Wednesday, 30 December 2015

Book review: "Rebel Without a Crew"

The best part of my recent holiday at Victor Harbor was the fact that I finally got to read Robert Rodriguez's book, Rebel Without a Crew. It's been around since 1995 and can be found on most recommended reading lists for filmmakers. 

These days, Rodriguez is best known for the four Spy Kids films, his relationship with Rose McGowan, the fact he still lives in Austin Texas, and his filmmaking association with Quentin Tarantino

Rebel Without a Crew is based on a journal Rodriguez kept from 1991 to 1993, the period during which he planned, made, sold, and publicised his first feature film, El Mariachi (1993). 

Although the book deals with his adventures as a filmmaker, it has a bit to say to writers.  
I was never big on writing scripts. I have read many times that the best way to learn to write scripts is to actually sit down and write two full scripts and after you're done you should throw them away. You'll learn a lot by doing those first two but they'll be awful, so after you write them you should throw them away and start writing your real script.
The idea didn't appeal to Rodriguez. He had made about thirty short films at that point, starting from when he was twelve. He was now twenty-three. He needed motivation to write a script and the idea of tossing his work away afterward didn't fill him with enthusiasm.
It suddenly hit me: Instead of writing two scripts and throwing them away afterwards, why not just take the scripts and make them for really low budgets? That way while you're practicing your writing skills you can also practice your filmmaking skills. That's what I decided to do with El Mariachi. I would write two scripts, both about the same character, but I would film them on a low, low budget all by myself. Then I would sell them to the Spanish video market where no one in the movie business would see them if they were no good, so it was almost like throwing them away, only I would get paid for them.
He was inventing a film school with just one pupil, himself. His teachers would be his own experiences, mistakes, problems and solutions, and the burgeoning Spanish-language video market would return him his investment. 
I went on to write the first Mariachi in three weeks. It's amazing how quickly ideas come to you for a script when you're going to be actually making the movie in a few months, not just writing for writing's sake.

Where this story gets interesting is with his fund-raising methods. Robert Rodriguez has been a human lab rat four times. Which is to say, he voluntarily submitted to being locked up in a pharmaceutical drug testing facility and experimented on, in return for hard cash.
When it came time for me to make El Mariachi, I needed someplace quiet to write and earn money at the same time. Naturally the research hospital fit the bill. I knew that if I checked in for a monthlong drug study I could clear about $3,000, with room and board paid for, and have plenty of time to kick back and write my script. ...  In my mind I simply imagined that I was getting paid to write a script.
The reality wasn't that simple, but I'll leave it for you to read for yourself. The next stage, the story of how he filmed a feature film, with minimal assistance, makes the book worth reading on its own, but I will skip over that as well. 

Once the film was finished, Rodriguez went to Los Angeles in the hope of selling El Mariachi to one of the Spanish language film distributors. It is difficult to believe, but after making thirty short films and his first feature film, Rodriguez had still never seen a professional screenplay.
On our way back to the apartment we stopped by the Hollywood Book Store and I bought the script to Road Warrior [better known to Australians as Mad Max 2] so I can have something to read. My script for El Mariachi was completely mis-formatted, which is why my thirty-five-page script ended up being a ninety-minute movie.
The section of the book covering his dealings with various agents and Hollywood studios is a real eye-opener as well. That is followed by his triumphant tour of the Film Festivals, a section called 'The Robert Rodriguez Ten-Minute Film Course,' and a copy of the original script for El Mariachi.

Rebel Without a Crew is a highly readable, informative and inspiring book. Take a look at it sometime.

First posted:  21 April 2012

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