A Family Affair
Born in San Antonio in 1968, Rodriguez was the son of Cecilio and Rebecca, a cookware salesman and a nurse. There was nothing extraordinary about Rodriguez’s upbringing, aside from having ten siblings. From the outside looking in, Rodriguez did not possess the qualities that might predict greatness early on. He was not a great student or athlete. However, he was always good at art and possessed a creative flair. Around age 12, things began to change when he got his hands on his father’s new Super 8 video camera. He loved to play around with it, and often used his brothers and sisters as actors to make little videos to entertain the family. Little did Rodriguez know that his childhood hobby would one day make him a star. The acting practice was fruitful for his siblings, too. Many of them starred in his movies, and some have lead successful acting careers.
As Rodriguez spent more and more time working with his dad’s camera, his videos began to evolve and his true gift began to unfold. His dad finally gave up on trying to use the camera, now monopolized by Rodriguez, and purchased another camera for himself. However, Rodriguez quickly took over that one, too, once he realized that two cameras gave him more filmmaking options than one.
Rodriguez soon learned that it just took creativity and hard work to turn the story he envisioned in his mind into a reality. From that day on, the sky was the limit. Rodriguez attended St. Anthony Catholic High School where he met Carlos Gallardo, another student whose love for movie making rivaled his own. Together the pair hid behind the camera lens and created small films that became increasingly popular among his classmates. By the tenth grade, Rodriguez’s films were so popular that his teachers began allowing him to turn in term movies instead of term papers.
On weekends Rodriguez and Carlos would film movies in Rodriguez’s backyard. During summer, Rodriguez stayed with Carlos in Ciudad Acuña, Mexico, where they filmed stories together. The town was a beautiful location where the boys ran around with their video camera creating the best videos, using whatever tools were on hand. Since nobody was really paying attention, nobody told them that the things they envisioned were impossible. The boys learned to dream without limits, and often stumbled upon novel new ways to make great things happen on film and in editing. The pair grew more and more skilled – unaware of how extraordinary their ideas actually were.
When Rodriguez graduated high school, he was accepted to the University of Texas (UT) and even received a scholarship. However, Rodriguez was saddened when he learned that a UT student could only apply for film school after completing two long years of basic courses. Never a real scholar, Rodriguez’s grades slipped, and he was not admitted to film school, despite his obvious talent. During that time, however, Rodriguez worked as a cartoonist for the UT student newspaper The Daily Texan. His comic strip was called “Los Hooligans” and was based upon his funny younger sister Maricarmen. Still making movies, Rodriguez created two films starring his siblings called David and His Sisters and Waterlogged. The films began winning in festivals. However, when his trilogy of short films entitled Austin Stories beat out other UT film students at a local film festival, Rodriguez took his film to then-professor Steve Mims to plead his case. He was immediately admitted into film class. After that, Rodriguez poured his heart and soul into an eight-minute film called Bedhead. It was sent off to fourteen film festivals and won first place several times. This gave Rodriguez the confidence to try something even bigger.
A Rise To The Top
“If you want to learn the guitar, you don’t take a couple of guitar classes and expect to do anything innovative,” Rodriguez said in his autobiography. “You practice in your garage until your fingers bleed. I had done that with my home movies.”
That statement was the driving force behind Rodriguez’s young adult life. He desired to make his first full length feature, but wanted to do it away from the prying eyes of naysayers. Rodriguez was not content to parrot other filmmakers and instructors who told him what would and would not be successful. He wanted to learn for himself what worked, and he wanted to know why it worked.
One day, Rodriguez thought of a brilliant idea to make money and give him the privacy and practice he desired simultaneously. Rodriguez decided to make a trilogy of movies. They would be Spanish language films that he would sell to the Mexican market. This would give him an opportunity to experiment with filmmaking and allow him to earn money without having a major American audience critiquing his first efforts. He would make his first two movies on a shoestring budget and try out all of his newly learned techniques. This would keep his successes and failures away from the limelight. Then, when he finished making his first two movies, he would transfer to the American movie scene with the third installment of the trilogy. By then he would
have the experience under his belt to make something truly worthwhile – or so he hoped.
To make things easier, Rodriguez made all three films about the same character, a traveling musician who is mistaken for a hitman who keeps a machine gun in his guitar case. The main character was played by his buddy Carlos Gallardo. Rodriguez, still a UT student, raised money for the film by donating his body to Pharmaco Research Hospital for a medical research study of the drug Lipitor. At the end of a month-long study, Rodriguez traveled to Mexico to begin a fourteen-day shoot for his first feature film, El Mariachi. He would have to use every creative trick in his arsenal to make it appear as if his film had a crew, a large budget, and expensive camera equipment. In the end, however, with a minuscule $7,000 budget, the movie would be so astounding that all of Hollywood would fight over it, with Columbia Pictures winning.
To say the least, Rodriguez’s first movie was a smash, becoming more successful than he ever imagined. Today, El Mariachi holds the Guinness Book of World Records for the lowest low-budget movie to make over $1 million. In fact, Rodriguez’s low-budget debut actually made $2,041,928 in cinemas worldwide, a far cry from the $15,000 payout he was originally seeking from the Spanish video market. Almost overnight, 23-year-old Rodriguez would go from being a UT film school student to the hottest new film-maker in Hollywood.
“I did find that it was just a very joyous time,” Rodriguez said in 2018. “I thought that was just because it was my early films, but I just did it again. I shot a new movie for $7,000 with no crew and fourteen days, and we documented it to teach people how to do it. I found that it wasn’t just because I was younger. The process was just more fun when you have to do everything.”
The First Taste of Fame
After his success, Rodriguez briefly moved to Los Angeles. He made a television film for Showtime called Roadracers, a film he would later come to dislike. After that, Rodriguez returned to Acuna, Mexico to shoot an El Mariachi sequel called Pistolero. It would later be retitled Desperado and starred famous actors Antonio Banderas and Salma Hayek. This time, Rodriguez had a $7 million budget. Again, the film was a success.
From the start, however, filming in Hollywood was a battle of wills. Hollywood was not used to directors editing their own movies. Rodriguez disliked relinquishing control. Breaking the rules, Rodriguez set his own pace in Hollywood and moved full speed ahead doing things his way. His methods had mixed reviews among his colleagues. Undeterred, Rodriguez was working at a neck-breaking speed shooting pretty much non-stop. He worked feverishly editing Desperado, shooting a film he helped make with Quentin Terrantino called 4 Rooms, and preparing to direct From Dusk ‘Til Dawn all at the same time.
Around this time, Rodriguez left Los Angeles and returned to Texas. After abandoning a deal to remake the movie Zorro because of differences with the film company, Rodriguez wanted to come home. Sick of Hollywood and missing Texas, Rodriguez settled in Austin. He went on to direct the movie The Faculty. Following that, he turned down bids to work on several high profile films in favor of spending time with his family. He would eventually turn down bids to work on X-Men, Superman Lives, and Planet of the Apes.
In 1988, Rodriguez met a beautiful young administrative associate named Elizabeth Avellan who was seven years his senior while working as a UT file clerk. They both loved movies and talking about films. On their first date, Rodriguez tried to impress Avellan by showing her some of his short films. It worked. The duo found that they had a lot more in common than just films; both came from large Hispanic families and both were raised Catholic. Rodriguez found that Avellan’s organizational skills were a wonderful asset in filmmaking and in life. The pair married in 1990, and Avellan became the producer on many of Rodriguez’s projects. The Rodriguezes went on to have five children together named Rocket, Racer, Rebel, Rogue, and Rhiannon.
However, in 2006, the Rodriguezes’ sixteen-year marriage became troubled while Rodriguez was filming the movie Grindhouse, which featured actress Rose McGowen. Tabloids began reporting on an affair between Rodriguez and McGowen. Around the same time, the Rodriguezes separated. Some media outlets reported that Avellan and Rodriguez actually split in 2006 and that Rodriguez did not begin dating McGowen until 2007, but other media outlets disputed those claims, citing an on-screen romance was to blame. What is known, however, is that Rodriguez and Avellan officially divorced due to irreconcilable differences in 2008. The exes have remained amicable and have been co-workers at their production company Troublemaker Studios ever since. Even though it was not always easy, it was important for the Rodriguezes to remain friends. The pair are still known to work together on joint ventures today.
Rodriguez and McGowen were later engaged to be married, but the engagement was called off. McGowen wrote an autobiographical book called Brave, which chronicled her life, including her relationship with Rodriguez. It was full of damaging claims about him being controlling, angry, verbally abusive, and jealous. Refusing to sling dirt, Rodriguez simply responded by denying the claims, and despite the negative press, continued to assert that he wished McGowen the best. Today, Rodriguez keeps his personal relationships and love life quiet, though he has not remarried.
Passing The Torch
Following his early film successes, Rodriguez took some much-needed time off. Afterward he made a successful series of children’s movies for his kids called Spy Kids from 2001 to 2003. Following that, he returned to his roots and made Once Upon a Time in Mexico in 2003. He went on to make the smash hit Sin City. Following that success Rodriguez was inspired to film The Adventures of Shark Boy and Lava Girl in 2005, a film that was originally developed by his son Racer when he was only eight years old.
In fact, one of Rodriguez’s favorite things to do has been collaborating with his family and friends. Rodriguez’s brothers, sister, nieces, nephews, children, and cousins can all be found as both features and extras in his films regularly. To this day, he bounces ideas off of them, picks their brains, and is inspired by their creativity. In fact, his newest film Red 11 is a horror/thriller film loosely based upon Rodriguez’s time working as a self-described “lab rat” for Pharmaco before he filmed El Mariachi. In this film, Rodriguez challenged himself to recreate the past by working with another $7,000 budget and a mere fourteen days of shooting.
“I found that when you have to be really resourceful and you strip away all the money, more magic kind of happens than you get when you have bigger movies,” Rodriguez said.
The movie was co-written by Rodriguez’s son Racer Max, who acts in the film alongside Rodriguez’s other son Rebel. In this film, Racer Max plays a major role, acting as Rodriguez’s plus one, much like Carlos Gallardo did in El Mariachi.
Today Rodriguez is an award-winning director with a net worth of $50 million. He has proven that even a regular Joe can make it in Hollywood if he works hard, uses the tools around him, listens to his gut, and just keeps trying. Still inspiring others, Rodriguez has made an extreme effort to teach young aspiring film makers how to make a great movie. He can often be found at festivals like Austin Film Festival and South by Southwest where he holds workshops teaching others to make low-budget movies look like they are worth millions. Rodriguez does not intend to slow down any time soon. He loves to create and live behind the lens, the place where he is most comfortable, most creative, and perhaps the most successful as well.
Always an “average Joe” at heart, the unassuming Rodriguez makes no effort to join in the pretension of Hollywood life. Dressing like a blue-collar guy, Rodriguez can be found roaming around Austin in ripped jeans, a black t-shirt, and his favorite black hat. In spite of his success, Rodriguez has remained relatively the same man. He is still a Texas boy at heart, puts his family first, and still makes movies just for the fun of it.