When Robert Rodriguez comes by our studio during SXSW, he’s maybe a little nostalgic. Whereas most other filmmakers descend onto Austin in early March for a whirlwind of press and festivities, Rodriguez lives here and will remain long after the banners come down. Thus his trip was one practically across the street when he begins to reflect on the making Red 11, a new thriller intrinsically linked to his first film El Mariachi, plus those early days that’ve become something akin to filmmaking legend. In this vein, he and his children just watched From Dusk Till Dawn for the first-time together—and not the TV series either. This is the 1996 cult classic that starred George Clooney and Quentin Tarantino (who also wrote the script) as a pair of small-time criminals turned big-time vampire slayers when their strip club south of the border is discovered to be a nest for the Undead.
As we’ve always been curious about what Rodriguez’s exact thoughts were on that film’s ending, it was a good time to bring up the final moments where Clooney’s Seth Gecko get into a car, leaving the newly orphaned Kate (Juliette Lewis) to fend for herself. Seth’s headed to a town called El Rey with a crime boss played by Cheech Marin, and he wants to get there solo. Given El Rey—a name Rodriguez got out of Jim Thompson’s The Getaway novel from 1958—is what the filmmaker named his TV network after, we were curious of how he views the original Seth’s fate after leaving the bloodsuckers behind.
“I just watched it with my kids,” Rodriguez recalls. “They hadn’t seen it yet and we just watched it like two days ago. And they’re like, ‘Oh my God, we knew the scenes people always talk about. We didn’t realize it was like that the whole movie.’ They really enjoyed it, and I hadn’t seen it on the big screen in a long time, in a long time. But I remembered at the very end why I had Cheech show up three times, because he kind of plays the Devil, and El Rey is known for being in the Jim Thompson book as this place where criminals go, but it’s kind of like Hell. You get there and you never can leave; it’s like Hotel California. So when she asks to go with him and he says, ‘Do you know El Rey is? Do you know where I’m going?’ It means you don’t want to go there. And when Cheech says, ‘Seth, it’s time to go,’ it’s like he’s beckoning him to go to Hell. So for my mind he goes there and he never gets out.”
It was one of the many fascinating anecdotes from Rodriguez’s past and simultaneous future via Red 11 that you can view in full above. The new film was a project that sprung from memories of working on El Mariachi, the $7,000 indie he infamously paid for by selling his body to medical experimentation. It was a bet he made in order to shoot the Spanish-language actioner on 35mm (which the director suggests to us was a key factor on why he was one of the first major directors in Hollywood to switch to digital), and it was one that took on mythic status in film schools after he wrote it down in his book about the making of process in Rebel Without a Crew (1995). And while recently rereading that book, Rodriguez had remembered his original idea of turning his sacrifice for science into a fiction all its own.
“I happened to be reading my book again, and that chapter where I was a human lab rat,” Rodriguez says. “I’d forgotten the one story I was trying to sell to studios as my follow-up was Red 11, because it was the only life experience I had. I was so young that that was the only thing I experienced that was odd and strange, and everyone agreed was really funny. I sold my body to medical research experiments and that became part of the whole movie: this guy bled for the movie. So people were familiar with the story, but the story of the actual hospital is really funny. It’s an incredible ecosystem I’d never seen before in a movie.” Rodriguez eventually wound up breaking into Hollywood by making a pseudo-sequel to El Mariachi via 1995’s Desperado (which starred Antonio Banderas and Salma Hayek), but Red 11, titled after the number he actually had at the hospital, remained in the back of his mind waiting to evolve… or mutate.
“It was written at a time before I was even a filmmaker,” Rodriguez says of his original notes from 1993, which initially envisioned the film as a deeply ironic narrative. “But it probably won’t be as interesting as a behind-the-scenes story if it’s just a comedy about this place, so I’ll turn it into a thriller. That’s the way I’ll update it, because he’s not sure if they’re trying to kill him or just the side effects of the drugs.” Indeed, Rodriguez recalls there are many experiences from those days as the real-life Red 11 that, at the time, he wasn’t sure what was real and what was imagined. Nevertheless, it’s come full circle since it brought him to El Mariachi, the still-groundbreaking indie that now serves as the impetus for Red 11 and the docuseries about its making that he developed at the El Rey network.
Says Rodriguez, “People had asked over the years that I should do a follow-up book [to Rebel Without a Crew] for the digital age, because that was shot on film and I thought that was interesting.” And then during the 20th anniversary of El Mariachi in 2012, the idea fell into place to let the next generation experience the same process by getting first-time directors to make $7,000 films on a Rebel Without a Crew TV series… so long as Rodriguez did so too.
“Originally I was just doing the series for my television network,” Rodriguez admits, “but now I want to package it with the film and sell it to a streaming service where you can see the docuseries first and then watch the movie. Because the docuseries really makes you want to see the movie, because it’s just a big ad campaign for the movie. And then when you see the movie, you want to see the docuseries, because you go, ‘How is this possible? It shouldn’t even exist.’”
Yet it does, and hopefully soon it and the Rebel Without a Crew TV series will find a streaming service that will let all fans and aspiring filmmakers experience the thrill of creativity… and the dread it was built on.