Just got through reading Robert Rodriguez’s Rebel Without a Crew Or How a 23-Year-Old Filmmaker With $7,000 Became a Hollywood Player a couple of days ago and decided to write some words on it because I found it to be a very inspirational book for all those indie filmmakers out there struggling to make their own films. For those not in the know, I am one of those struggling independent filmmakers, living for his films. Much like Rodriguez, I write, direct, shoot, edit and occasionally act in my own productions. I consider myself a growing filmmaker, learning a little bit more with every film I make.
Robert Rodriguez, my own personal Jesus
Though I’m confident in saying my acting days are over. I prefer being behind the cameras much more then in front of them. Acting while directing a film can complicate things beyond belief, which is why I stick to directing. I am a self taught filmmaker. I remember a time when I started searching for film schools to go to, but tuition prices quickly shot down that idea. I decided I didn’t want to start life out with more then 100,000 dollars in debt, so I went about learning the filmmaking process on my own. I’d always been making movies since childhood, so I just went with it. Plus, isn’t that wha t they always say? You learn by doing? And that the basics of filmmaking can be taught pretty quickly? I truly agree with these statements! Filmmaking should be learned by making your own films. Actually going out there and shooting your project. When you are a self taught filmmaker you have to learn the tricks of the trade by experience. But also, by reading and researching on your own.
Which is why I had my eye on Robert Rodriguez’s book for a while. Rebel Without a Crew is structured as a diary made up of Rodriguez’s own life experiences, from getting the money for the film (he was a lab rat for a few months!) to getting the equipment (somebody lended Rodriguez a camera!) to shooting the whole thing between Mexico and Texas to following Rodriguez to L.A. in his journey to find a distributor for the picture. It all leads up to this amazing moment when he finally gets to meet with the fellows over at Columbia Pictures, who end up falling in love with Rodriguez and his film. And buying it and funding his next big picture! It’s an exciting moment when he finally “gets there”.
Rodriguez's early days as a filmmaker, shooting El Mariachi
I was living this book as I read it, not only because Rodriguez is a personal hero of mine, but also because I personally go through a lot of the struggles that Rodriguez went through in those early days of shooting El Mariachi. Where he was making a film because he knew he could do it. Just to prove to himself that he could. To prove to the world that he had what it takes and that he knew it.
Working alongside comic book artist Frank Miller, the creator of the Sin City Comics
Making an independent film isn’t easy, but it has its advantages. Like for example, it can be a hell of a lot of fun! Maybe by reading Rodriguez’s book you might not get the impression that making this kind of film can be a fun experience, but trust me it can. When all the planets align, and things fall into place, making a film can be magical. Sometimes getting there isn’t all that easy though. Rodriguez had to sell his body to medicine so he could get funding for El Mariachi. Once the film was shot, Rodriguez spent grueling hours (at the expense of his own health) editing and mixing sound. These experiences show us the true nature of independent filmmaking. It isn’t easy, but it is fun to shoot the film without any real crew, when the creative juices are set wild and free and there is no executive there to tell you not to do something in some way. There’s a looseness to the whole proceedings that cannot be found on a big budget production. Usually, on an independent film, it’s your friends doing the acting. Or whoever can show up on the set that day. It’s your friends holding the boom. It’s a friend helping you with the lighting. It is hard work, but in the end, when you finally get to hear an audience react to your film and you hear them laugh or react in some way, you realize it was all worth it.
Getting his hands dirty, shooting handheld
Rebel Without a Crew’s diary format makes the whole reading experience that much more personal and real. You feel as if you are following Rodriguez and his crew through out the whole process. It gives you an idea of the attitude and mentality an indie filmmaker needs to have when making his first films. And that’s what I enjoyed the most about the book. You see Rodriguez’s attitude, he never gives up. And he is completely driven to achieve his goal. Nothing distracts him on his journey towards making his film! I was not aware that the whole film was shot in just two weeks! Speaks volumes about pre-production and the benefits of knowing your film and having the whole thing pre-visualized in your head before shooting the thing.
Shooting Spy Kids 3-D Game Over alongside Antonio Banderas
So after shooting the whole thing and searching for a Spanish distributor (and almost selling the film to them for a few thousands bucks) we get to the most interesting part of the whole book for me: when Rodriguez finally meets up with the executives at Columbia. From there on in, the book goes at an exhilarating pace; things start happening fast for Rodriguez once the executives actually see the movie and realize he pulled the whole thing off for under 7,000 bucks. Suddenly Rodriguez goes from being a dude who ate a meal a day at Burger King, to getting hotel rooms, and free food and free computers, and being asked what his next project is going to be. Rodriguez went from nothing to the hottest thing in town in the blink of an eye! Coolest thing about the whole ordeal was that he was aiming to sell his indie film to a Mexican distributor, for the Spanish market. He never had Columbia Pictures in mind!
Hanging out with the big guys!
I loved this part of the book because suddenly you can see how Hollywood thinks. They see this little film, and see an angle they can sell with the whole 7, 000 dollar story. And suddenly every studio in town wants Rodriguez to work for them! And I love how he suddenly gets all these offers from every studio in town. It helped me to see the importance of having an agent handling all the legal hassle. The deals, the contracts…wow, it’s all a back and forth of burocracy that any artist would hate. The books shows how Hollywood loves to waste money. For example, when Rodriguez started out, and he was in that limbo between El Mariachi and his next film, he was given a couple of thousand dollars weekly, to survive. But keeping true to his filmmaking style, he never spent the whole amount! Instead he saved it and sent some of it to his family. It’s the same mentality he has with his filmmaking. Making a film cheaply, so you can later maximize on the profits.
A complete film studio in his own home, lucky dude
Though I will admit, I don’t love all of Rodriguez’s films. His fast paced shooting style can either make a picture, or break it. When he is on, he is really fucking on. When he is not, well, we get Once Upon a Time in Mexico. After reading this book, I re-watched El Mariachi, and saw it from a fresh perspective. I saw it and imagined Rodriguez, 23 years of age, shooting this thing with his pals and neighbors. You do see that raw energy in the filmmaking but you can also see some slip ups in the camera work. Yet the film is enjoyable, warts and all because it is still amazing that he achieved it all so well, without having the experience. It’s commendable for that alone. Rodriguez’s modern films are a mixed bunch. I recently re-watched Once Upon a Time In Mexico and was disappointed by it. I guess Rodriguez’s style of shooting a film really quick can backfire as well. You might have that energy, but not much thought put into. The result can be an empty film like Once Upon a Time In Mexico. It says a lot about the content of a movie when the only thing that makes it watchable is Johnny Depp’s performance. But whatever, I guess every filmmaker is entitled a few duds. In my book, Rodriguez still makes fast paced, fun movies. From Dusk Till Dawn? A memorable vampire flick! Planet Terror? An awesome zombie movie! Sin City? Only one of the best comic-book adaptations ever made! And Rodriguez is bigger then ever, he not only directs, shoots and edits his own films, now he produces as well, Predators (2010) being his latest producing endeavor.
Best part of the book is the advice that Rodriguez gives you on making a film. You want to do one? Shut up and do it! You say you’re a filmmaker? Then make your movie! Don’t talk about it. Do it. It’s interesting to see how Rodriguez had to struggle so much to edit the film, especially when we take in consideration that the whole thing was shot on actual film. As some of you may know, shooting on film makes it all the more complicated to edit a movie. On the book, Rodriguez realizes the benefits that modern indie filmmakers have through computers. We don’t need to worry about editing on film nowadays because everything is digital. Editing a film is so much easier these days! With programs like Final Cut Pro, Avid, and Windows Vega anybody can have an editing station right in their own home. All you have to do is save some money to buy the equipment you need to make the thing. Buy a couple of books, read up on filmmaking techniques, editing techniques and you are good to go. Practice by making short films with your friends. If you are also a writer, there are many excellent books out there that can help you get an idea of how a script is done. Indie filmmakers of today have no excuse! Maybe you won’t get to Hollywood, but then again who knows, maybe if you want it bad enough you will. There is always the pleasure of showing the film amongst your community and friends, Be Kind Rewind style. Anyways, in closing, Id like to say that if you are a filmmaker, then this book will serve as inspiration and will motivate you to get that project you have in mind of the ground. Heck, I'd say it should be required reading for any aspiring filmmaker. Read it, get yourself pumped, and best of luck with your film! Get those cameras rolling!