“The stuff in the anthology just blew me away,” she says. “I remember thinking, ‘Who is this guy? He’s going places.’ ”
He did. His first stop: the University of Texas, where he created a popular comic strip, “Los Hooligans,” for the campus newspaper. In 1991, the budding filmmaker impressed professors with one of his 16mm short films, an eight-minute comedy called “Bedhead.” Starring his siblings, it tells the story of a little girl who wields telekinetic powers over her brother. It won awards at film festivals throughout the country.
“It was just such an amazing film,” recalls Mr. Ramirez Berg. “I realized this guy is incredible – the talent he has and the knack for the cinematic language.”
The next summer, Mr. Rodriguez shot El Mariachi, his first feature-length film. Viewing it as just “practice,” he originally planned to sell it to the Mexican video market. The struggling student filmed it on a shoestring budget in Ciudad Acuña, Mexico. He borrowed a 16mm camera, used friends and amateur actors as stars, and skimped wherever possible.
“He’s from a big family in San Antonio,” says Mr. Ramirez Berg. “They didn’t have a lot of money, so it’s not easy for him to just throw money away.”
The resulting film was an action-packed stunner. On a whim, Mr. Rodriguez submitted it to a Los Angeles agent, and the industry was soon buzzing about the movie and its young director. Columbia agreed to release it and gave him a production deal.
At 23, Mr. Rodriguez was Hollywood’s new wunderkind.
“He’s a real filmmaker,” says Jane Evans, vice-president of physical production at Miramax. “He understands every aspect of the process – from writing to shooting to editing to music to special effects. There’s a certain economy in having all of that knowledge.”
Since then, his clout has skyrocketed. His films, which tend to be fast-paced action flicks, include Desperado, From Dusk Till Dawn, The Faculty, and The Misbehavers, which was easily the best segment in 1995’s Four Rooms, a compilation of short movies by four directors. A tale of two mischievous children, The Misbehavers served as the inspiration for Spy Kids.
His movies have starred the likes of Antonio Banderas, George Clooney, and Cheech Marin. The Desperado sequel, tentatively titled “Once Upon a Time in Mexico,” will star original cast members Salma Hayek, Quentin Tarantino, and Messrs. Banderas and Marin, as well as Johnny Depp, Eva Mendez, Willem Dafoe, Mickey Rourke, and Enrique Iglesias. Mr. Rodriguez is shooting it in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, at a breakneck pace of seven weeks. Immediately after, he will begin filming the Spy Kids sequel.
“As he’s become more successful, he has big-budget movies now,” says Miramax’s Ms. Evans. “He’s not making El Mariachi for $7,000 anymore. He’s proven himself.”
Still, the filmmaker enjoys finding cheaper, more creative ways to shoot scenes, and his action movies are less expensive than most. Spy Kids, which had more effects than the latest Godzilla movie, was relatively cheap to make – $36 million not being a particularly large sum of money in Hollywood.
“He takes a certain pride in keeping things lean, compared to a lot of other directors who kind of measure their status by how many toys they have or how much they can get from studios,” says Ms. Evans.
One way he saves money is by doing a lot of the work himself. Though he could hire a bigger crew, Mr. Rodriguez prefers to serve as writer, director, cameraman, film editor, sound mixer, and special-effects whiz on many of his movies. For Spy Kids, for example, he mastered the software for its effects and helped compose the music.
“He’s never lost the sense of how much things cost,” says Mr. Ramirez Berg. “One of the things that can happen is you get lured into the Hollywood system. The way they do things is they spend a lot of money. And you end up working for them because they’ve got the money. He has managed to avoid that by spending very, very little on his films. Then you have a lot more freedom.”
That includes the freedom to feature positive images of Hispanics in movies that appeal to a wide audience. Spy Kids is first and foremost a kid’s action-adventure movie. But it’s also a movie that happens to star Hispanics.
“He wants to make universal films with Hispanics in them,” says Ms. Avellan. “It’s always been important that his roots are shown in a movie with universal themes. Not that he doesn’t want to be recognized as a Hispanic. He wants to be a filmmaker. He wants to make sure that he’s breaking the door open for others – no matter what your last name is, no matter what your color is.”
The movie also scored some major exposure when McDonald’s promoted Spy Kids with Happy Meals. That in itself represents an achievement for Hispanics in film, according to Mr. Ramirez Berg.
“Think about how many people go to McDonald’s and how many people get Happy Meals,” he says. “So you’ve got all these little kids playing at being Carmen and Juni Cortez. … In a real subtle way, that’s seeping into the consciousness of people going to have a hamburger. Who’s to say that that isn’t just as important as Zoot Suit or Stand and Deliver?”
Most Popular Stories
- NSA Defends Global Cellphone Tracking Legality
- Ad Counts Rise in 2013 for Hispanic Magazines
- Top Websites for U.S. Hispanics
- Networks Vie for U.S. Hispanic TV Viewers
- Saab Gets Back into the Game; U.S. Auto Sales Soar
- Apple Activates Customer-Tracking iBeacon
- Dell Offers Undisclosed Number of Employee Buyouts
- 2013 Tech Gift Guide: iPad Mini Still Hot; Chromecast a Great Low-Cost Option
- Authorities Close to Deal with JPMorgan Chase over Madoff Response
- A Biography of Jonathan Ive, Apple's Creative Chief