There's a moment in "Once Upon a Time in Mexico," when Johnny Depp, playing a crazed CIA agent, mutters to a bad guy, "Are you a Mexi-can or a Mexi-can't?" Veteran film villain, Danny Trejo, answers with emphasis on the last syllable, "I'm a Mexi-can!"
This being a Robert Rodriguez movie, that moment could stand as a motto for the filmmaker himself. There is almost nothing he won't do to make movies his way. Rodriguez owns 10 industry union cards that prove his point.
"It's easier if you do everything," says the Texas native. "It's more organic. While you're writing the script, you're already writing the score and designing the scene." Dismissing the need for the hordes of technical crews that many action films use, he says, "The process has gotten so big, it's such a big business that it's gotten out of hand."
The reality, says the filmmaker, who also helmed the "Spy Kids" franchise, is that even a big-budget film doesn't generate enough work for the crews they typically use. "So, as a result, stuff gets overbuilt and [goes] over schedule."
Now, he says with a smile acknowledging the demands of the Hollywood unions, "I pay dues all day long just so I can make my movies the way I want to." And, he adds, "the way they used to be made."
Movie pioneers used what they had and made do. "It used to be real simple," adds Rodriguez.
Simplicity is what launched his career. He made "El Mariachi" in 1993 for $7,000. That film, about a guitar-slinging Mariachi musician bent on revenge, won the audience award at the Sundance Film Festival and stands as the lowest-budget movie ever released by a major studio (Columbia Pictures) - as well as the first US film released in Spanish.
Today, Rodriguez harnesses the power of new technology to re-create the simplicity of his early career. He shoots everything with a lightweight digital camera.
The difference between shooting with cumbersome film cameras and all the accompanying lights and technical support, is like, well, night and day, says Rodriguez. "You can see right away what you're doing," he adds, as opposed to waiting for film to be developed and watching dailies later. "It's like painting," he says, whereas "with film, it's like painting with the lights off and waiting till the next day to see what you've done."
Actors say the process changes the experience of working on a film, especially with Rodriguez, who tends to move fast and light anyway.
"Because he shoots so fast, it doesn't get boring," says Mr. Trejo, who adds that film acting is a process of hurry up and wait. "We usually get paid to wait," says the L.A. native, "acting is for free." Beyond that, says Trejo, actors can see what they've done immediately and make adjustments on the spot. "It really lets us shine."