'El Mariachi': 20 Years Later

By Charles Ramírez Berg for Slackerwood

Robert Rodriguez never expected anyone to see El Mariachi.

He made it for $7,000 and hoped to sell it to the Spanish-language video market for $15,000. It didn't matter if nobody saw it, what mattered was getting the money to make Part 2. Then he'd repeat the process and finish the Mariachi Trilogy. "Those three films," he says now, "were going to be my film school, because the only way you learn to make movies is to make movies."

But his plan failed because El Mariachi was too good. He took it to LA, and showed it to a Spanish-language video company, which was slow to respond. While waiting, he decided to drop off a VHS copy of his nine-minute student film, Bedhead, which contained the two-minute trailer for El Mariachi, at ICM (International Creative Management), one of the world's largest talent agencies. He just walked in off the street and handed the tape to the receptionist, so I imagine he got a variation of the standard "Don't call us, kid, we'll call you" line.

They called him the next day.

They loved Bedhead, and they were really interested in that trailer. Was it for a feature? Was it finished? Could they see it? He immediately delivered a VHS copy of El Mariachi.

"Why didn't you just drop off the complete El Mariachi the first time?" I asked him at the time. "I wanted them to ask me to see it," he said, "instead of me asking them." You see how that changes the dynamic of the relationship, and how savvy this 23-year-old junior in the Radio-TV-Film Department at the University of Texas was -- and still is today. ICM loved El Mariachi and signed Robert, promising him a major studio contract. Studios scrambled to sign him, and Columbia won.

Columbia's first idea was for Robert to remake it in English (eliminating the need for those dreaded subtitles) with a star in the lead. But to get an idea of how the film would play, Columbia sent Robert and El Mariachi (with subtitles) on the festival circuit. Festival audiences ate it up -- subtitles and all. It won the Audience Awards at the Sundance and Deauville Film Festivals, and Columbia decided to release it theatrically just as Robert made it. Receiving glowing reviews by critics (two thumbs up from Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert) and aided by the entertaining appearances Robert made on The Today Show and David Letterman, the movie was a sleeper hit, and Robert's career was off and running.

To bring the movie's journey full circle, last December El Mariachi was named to the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress as an American film that will be preserved because of its cultural, historical, and aesthetic significance. Twenty years later, what exactly is the significance of El Mariachi? Here are four things the film accomplished.

1. It was a milestone for the representation of Latinos in U.S. film.

There had been a few Latinos who had managed to make it in Hollywood over the years. In the classical era, actors Gilbert Roland, Lupe Vélez, Ramon Novarro and Dolores del Rio were all stars; in the 1950s and 60s three Latinos, Anthony Quinn, Rita Moreno and José Ferrer, had won acting Academy Awards. In addition, Quinn and Ferrer had directed some films. But there had never been a prodigious Latino talent like Robert Rodriguez in the Hollywood system -- someone who wrote, directed, co-produced, edited, recorded and edited the sound, edited the music, and acted as cinematographer and camera operator on his first film. This was a new and unprecedented kind of Latino filmmaker, a Mexican-American combination of Orson Welles and Steven Spielberg.

Moreover, we'd never seen a Latino action hero in a Hollywood-released film either. Robert had smuggled a Latino protagonist into a popular genre, something he'd repeat again in the Spy Kids franchise and then in the Machete movies. All of a sudden audiences were cheering for Mexican guitar players, rooting for a young brother and sister named Cortez, and following the exploits of their mysterious Uncle Machete.

2. It was a milestone for independent filmmaking.

Yes, there were other indie hits released around the same time: Spike Lee's She's Gotta Have It (1986), Steven Soderbergh's Sex, Lies, and Videotape (1989), Rick Linklater's Slacker (1991), and Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs (1992). These movies heralded a new generation of filmmakers who were finding low-budget ways to get their films made and distributed. But none of those other movies had as compelling a making-of story as El Mariachi -- an against-all-odds tale of a Mexican-American college kid who made a hit feature film for $7,000 during his summer vacation. And Robert's natural instinct for PR drew attention to his story via his appearances at film festivals, on TV talk shows, and through his diary of the making of the film, Rebel without a Crew. That book quickly became the Bible of independent filmmaking, and remains an inspirational top-seller to this day.

3. It helped establish Austin as a filmmaking center.

Austin got on the filmmaking map when Robert and his friend Rick Linklater both decided to base their filmmaking here -- Robert with Troublemaker Studios and Rick with Detour Filmproduction. Twenty years after Slacker and El Mariachi, we think nothing of the long and impressive list of filmmakers associated with Austin today, names like Sandra Bullock, Mike Judge, Quentin Tarantino, Matthew McConaughey, Peter Berg, Dana Wheeler-Nicholson, Kyle Killen, Jay and Mark Duplass -- the list goes on and on. They are here or have worked here and are familiar figures of the local movie community in large measure because Rick and Robert decided to make Austin their filmmaking home.

4. It set the template for DIY digital filmmaking -- a decade before digital filmmaking existed.

"If I can do it, so can you" was El Mariachi's core message to aspiring filmmakers around the world. The movie-making method Robert Rodriguez devised to pull it off, what he called the "Mariachi Aesthetic," was revolutionary. Get the list of things you must have to make your film down to zero -- because all that list is doing is preventing you from making your movie. Make a list of the resources you do have, then fashion a movie around them. (For El Mariachi it was a Mexican border town, an antique bathtub, a sleepy dog, a bus, two bars, a hotel, a guitar, a hospital wheelchair, a jailhouse, a borrowed Arriflex camera, and a one-take turtle.) Don't ask for permission, wait for the right time, or expect perfect conditions. Don't wait for more money. The lack of money is in fact a blessing, because it forces you to be more creative, and creativity will improve your movie more than money ever will. Get off your butt and go make your damn movie.

Most significantly, the Mariachi Aesthetic destroyed the establishment's movie-making ethos that existed 20 years ago. With budgets and the dependence on special effects growing exponentially, studio filmmaking in the 1990s implicitly declared that only trained Hollywood professionals with piles of money should make movies. "Don't try this at home," big-budget Hollywood movies were in effect saying. "Leave it to us pros. Your job is to come, watch and buy popcorn." The way Robert made El Mariachi exploded that myth. El Mariachi proved that good movies can come from anywhere, and that you make up with creativity what you lack in cash, flashy special effects or expensive technology. Ultimately, El Mariachi succeeded because it was a good movie. Robert intuitively understood that what audiences really want are good, well-made, and entertaining movies -- wherever they come from, whoever made them and whatever they cost.

Charles Ramírez Berg is a professor at UT and one of the founders of the Austin Film Society.