This week, Neil Calloway argues that every film director should have to make an ultra low-budget film…
This week brought the news that Robert Rodriguez planned to mark the 25th anniversary of his debut, El Mariachi, by making another film for $7,000.
If you don’t know the story of El Mariachi‘s production, then you really should read Rodriguez’s book Rebel Without a Crew, his diary of the making of the film. To raise the money for the film he checked himself into a research hospital to participate in a study and write the script. There he met Peter Marquardt, who he would cast as the bad guy in the film and would later become a video game producer, before sadly dying last year. Rodriguez begged and borrowed favours and equipment to shoot the film (not having a dolly or track for his camera, he used a wheelchair from the local hospital). Guns were borrowed from the local police department and the film was edited at night when the editing suite was closed.
Intending to use the film as a practice run, Rodriguez planned to sell it to the Latino home video market and use the profits to fund another film before hitting Hollywood. It didn’t quite work out like that; instead the film was picked up by Columbia and Rodriguez was soon the darling of the film industry, winning an award at Sundance and having his budget increased one hundredfold for the sequel, Desperado.
If you care about truly independent film-making and want to be inspired, as well as entertained, then read Rebel Without a Crew. If Rodriguez pulls off another minor masterpiece with his new $7,000 movie, then it will be worth every penny.
In fact, every director should be forced to make a film for almost nothing after a while of making studio films (and $7,000 dollars might not sound like almost nothing to you and me, but in film-making terms it’s nothing; long-term Rodriguez collaborator (and his second cousin) Danny Trejo commands $30,000 a day). One of the points Rodriguez makes in Rebel Without a Crew is that having no money means you have to solve problems creatively, rather than just pouring money at them to solve them that way. Due to inflation, $7,000 in 1992 is closer to $12,000, and most of Rodriguez’s budget went on processing his film stock. Given that he hasn’t shot on film since the second Spy Kids movie, even more of the budget is going to go in front of the camera by shooting digitally.
Rodriguez says that he will get friends to help him with his new project, as he did with El Mariachi, but obviously now he can call on friends who have a bit of experience in the film industry – no doubt Tarantino will be involved – and I’m pretty certain brands would throw products at him to use in his films. Joss Whedon used downtime from the first Avengers film to shoot Much Ado About Nothing at his house using people he’d worked with in the past.
I want to see Michael Bay make a movie for nothing. I want someone to force Terrence Malick to shoot a film quickly and cheaply. Film-making this way will sort out great directors from people who use money well.
Rodriguez’s last film, the much delayed Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, failed to ignite the box office, so maybe he’s seeing this as self-inflicted punishment; an attempt to atone and get a box office hit (and with that low a budget, it won’t be hard to break even). Maybe every director whose films fail to make money should do it.
Disney are obviously very keen on making various films set in the Star Wars universe. Who’s to say one of them shouldn’t be set in the back office of the Death Star as Stormtroopers have a philosophical debate about the rights and wrongs of the Empire? No battles, no explosions, just a $7,000 budget. Imagine a film set in the MCU that cost next to nothing. Studios will love it, as every film will break even, and they’d be willing to take risks on more directors. There would be some awful films, but also some pretty great ones, and I’d wager you couldn’t tell the difference between a movie made for nothing and one made for $10 million in the right hands.
Neil Calloway is a pub quiz extraordinaire and Top Gun obsessive. Check back here every Sunday for future instalments.