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SXSW: Robert Rodriguez's tips for getting your movie made, even without a budget

By Eric Vespe
Robert Rodriguez

Robert Rodriguez has one of the most inspirational and well-known origin stories of any modern filmmaker. He famously sold his body to science to finance his first feature film, El Mariachi, which cost only $7,000 and launched the scrappy young filmmaker into the limelight.

The self-made director has always been eager to share his knowledge and even wrote arguably the most inspiring filmmaking book ever published: Rebel Without a Crew. That book solidifies the legend of his rise to becoming a filmmaker you can't possibly ignore and also established Rodriguez as a mentor, but not one who insists on following any textbook. No, he wants you to write the next one.

In the years since he's gone on to direct hugely popular films, ranging in content and, one could argue, in quality. From Sin City to Alita: Battle Angel, he's been working like a madman, but even at his busiest that indie mentor spirit has burned within him.

Now he's back with a documentary series that promises to be a comprehensive film school experience as well as a new $7,000 feature, both premiering at SXSW Tuesday, March 12.

Sitting down with him before the fest kicked off, it was impossible to miss the excitement in his eyes as he talked about how making this documentary series and micro-budget film has inspired him.

“I'm so excited for this premiere, more than any other premiere I've ever had,” Rodriguez said. “The movie's going to blow their minds, and I'm going to point things out afterwards during the Q&A and they're going to be transformed. They're going to feel like they can go start their own business or make their own movie.”

Rodriguez was deep into post-production on Alita when he made this six-part documentary series, so he says if you're a filmmaker the time for excuses is over. If he can do this with the spare few hours a day he had while working full-time on a giant studio feature film, then you can follow your dreams, too.

“If you have an idea, even if nobody else believes in it, you can go make it tomorrow,” he said. “That's very empowering. You don't need all these things. You don't need a great photographer. You don't need a big budget. You don't need an editor. You can start tomorrow.

“If you keep putting it off until you have enough time, you're never going to have enough time," he continues. "If you're going to wait until you're ready, you're never going to be ready. I wasn't ready! These are the life lessons. When are you ready for what life throws at you? You're not. It isn't waiting for you. I know so many people who are saying, 'I'm waiting for a better camera' or 'I'm waiting until I'm ready,' then that's what's going to be on your f**kin' tombstone. You've got dive in. That's what this shows you.”

But where do you start? Rodriguez believes the journey is the goal. It's all about life experiences. He began his new feature, Red 11, based on the notes he wrote in 1993 while he was subjecting his body to various drug experiments for money and went from there. In doing so, he says this is really his only true “personal film” because these notes represent his only real-life experience before he became a filmmaker.

If you don't have a big life experience, then Rodriguez says not to fret. The valuable life lessons you're seeking can be in found in the journey of making a movie.

“Take on a big project,” the filmmaker says. “You're going to stumble. But you're also going to stumble upon. You're going to stumble upon an idea you might never have come up with. When I made Mariachi it was completely ridiculous to go try that, but I stumbled upon a method of making a movie that actually reaped huge benefits creatively. It took me 25 years to realize that, because until I tried it again I thought it was just because it was my first movie.

"It's not that. It's this method, which is the complete opposite of how you're supposed to make a movie in Hollywood terms, but really back to the purity of the silent era," he says. "That was just Charlie Chaplin in front of the camera and one guy back there cranking the camera. That was it!”

It's all about spurring creativity. For Rodriguez, it's making movies, but he says the benefits of this way of thinking can benefit anybody, and that's a lesson he learned when he started hearing from fans of his 1995 book.

“So many people who read Rebel Without a Crew weren't even going to be filmmakers, they were starting a new business,” he said. “It translated to more than just making movies.”

The goal is to make something out of nothing. It's a challenge for yourself to make something with zero resources. It may seem impossible, but he's hoping people who watch his docu-series will see that it can be done and that by challenging yourself this way you're opening the door for the creativity gods to come in and bless your project.

“Growth comes from an extreme challenge. It just does. Baby steps, tiptoeing around it as an artist, isn't going to get you anywhere," he reasons. "I'm even more of a believer now, to the point that I really want to make something like this at least every other year, if not more. It's such a palate cleanser. It's such a reaffirmation of the creative process. Ideas come to you that you would just not get otherwise because you're trying to make yourself do this thing.”

And he's not just preaching the gospel of creativity. He's taking it into his big movies.

“When I make another big movie with a bunch of resources and a big crew, I want to show them this movie first and tell them, 'We want this stuff to show up. Let's not overlook this because we're making a big movie. Let's embrace the purity of the rubber-band and popsicle-stick solutions, because sometimes those are the best ones.'"

“I brought a lot of that to Alita. People go on and on about how big the budget was, but Jim [Cameron] even says it would have cost him twice as much if he did it," Rodriguez continues. "To make it look like a Jim Cameron movie, I had to use all my tricks. That's why it looks so huge. It looks beyond its budget, even, and that's from using all the tricks you learn from this kind of filmmaking.”

The Robert Rodriguez Film School series and Red 11 are both playing SXSW, and the filmmaker is hoping someone comes in and buys them as a package. It's great for festivalgoers to be inspired, but at the end of the day he wants to reach aspiring creatives of all sorts in all places.

“Ideally I'd like to find someone to buy it, maybe a streaming service, that would show the doc first, because it really makes you want to see the movie,” he said. “The movie really does stand on its own, so somebody might be interested in just putting it out, but ideally I'd like to see it packaged together.”

Netflix did something like that recently when it released the previously unfinished Orson Welles project The Other Side of the Wind alongside a documentary called They'll Love Me When I'm Dead that chronicled the journey of assembling Welles' final film.

Wherever the film and docu-series end up calling home, it's sure to get the creative juices flowing in any aspiring filmmaker, just as his book did.

“At the end of the day it's still going to be just you seeing creativity show up, and when it does you better be rolling.”