Last Friday while lunching on poached salmon and tomato bisque on the 21st banquet floor of the Universal City Sheraton, Robert Rodriguez enthusiastically shared a few anecdotes from his early career, remarking on the 20th anniversary of EL Mariachi, and expounding nuggets of wisdom like, Think Big, Be Positive and Take a NMIDIM mentality, a cute acronym for Never Mind I’ll Do It Myself, a really named production company of his. Referring to a notebook on his lap, his conversation sounded a bit scripted, with distinct pauses that cued applause from the packed dining hall. The floor-to-ceiling windows were all steamed up with only a few visible gray clouds which obstructed the usual gorgeous Hollywood Hills vista, giving our one-on-one setting with RR feel as if we had come to visit him at the top of Mount Olympus. I crashed a sponsor table in the front for a better view of the tiny stage that Rodriguez shared with a moderator who replaced the scheduled Luis Castro of HBO and who in the second half seemed to lose direction of the conversation which Rodriguez naturally hijacked. There was good energy in the room but looking around I saw more NALIP organizers, panelists, and sponsors than upcoming artists – which kind of defeats the purpose since the address is geared to green, next-generation of writers/directors/producers/actors.
RR’s steady stream of anecdotes deliberately kept coming full circle to hyping up his new Comcast network set to unveil in 2013, a place he says will welcome those stories and voices that Hollywood is not serving. Unfortunately this cut into time for the audience to ask questions. Only one person got the chance to ask a question, which made for a memorable moment. A true Tejano vato, Carlos Calbillo from Houston basically asked him what’s up with not identifying as Mexican-American or Chicano. Rodriguez responded swiftly and rather tactfully. You can see the video I took of this exchange here. The full transcript at bottom of post, but the main soundbyte is:
…”Now if I don’t specifically say I’m Chicano….I didn’t ever intentionally do that. But if you ask me now, ‘Would I say I’m Chicano?,’ You know I would probably say….I wouldn’t make myself that specific”.
UNIVERSAL BUT SUBVERSIVE
Rodriguez says that when he got to Hollywood to make Desperado he wasn’t trying to make a Latin film but a film that was entertaining just like when he saw John Woo’s, The Killer and he thought, “Damn I want to be Chinese”. With Desperado he liked the idea of people watching it, who would say, “Wow I want to be Mexican”.
About El Rey, he mentioned that he had considered creating TV shows before, but was turned off by having to compete with everyone in town for an NBC slot. Instead he thought if I have my own network I can put on any show I want (Think Big). He was quite open about what his pitch was to Comcast. Male oriented –‘”So the guys think if I’m home, I’ll be taken care of. If you’re a girl and a badass, you’ll like it too – if you are anyone who likes cool programming you’ll like it. Its for an English language, 2nd, 3rd generation, highest growing population, and they don’t have anywhere else to go. Its going to be addicting and intoxicating.” Rodriguez further ingratiated himself with the room by saying, “ Advertisers are desperate. They keep banging their heads on the wall asking how do we get to their wallet (pointing to his hip pocket), but nobody talks about this (pointing to his heart). So I was coming at it in a different way”.
Rodriguez emphasized the good things that came out of his early failures and setbacks, encouraging people to avoid thinking negatively. When he approached the owner of an Austin restaurant he frequents about having a show on his Hispanic cable channel, set around family and cooking, the owner hesitated and said, “But I don’t speak Spanish that well and I’m embarrassed about it.” When Rodriguez told him it would be in English, he responded, ‘You mean Pocho? ‘ (laughter). Rodriguez pointed out the negative connotation of the word and that’s what El Rey says, “You’re okay exactly the way you are. “
He went on to say that we have the key to content and ideas people haven’t seen before and guess what, that’s an advantage, that no one has heard your voices. If his network fails to succeed, he encourages us to sift through the ashes of his failure to pick it up and move it forward.
OUTSIDE THE SYSTEM
Rodriguez says he’s never worked with a major studio because it infringes on his freedom. He’s gotten close a couple times, like when he was attached to John Carter which fell through the second and final time he left the DGA. Prior to the Sin City debacle where he resigned from the DGA in order to give creator Frank Miller co-director credit, he had left the DGA in order to work on his segment of the Tarantino produced, New Years Eve anthology, Four Rooms (which in turn directly inspired him to create Spy Kids). Although this means he cannot collect residuals and will never be nominated for an Oscar, he no longer has to follow the rules. He made an interesting quip on the word Independent in the acronym of NALIP saying ‘You probably think you HAVE to be independent because you have no choice, I bet you actually want to be in the system’. The audience laughed as if in agreement. He encouraged people to change from feeling they have to be independent to wanting to be independent. “Sometimes you have to do it yourself because you have a vision that noone else shares. Do it first and then they’ll share.”
All in all, Rodriguez had valuable advice to share. Themes like Finding Success in your Failures and Staying Positive made for an inspirational address. Yet I’m personally skeptical when it comes to him talking about his network becoming a platform to serve under-represented voices and stories that are made by and for the US Latino community with their distinct point of view. What does he mean exactly? Well, here’s a Variety article where RR talks about the underserved hispanic male audience (!).
Ever since he started shooting movies, beginning with the engaging, b/w, sibling rivalry, $400 short film, Bedhead, you can say Rodriguez has written from his heart and what he knows best – and that’s big family dynamics (he has nine brothers and sisters, and has five kids of his own) and awesome action/adventure. If you ask me, that is as universal of a genre classification you can get. What distinguishes Rodriguez’s work is those brushes of Tejano culture, which as I learned firsthand with my recent trip to San Antonio, is a very distinct socio/political culture within the US Latino spectrum and one beyond the 1st generation of bi-lingual folks like myself. Rodriguez’s impact in the indie 90s film scene is huge and two-fold; On top of showing major studios he can capture a market they can’t by making an entertaining movie for as little as $10,000, the fact that his last name is Rodriguez and his protagonists were heroes who spoke English with an accent, made a difference to the growing population of US Latinos. After all, Rodriguez’s first trilogy began with romanticizing and glorifying the mariachi, an icon terribly dear and close to Latinos. Wrap it in gritty action packaging and it works for that lucrative 18-35 male demographic.
Rodriguez says he’s consciously been subversive about the identity angle. Which is an interesting observation I made and makes me wonder if he’d have the luxury of being able to work outside the system if his genre was not the potentially commercial mine of the family and male driven audience? Would he be as successful if his films were say showed the true life contemporary struggles of underrepresented and multi-dimenstional gay Latinos and empowered females? The point is he knows his audience. His work up to now has represented US Latinos in a corporal sense. I agree that identifying with the physical image onscreen can be an empowering experience but there’s a difference between taking a hero archetype and painting him/her Latino, and making a Hero out of an everyday Latino in middle america.
Whether simply because he’s a successful Latino in a position of power makes Robert Rodriguez obligated to represent the diversity of the US Latino fragmented mass is debatable. And anyway why would he want to suddenly step outside his tried and true money making action fare? Lets be real, Comcast licensed him a network because they are after the audience of Rodriguez’s franchises, El Mariachi, Spy Kids and Machete. So while I would love to see him hold the door wide open and program content that demonstrates the rich dimensionality of Latinas and the Latino LGBT community – that’s not going to happen here. However, if he’s still got that subversive renegade in him, he just might ‘flip the script’ and support unique content on his channel made by the next generation of storytellers who are authentically rendering their unheard, real life based experiences into multi-media. I love intoxicating fantasy and pop entertainment as much as the next person….but thats just one dimension of our lives.
I say we take the hooligan to task and pitch El Rey our most kickass and personal passion projects for a slot on the network. Contact his partners, John Fogelman and Cristina Patwa at Factory Made Ventures at info@FactoryMade.com.
Lets see just how open and interested they are to tapping our talent and showing our point of view.
RR in response to why it doesn’t seem he identifies as Chicano:
“ That’s a valid question, that I’ve never identified myself as Mexican American, but, if you look at my bio, that’s the first thing it says, Mexican-American. I’m very proud of that. (cue clapping). You bring up something very important about identity, because you want to belong and identify with something. This leads to El Rey, you don’t have a place where you can say that’s me, or someone’s success that you can attach to and you feel some of that success is yours, and if that’s a person who isn’t acknowledging that, that’s a terrible thing, I’m sorry you felt that. But I’ve always pointed out, that what I am, what I do with my work speaks for itself. I’ve tried to do it in a very subversive way because that’s been the key. Even after the success of Desperado and From Dusk till Dawn I wanted to do Spy Kids and again, you write what you know, you write in our image, its based on my family. My uncle Gregorio worked as special agent so Antonio’s character’s name is Gregorio. The kids are named after my brothers and sisters. Its all about my family. But the studio says, “Why are you making them Mexican American? Why don’t you just make them American?” That’s why its so important to have a Latin filmmaker to make this argument; “Well because its based on my family”, and its not going to be like only Latin kids are going to watch it, …and then I had the best argument possible, I said, “ Lets put it this way you don’t have to be British to watch James bond. (applause)
You identify with it more if its universal and not that specific. So of everyone watching it, if you’re Latin, you just changed their idea of what’s possible, you’re changing the child’s idea of what they can accomplish because they see my name at the end, “Rodriguez” directed it, two kids with Latin names as spies. It’s very empowering. You want as many people to see it as possible. (Applause)