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ROBERT RODRIGUEZ WEARS A HOST OF HATS, STAYS AWAY FROM TINSELTOWN AND EMBRACES DIGITAL PHOTOGRAPHY WITH GRITTY END TO `MARIACHI' TRILOGY.

Byline: Bob Strauss Film Writer

Robert Rodriguez, the man who aptly named his filmmaking memoir ``Rebel Without a Crew,'' has broken so many industry rules that he almost can't work any other way.

You may recall he was the Texas cartoonist who volunteered for pharmaceutical experiments a dozen years ago to bankroll his $7,000 feature directing debut, ``El Mariachi'' - which went on to get Hollywood studio distribution.

You may also know that Rodriguez hasn't left his Austin filmmaking home base since, despite the major L.A. and New York money that went into such subsequent productions as ``Desperado,'' ``From Dusk Till Dawn'' and the three ``Spy Kids'' movies.

That's just old news, though. True to his book's title, Rodriguez has increasingly performed more and more production jobs himself: The third entry in his comic-violent ``Mariachi'' trilogy, ``Once Upon a Time in Mexico'' (opening Friday) names him as director, writer, producer, director of photography, production designer, editor, visual effects supervisor, re-recording mixer and composer. He also reportedly had a major hand in choosing the daily lunch menu during the epic production's swift seven-week shoot in the picturesque Mexican town of San Miguel De Allende.

Actor Danny Trejo, a Rodriguez regular, attests to the filmmaker's energy.

``He does everything! I'm going to have to say that Robert is probably the most passionate director that I've ever met, and I'm not just saying that because I've been in five of his films,'' or because he's a cousin, a connection Trejo and Rodriguez didn't even know they shared until well into making ``Desperado'' together. ``That passion boils over to everybody. And because of the fact that he shoots so fast, it doesn't get boring. Actors honestly believe that we get paid to wait - we act for free. But on his sets, there's not a lot of waiting.''

Rodriguez insists that it's actually easier to do so many jobs himself than to try to explain what he wants to other artisans (and that he's in 10 different craft unions, so that makes it OK).

``It's practical, but it's also just fun,'' says the 35-year-old, 6-foot-2 filmmaker. ``It becomes so much more personal when the same person who wrote the line for the character has written the notes of the music when he's not speaking. You could get a much better composer to come over, but he'll throw in his tricks, and it's just not the same.

``And I look forward to the complete mix on each movie now: thinking about not only what you're going to write or design for a set or how you're going to light it, but what's the music going to be, what's going to be the soul of the movie beyond the dialogue. And that keeps it really fresh, because it's always different and you never know what you're doing and constantly learning. And you're never just doing one thing, which can actually feel more like work than when you're doing multiple jobs.''

Rodriguez gets some assistance from his producer wife Elizabeth Avellan, who comes from a Venezuelan media family. And that comes in more than just nuts-and-bolts and creative pursuits.

``When I went to meet Robert at his studio in Texas, I knew I wanted to work with him when I got off the plane,'' recalls actress Eva Mendes, who along with new faces Johnny Depp, Mickey Rourke, Enrique Iglesias and Willem Dafoe joins ``Desperado'' re-ups Antonio Banderas, Salma Hayek, Cheech Marin and Trejo in ``Once Upon a Time.'' ``Usually, they'll send a driver to meet you, and he'll have a sign with your name. But in this case, it was Robert's wife and his three beautiful boys waiting for me. I thought, this is so cool, this is so un-Hollywood.''

Actors such as Mendes and Trejo attribute a certain familial, distinctively Latin quality to the way Rodriguez and company operate. And that's expressed in another unspoken show-biz rule that the filmmaker blithely violates: He makes North American movies with unmistakable Latin character that regularly find box-office success.

``I grew up seeing Latin cinema, and seeing how it was very specific to Latins,'' the San Antonio-born Rodriguez says. ``I think, a lot of times, Latins didn't want to go see them because they didn't want to feel like a niche group. This was always very troubling to filmmakers, and I always felt that the best way to do it was to just make a universal commercial movie, a genre movie that anyone could come and watch - but those who were Latin could take pride in that they were all over the screen.''

This worked, on a modest scale, with ``Mariachi'' and ``Desperado.'' But the approach really took off with the ``Spy Kids'' films; each of the family adventures has grossed near $100 million or more in U.S. box offices.

``They have that ethnic flair but are made more universal, the same way that James Bond is British but universal because he's so specific,'' Rodriguez continues. ``And that became a way for me to put a lot of myself and my own family into the movies, so it felt personal. Plus, Latins on the screen, and it's so cool, because you're giving kids role models, and that's real important. Yet anyone else can just watch the movie and not feel they're watching a Latin film.''

And have we mentioned that the still-playing summer release, ``Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over,'' has made the long-abandoned stereoscopic gimmick a hot movie concept again? Shooting much of the picture in digital 3-D was just an outgrowth of a larger Rodriguez rebellion: his determination to use light, quick, high-definition video cameras to shoot anything, even a gritty, minimal-special-effects, modern-day Western like ``Once Upon a Time.''

``It's the now as well as the future of cinema,'' evangelizes Rodriguez, whose latest film was shot on real locations with equipment usually reserved for predominantly computer-animated features like the ``Star Wars'' prequels. ``It's amazing that the other technology has been around so long. If the people who invented film were here today, they'd be, 'You're still using that? You haven't come up with something better than that?' But creative people tend to be the slowest to adopt new technology.''

Rodriguez's try-anything, pioneering spirit started at an early age. And he was careful not to corrupt it with the compromising influences of Hollywood.

``I never wanted to be a moviemaker thinking that I would have to move out to L.A.,'' he reveals. ``I was making movies when I was 12, just for fun because I loved drawing and I loved photography and I loved music, and movies were a big umbrella that I could do all my favorite hobbies under. So I made movies well before 'Mariachi,' and never thinking in any of that time that it could ever be a job. Even when they won awards, I never thought I'd go to L.A. and knock on doors for a job; I mean, I didn't have any contacts, I'm a Mexican-American from Texas ...

``My big goal was just to draw my comic strip (a collectors item now, called ``Los Hooligans'') and, maybe, make industrials and commercials from out of the house. But when 'Mariachi' hit it, and I realized I did it from home. ... It's all about precedents (in Hollywood). And since that was a movie I did all by myself and from Texas, all the other movies could then follow the same pattern.''

So how do all these creative threads weave into ``Once Upon a Time'' - an abstract fantasia of narco-violence, political chicanery, Day of the Dead imagery, guitar-slinging sharpshooters and Johnny Depp acting even weirder than in ``Pirates of the Caribbean'' - whose very title evokes the summation of 1960s spaghetti Western maestro Sergio Leone's work?

``Over the years, I had collected my favorite stories of stuff that had been going on that I'd heard from family and people who lived in South America, not even so much in Mexico,'' Rodriguez says of his latest's wilder moments. ``I figured people would never believe this, but they'd recognize it; I'll just change some names and set it all in Mexico. But a lot of it's kind of real.''

At the same time, ``I wanted to make it very surreal, Bunuelian as well as Sergio Leone,'' Rodriguez says, referencing the great Spanish surrealist who shot most of his films in Mexico. ``It was not meant to be a statement on Mexico, but just sort of a mind-set of this other place, this other Latin world that could be so close but a world apart from us.''

But that's hardly all that ``Once Upon a Time in Mexico'' means to Robert Rodriguez. As you may have guessed by now, with this guy, there is always more.

``For me, personally, this was about freedom,'' he says. ``Just the idea of freedom and using that as a thematic thread. When I first discovered these high-definition cameras, that's when I felt free to make this movie that I didn't want take big film cameras down to Mexico to shoot.

``Suddenly, all these other movies and projects that I never thought I'd be able to do seemed feasible. It suddenly seemed like technology freed me as an artist, and when I was writing the script, that's what I used for all the different turmoils I had to write about, sort of this thing about attaining freedom. I made the last line in the script about that and worked backwards from there, using what I was feeling as an artist as what the characters were feeling in the country. Everything just kind of worked together - artistically, metaphorically, to the country, to the times - it all just ended up kind of circling around that idea of freedom.''

Bob Strauss, (818) 713-3670

bob.strauss(at)dailynews.com

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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Sep 11, 2003
Words:1651
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