How Robert Rodriguez Made an Action Film with $7000
Robert Rodriguez’ film El Mariachi is an impressive film for many reasons. El Mariachi is Rodriguez’ directorial debut, made when he was 23; prior to this film, nobody in the filmmaking industry probably knew who Rodriguez was. In 2011, El Mariachi also enjoyed induction into the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress, for its cultural, historical, and aesthetic significance.
Perhaps what makes El Mariachi extraordinary is the fact that it was made with a budget of $7,000. Rodriguez actually ended up spending only $7,225, to be exact, though he was expecting production to cost approximately $9,000.
The development and production of El Mariachi
Rodriguez has always been a staunch supporter of no-budget filmmaking. His first 16mm film, Bedhead, cost $800 and was eight minutes long. He shot everything himself with a handheld camera. “Since it was eight minutes long and cost $800, I figured I could make an 80-minute feature for $8,000,” says Rodriguez.
Buoyed by the success of Bedhead at film festivals across the country, Rodriguez decided to make his first feature film. He wasn’t expecting to get work from El Mariachi; he set out to do the film solely to sell the film for an amount that will allow him to make more movies for practice. In interviews, Rodriguez has said that he would not have cut corners the way he did with El Mariachi if he knew that his future depended on the film.
Rodriguez raised almost half of his $7,000 budget by participating in clinical drug tests while he was living in Austin, Texas. To make the most of his meager budget, Rodriguez didn’t hesitate to cut costs wherever possible. “If you start to spend, you cannot stop anymore,” says Rodriguez on the need for cost-cutting.
He was able to scrimp on costs for equipment. Instead of using a slate or clapperboard, the actors signaled the scene number and take number with their fingers. During filming, instead of using a dolly, he held the camera himself and was pushed around in a wheelchair. There was no sound-recording equipment on set; instead, El Mariachi was shot silent, with the audio dubbed in during post-production. Two 200-watt clip-on desk lamps took the place of professional lighting.
Rodriguez used a single camera, in one long take, to film scenes sequentially. To provide the effect of multiple cameras being used, Rodriguez froze the action so he can change the camera angle. Bloopers – such as Rodriguez being in the shot – were also kept to save film. Actors on El Mariachi doubled as production crew; when not on scene, they helped out around the set.
Occasionally, Rodriguez used water guns instead of real guns, to cut costs further. To simulate machine gunfire, which is plentiful in El Mariachi, Rodriguez filmed from different angles the firing of one blank, used canned machine gun sounds, and had the actors drop bullet shells to the ground. This had the visual effect that multiple rounds had been shot. Instead of squibs, Rodriguez used condoms fixed over weightlifting belts and filled with fake blood.
How no-budget filmmaking helps filmmakers
Rodriguez says that the experience of filming El Mariachi has made him believe that filmmakers must make films with whatever resources they have available, instead of waiting around for studios or producers to hand them money. According to Rodriguez, “the best way to make movies is to make movies, since you get better with each one.”
Though Columbia eventually gave him resources to cut El Mariachi on film, Rodriguez still believes that no-budget filmmaking will do aspiring filmmakers a world of good. “Part of the problem with student films with 100 people in the credits is that you can’t tell what exactly is the director’s talent. On El Mariachi, I took the credit–or blame–for the writing, direction, camerawork, and editing. The nice thing about making a movie by yourself is that you can take credit for any aspect of it anyone likes,” says Rodriguez.
And Rodriguez really is due a lot of credit, as El Mariachi has been cited as being vital in ushering in the boom of the independent movie genre in the early 90s. The film has also won multiple international awards, including the Audience Award for the Dramatic category at the 1993 Sundance Film Festival.