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El Mariachi
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El Mariachi

The most enduring cult films seem to be those with nothing to lose, the ones the filmmakers made for themselves – think Night of the Living Dead (1968), The Harder They Come (1972), Pink Flamingos (1972) and Eraserhead (1977) rather than The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) – because they had to. Of course, 23-year-old Robert Rodriguez had a specific market in mind before he began shooting El Mariachi (1992) in the Mexican border town of Ciudad Acuña (where Alfonso Arau had just completed principal photography for Like Water for Chocolate, 1992). The barely feature-length production was pointed squarely at the Spanish language video trade, meant to recoup its investment from sales out of Mexican supermarkets and video store rentals. Told he could likely clear $20,000 on such a sale but counting on only half that, Rodriguez and producer/star Carlos Gallardo devised a feature film that would cost considerably less than $10,000, guaranteeing them sufficient profit to finance a second film.

Raising $9,000 (a third of this from his services as a research subject/guinea pig in pharmaceutical drug trials), Rodriguez operated his own 16mm camera, using a wheelchair for a dolly and a ladder for a crane, shooting without sound in Gallardo's hometown, where locations were free and where friends and family could play supporting roles and double as crew. Rodriguez shaved thousands from his budget by printing his mistakes and working them into the script, as well as by avoiding master shots. To lard out the film's brief running time (the shooting script for El Mariachi was only 40 pages from cover to cover), Rodriguez used slow motion wherever possible and relied on non sequitur cutaways to animals (a turtle who crawled across the highway during shooting, someone's pet dog) and children (a phantasmal street urchin whose bouncing soccer ball recalls the ghostly Melissa Graps of Mario Bava's Kill, Baby... Kill, 1966) to cover continuity gaffes and to smooth shot transitions.

Rodriguez and Gallardo spent only $7,225 of their budget but their profit margin widened unexpectedly when El Mariachi was picked up for distribution by Columbia Pictures after performing well at the Telluride and Toronto Film Festivals and winning the Audience Award at the 1993 Sundance Film Festival. The studio's original aim was to remake El Mariachi for American audiences but when positive word of mouth from critics engendered audience interest, Columbia threw $100,000 into the hat to reedit, remix the sound, redo the subtitles and strike 35mm distribution prints. In limited release, El Mariachi grossed over $2 million, catapulting its creator (if nobody else involved with the production) into the major leagues. Rodriguez helmed Columbia's sequel/semi-remake Desperado (1995) and capped his "Mexican Trilogy" with Once Upon a Time in Mexico (2003), both of which starred A-list heartthrob Antonio Banderas as the wandering and now vengeful mariachi. Rodriguez has since gone on to make several unrelated big budget feature films – among them From Dusk Till Dawn (1996), The Faculty (1998), the Spy Kids films, Sin City (2005) and the Planet Terror portion of the unabashedly retrograde two-fer Grindhouse (2007) – but none of them have the heart or bootstrap inventiveness of El Mariachi... proving that, even in movie-making, hunger really does make the best sauce.

Producer: Carlos Gallardo, Robert Rodriguez
Director: Robert Rodriguez
Screenplay: Robert Rodriguez
Cinematography: Robert Rodriguez
Special Effects: Carlos Gallardo, Robert Rodriguez
Music: Eric Guthrie, Chris Knudson, Alvaro Rodriguez, Mark Trujillo, Cecilio Rodriguez
Film Editing: Robert Rodriguez
Cast: Carlos Gallardo (El Mariachi), Consuelo Gomez (Domino), Jaime de Hoyos (Bigoton), Peter Marquardt (Mauricio), Reinol Martinez (Azul), Ramiro Gomez (Cantinero).
C-81m. Closed captioning

by Richard Harland Smith

Sources:
Rebel Without a Crew: How a 23 Year Old Filmmaker with $7,000 Became a Hollywood Player by Robert Rodriquez
Robert Rodriguez interview, "The Mariachi Aesthetic Goes to Hollywood," Latino Images in Film, by Charles Ramirez Berg
Robert Rodriguez biography by Deborah Jermyn, Contemporary North American Filmmakers: A Wallflower Critical Guide

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