Robert Rodriguez has been very busy lately lining up projects for himself and his production company, Troublemaker Studios. Not long ago, we reported that his full length version of Machete will soon go into production with some big names attached. Rodriguez has also written the script for the new Predator reboot, as well as producing it. With all that, he even has a new family film Shorts being released on August 21st. So, here at The Film Nest we are taking a look at his first feature length directorial effort El Mariachi. His first-ever film was a short eight-minute short titled Bedhead (you can see another short film Becoming Roman here), which he shot while he was a student at the University of Texas at Austin. With all the accolades he won from his short film, he then decided to shoot El Mariachi. Rodriguez used the money that he won from entering Bedhead in festivals to finance this low budget action film. El Mariachi, which is filmed entirely in Spanish with English subtitles, was produced for only $7,000 (the lowest budget for a feature length movie that I’m aware of). Rodriguez had intended for the film to be released for the Spanish-language home video market only, but once it took home the Audience Award at the 1993 Sundance Film Festival, Columbia Pictures picked up distribution of the film.
El Mariachi, story-wise, is a very simple case of mistaken identities. It’s the story of an out-of-work mariachi (Carlos Gallardo in the nameless title role) who, while traveling across Mexico looking for employment, comes to the little town of Acuna. After he stops in at a local bar (which is not hiring) he then gets a room at a local motel. While waiting to check out other local businesses to see if they need a musical act to play in their establishments, the mariachi meets a beautiful, but feisty bar owner named Domino. While the mariachi is looking for work, trouble is brewing between Azul and his ex-business partner, Moco. You see, while Azul runs a semi-profitable business from his jail cell, it’s nothing compared to what Moco is making. Azul wants in on the action, but will settle for the money he is owed by his ex partner. Moco doesn’t want to pay Azul what he is owed and instead sends a group of his men to kill Azul. After Moco’s plan backfires, Azul sets out for revenge. Azul also carries around a guitar case and dresses in all black just like our title character. So when Moco’s men are looking for Azul, they mistake the mild mannered mariachi for the bloodthirsty Azul. The mariachi must then take drastic measures to stay alive.
The film’s plot is a fairly simple one. The most impressive thing about the film for me is Rodriguez’s direction. Mariachi is shot with mostly closeups (Rodriguez only had two lenses on his camera). The film’s action is good, if sparse and the acting merely adequate. The cast is made up of mostly amateur actors. The film being entirely in Spanish helps to hide the actors lack of experience for American audiences. The fact that Rodriguez made such a damn good movie for less than most movies’ catering bill is mind-blowing. He used so many ingenious techniques when shooting the film to save money, such as editing in camera, using actors as his crew, and even shooting the whole movie without sound. (The sound was added in after the film was shot by the way). Rodriguez discusses at great length just what kind of creativity goes into making a movie for seven grand on the film’s DVD. If you are an aspiring director, or just a film buff like myself, its one of the most informative commentaries ever recorded. It’s definitely well worth a listen.
Robert Rodriguez also chose to shoot this movie on video instead of film. Since he had a very limited budget, with a film print can usually costing north of $20,000, he shot on video to avoid spending all the extra money (which he didn’t have). Like Micheal Mann as well, Rodriguez has since switched to lensing all his films in digital, as he did with the third chapter in the trilogy: Once Upon A Time In Mexico. In El Mariachi, as well as most of his other films, Rodriguez uses very quick cuts for the action scenes, but steadier closeups for most of the quieter, dialogue-heavy scenes.
As with Rodriguez’s other entries in what is known as the Mariachi Trilogy, 1995′s Desperado(which starred Antonio Banderas in the role of the mariachi) and 2003′s Once Upon A Time In Mexico, the movie is almost a parody of the standard spaghetti westerns of the 60s. El Mariachi never takes itself too seriously, and is a pleasure to watch because of that fact. This guy is the MacGyver of modern cinema. I’d love to see what kind of movie he could make with everyday household items. Seriously, he produces movies that look as if they easily cost ten times what they do. If you want to see what $7,000 can really look like on screen take a look back at where Robert Rodriguez got started with El Mariachi.
Buy this First Feature here.