When we caught up with him he spoke about discovering his cinematic and creative inspiration, his collaborative relationship with Robert Rodriguez, the challenges faced and conquered, and offered us an insight into what he hopes to share with the aspiring filmmakers attending his masterclasses.
Why a creative career? Was there that one inspirational moment?
It all started when I was six years old in Acapulco, Mexico. We were a couple of kids who were left with a nanny when our parents went out. They actually said to us, “What do you want to do when you grow up?” I remember looking into the TV and saying, “I would love to be inside there.” Then when I was around ten to twelve years old I started wanting to film the little things that I would be doing in my backyard. It was not precisely a story or a movie but just things.
The inspiration came when I went to the movies and I saw The Road Warrior. I thought Wow, that guy speaks very little. Now I didn’t like my voice because I was twelve years old and it was very high. So I said, “I think it is time to start doing something.” I told my dad who borrowed an 8mm film camera from a doctor, and I shot the scene from Escape from New York where Lee Van Cleef tells Snake Plissken the president’s plane just went down, and he wants him to go in and rescue him. I just remember Snake saying, “The President of what?” [Laughs]
So we shot it, and it was two minutes long, but because it was film it was then a case of what do we do now? Either the next day or at some point that week I took it to a drug store to get it developed. When the material came back and I saw it, there were some moments where the camera was steady, but then all of a sudden it was like when people change the angle of the camera to take a picture so that it will be long. It turned out that I had done that with the camera without realising it. So I was watching it back and thinking Oh shit what happened? It looks like it is upside down. That was my first introduction to filmmaking, the introduction and also the long goodbye because video was available by then. Video was actually available in the seventies, and it must have been 1981 or 1982 when I was in eighth grade and I was shooting this stuff.
How did you and Robert Rodriguez wind up on the journey towards El Mariachi?
I went on to my ninth grade at a private Catholic school in the United States, and that’s where I met Robert Rodriguez. I was on my own because at the beginning you don’t have any friends, and one of the weekends he was talking to some other kids. I watched where they were going and they went to the movies, which I thought looked like fun. So we went to the theatre to watch what I believe was The Road Warrior again. Back in those days the movies would just repeat themselves.
During that year whilst in the ninth grade I had planned to make a movie, but Robert didn’t go to my hometown that summer, and so I took a friend. When we returned to school we had shot a thirty minute movie, but we had not edited it because I was editing in the camera. It was what it was, and we had a little fight scene, a motorcycle and a ranch, and that’s what I used.
There was another guy who was a friend of Robert’s who persuaded him to make something because Carlos thought it was all badass, and he had gone out and made a movie. But when I was in ninth grade I knew that Robert was already making movies. He had made an animation movie that was fantastic – made out of clay and shot with an 8mm camera. Every weekend they would go to his but some of them wouldn’t show up, and I was the one who showed up all of the time. So then I started taking over the movies and I said, “Well Robert likes to direct, and I’ll be in front of the camera.” We made little films the rest of that year, and continued to do so on through college. So that’s basically how it all started.
Robert has such a singular vision. Having had the opportunity to watch him mature as a filmmaker how has his creative approach changed over the years?
My first movie when I was seven or eight was Fistful of Dollars. Both Robert and I like the same movies, and that’s why in El Mariachi you see a guy come into and leave town by himself. It’s the same with The Road Warrior and Escape from New York.
Whilst we share a lot of similarities, in the nineties we both went on to do very different things. For example Spy Kids is something which I couldn’t conceive to be a part of in my mind because that is something that he created, and it is not the kind of thing I’d do.
Also Spy Kids would be an example of trying to work in other genres, and in Desperado you’ll see what we wanted to do stylistically with El Mariachi. We actually discovered a way to go around it by editing and trying to solve problems, and so in the editing Robert created the El Mariachi style. In knowing the films of John Woo, Desperado is more of the style that we were always aiming for. Robert actually introduced me to John Woo and so I became a fan, and even today I still like to try to develop a movie with a lot of that slow motion. Then Once Upon a Time in Mexico features a different style to the first two films, and whilst those three movies belong to the same franchise or trilogy, each from my point of view features a different style of moviemaking.
I’m a little bit older now and I know I was a rebel before but I also enjoy filmmaking, and I also enjoy the style or type of movies that the studios make. You have your moments and chapters in life, but Robert still enjoys creating stuff on his own. He still enjoys doing most of the jobs that he can as opposed to how I try to work with different types of people, to develop movies with other companies and talent. From my perspective at least that it is the difference between the two of us.
Looking back to El Mariachi what were the challenges that confronted you as young filmmakers at the time?
I wanted to know what the difference was between a big movie and our movie. When I quit college in my fourth year, I did so because I wanted to focus on making movies, whereas Robert had a different story. Coincidentally upon quitting college Alfonso Arau came to shoot Like Water for Chocolate in my home town, and so in January of 1991 I got a job as a production assistant, and I worked for five months on the film. What I learned was that the production problems Robert and I had experienced across the eight years of making movies were no different. The difference between our movies and specifically Like Water for Chocolate was the lighting and camera equipment. Everything else was the same; everything you put in front of the camera we had. That was the only difference, and that took away my fear that we might be missing something.
When I spoke to Robert about making a film he had already shot Bedhead, and so he had already gone through the process of shooting a film, arranging the rights and figuring out the issues of film and how to light a scene etc. But I kept asking him if he knew that. So whilst in that scenario it was a challenge, it was one that we had solved.
Robert had worked out a mathematical formula that if his movie cost $800 and it was eight minutes long, then by multiplying that by ten to get a eighty-minute movie he would need $8,000. That was the maths as far as I remember and he said to me, “Maybe we can get away with it, and make the movie for that much.” Robert actually sold his body to science for $3000, and along with my parents and I we managed to get about $8,000 for the film.
But one of the challenges we were confronted with was that we needed guns, and of course the army didn’t want us to be running around with real guns. I went to the General to ask him for permission but they have to treat you like you are some kind of threat. They asked, “Why are you making a movie?” You tell the city you are going to make a movie and all of a sudden it’s as if you are going to go out and rob the bank [laughs]. He asks, “What if you guys are going to do that?” At that point I said, “Okay we have a problem.” So I left and I went to city hall where some friends of mine were out of college and were starting their law careers. I found a guy who I had gone to school with, who was doing his internship there and he asked me what I needed? I needed to talk to the cultural department in order for them to explain to the army that this was a cultural thing, and the two of us were going to make a little movie. He spoke with the cultural department for the city, wrote a letter and the army guy of course had to say yes to the mayor.
Then once we finished shooting Robert had to go to Austin, Texas and use the facilities that were available to the public to edit the movie. He was editing from 60mm down to video so that he could even edit. Mind you when you are young and it’s September through to December that’s a long time, because when you are young everything is very slow and you want time to move fast.
The next challenge was to drive to LA to try to sell the movie, and we failed to sell it to the market that we wanted to sell it to. So feeling sad and mad at the same time, Robert decided to contact an agent he had met at school, who had given a speech about filmmaking and agencies. It happened that Robert had kept his phone number and so he went to visit him, and they decided to take a look at our film.
Those were the challenges of the moviemaking process in that specific scenario. Now we all have challenges in every scenario of our lives and the challenges today are pitching, financing and approaching people who have no idea about movies.
If you could give any advice to young filmmakers to get over that initial hurdle what would it be?
That’s a great question because that is the reason I’m coming to the UK. I’m hopefully going to be talking to filmmakers and not bankers. Hopefully the people I’ll be talking to are already trying to do, are doing or are taking classes in college. I’m going to be there talking, explaining and showing examples of several movies besides El Mariachi. I will be talking about El Mariachi for those who don’t know that movie, but then I am going to show them an eight minute short film that cost $80 that Robert wrote, and I directed and starred in.
I’m not going to be telling them what to do. I’m not there to say this is the way you should do it, but rather to tell them my story, what we did and to tell them that they can to do it. I want to explain that if you’re a filmmaker you need to be making something. We didn’t have anything like the technology that we have today when we were young. Now you can make movies with your iPhone or computer, but it doesn’t need to be a Macintosh or an expensive Apple computer. If you have that then great, but I am going to show them what I did just like that with only a camera, and explain how it’s all about the story.
If you don’t have the capability or if you do go to school but you struggle to understand then just watch movies. The movie itself is a lens but we don’t see it that way. Try to start looking at a TV monitor as a lens, and try to understand how to place the camera.
Everyone is different and I’m there to try and open up their eyes to say, “If you don’t have any clue then why don’t you attempt to copy something so that you can get that rhythm and practice.” I’m not going to tell them to go and copy movies, but it’s just a different way to practise.
People don’t realise that we were making movies for over eight years before we went on to make and attempt to sell our big first movie El Mariachi. They think we went to school, and then made that movie. It’s a great story, and when Columbia pictures sold the movie there were a lot of holes left in the real story which is fine because it’s publicity. But believe me it is a long story, and it is one that took us eight years of practice to get to El Mariachi. Then everything we were doing fell into place, but it was the same thing that we were doing over and over again. The only difference was we were now following a script. Back then we were not following anything. Robert would just come down to my house, and I’d say we are going to make a movie about a cop.
How difficult is it in reality for someone to come across their own El Mariachi success story?
I see so many people here in Hollywood with that one script and they go round Hollywood for five or ten years with it. While they claim to be writers I don’t think they are writers because writers are always writing, and filmmakers are always making something. Every once in a while there’s a guy that runs around town with a script for ten years and it gets made. I’m not saying it doesn’t happen, but what is the reality of El Mariachi and two guys selling the movie to Columbia pictures? It’s one in a million. I haven’t seen that happen with Columbia Pictures in the past ten years. The only thing close to it is probably The Raid, and that still cost a million dollars, though it did great business.
So The Raid is a close example, but let me go back to when Sergio Leone did A Fistful of Dollars. They encountered the same scenario. Nobody wanted to give them a chance, and so Sergio and Clint went off to Spain where they shot A Fistful of Dollars. Then when George Miller and Mel Gibson did Mad Max it was the same scenario. When we went back to the magazines from the early eighties to read about Mad Max we found that the articles were so familiar to the articles that they were writing about us, and the interviews we were doing. It was the same scenario; the same story, and what George Miller and I had said to the press was very similar. It’s scary. I should not forget to say that The Blair Witch Project came after El Mariachi and they actually discovered reality TV. So again you see that history tends to repeat itself in different scenarios.
The masterclasses will be taking place across the UK in the following cities on the following dates: Glasgow (28 April), Lancaster (30 April), Newcastle (1 May), London (3 May) and Manchester (5 May).