Bigger, louder

With 1,000 times the budget for his sequel, Robert Rodriguez comes out with guns a-blazin'

Get a load of this: Antonio Banderas, all decked out in bandit black, scampering across the bar in a dingy cantina, a blazing gun in either hand, mowing down bad guys as he twirls his arm this way, that way, any way, like a flamboyant bullfighter facing death in the afternoon.

Texas-born filmmaker Robert Rodriguez can't help grinning at his own handiwork as the action explodes across twin video monitors.

"Awwwwwriiiiight!" he exclaims, cranking up the volume of the Lightworks editing unit that takes up most of his Del Rio motel room. "You know, we can't get a stunt double for Banderas. Nobody can move like this guy."

His voice is drowned out by another volley of gunfire. On the video screens, Banderas is allowing the bad guys to take their best shots. "You missed me!" he jeers at a particularly bad marksman.

"Of course, the Mariachi never misses," Rodriguez notes. "He just keeps coming up with these new shooting techniques. This movement here--we call this 'The Whip.' And it works, see. The bullets go around corners and hit people."

Rodriguez pushes another button on the console, and another image appears on the monitors.

It's Quentin Tarantino, the exuberant auteur of Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, trying to talk his way out of a dangerous situation. He's in the back room of the bar, hoping to score a drug deal with a couple of thugs, when Banderas begins to blast away the bad guys. The thugs in the back room think Tarantino has set them up.

"Look, man," Tarantino desperately explains. "I had nothing to do with..." Blam! A single shot to the forehead ends the conversation. Tarantino dies as messily as a character in one of his own movies.

"See that?" Rodriguez asks, beaming like a child who's just been told that, starting next week, every Friday will be Christmas. "Let me show you again. This is a real cool editing system. They made this stuff real easy so, like, you learn to work it in a half-hour."

But isn't it more than a little ironic that this Lightworks system cost most than the entire budget of Rodriguez's previous movie?

"Are you kidding?" he replies. He picks up a small black rectangular box that looks like a CD player you might connect to your living-room stereo. "Man, this alone cost more than El Mariachi."

Rodriguez isn't exaggerating. Four years ago he filmed El Mariachi, his debut feature, just down the highway and across the Rio Grande in the hardscrabble border town of Ciudad Acua. Miraculously, he managed to complete the action opus with a borrowed camera, a handful of friends, and a frayed-shoestring budget of $7,225. Now he has returned to the scene of the crime with nearly 1,000 times that amount to film a sequel for Columbia Pictures.

Desperado is what they finally decided to call the sequel that opens August 25 in theaters nationwide. During production last fall in Del Rio and Ciudad Acua, the movie was known variously as Pistolero, Desperado, and, briefly, The Return of the Mariachi.

"When I first wrote it," Rodriguez said two weeks ago in Los Angeles, "the original title was Pistolero. But the studio thought that sounded too Spanish, so they wanted me to change it to Desperado. I said, 'Just so long as they don't ask me to use that Eagles song.'"

Laughing, he added, "Sure enough, someone asked, 'Hey, why don't we use a down-and-dirty version of the Eagles song [on the soundtrack]?' And I said, 'Nah!'"

Rodriguez was prepared to ward off many other "helpful suggestions" from studio bigwigs during the production of Desperado. But the entire experience turned out to be remarkably hassle-free, in large measure because, once again, Rodriguez knew how to pinch pennies and stretch dollars. He filmed his sequel on a budget of $7 million--by Hollywood standards, a mere pittance.

"And the great thing is, because they gave me so little money to make it, the studio left me alone after a while," he says. "I mean, this is the amount they wouldn't even use to make some little comedy. Usually, they'll give you $7 million when you make one of those little personal dramas where you might make a little bit of money, or you might not. You never get an action movie for that much.

"So they couldn't lose. Even if the movie sucked completely, they'd make all their money back internationally because it's an action film with Antonio Banderas."

El Mariachi, which Rodriguez financed by serving as a human guinea pig for a pharmaceutical company, never was intended to be seen by ticketbuyers. The movie, a fast-paced melodrama about a musician who's mistaken for a notorious hit man, was the product of an ambitious scheme hatched by Rodriguez, then a 23-year-old University of Texas student, and two co-producers: Elizabeth Avellan, his wife, and Carlos Gallardo, a fellow student drafted to play the title role.

According to the original scenario, they would film three micro-budget action flicks back to back--selling the first to pay for the second, then the second to pay for the third--for the Spanish-language video market. That way, they could gain all the benefits of hands-on experience without risking the possible embarrassment of having a future employer actually see the mistakes they made. "I figured, no one [in Hollywood] would ever rent it," Rodriguez says. "I mean, do you ever go to the Spanish video market and rent a movie? And even if you did, would you ever rent an action movie called The Guitar Player?"

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