The ‘Rebel Without a Crew’ filmmaker updates his ‘El Mariachi’ tips for the modern filmmaking age.
Nearly 27 years have passed since Robert Rodriguez famously made his first feature film - El Mariachi - for just $7,000 and as a run-and-gun solo filmmaker. Now, dozens of films and several million dollars later, Rodriguez returned to where it all began at the premiere of his latest project Red 11 at SXSW 2019.
Presented as a masterclass in DIY guerilla filmmaking, Rodriguez revisited his $7,000 film challenge for himself as a project take on along with his offspring. And while it the final product was initially never meant to see the light of day (rather serve as behind-the-scenes documentary footage for his masterclass), Rodriguez’s film (co-written with his son Racer) proved once again that you don’t need a big budget to make a quality film.
Set in a medical research lab (and based off of experiences Rodriguez outlines in his ‘Rebel Without a Crew’ book about how he raised his initial $7,000), Red 11 is indeed great coursework in DIY filmmaking by creating an intense horror thriller with the bare minimum of props and effects.
Before the world premiere screening at SXSW, Rodriguez conducted a shorthand version of his DIY guerilla filmmaking master class with lessons and insights into how to motivate, get started, and go out and make a film on your own the El Mariachi way.
Here are seven of Rodriguez’s modern DIY filmmaking tips...
Refuse to Spend Money
For Red 11, Rodriguez conceded that he could have easily spent plenty of money. In fact, he was probably losing money hand-over-fist as he shot Red 11 as it coincided directly with his work finishing up Alita: Battle Angel. However, while there were multi-million dollar sets for Alita just around the corner, Rodriguez practiced what he preached and refused to shoot anywhere he couldn’t shoot for free.
The result is a feature mostly shot only in the poorly lit hallways and storage rooms of his office. He also talks about camera tricks for working with the bare minimum of props and costumes. There are 11 red shirt characters seen in the film, but Rodriguez only bought half as many knowing he’d never have to have all 11 shirts in the same shot.
The Power of Index Cards
As someone who’s worked through showrunning and multi-episode scripting in the past, this was probably the best piece of advice I’ve seen reaffirmed. Despite working on million dollar blockbusters, Rodriguez still preaches the power of your run of the mill simple index cards.
For Red 11, he casually writes up notes for each scene on each card (a standard feature only has “50 to 60” scenes total he teaches). Each card gets a note and is put on the ground so he can literally step-by-step build the entire narrative - moving things around or adding or deleting as needed.
Make Stuff to Throw Away
While Rodriguez addressed many practical aspects to shooting a scene and editing action (more on those below), he did stress early and often that the biggest obstacle that he sees most filmmakers facing is a lack of belief in themselves and their creativity.
One exercise, or mindset, he recommends is a willingness to throw stuff away. If you never go out and shoot your shorts because you’re worried that they’ll be bad it’s counterproductive because nothing will ever get done. You need to go do your bad work early - throw it away - then do your good work later once you’ve learned your craft.
You Never Need More Than Two Lights
Following a “rule” he laid out for himself out of necessity on El Mariachi, Rodriguez refused to allow himself to use more than two lights in any shot for Red 11. He stressed finding creative ways to work with natural lights and sources already available. However for any given shot he’d use only two lights (sometimes just tiny LEDs) for lighting entire scenes.
Shoot Action and Dialogue Separately
Throughout his career, Rodriguez has worked steadily in action and adventure. From Dusk to Dawn to Spy Kids Rodriguez’s films have always benefitted from some hard-hitting and exciting action sequences. When shooting some of the action shots and short fight scenes in Red 11, Rodriguez broke down his usual approach.
First priority is safety, which means actors moving in slower than normal speed and safely choreographing moves that never put actors in danger. He also taught to never shoot action and dialogue at the same time as it jeopardizes both. If there’s dialogue before or after a fight, shoot that first so that your actors can focus on their delivery.
From there, only once your dialogue is perfect, do you film your fight action.
Editing Tricks for Action and Sound VFX
It was also super interesting to see Rodriguez hop into his office and bring up his edit for Red 11 to go over some tips and tricks. Namely for the action sequences where he showed off some simple, yet effect, ways to make his slow and safely shot scenes into more rough-and-tumble fight sequences.
By speeding things up and dropping frames on what should be impact blows, as he showed in some before and after clips, can really make scenes much more dynamic and impactful. He also admitted that he’s a sucker for sound effects and spends as much time (if not more) working on finding the right sound VFX for each punch, kick and slice to really sell believable (and gruesome) impacts.
Your Attitude To Life and Art are the Same
Speaking surprisingly sincerely about his career and his filmmaking legacy, Rodriguez seemed to very much enjoy his time revisiting his $7,000 days as a way to re-ignite his passion and share it with his kids. And a major lesson which he wanted to pass on to his children is that you have to accept that you’ll never be ready.
You’ll never be ready to film, you’ll never be ready to edit, you’ll never be ready for success. At least not as much as you’d like to be ready. But if you can break away from the idea that you need to be something before you can be successful or truly creative, you’ll never free yourself to be yourself. And that’s true for life as much as it is for art.
For more, see our ongoing list of coverage of the 2019 SXSW Film Festival.
No Film School's podcast and editorial coverage of the 2019 SXSW Film Festival is sponsored by Blackmagic Design.