The Road Back to Film School

Robert Rodriguez has been held up as the prototypical film school dropout, a walking argument for doing things your own way and bypassing a formal education. But that’s not the whole story.

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Robert Rodriguez keeps busy.

In a 12-month window, he will have directed two feature films—last fall’s Machete Kills and the forthcoming Sin City: A Dame To Kill For—and launched the flagship original series, From Dusk Till Dawn, on the cable network that he founded. He’ll also have started filming El Rey’s next series, Matador, and recruited talent for the projects that will follow.

When he’s not doing that, he’s got a habit of calling up Charles Ramírez Berg, his old film professor at the University of Texas, with an urgent request. “He’ll get in touch with me and say, ‘I need to talk to your class,’” Ramírez Berg laughs. “‘I’m doing this thing, and I need them to know about it—when can I come talk to them?’ Whenever that happens, I need to get an auditorium.” Rodriguez, BS ’08, is a lot of things—filmmaker, business owner, studio head, student, and more—but it’s possible that the role he enjoys most is teacher.

It’s clear why a lot of film students want to hear what Rodriguez has to say: His story is one of the most memorable tales of a self-made filmmaker, a walking, iconic example of the 1990s indie film boom and the power of the DIY aesthetic and how it can—and has—changed Hollywood.

Rodriguez has been the poster child for going your own way in the film industry since his career started. Countless aspiring filmmakers have mentioned his name when explaining why they opted to do it themselves—why they dropped out of film school, maxed out credit cards to make their indie feature, or quit their day jobs to pursue their dream. Rebel Without A Crew—the memoir he published in 1995, when he was 27—was essentially a how-to manual for people looking to follow his path.

That path has been documented many times: In Rebel Without A Crew; in John Pierson’s comprehensive history of the early ’90s indie film boom, Spike, Mike, Slackers and Dykes; and in magazine profiles that tell the inspiring local-boy-makes-good story, all of which seem designed to lead readers, inevitably, to the question, “Why not me, too?”

20131002_zaf_f05_062It’s a reasonable question, given the details of Rodriguez’s career. The story of his first film, El Mariachi, is the story of an almost unheard of underdog triumph that could make for a good movie on its own: He left the University of Texas film school in 1990 to make the movie with money he’d raised by volunteering for clinical pharmaceutical research trials in Austin. His ambitions for the Spanish-language film were relatively low—he saw it occupying a slot in the videos-for-sale section of H-E-B supermarkets in Hispanic neighborhoods around Austin and San Antonio, making him enough money that he could make a follow-up film with a budget higher than $7,000. The film’s quality, however, exceeded Rodriguez’s modest aspirations, and Hollywood quickly took notice; the director was courted by major studios who saw someone with the potential to make blockbusters in the film school dropout who loved action movies, comic books, and sci-fi adventure.

But Rodriguez has always been the sort to do things his own way, and from the film studio that he built in the unlikely location of Austin, he recalls the opportunities that rolled past him as his nascent career was taking off.

“They brought me X-Men right after [1996’s] From Dusk Till Dawn,” he says. “They brought me Wild Wild West, they brought me Superman Returns. There were a lot of them that you’re like, ‘Wow, this is really interesting,’ but then you would go and meet everyone, and you could tell that you were going to be working for somebody, and the scripts were in such disrepair that it’d be like, ‘Oh my god, it’s going to take so much work to screwdriver this thing.’ And I just thought, ‘I’m going to put so much work into this, and it’s not mine.’ I’m going to be somebody who’s replaceable, because you’re just a director for hire.”

Rodriguez is anything but replaceable now. He owns not just the properties he works on, but also the means of production, with Troublemaker Studios—home of one of the film industry’s most impressive green screens and a backlot capable of turning a few acres of central Austin real estate into an alien jungle—and even, increasingly, the means of distribution, as the founder of the El Rey Network, which airs on Comcast, DirecTV, and Time Warner Cable. These days, all of the work that Rodriguez puts into everything is for something that’s his. Not bad for a guy who dropped out of film school.

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The Robert Rodriguez backstory has been retold so many times at this point that it’s essentially a creation myth, and like most myths, it has a few holes in it. Ramírez Berg, senior professor of media studies at UT, knows both the mythologized version and the real story better than almost anyone.

“It sounds like he came to school, made one film … then the summer of his junior year, he makes El Mariachi, and signs with Columbia Pictures,” he says. “But that’s not the whole story. You know Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours thing? The idea is that you need to serve an apprenticeship for a while. What I tell students is that Robert started serving his apprenticeship probably 10 years before he walked into the communications building. He was making movies with his brothers and sisters, and was just obsessed with it. When he walked in, he was already at 9,000 hours, or something like that. He came because he had been doing all of this on VHS—his father was a salesman and had won a sales prize that was a camera and a VHS deck—and he couldn’t wait to get his hands on actual film. So it’s a little deceptive to think that he just walked in and made a film.”

Rodriguez spent three years at UT, during which time he made Bedhead, a short film that did well at festivals and provided him with a boost of confidence. He spent a lot of his time on campus drawing a cartoon, Los Hooligans, for the Daily Texan, a project he took on in order to catch the attention of his fellow students after arriving at UT from a very small school outside of San Antonio. And when he finally made El Mariachi, he didn’t exactly expect that he was done.

“Since I didn’t finish school, I think it created a false belief that you didn’t need to finish school. I didn’t want to make that the message of my success.”

“I was surprised that it happened right away,” he recalls. “When Mariachi got discovered, I realized, ‘Oh my gosh, this might actually be happening,’ but I didn’t think it would be forever. It easily could have gone away after one semester, and I’d be right back at school. I was surprised later that years had gone by, and I was still making films, rather than back at school finishing my degree. I didn’t think it was a permanent leave.”

As it turns out, it wasn’t. The film world may well be better off since so many filmmakers felt empowered to make their movies because of Rodriguez’s example, but all of the filmmakers who’ve cited him as a reason they dropped out of school might be surprised to learn that part of being a self-made artist is to not buy into your own mythology. That’s why, long after El Mariachi and the attention from Hollywood, Rodriguez went back to UT to complete his degree.

“I was on the long-term program,” he laughs. “Since I didn’t finish school, I think it created a false belief that you didn’t need to finish school. I didn’t want to make that the message of my success.”

Rodriguez’s second tour of duty stretched from 2002-08, as he completed a coursework program he crafted with Ramírez Berg’s help. Some of the credits he received involved sharing things he’d learned through his career with his fellow students—but he also had to receive his history and government credits. “I was the old man in the classroom,” he says, noting that he’ll occasionally see a young crew member on set who’ll say, “Hey, you graduated with me!” The fact that he went back, long after his place in the world of filmmaking was fully secure, is as revealing about his character as the fact that he left in the first place. Rodriguez is a self-made man who carved his own space in one of the world’s most cutthroat fields, but his motives have never been what an outside observer might expect.

“I think maybe some people wondered why I went back, because I was already successful,” he muses. “I just thought that this was something we always believed in—I set off to get my degree. I went there because it was important to my family and myself, and I saw my parents really change their whole families by being the first graduates of a college. My father, from a family of 11, went to St. Mary’s University, graduated, and worked to put his other brother through college. Being one of the oldest in my family of 10 kids, I wanted to go, too—I was there to focus on filmmaking, but I don’t like not finishing something I started. Even though people would say, ‘Why are you going back? You’re successful.’ Well, I wasn’t successful at that.”

All of this puts Rodriguez’s career path on a spectrum: He went to college because they had film cameras, and digital technology hadn’t been invented yet; he left college because the first film he made ended up becoming a surprise hit of the ’90s indie film movement; once Hollywood came calling, he stuck around for less than a year, turning down every project that it would have been fair to assume was the culmination of a lifelong dream, in order to go back to Texas; and then, 13 films into his career, he went back to UT to finish something he’d left incomplete. And that’s not even the most unlikely thing Rodriguez has accomplished in recent years.

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When Comcast bought NBCUniversal, one of the stipulations enforced by congressional hearings on the merger was that they create opportunities for minority-owned networks. The company announced the first four networks in early 2012—one focused on early childhood development, and two splashy networks owned by entertainment icons Magic Johnson and Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs. And then there was the El Rey Network, from Rodriguez. In the company of Puff Daddy and Magic, he’s a relatively unflashy figure. He’s not better known by a nickname, and he’s not associated with any luxury brands. While Puff Daddy was throwing Super Bowl parties, Rodriguez was back in the classroom finishing his degree.

Still, it’s not really a surprise that Rodriguez is making the same sort of deals that Puff Daddy and Magic Johnson are. He’s always had an entrepreneurial bent to his career—after all, El Mariachi was conceived as a movie he could sell at supermarket chains—and perhaps the most important decision he ever made as a filmmaker and a businessman came when he turned down those blockbuster franchises in the late ’90s.

“My dad was an entrepreneur. He sold cookware. My mom would say, ‘We need three more pairs of braces,’ because there were 10 kids. He would count how many sets of cookware he would need to sell, and he would go sell that many,” Rodriguez says. “I always had that kind of spirit, that kind of thinking—I would much rather work for myself than take a studio job where I’m working for somebody else.”

Rodriguez spent less than a year in Hollywood in the mid ’90s. He was required to move to Los Angeles to edit his second film, Desperado, and while he was there, the prolific director also made Roadracers for Showtime, a segment in the Miramax anthology Four Rooms, and From Dusk Till Dawn, a Quentin Tarantino script that launched the film career of George Clooney. He also took on a work-for-hire task in writing a screenplay for a potential reboot of the Predator franchise that languished on a studio shelf, which he took on “so I could just practice writing.” He left Los Angeles for Texas, determined to set up his own studio, and to build something he could sustain—his own franchise.

That franchise became the Bond-influenced Spy Kids. It was an immediate hit—raking in more than $147 million at the box office, it nearly doubled the grosses of his previous films combined. He followed it up with two more Spy Kids films, as well as the third film in the El Mariachi/Desperado series, Once Upon A Time In Mexico, all of which were major commercial successes.

When recalling the decision to develop his own franchises, Rodriguez talks about another creatively minded entrepreneur who inspired him. “I was a fan of George Lucas,” Rodriguez recalls. “He couldn’t get the rights to Flash Gordon, so he went and wrote Star Wars instead. That seems much more entrepreneurial … You become more than just a director for hire. You’re more valuable.”

Rodriguez has demonstrated his value in a variety of ways over the years. He’s been a student, a hotshot young director, an iconoclast who turned down the opportunities that others might have killed for, the owner of a studio, a franchise-builder, a student again, and the founder of a television network. And, whenever he makes his way back to UT now, it’s as a teacher—and the list of his students is a long one. “He loves to talk about creativity, and getting things done, and making things,” Ramírez Berg says. “I go away just from talking with him with the hairs on my neck tingling, because I want to go and produce something.”

From top: Robert Rodriguez directs Carlos Gallardoon the set of El Mariachi in 1993; Rodriguez at the Machete Kills premiere in Los Angeles; Behind the scenes of the El Rey Network’s From Dusk Till Dawn (2).

Credits: © LOS HOOLIGANS/Entertainment Pictures/ZUMAPRESS.com; © Paul Fenton/ZUMAPRESS.com; courtesy of El Rey Network (2).

 

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