In 1992, independent filmmaker Robert Rodriguez made his feature film debut with El Mariachi, a $7,000 action movie that showed a stylistic flare beyond its meager budget. It made the rounds at several film festivals with a lot of media attention on the self-assured young man and the incredible story of how he made a movie for so little money. Naturally, Hollywood came calling and initially Rodriguez resisted, making Roadracers (1994) for the Showtime cable television channel after his deal with Sony Columbia Pictures was put on the back burner due to scandal. He eventually made Desperado (1995), a sequel to Mariachi that not only saw him working with a significantly larger budget of $7 million, but with movie star Antonio Banderas.
begins almost as if we are in a Quentin Tarantino film with a grungy gringo
(Steve Buscemi) walking into a Mexican bar. He proceeds to tell a story about
how he witnessed a massacre in a similar bar by a mysterious man. Rodriguez
cuts back and forth between the storyteller and what happened at the bar to the
strains of “Jack the Ripper” by Link Wray.
interesting to note that Rodriguez not only plays up the mythic quality of El
Mariachi, introducing him walking into a bar in slow motion in the shadows so
you never get a good look at his face, but also has fun with the character as well,
showing him playing with his band in a nightclub over the opening credits. El Mariachi
even has time to stop a bar fight by striking a patron with his guitar without
missing a beat. Rodriguez reveals that this sequence is a dream as we see the
villain from El Mariachi appear in
the nightclub and we flashback to the end of that film.
cast Antonio Banderas at just the right time in their respective careers. The
former needed to cast a movie star and the latter was looking for a change of
pace having just come off the big budget adaptation of Interview with the Vampire (1994). Banderas not only has the
charisma to carry the film, he also demonstrates an ability to go from dramatic
moments to comedic ones with ease. He also showed his ability to handle action,
transforming himself into a credible action star. The actor also has wonderful
chemistry with Salma Hayek as their characters develop a romantic relationship
over the course of the film.
success of El Mariachi, Rodriguez was
eager to make a sequel and capitalize on his new deal with Sony Columbia but
the studio put on the brakes while they dealt with the Heidi Fleiss scandal
that broke in early summer of 1993. She was a high-end madam that facilitated
call girls to several of Hollywood’s elite and a list of her clients, which
included at least two studio executives, appeared in the press. At the time,
producers Carlos Gallardo (who starred in El
Mariachi), Elizabeth Avellan, and line producer Bill Borden had already
begun pre-production and realized that the film was on hold until the scandal
blew over. Never one to be idle, Rodriguez shifted gears and accepted another
gig making Roadracers that he shot in
less than two weeks in January 1994 for $1 million. It was his first Hollywood
production and working with a union crew. He was struck by how wasteful and
slow studio productions were as he was used to collaborating with a small,
hand-picked crew that worked fast. It would give him a taste of what he would
be in store for when working for Sony.
and Avellan saw a rerun of Salma Hayek on comedian Paul Rodriguez’s talk show from
1992 where she talked about changing Hollywood’s refusal to cast Latina
actresses. The next day, Avellan called her and asked her to audition for the
female lead in Desperado. In addition
to competing with many other Latina actresses, auditioning many times and
performing several screen tests, she was up against the likes of Cameron Diaz
who the studio liked as, according to Hayek, “her last name was Diaz, so they
said she can be Mexican.” Originally Raul Julia had been cast as Bucho and
Rodriguez had scheduled principal photography around his availability but when
he suffered a stroke that preceded his death, he was replaced by Argentine
actor Joaquim de Almeida.
remembers that the film’s steamy sex scene her character has with El Mariachi
was not in the screenplay and was added after a screen test. To try and make
her as comfortable as possible, Rodriguez filmed it on a closed set with just
him, Avellan and Banderas but Hayek found it a difficult experience
Martin met with Avellan and told her that Rodriguez would not be editing the film himself as he had done on El Mariachi and told her, “Honey, just like when you go to a beauty parlor and somebody does your nails because they specialize in that and somebody does your color because they specialize in that, it’s the same in the movie business.” Insulted, Avellan said nothing in order to keep the peace between Rodriguez and the studio but inside she was fuming. Post-production began in November 1994 in Los Angeles with the studio finally allowing Rodriguez to edit his own film but only if he did it there where they could keep an eye on him. Rodriguez said:
Desperado garnered mixed to negative reviews from
critics. Roger Ebert gave it two out of four stars and wrote, "Rodriguez
has a lively color sense, a good feel for composition and a willingness to put
the camera anywhere it can possibly go. What happens looks terrific. Now if he
can harness that technical facility to a screenplay that's more story than
setup, he might really have something." In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote,
"Overdependence on violence also marginalizes Desperado as a gun-slinging novelty item, instead of the broader
effort toward which this talented young director might have aspired. It's still
clear that Mr. Rodriguez has a talent for fancy directorial footwork and that
his movie has its fiery moments. But not even a Mariachi in Mr. Banderas's
league can get by on looks alone."
Leydon, Joe. “Cranking up the Volume.” Los Angeles Times. November 27, 1994.