Plume, 1995, 285 pages, C$22.50 tpb, ISBN 0-452-27187-8
As a certified fan of director Robert Rodriguez (I saw THE FACULTY in theatres; I’ve got ADVENTURES OF LAVA BOY AND SHARK GIRL on DVD), I had meant to pick up his tell-all non-fiction account Rebel Without a Crew for a while. The story of Rodriguez’s 1992 debut EL MARIACHI is now well-known, but anyone who has sat through one of Rodriguez’s entertaining audio commentaries already know that the man can be a show of his own: Who better to tell the story of Rodriguez’s breakout than Rodriguez himself?
Rebel Without a Crew mostly take the form of a diary detailing Rodriguez’s adventures while making EL MARIACHI, and then what happened to him as he was courted by Hollywood studios. It began as Rodriguez consciously decided to make an ultra-cheap feature film for the Spanish-language video market —as nothing more than a practise movie. Strapped for cash and free time, Rodriguez then volunteered for medical experiments (a thirty days stint in which he hoped to make money and write a screenplay), travelled south of the border and shot an entire film in two weeks without the benefit of a film crew. Most of the film’s $7,000US budget went to pay for the film stock: Rodriguez’s contacts and personal charm helped do the rest.
Strictly speaking, the story of the making of EL MARIACHI isn’t unique to Rebel Without a Crew. A trip to the local video store will net you the DVD edition of EL MARIACHI, complete with enough special features to give you a complete picture of how the movie was made. In the book, the shooting phase of the film barely takes 17 pages: the real story comes after, as Rodriguez drives himself sick editing the feature on primitive equipment, then goes off to Los Angeles to find a buyer for the feature. But then something very weird happens: thanks to an unbelievable series of coincidences, contacts and a really good film, Rodriguez caught the eye of major studios players. (As the subtitle states, this is How a 23-Year-Old Filmmaker with $7,000 Became a Hollywood Player) The bulk of the story is seeing Rodriguez negotiate his way to a contract, even as things are grim at home. In a poignant moment, Rodriguez is forced to hock his prized film camera even as the studios are promising him a six-figure contract.
Then it’s the whirlwind of film festivals, audience acclaim, media frenzy and the unbelievable experience of seeing that $7,000 feature film (suitably sweetened) released nationwide. Day by day, entry by entry, we see Rodriguez stumble upon wild success, bewildered by the changes in his life. As a rag-to-riches story, Rebel Without a Crew is hard to beat. As a look inside the mechanics of the film industry, it’s invaluable. Legend has it that the book has quietly become a cult item for the last generation of independent filmmakers: it’s not hard to see why thanks to Rodriguez’s indefatigable optimism, awe-inspiring determination and personal charm. Much as I defy anyone to listen to Rodriguez’s DVD commentary without feeling admiration for the man, it’s impossible to read Rebel Without a Crew and escape the contact high of a supremely confident artist. Few of us are as brilliant as Rodriguez (who can write, draw, compose and direct), but we can all learn a lesson from his experience.
(Rodriguez makes it sound relatively easy, but it’s worth remembering that he didn’t get up one morning and decide to make EL MARIACHI: he had been shooting video, drawing and writing since childhood. It’s no accident if EL MARIACHI, even today, feels more self-assured than most of the slick straight-to-video trash you can find in video stores: Rodriguez had already mastered storytelling before shooting his feature film. This may serve to explain why there hasn’t been a glut of Rodriguez-level talent recently despite the wide availability of digital video cameras and material such as Rebel Without a Crew. For extra credits, cinephiles may want to compare Rodriguez’s approach and results with Lloyd Kaufman’s Troma-tic Make Your Own Damn Movie!)
As a straight-up narrative, Rebel Without a Crew is a great read, even for those without film-making experience or intent. Rodriguez is an enormously likable narrator, and it’s all too easy to root for him as he’s slowly noticed by Hollywood’s hype machine. Fortunately, the story has a happy ending: Today, Rodriguez reigns as a filmmaker at the threshold between niche and popular success. At 38, he already has two successful film trilogies under his belt, a handful of standalone features and seems poised for Tarantino-level stardom with the success of the first SIN CITY film. As if that wasn’t enough, a look at his DVDs shows that he’s making exactly the films he wants to make, with a home-grown studio and a low-budget cleverness that protects him against studio interference. If Rebel Without a Crew, proves something, it’s that it couldn’t happen to a more deserving guy.