escape from New York, and by the time he was 12 he was making home movies and videotaping his father's sales meetings.

Won Way Into Film School

Attending St. Anthony's High School in Austin, Rodriguez did well enough to get into the University of Texas but did not make the grades necessary to win admission to the university's film program. Nevertheless, Rodriguez flourished as a student at Texas. He created a popular comic strip called Los Hooligans for the campus Daily Texan newspaper and drew political cartoons, winning Columbia University journalism awards for both activities, and he continued to make short films, accumulating a collection of about 30. A group of three, which Rodriguez entitled Austin Stories, won Austin's Third Coast Film and Video Competition.

Rodriguez confronted the chairman of Texas's film department, telling him that he had won the top prize over the chairman's own students and demanded admission to the program. His request was granted, and he went on to film Bedhead, a continuation of Austin Stories. That film was entered in competitive film festivals all over the country, and Rodriguez walked away with top honors at 14 of them. Bedhead was also shown on PBS television, and Rodriguez, still in school, began to dream of bigger things.

At a Glance . . .

Born on June 20 (some sources say July 20), 1968, in San Antonio, TX; son of Cecilio (a sales manager) and Rebecca (a nurse) Rodriguez; third of ten children; married Elizabeth Avellano (a filmmaker); children: Rocket Valentin, Racer Maximiliano, Rebel Antonio. Education: University of Texas, BA, 1991. Religion: Raised Roman Catholic.

Career: Filmmaker, director, and scriptwriter, 1991.

Selected awards: Third Coast Film and Video Competition award, 1990, for Austin Stories short subjects; 14 film festival top prizes for Bedhead, 1991; Distinguished Citizen Award, San Antonio, TX, 1993; IFP Spirit Award for best first feature, El Mariachi, 1994.

Address: Agent International Creative Management, 8942 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, CA 90211-1934.

His plan was to make several low-budget action films for the Mexican home video market and to present these to Hollywood executives as a demonstration of his bankability. To finance the first of these, El Mariachi, Rodriguez enrolled himself as a paid subject in trials of a new cholesterol-lowering drug; he was forced to have blood drawn up to 10 times a day. The action idiom was not unfamiliar to Rodriguez, who was already a fan of Carpenter, horror director Sam Raimi, Hong Kong action auteur John Woo, and Italian "spaghetti western" master Sergio Leone. Rodriguez arranged a 14-day shoot in the town of Ciudad Acuña, Mexico, across the border from Del Rio, Texas.

Low Budget "Mariachi" Impressed Hollywood

With only a few elements and props available to hima hotel, two bars, a school bus, a motorcycle, and a pit bull dogRodriguez quickly turned out a script built around these elements. Delighted by a large turtle he found on the road, he added it to the script for good measure. The story dealt with a wandering singer who comes to Ciudad Acuña with his guitar in a case just as a local drug gang is searching for a rival thug who carries an identical guitar case filled with guns. Filmed in Spanish, the film presented an entertainingly corrupt image of a border town beset by drug runners and featured a superb villain who intimidates his underlings by striking matches on their facial stubble.

The breathtaking visual style of El Mariachi caught the attention of critics; Time called it "an aerobic workout for the eyes" and pointed out that the short film contained about 2,000 shots, four times as many as an average movie. El Mariachi was picked up by the giant distributor Columbia and became the talk of savvy young filmgoers in 1993. Rodriguez pointed out that the Columbia logo attached to the film's opening trailer had probably cost more than the $7,000 he spent in making the entire film.

Suddenly Rodriguez was a hot property in Hollywood. He was quickly signed for a higher-budget sequel to El Mariachi, entitled Desperado and starring a major actor, Antonio Banderas, in place of Rodriguez's friend Carlos Gallardo in the lead role of the mariachi singer. "They were treating me like a prize racehorse," Rodriguez told Time, "but the prize racehorse could break his ankle. Then they shoot him and get a new one." With the help of the healthy skepticism manifested in that statement, Rodriguez managed to keep his feet on the ground as fame overtook him. He continued to live in a two-bedroom apartment in Austin with his wife Elizabeth Avellan, who had worked with him on many of his films, and he announced plans to finish his Texas film degree to impress upon his younger siblings the importance of staying in college.

Moved Toward Family Oriented Action

Rodriguez managed to keep the breakneck speed and charismatic flavor of El Mariachi in Desperado even though Columbia executives demanded 13 rewrites of the script, and that film became a major hit in the summer of 1995. After that, while he negotiated a major contract with Miramax studios, Rodriguez directed an action film penned by his friend Quentin Tarantino, From Dusk Till Dawn. Many critics began to compare the hyperkinetic styles of the two young filmmakers, who managed to combine film-school technique with popular appeal. Finally Rodriguez signed a five-film deal with Miramax that committed him to make several films demanded by the studio in exchange for the freedom to pursue his own projects.

Those projects included a projected series of family-oriented films with the title of Spy Kids Rodriguez and Avellano had three children by this time, and Rodriguez wanted to make films that he would feel comfortable taking his own family to see. After turning out the clever teen horror film The Faculty for Mira-max, Rodriguez completed the first Spy Kids film in 2001. With a delightful array of special effects masterminded by Rodriguez on a computer in his own garage and a strong script that combined amusingly bratty child sleuths with positive messages about family life, Spy Kids was a hit and succeeded in winning Rodriguez new fans without alienating lovers of his hard action style. Adult film buffs were amused by such touches as the name of the film's fictional father, Gregorio Cortezthe name of a famous hero in a Mexican American outlaw border ballad.

Spy Kids 2 followed in 2002, and slated for 2003 were yet another Spy Kids sequel and a concluding chapter of the El Mariachi saga entitled Once Upon a Time in Mexico. By that time, noted the All Movie Guide, Rodriguez had "proved that his talent spanned numerous genres and his appeal was far-reaching." Not yet 35 years old at the beginning of 2003, he was, on top of all these accomplishments, a still-developing talent.

Selected filmography

Bedhead, 1991.

El Mariachi, 1992.

Desperado, 1995.

From Dusk Till Dawn, 1996.

The Faculty, 1998.

Spy Kids, 2001.

Spy Kids 2: The Island of Lost Dreams, 2002.

Once Upon a Time in Mexico, 2003.

Spy Kids 3: Game Over, 2003.



Dictionary of Hispanic Biography, Gale, 1996.


Entertainment Weekly, October 6, 1995, p. 57; April 27, 2001, p. 120.

Newsweek, August 12, 2002, p. 62.

People, March 22, 1993, p. 13; August 7, 1995, p. 14.

Texas Monthly, August, 1995, p. 28; June, 1999, p. S16.

Time, March 8, 1993, p. 66.

Variety, January 4, 1999, p. 97.


"Robert Rodriguez," All Movie Guide, (March 24, 2003).

"Robert Rodriguez," Contemporary Authors Online, (March 24, 2003).

"Robert Rodriguez Biography," (March 24, 2003).

James M. Manheim

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Rodriguez, Robert: 1968—: Director, Filmmaker, Screenwriter

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