Robert Rodriguez Looks Back at ‘Roadracers,' Ahead to ‘Machete Kills' and ‘Sin City 2'

In 1994 director Robert Rodriguez went to Hollywood, and he’s been a welcome troublemaker ever since.

Rodriguez was already a self-made indie wunderkind for his equally self-made film “El Mariachi,” which he funded by subjecting himself to medical experimentation, when he got his first major filmmaking assignment, directing and co-writing a pay cable movie called “Roadracers,” part of Showtime’s “Rebel Highway” film series inspired by the drive-in B movies of American International Pictures.

Armed with a shoestring budget, a microscopic shooting schedule and a cast of soon-to-be-stars including David Arquette, John Hawkes and Salma Hayek (making her American film debut), Rodriguez somehow shot a movie that would remain one of his liveliest works, and help him determine the course of the rest of his career. In time for the film’s debut on Blu-ray, Rodriguez shared his memories of making “Roadracers” with PopcornBiz (along with a few teasers for his upcoming projects “Machete Kills” [which we hear may or may not feature Mel Gibson], “Sin City 2” and “Fire & Ice”).

Was the speed at which you made the film an adjustment for the people that you worked with? How did that work for you and against while you were making the movie?

What had happened was that this was a part of a bigger series, a part of the 'Rebel Highway' series, remaking all the old pictures and they were just done back to back-to-back. Every 12 days they would shoot another one, so the crew was getting paid – not very much, but because they were doing 10 movies it worked out, so it was really low budget, and it was a lot of big directors that they had working on them, but even they weren't used to working on this kind of a schedule. A lot of those movies were going over budget, over schedule, but not over days, just over hours, so by the time that I got there all go, go, go, my crew had been working 18-, 19-, 20-hour days – they were toast! So they brought me in only because Wes Craven dropped out at the last minute because one of his new 'Nightmare on Elm Street' movies got green-lit, so he left. Rather than bringing in another big director they said, 'Let’s bring in that kid that made that movie for nothing, because we need to make up some of the money we've lost by going over budget and over schedule.' …[Executive producer] Deborah Hill told me 'This is the most fun you'll ever have making a movie, because even though we're not going to give you much time or money you're going to have complete creative freedom to do whatever you want – and you're never going to get that again.' It was a blast, but I had to pick up the camera and haul it around because the crew, they were just so tired. Me, I was just this little punk, so they looked at me and were questioning everything that I was doing because I was shooting really fast and I was only shooting my edits. I wasn't shooting full shots…I'm sure that they thought that this thing wasn't even going to cut together, so you just had to go, 'I'm shooting anyway.'

I'm guessing the best new toys you had going into that experience were probably the actors themselves, right?
It was really the fact that I had actors that made everything sound amazing. I wasn't used to that, so I realized pretty quickly that I had to really work on the script because no matter what I handed them, I could've given them the phone book and they were going to make it sound good. I was just in awe of the actors. I remember I had Bill Sadler the first day and was just in awe of everything he did. He was like, 'Tell me, what do you want me to do?' I said, 'No – that sounded so fantastic.' I had to learn pretty quick how to direct and really push to get even more out of everything, and push myself as a writer and as a director. But it was amazing. David Arquette – what a gift he was! John Hawkes was just unbelievable to work with. They were just all so game. They were all so game for doing this that quickly, no preparation. I remember John Hawkes saying, 'I really love working on this movie because it just feels like such vital filmmaking.' He used the word ‘vital’ because it felt like we were almost shooting it real time. There was a real infectious energy about it because you weren't waiting around ever…That's why I can still attract big actors to come be in these movies, because they know that they're not going to be there for very long because I shoot them out quickly, so it's a very small commitment for them and they get to play a part that hadn't normally gotten to play or that they don't usually get asked to play. I think that's what I learned from this movie, just that methodology of doing more jobs myself and teaching my crew to shoot that way and being able to attract actors to come be in these very odd but unique and most vital films in that way.
Did you get to the point where you did the next studio movie and then realized how important that creative autonomy and freedom was to you? Have you ever felt hamstrung on a picture?

As I was making 'Desperado' [next], Quentin [Tarantino], who was doing 'Pulp Fiction,’ had an office right next to me. Tri-Star passed on it and he took it to Miramax that had just gotten bought by Disney, so they had money now. After 'Desperado' I went to Miramax, and it was like, 'You're at an independent studio,' and so from then on we had that freedom anyway. We had final cut of anything that we had there. I kind of bypassed that whole studio route. I didn't have to go that route and that made it possible for 'Pulp Fiction.' If Quentin had to stay at Tri Star they would've made him cut the movie down and change it. Because Miramax popped up and was now a viable option with money, because they had Disney money, it was the best thing – that an independent company actually had dough to go make these things, that became our option. Then we never left there because we had total creative freedom and the backing to do modest productions, but with big ideas and could do about any production that we wanted, so that was a real blessing, actually.

Let's talk about 'Sin City 2' for a second. How closely do you want to keep the style you and Frank [Miller] had the first time, and how much do you want to push forward the techniques you're using?

I can't say what it's going to look like, but it does evolve. You do feel like it's evolved, but in a way that's very true to the original material, which is always what I tried to pull off, even the first time. I only took it so far because, 1) I didn't know if audiences would understand it that well, and also the technology – we didn't push it as much as we could've. So this time I think, definitely, it'll feel even more like the books. Frank has a lot of interesting ideas that he's shown me. I think it'll be very eye-popping and visually arresting, but the story, when it comes down to it, the stories are just great. That's what's terrific about it: that the visual element of it is half the picture, but the other half is a pretty important half and that's the story. That's what Frank has just nailed. That's what I'm most excited about.

You've settled on 'A Dame To Kill For' as the driving story – are you going to do two other adjoining stories like you did in the first one?

Yeah. Anthologies don't usually work. I had done one myself called 'Four Rooms' and I thought, 'You can make an anthology work if you didn't make it four or five or six stories, but three,' because three acts are natural to people. It's a natural storytelling format, and so I tried that on 'Sin City' and it seemed like the format worked pretty well. So, I think that we're going to stick with that format which is three stories and a wrap around.

Have you even thought about casting for the characters being introduced? We know some of the originals like Mickey Rourke and Rosario Dawson are on-board and ready to go?

Yeah, we haven't gone out to anybody yet. It's always a fun casting process. I like bringing people in front of Frank and seeing who he responds to, because he created these characters and it's always incredible when his character walks through the door and his eyes light up, like, 'This is the person that I dreamt about 20 years ago,' or whatever when he did the first book. So that's a great process and I'm certainly looking forward to that.

And then you're doing the sequel 'Machete Kills' first – what are you excited for in that, the new possibilities where you can take Danny Trejo’s character?

I don't know how much I can give away of the story, but when I pitched people the story their eyes would get really wide and they'd say, 'That sounds really cool!’ We certainly go more into a 'Mission: Impossible,' James Bond type of feel, which is always where I wanted to take the character. The story is just great. I was looking forward to it so much. I knew that we needed to get it off the ground, but then the script came in and I realized, 'I have to direct it, too. I have to direct this thing, because it's going to be so fun!’ It's really going to surprise people and take it to a whole other level.

And I look forward to seeing what you're going to do with the Frank Frazetta paintings, in your “Fire & Ice” remake. I saw those original paintings of his at Comic-Con last year and was just blown away by them.

Just amazing! I couldn't enjoy the party – I kept wanting to just go and look at the art. They're so cool. Yeah, that project is so cool. I mean, the script is almost done and it's coming out really terrific, so we've already started preproduction on that, and right after 'Sin City' we go into that. I look forward to that.
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