Austin maverick filmmaker Robert Rodriguez is set to launch his small-screen reboot of his cult-favorite film From Dusk Till Dawn, but his TV ambitions don’t stop there. With his new Latino-themed/English-speaking cable network El Rey, the Spy Kids and Desperado writer-director-producer-editor is trying to carve a whole new path for cool TV shows that sheds the usual big network note-giving development process. We interviewed Rodriguez at his Austin-based Troublemaker Studios about his new network and Dusk (which will premiere at the South By Southwest Film Festival this weekend). Below Rodriguez reveals how the genre-mashup Dusk got made, teases changes and expansions for the series version and talks about what the big networks are doing wrong.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: So we have some common history. I volunteered for medical research tests to help pay for college at the same Austin facility you used to fund El Mariachi.
Robert Rodriguez: What did you do in there?
Drug names that I don’t remember. The only one I recall vividly was the wisdom tooth removal study, because they pull out your teeth and then test a painkiller.
Rodriguez: I’d be in there for a month; $3,000 for a month. That’s what I did for El Mariachi. It was easy because it was Lipitor, though it wasn’t called that yet. It was a lower-cholesterol drug, which was great because they gave us like bacon and a high-fat diet. There was another drug study next to us that was a narcotic pain killer for $3,500 for a month. And somebody got sick on the first day and went home the first day fully paid. We were all like, “I wish we could get sick.”
I stuck to the weekend ones because I had school.
Rodriguez: I avoided those. The weekend ones they pay you for your pain, the other ones they pay you more for your time — so it was like one blood draw a day. The weekend ones you’d end up like a pin cushion. They’d put on your tourniquet and blood would already be shooting out because your other holes hadn’t healed. They’re like $500 to $700?
Yeah. And speaking of drawing blood, we should talk Dusk. You always fill many roles on each project. How many hats are you wearing on this?
Rodriguez: It’s a big deal because, one, I’m running the network. So it’s not just this show but it’s all the other things we’re doing. It would be like Ted Turner having to actually direct and be there on the floor. Usually a filmmaker does a show he helped develop he’ll do just the pilot. That’s the one that sets the tone. I’ve [directed] half [of the episodes] so far, four of them. I wrote the first one to show how it was going to be expanded. I had this idea how to take From Dusk Till Dawn story elements from the original but really expand them out and fill up an hour with a lot of story that just keep branching out to events before the movie and after the movie and beyond. I was really inspired by that last painting–
Rodriguez points to a large painting hanging above his lobby. It’s of the final image in From Dusk Till Dawn, which revealed the backside of the film’s Titty Twister bar to actually be the top of a giant Mayan pyramid.
– I always wanted to add more to that original story because it took place in Mexico. Originally it was a bar in Mexico that was full of vampires. But I thought, what if there was a cult and a Mayan myth and creatures that kind of resembled vampires but weren’t really vampires. And I kind of hinted at it. I wanted to at least allude to a bigger story. I never really got to it. So this seemed like a perfect opportunity to retell that story in the first season but in a different way that really prepares us for the next season. And we’re already getting there. We’re in episode eight and we’re in new territory that gets into the mythology. It kind of feels more like the second season already.
So by episode eight it’s new territory?
Rodriguez: I mean, there’s new stuff from the very beginning. Before there was no clue there was anything supernatural until you go to the bar. I wanted the supernatural element to be more engrained from the very beginning. We have a whole writing team figuring it all out, it’s great, usually on a movie it’s very solitary work. But the ideas I gave them that could have been kinda out-there — they made them work. It’s really cool to see how the whole sniper team works. So I can still direct and edit.
What took you so long to do a TV show?
Rodriguez: I was always interested in TV. People approached me for TV from very early on after El Mariachi because they were like, “This guy can work fast and cheap.” I would pitch some ideas and they would have some Hispanic themes. A lot of networks are trying to get more Hispanic stuff in there, but they weren’t really ready for it. I didn’t even get so far as the development stage. The process seemed cockamamie, it was really different from the movie industry. With TV, you develop something and maybe it goes to script and maybe they even commission a pilot and maybe it even gets shot. Then if it doesn’t get picked for a series, it’s dead. Then you might even make a series, you might get six or 13 episodes, and then it could get canceled if they put it on the wrong night. You have no say in any of that. It’s just bizarre. In the movie business you have a lot more say. I was making my own posters and helping decide release dates. You’re their partner. The TV process seemed like a lot of work for a lot of “maybes.” I just had so much more control over the process in movies. Not control in a bad way, but you could get so much more excited about a project because you knew it was coming out. We can put all our best work into this because we know people will see it. So I just avoided it until this network thing came along — that’s different. This is our own network. We can commission more seasons. In fact we can start now! It’s much more like my independent film days.
It’s like you waited until you had your own network so you could greenlight and renew your own shows before doing it.
Rodriguez: I wouldn’t even say “waited” — I never thought this would even happen. But this is the way to go. You can entice everyone to come to work for you. Bob Orci, he does Star Trek, Sleepy Hollow, Hawaii Five-0. I went to him and was like, “What do you got?” He’s like, “I got a Latin James Bond.” I’m like, “That’s cool.” We talked about it and said he’s guaranteed 13 episodes in prime-time and we start now. And it’s like, “Wow, that never happens.”
But there has to be a limit to the leash. At a certain point, in terms of your financing, there must be certain performance standards you have to meet.
Rodriguez: We don’t really have them yet. You don’t really cancel your first shows. Later, once you establish numbers, then you have something to compare it to. Once Dusk or Matador comes out, we can keep those going forever because they’re our first shows. We’re not comparing ourselves to other networks, we’re just comparing them to ourselves. Now if a third one comes out and it’s performing below the other two, then that would probably go. But if I really believe in something, we’ll keep it. We want filmmakers to feel like, when they go to El Rey they’re treated like the king.
Thus “El Rey,” you’re treated like “The King”?
Yeah, that’s why I kinda came up with that name. You want them to feel like it’s one-stop shopping and there’s always something cool going on. So if I believe in a show and if it does perform to a certain level I’m going to keep it on. Then you might have a Breaking Bad, something that’s a slow build. We’re not going to panic. It’s all by instinct. One of Dusk Till Dawn writers, Carlos Coto, brought on to showrun, when we were throwing ideas back and forth he was getting excited and then pulled himself back and he’s like, “This is really great, but how are we going to get it past executives?” But here [you don't have to]. It’s really strange when you stop and think about how much time [a TV writer] spends trying to navigate around executives. You gotta go through layers that question every move.
Is there an example of an idea like that from Dusk that wouldn’t make it past executives at another network?
I can’t remember what specifically it was. It’s just a constant battle knowing the creative ideas are at some point have to pass through the business level and [executives] all gotta justify their jobs and they’ll question it. Things will get watered down for no particular reason. There is just a process in the system that has built itself up. Just like the studio system built themselves up and then independent filmmakers figured out another way to do it. This is very much like an independent renegade network that’s building from ground up. We’re not imitating how other networks are doing it or else we’d be dead. That’s what we’ve always done here in Austin. Because we’re outside of the industry we’re automatically going to think outside of the box. How come we’re the first to be shooting digitally? How come we’re the first to be doing a [comic-book on green-screen-style] Sin City-type movie? How come we did the first digital 3D movie with Spy Kids 3? Before that there was only one digital screen in the whole country. It’s not because we’re geniuses, it’s just because we’re outside of the box and you’re going to question everything. Because we’re not next to the industry so we don’t have the pressure of somebody saying, “No-no you can’t do that.” You stumble, but you also stumble onto ideas nobody would have thought of. So if we do that with a network, maybe people will see the innovations we’re doing out here.
Content wise if you look at basic cable have everything from Disney Channel to FX airing American Horror Story. So what is permitted on El Rey terms of violence language and nudity? Where are you setting the bar for yourself?
We’re not in competition with anybody. We’re not trying to be gorier or scarier. We could be gorier or scarier than Walking Dead, but that doesn’t feel like it’s honest to what [Dusk] is. You don’t have to force it. If it’s honest, we can do anything we want. There really isn’t any perimeters, every network has their own guidelines
But when you’re writing dialog you have to know what you can use.
I looked into that and it’s different with every network. Some have their own standards list. We’ll try to keep it so we don’t get in trouble later.
You mentioned a second season for Dusk, can you tease where the story go?
My idea was the Santanico Pandemonium character [the demon queen played by Eiza González in the series], I wanted her to seem like the villain in the first season. Everybody is being set up like lambs to the slaughter. But that’s because they’re lambs. Once you realize the hierarchy she’s actually the heroine of the story and is up against things that are much more powerful. So I hope we get into that in the second season. You know, “El Rey” really does fit the network really well. I was thinking of the song and the lyrics go, “I don’t have a throne or a queen. Or anyone who understands me. But I’m still the king.” It’s about pride … And in the movie, El Rey was this mythical place in Mexico where [the Gekko Brothers] were tying to get to.
Wait, was your El Rey in the film a reference to Jim Thompson’s The Getaway?
Yes! We’ve been talking about that, about eventually the show’s story going to El Rey.
When watching the pilot, I was wondering if some of this was stuff was content that Dusk writer Quentin Tarantino had originally written for the film because it seemed so organic to the story.
Oh that’s great! Yeah, no, not at all. There was a hotel escape scene that I asked Quentin to write for the script, thinking we needed another action scene before they get to the border. Cops show up at the hotel and they have to break out. He wrote a pretty involved scene with Richie shooting his way through hotel room doors. It was cool but it didn’t fit. He was like, “It’s one of the best action scenes I’ve ever written but I don’t know if we should do it.” And he was right, it didn’t fit. But I found those original pages and thought it was going to be a whole episode, but it ended up not. By the time we got to that episode we’re running so much by our own fuel and only a little bit of that shootout happens in the last five minutes. That was the only place that happened.
Any concerns about having a vampire show when the vampire trend seems to be on the wane?
They’re not really vampires. We wanted something more ancient than that. I found it in the original studies I did for From Dusk Till Dawn, this snake cult that worshiped the sun and sacrificed people to keep the sun coming up every day. Great idea — you kill people, the sun comes up, it must be working! So that’s why I gave Salma Hayek the snake to dance with in the film — that wasn’t in the script. For Blade Runner, the first thing Ridley Scott changed was the word “android.” Because you see “android” and you feel like you already know what you’re going to see. He just changed it to Replicant. It’s same thing, but it’s completely different. That’s your version. It’s fun finding the differences. The first thing you see gives the idea these might be vampire-type creatures but then as the season and mythology unfolds other “things” keep getting introduced. You can kind of do whatever you want. You’re not tied to any rules.
I remember seeing Dusk in the theater and feeling like I just hit such a big left turn, a crime drama suddenly turning into under-siege monster movie.
It’s two movies in one. It was our first Grindhouse double feature.
How are you balancing that in the series? And once you open up the supernatural element can you get back to a crime story within the show?
Yeah. Originally in the movie it wasn’t supposed to be that way. Quentin was hired by some special effects guys to do this story about a couple robbers who showed up in a Mexican bar and it was full of vampires. When Quentin went to write it he was so into his characters he kept delaying until he got to the bar. It was never supposed to be halfway. It became this hybrid and it was unsellable. Nobody could understand it. Nobody wanted it. Then Pulp Fiction hit and everybody wanted to make Quentin’s script, it didn’t matter. Originally they thought it was weird, you turn the page and there’s vampires! It makes no sense. Suddenly it became avant-garde, it’s two movies in one! We said, “Let’s go make it now while things are hot because they’ll never let us do it again.” For the TV show, I wanted it to be much more engrained. It’s a crime saga with supernatural elements in every episode. The supernatural element starts off small in the first episode, but the reveal when you get to the bar is so much more powerful because you’ve been getting seduced into it.
There’s one last question I want to ask. It’s not about Dusk and it’s not even about anything recent. But I was looking through news stories about you and I was fascinated by one thing you did: Several years ago you turned down the chance to remake Barbarella, which you were developing. It had a $70 million budget, but the studio required you leaving Texas to shoot in Germany for the tax breaks. You explained it at the time — you have five kids and didn’t want to be away from them for so long. But in a way you did not explain it. Because it’s tough to imagine any other filmmaker being offered the biggest budget they’ve ever had for a project they really wanted to do and then walking away for that reason. So I wanted to know if you could explain it further because I suspect if I completely understand that then I’d understand you as a filmmaker.
It was a really tough decision because it would have been the biggest budget I would have had up until then. I labored over that for awhile. I had turned down movies to stay home before, but that was the biggest one by far. It certainly wasn’t easy. But I wouldn’t just [be there] for production, but for all the post-production, which in a special-effects movie could go on forever. I could have been there for a year and a half. There are so many other projects that could be done. Money isn’t everything. I’d rather stay where I’m at and make movies here. That’s why I built a studio. I’m glad I did other movies instead because they’re on your own terms. It’s hard to take an assignment just for money and savings when you’re such a regional filmmaker and have such a home base. I have a whole operation here I’ve already invested in plus five kids and I know they would get tired of being wherever I was at. I just couldn’t do it.