Rebel Without A Crew: By Robert Rodriguez
Once upon a time… in Mexico, a young man decided to hone his filmmaking craft and make a little money by filming a super-low-budget action flick to be sold to the Spanish language, direct to video market. However, soon the film began to get noticed by Hollywood bigwigs, and much to the young man’s surprise opportunities started to present themselves. Years later he set up his own studio and went on to become the toast of cinema, producing such films as Desperado, Spy Kids and Sin City, and he lived happily ever after…
It’s a lovely latter day fairy tale isn’t it? A one in a million long shot, that was as much down to luck as it was the young man’s practiced talent… Oh, and it also happens to be entirely true.
The story of Robert Rodriguez’s success is now a widely known Hollywood tale, and every indie filmmaker’s benchmark, but nowhere is it told better than in Rodriguez’s own book Rebel Without A Crew.
Devoid of the shine and legend that gets added to a story via repetition, the book is made up of excerpts from Rodriguez’s diary as he made his feature debut El Mariachi and the ensuing occurrences that caused it to get an international release that made him the talk of the town. It’s also practically the handbook for DIY filmmakers and holds such basic inspirational truths that lessons can be learned by anyone wishing to excel in any walk of life.
The story starts, as the fairy tale says, when a 22 year-old Rodriguez decides to get hands on experience in all facets of filmmaking, by shooting a Spanish language actioner, on a $7000 budget, and with just himself and his production partner (Carlos Gallardo, El Mariachi himself) as crew. At this point he had already had some festival success with his short film Bedheads, and had attended, though become disillusioned with, film school. His only other motivation was to make a little money. There were no dreams of the big-time at this early stage, so if worst came to worst, and it turned out to be crap, he would just make his money back selling it to the Spanish language market as planned and no one would be the wiser and he could go back to the drawing board.
What followed was a pre-production period that included him taking part in a month long pharmaceutical trial to earn $3000 production money and give him enough time to write a treatment, writing a script that only contained things they already had or could easily acquire, scouting a small Mexican boarder town for locations and cast, begging for, borrowing and in any other way attaining any and all production equipment and enlisting the aid of a musician.
A production period that included altering shooting schedules on the fly, filming bus and gun stunts on the cheap, using local police Uzis, shooting in a functioning prison, while accidentally assisting in the escape of a prisoner, and finding and incorporating a wild turtle.
A post-production period that included cutting trailers and a rough cut of the film on two home VHS players, using the editing facilities of a local public access station, driving himself to ill health and acquiring the help of more musicians.
And, a sales period that included, well, the film not selling, to ANY of the direct to video distributors. But as we all know, there was a happy ending, through a serendipitous series of events Robert Newman of the ICM agency noticed Rodriguez, and the rest is history.
I shan’t here go into immense detail about the adventures had and lessons learned. That, after all, is what the book is for and after all these years it remains a wonderful read. Essential for up and coming filmmakers but also highly recommended for anyone seeking a good blast of life inspiration.
I myself, as an indie filmmaker, along with my production partner, learned lessons from Rebel Without A Crew that have proved helpful and true time and time again, the most important ones, to my mind, being as follows:
- There is no better way of learning about filmmaking than going out and making films. So write a shootable script then shoot it, by hook or by crook, anyway you can, get it finished, no excuses.
- Creativity in a person is innate, so if you have it get the technical skills to go with it, otherwise you’ll just be reliant on those that do have it, which at the end of the day will cost you a lot of time, good will and money.
- Find out for yourself how much of filmmaking is actually necessary and how much is just the traditional way of doing things.
- The old adage that genius is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration is spot on right. Nothing worth a damn ever got made without a crap-ton of hard work going into it.
- Plan carefully and for as many eventualities as you can think of, it will make life easier and save you time and cash where it counts.
Yes, Robert Rodriguez’s start on the ladder was largely down to happenstance, but no one ever stayed at the top without talent or fortitude, and I know some of you out there must be thinking “But El Mariachi isn’t even a good film.” In all fairness you’d be right, it isn’t a great film, but it IS a great achievement, and the amount of friendly wit and energy that goes into Rodriguez’s prose make it an achievement well worth reading about, so do yourself a favour and give it a look.