Robert Rodriguez on How to Get Production Values for $0

el Mariachi 1992 Shoot Out Robert Rodriguez no film school
One reason Robert Rodriguez has, arguably, been such a successful filmmaker is his background in extremely low-budget filmmaking, exemplified by his $7,000 first feature, El Mariachi

After the Mexican straight-to-video action market didn't want the film, which had been Rodriguez' initial plan for the movie, he went to L.A. and ended up striking gold with Columbia pictures, which was no doubt astonished at what the young director had managed to accomplish on what is less than the daily craft-service budget on many big budget films. About $250,000 were put in before its theatrical release, but Rodriguez' own cut is pretty impressive, and almost indistinguishable, as evidenced by his much-beloved first installment of his "10-Minute Film School" series.

This video really is a gift that keeps on giving, and there is ample reason to revisit it. Here, I'd like to concentrate on what he has to say about how to film sequences that look far more complicated (important, especially in an action sequence) to shoot than they actually were. 

A few takeaways:

​Whatever You Do, Keep Rolling

One of his great pieces of his advice is to keep rolling the camera. Admittedly, this applies more if you are shooting on film, where your ability to capture images is severely limited, but economy of style, the creativity forced on by discipline, whether external or self-directed, is never a bad thing. He explains how he would shoot a medium shot of a scene, then, without cutting, zoom in and get the shot from there, so that the illusion was of a whole new setup, provided the two were not juxtaposed immediately next to each other. In this way, he saved film and time, and even more than money, one could argue time is the most precious commodity on set. 

Keep Your Friends Close and Your Cast Closer 

When two local residents, one of them a TV newscaster with power to sway public opinion, came out against the film, Rodriguez just offered them roles in the film. They couldn't resist, and ended up becoming the bartender and the hotel manager. 

Make Use of What You Have

Rodriguez explains how he made use of every resource at his disposal. For instance, besides his practice of zooming in to affect new setups where there were none, his lightning philosophy was just as simple: the film was shot almost entirely with a simple work light -- a light bulb inside of a metal reflector. Use of boards to bounce and duvetyne to diffuse light made his ​single source of illumination do double and triple duty, and when he needed extra illumination, he made use of the practical lights on his set. He made use of what was around him, and that's the crucial thing. 

He also explains how the two guitar cases in the film (with one belonging to a traveling musician, the other the trademark repository of one of the bad guy's caches of weapons) were actually the same guitar case, but clever cutting made the two appear to be discreet. Similarly, he used the same pickup truck (the production truck, as a matter of fact) in several scenes, notably in the aforementioned bus scene.  

El Mariachi bus scene no film school Robert Rodriguez

The lesson here: No matter how much you have at your disposal, and odds are even the most austere filmmaker has exponentially more technological wizardry at their disposal than Rodriguez had in 1992 at the age of 23. Imposing aesthetic limitations on yourself is usually (at least at the beginning of your filmmaking career) one of the best things you can do for yourself as an artist. It all comes down to the simple principle: if you can do a lot with a little, think of what you can do when you get a lot?      

Your Comment


I love the bit in the first video when he says "We borrowed those guns from the cops" hilarious. Can you imagine trying to borrow guns off the cops in either England or America at the moment. HAHAHAHA. This is real film making. There's far to much talk about equipment sometimes and not enough just getting out there and shooting with what we have.

December 28, 2015 at 7:39AM, Edited December 28, 7:39AM

John Stockton
Filmmaker, Editor.

Hi John,
Stranger things have happened. The idea of knocking on the door of a UK police station and asking to borrow a load of uniformed officers with real weapons for free is quite outrageous, but here is one instance where it pretty much happened that way. I was at a short film course, where the hosting guy mentioned it.
Apparently the cops were in a good mood and actually happy to oblige the camera being there on that occasion. The director just nudged his cameraman and said "Keep filming" !

Of course, everything changed. I believe Danny Boyle mentioned that 9/11 happened during filming of 28 Days Later and some of the scenes already "in the can" like the overturned bus in the London street simply could not have been possible subsequently.

December 29, 2015 at 9:55AM, Edited December 29, 10:26AM

You voted '+1'.
Saied M.