By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
By Claire Lawton
By Kiernan Maletsky
By Anna Merlan
But when he sent a tape of El Mariachi as a calling card to the prestigious International Creative Management agency, ICM's Robert Newman liked what he saw. He sent a dupe to Columbia, where the movers and shakers were similarly impressed. One thing led to another, El Mariachi got a theatrical release, and Rodriguez was signed to a two-picture development deal.
The unlikely rise of Rodriguez and his no-budget movie was the stuff of instant legend when El Mariachi hit theaters in early 1993. But a key detail somehow got overlooked in most of the press coverage: The ending of this Cinderella story wasn't nearly as happy as most folks assumed.
El Mariachi ended up grossing "only about $1.8 million," says Desperado producer Bill Borden. "Now, if you look at it in terms of percentages--the movie only cost $7,000, and then Columbia put a couple of hundred thousand dollars into finishing it, bringing it up to 35mm and re-dubbing it so you could release it in big theaters. Well, you know, to invest a couple of hundred thousand dollars into a movie that returned $1.8 million was not such a bad investment.
"But the reality of that investment is it didn't make them any money," Borden explains. "By the time you put in the cost of [prints and advertising], and flew Robert around for all the publicity trips and all that stuff, it was a break-even proposition."
All of which goes a long way toward explaining why the people involved with the second feature--including Rodriguez himself--were more than a little ambivalent about what to call the new film, and how closely to associate it with its predecessor.
To put it another way: It didn't seem like such a good idea to call it El Mariachi 2, considering how few people actually bought tickets to El Mariachi 1. (The first film, it should be noted, subsequently reached a much larger audience on video and cable.) On the other hand, Columbia didn't want to distance the sequel so far from the original that it couldn't take advantage of all the hype generated by the first film.
Ultimately, Rodriguez decided to go with a different title, yet remain faithful to the spirit of his first feature.
"Desperado," he says, "is what The Road Warrior was to Mad Max. It's like, the same character in a different movie. If you didn't see the first movie, it doesn't matter. You can still have a good time with this one."
The new movie has a lot more action, much spiffier production values and, perhaps most important, a hot property in the lead role: Antonio Banderas, the Spanish-born hunk who has managed the tricky transition from imported art-house fare (Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! and other Pedro Almodovar films) to mainstream American movies (Miami Rhapsody). Carlos Gallardo, who played the original Mariachi, "agreed as my co-producer that, in the sequel, we had to go out big," Rodriguez says. "And we had to get a big star to play the lead, so we'd get more heat out of it.
"Besides, Carlos knew that, while he may have been the character in the first movie, where the Mariachi is still relatively innocent, he wasn't the character that Antonio has to play in Desperado. He couldn't play it that hard."
As Banderas plays him, the Mariachi is a one-man army who declares war on drug dealers in a small Mexican border town. He travels everywhere with a lethal array of weapons in a seemingly innocuous guitar case. And he doesn't aim to please.
"I am not killing just one guy once in a while," Banderas explains with a mischievous grin between takes in Ciudad Acu–a. "I go into a bar, and I kill 20 guys at once. So it's over the top. The movie starts, and in 20 minutes, I kill about 40 guys in two different bars."
No kidding. Desperado is a rapid-fire action-adventure that plays like Sergio Leone meets John Woo meets Tex Avery. Rodriguez may be spending only $7 million, but he's determined to give Columbia--and his audience--maximum bangs for each buck.
"When I was younger," Rodriguez says, "I used to come out of James Bond movies feeling really charged, and wanting to be James Bond. But as I got older, I didn't feel that way anymore at action movies. I used to think it was because I'd gotten older. But then I saw a John Woo movie, where I felt like a kid again. I thought, 'Man, it's not me--it's the action movies that have gotten stale. But what he's doing is so cool.' Really. I'd watch one of Woo's movies, and think, 'Wow! I want to be Chinese!'
"There was so much power with his images that I thought, 'I want to do that with Mexicans!' so that people who watch [Desperado] will think, 'Wow! I want to be Mexican!'"
Rodriguez insists that success hasn't spoiled him so far, and isn't likely to in the future. He and his wife still live in Austin, far away from the lifestyles of the rich and fatuous in L.A. And while he enjoys the relative ease of directing a film bankrolled by a Hollywood studio, he claims that if Desperado is a box-office dud--and his next film, the Quentin Tarantino-scripted From Dusk Till Dawn, also flops--he can always go back to making no-budget quickies with friends and relatives.
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