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The Conference 2014 Speaker Spotlight: Robert Rodriguez

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It only takes about five minutes of talking to Robert Rodriguez — film director, screenwriter, producer, cinematographer, editor, musician and founder of the recently launched El Rey Network — to figure out why he’s been so successful.

He’s all confidence, and absolutely no fear.

Rodriguez — who’s known for his edgy, violent filmmaking style — wrote the script for his first feature film while a student at the University of Texas at Austin in 1991. To raise the money to do it, he signed up to be a subject in a drug research study.

That film, “El Mariachi,” went on to win the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival and became the lowest budget movie ever released by a major studio.

From there, he wrote, produced, directed and edited such films as “Desperado,” “From Dusk Till Dawn,” “The Faculty,” the “Spy Kids” franchise, “Once Upon a Time in Mexico,” Frank Miller’s “Sin City,” “The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl in 3D,” “Grindhouse” and “Machete.”

In 2000, Rodriguez founded Troublemaker Studios, an Austin, Texas-based production facility. In 2010, he launched Quick Draw Productions, a development, production and financing company that gives Rodriguez the ability to develop and produce his own media projects across film, television, gaming and interactive platforms while closely controlling the creative process, something that’s intensely important to him.

El Rey Network launched in December 2013, with its first original series, “From Dusk Till Dawn,” premiering on March 11, 2014, and a second season picked up on March 26. “Director’s Chair,” in which Rodriguez interviews other directors about their craft and process, debuted on Saturday, May 10. New series “Matador” premieres July 15 at 9 p.m., and “Lucha Libra,” a new Mexican wrestling series from Mark Burnett, is coming this fall.

Rodriguez is currently completing “Sin City 2: A Dame To Kill For.”

Brief’s Paige Albiniak chatted with Rodriguez about his approach to marketing, how much work it really is to launch a network and when it’s time to just walk away.

Brief: How much do you consider marketing when you are creating content?

Rodriguez: It goes hand in hand for me.

When I made “El Mariachi,” the agent who signed me did that because he saw the three-minute bad-ass trailer that I cut for it. Marketing to me has been always very important for hooking the audience. My very first studio poster was for “Desperado.” I made my own poster with [the film’s star] Antonio [Banderas]. The studio almost didn’t allow it but I didn’t tell them I was the one who had shot it until they chose it.

Marketing for me goes hand in hand with film production. You have to think about the work that you are making and how the audience is going to react to it. You can’t just leave it to the people who are hired to do it. As much passion as I am putting into the project should go into the marketing.

Brief: Why is the studio system set up like this? Why is the marketing outsourced?

Rodriguez: That’s just how it’s always been. If you are going to change it, you have to do it on your first films walking in. You have to set that tone.

One time the Farrelly Brothers showed me the trailer for a new comedy they were working on. They told me, ‘We hate it, it’s terrible.’ I said, ‘Why aren’t you editing your own trailers?’ They got mad at each other for not having thought of it. The studio isn’t going to care if you show them a trailer that’s better, they just want a good idea. You have to take control of that. You have to at least throw your hat in the ring.

Who do you think is cutting that trailer? It’s a trailer house the studio hired. But it should be you.

When I did “Sin City,” I knew I had to design my own posters. As an anthology with voiceover, it was a strange movie for people to follow. I had to make sure the marketing materials were slick, bold and exciting. We shot them all on the set.

I’ve always thought like that. I came from such an independent background, and I didn’t have a big studio at my disposal. I started seeing teams of people being brought on who weren’t as passionate about the projects.

Sometimes when I’m working with the Weinsteins, who are the best in the business at marketing, they’ll send me stuff and say, ‘Robert, can you just fix it?’ Sometimes, they’ll even send me stuff from other people to look at, just to make it better.

When you are doing a movie, you are thinking about it for months. You’ve been thinking about it since you’ve written the script. At the same time, you should be thinking about how you are going to market it. Think about the title, how you are serving up the characters, how you are shooting things they can cut in a trailer. You don’t want to tell a story that doesn’t exist. You have solidify exactly what it was we are selling so that movie matched it.

I’m always thinking about how an is audience going to respond to this when they see it. I want them to think, ‘this feels bold, this feels interesting, this feels surprising.’ And as an audience member myself, I try to stay in touch with what the audience feels.

On El Rey, I look at every promo, everything that’s cut, and I make sure everything stays consistent and shows the identity of the network.

Brief: Shooting a movie is a ton of work. Running a network and filling it with programming seems like 1,000 times that work. How do you handle it all?

Rodriguez: I don’t work, I play. When you are a filmmaker with creative freedom, it is all play.

I’ve dropped off movies where there was not enough creative control on it. That felt like work. That’s a job: now I’m trying to guess what someone else wants. But if you are making something for yourself and your audience, it’s a lot of hard play. And having a network, you don’t even have to go through a distributor, you can distribute anything you come up with directly to the audience.

I consider myself a full-time player.

Brief: What led you to launch a cable network?

Rodriguez: All roads led to El Rey. It’s a network where my movies could go directly into people’s homes. Where I could cultivate new talent, new voices, and new filmmakers and give them the opportunity to have the same freedom that I do.

Brief: How much courage does it take to do all this? To stand up to studios and say, ‘I’m going to create my own marketing materials,’ to launch a TV network?

Rodriguez: If you come up with ideas that are good and strong, there’s no resistance. I have a certain trick I use. First impressions are very important. I always cut a trailer while shooting a movie, and then I send a three-minute extended sizzle reel. I’ve done that for 15 years. I send that to the studio and that ends up becoming the basis for all the marketing material. I’m also the editor of the film so I know what the best pieces are. And because it’s the first thing they see, they can’t get it out of their heads. After that, if they try something else it never works.

Brief: How do you get up the courage to just walk away from a project that isn’t working when you’ve already invested so much in it?

Rodriguez: You can just feel it. It’s very instinctual. You can tell when something isn’t right, when you’ve learned all you can learn from that project. You don’t want to force something. If it’s immovable, you have to take a left or right or go under.

Every time I’ve walked away, I’ve found the promised land around the next corner. I just took a sharp left and there it was. When you are hitting something that’s not flowing, you’ve just hit a bump and you need to go a different direction. It seems like a bold move but it really isn’t when you see what’s coming.

Brief: What you just said might be the answer to this question, but what advice do you give to young artists who are up and coming in this industry?

Rodriguez: I encourage failure. If you are new and you are up and coming — and this is from the heart—I hope you fail. I found my best successes came directly from the failures I experienced.

Instinctually, when Quentin [Tarantino] asked me to do “Four Rooms” with him, I immediately said ‘yes, I’ll do that.’ Had I done more research and not gone by blind instinct, I would have realized that anthologies never work. I did it anyway. It failed miserably.

But creatively and career-wise it was gold. Two things happened on the set of that movie. I had been looking for a hook for a family film, and I thought Antonio and the actress playing his Asian wife look like a cool couple of international intrigue. I came up with “Spy Kids” on the set of that movie.

And I realized I liked doing short film subjects, so I thought, ‘why not do three stories instead of four and have it all be the same director? I think I can make another go at it.’ “Sin City” and “Spy Kids” both came from doing that project.

You have to be willing to fail and follow your instinct. If your hand goes up to do something, somewhere inside yourself you know that you are supposed to go that way. In the ashes of that failure, you’ll find pieces of success.

Brief: What would you say to people who are afraid of failing because of how it will affect their career? Not everyone has a job where they can fail again and again in pursuit of ultimate creative success.

Rodriguez: That’s bullshit talking. They think, ‘People are going to throw rocks at me and then my career is going to be over.’

If you don’t have that faith in yourself and you aren’t relying on your instinct you aren’t going to go very far anyway. You have to hone that sense and give it a chance to be sharpened or else you are going to be stuck all the time. You are going to be lost.

Hear Rodriguez speak in person at PromaxBDA’s The Conference 2014 at the New York Hilton Midtown. Rodriguez will be interviewed by Chris Connelly at 5:15 p.m. in the Grand Ballroom.

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