I’m the last of my film friends, apparently, to have read Robert Rodriguez’ diary & manifesto, Rebel without a Crew: Or How a 23-Year-Old Filmmaker with $7,000 Became a Hollywood Player. As I recounted an entertaining anecdote at the “Goodbye New York” party last weekend, everyone was bored. My friend George was like, “Yeah, that’s in his book.” So is this book a classic or something?

Read more…I’ve actually owned the book for four years, but I put off reading it until I had seen El Mariachi and Desperado, the two movies Rodriguez had made at the time it was published. I do recommend seeing them before reading the book, and perhaps, for background, some of the other movies Rodriguez talks about: Escape from New York, Reservoir Dogs and Hard Boiled. In any case, I finally saw them and also Sin City, which blew me away. So I started reading.

The majority of the book is taken from Rodriguez’ diary. There’s the entertaining first portion about how he got the budget by participating in a month-long medical study, by now legendary. Then there’s the breathless Mexican shoot for El Mariachi, which has less about his technique than I might have liked, but has plenty about his improvisations in the face of adversity. The final diary sections describe my personal fantasy, a snowball of fame and money as his little film rockets through Hollywood, Telluride and Sundance.
I suspect Rob Rod is being slightly facetious, but the point is well taken. When shooting quick and dirty, don’t pay attention to stuff that you’re not going to be doing anything out of the ordinary with. Most shots for El Mariachi were done in one take. With each shot, Rodriguez says, “it’s the overall effect you’re looking for.” Most people are following the story and if the point of the shot comes across, it doesn’t matter if the lighting is perfect. (This is funny to hear after the last book I read.)

Making the Movie Tip
In the essay “Ten Minute Film School” Robert Rodriguez talks about how he got decently-exposed shots — with no experience shooting film before — by using an “old trusty Sekonic light meter.” Rodriguez put all his eggs in the light meter’s basket:

What’s an f-stop? Who cares what an f-stop is? Don’t worry about the f-stop. I never did. Just do what the meter tells you; the meter is your friend.

 


The book also includes Rodriguez’ inspirational essay, “Ten Minute Film School,” which I wish I had read before I dropped a chunk of change on NYU. If you want to make movies, he says, go make them. Be self-sufficient and you’ll “be scary” to Hollywood. They’ll want you more when they see you don’t need them.

Words to film by.

Also appended to the book is the screenplay for El Mariachi — or rather, the detailed treatment. His shooting script wasn’t standard formatting and so came out to only 45 pages (rather than the 100-120 page norm). This might be a throwaway section (after all, it’s a better illustration of everything he talks about to just see the movie) except that Rodriguez also provides commentary within the script, explaining what changed, how they got certain shots, and how audiences reacted to certain moments. The comments are set off in bold and are worth reading, even if you just skim the script.

Conclusion

Is Rebel without a Crew a classic wannabe filmmaker text? Yes. I think after ten years it has earned that status. Rodriguez is a filmmaker with definite opinions about how things should be done and a huge champion of cheap, digital production. I’m sympathetic to his gospel. Was El Mariachi deserving of all the fervor? Maybe not. But the line from Lawrence of Arabia is apt: “Until he did it, I’d have said it couldn’t be done.” Until he made El Mariachi the way he did, no one thought it could be done.