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25 Years Later: Revisiting ‘El Mariachi,’ Robert Rodriguez’s Underground Success Story

It’s hard to think of a time when indie films weren’t popular.  The allure of a low-budget success story has enticed art house fanatics and regular movergoes for years, and these types of films are a staple of modern culture. The success of this genre comes from a myriad of movies over the course of cinema history, but none are quite as unique, revolutionary, and consistently amazing as Robert Rodriguez’s El Mariachi. Hell, I’ve yet to see an indie film since that moved me as much as this one, propelling a young director like Rodriguez to stardom in such glorious fashion.  

The success of El Mariachi wasn’t foretold in the stars, as is the case with many indie films. To put it bluntly, this movie was meant to fail. Acting as the directorial debut for Rodriguez, the Spanish language crime thriller was planned for a direct-to-video release in Mexico. By chance, producers at Columbia Pictures came across the film and were so engrossed with Rodriguez’s little masterpiece that they spent over double the price of production just to enhance the film quality and bring it across the border for a big screen debut. This decision was clearly lucrative, as audiences flocked to theaters across the country to watch the story of a lowly Mariachi caught up in a criminal blood feud much bigger than himself.  

What makes El Mariachi so magical is not only hidden in its story, but in the way Rodriguez shot the film. With a budget of only $7,000 — most of which was made from Rodriguez’s participation in medical clinic testing — the young filmmaker had to cut corners where he could. Many of the extras in the film are actual residents of Ciudad Acuna, Mexico, the town in which the movie is set. Even the prison warden and guard in the beginning of the film are local law enforcement who volunteered for their roles, saving Rodriguez money on hiring extras and renting costumes. No practical slates were used, nor a dolly, as Rodriguez chose to hold the camera in his hands and get pushed around in a wheelchair while shooting on grainy 16mm film. This gives the movie a more rugged and frantic look, but stylizes it enough to set it apart from other films trying to capture the same essence. Each shot feels lovingly crafted and unique, as Rodriguez poured his heart and soul into every ounce of El Mariachi.

Much like the director they worked for, even the actors all came seemingly out of nowhere. Carlos Gallardo, who played the titular character, would make his feature-length debut in the film. Despite his limited skills, the young actor still fulfilled the role with ease, and brought the Mariachi to life in a way that now seems impossible to replicate with any other performer.    

These aspects, while seemly amateur and time consuming, give El Mariachi a more genuine look and feel, almost as if the story depicted on screen is as real as our own lives. What still amazes me the most is how tense and exciting the small bursts of action scattered throughout are. The shootouts have a chaotic and confusing nature to them, hammering in the point that our title character is as inexperienced a killer as the rest of us. Even when someone does get shot, the use of squibs (which in the case of this movie were just condoms filled with fake blood) make every hit look realistic and painful. The story is compelling and tragic, the characters memorable, and the setting iconic, giving the film an almost classic western aesthetic. This all amounts to a nearly perfect indie masterpiece that, along with winning awards at film festivals like Sundance, holds the Guinness World Record for the lowest-budgeted film to gross over $1 million at the box office. What’s more, El Mariachi was elected in 2011 to be preserved in the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress for having prolific cultural and historical significance.   

Aside from the triumph that El Mariachi brought for the indie scene, the film also kickstarted the career of its director. Rodriguez would go on to direct two successful sequels that featured performances from superstars like Antonio Banderas and Johnny Depp. Each movie, while drastically different from the original, still maintains Rodriguez’s signature directorial style and dialogue, as well as the iconic Mexican feel he became so well known for. Rodriguez found real fame from bigger-budget productions like The Faculty and Sin City, which both did quite well at the box office, while later hits like From Dusk Till Dawn, Spy Kids, Planet Terror, and Machete all act as love letters to the director’s Central American heritage, as well as celebrate the success of the growing number of Mexican filmmakers. Without Rodriguez’s trailblazing efforts, the works of Alejandro G. Iñárritu or Guillermo Del Toro and the like might not garner the fame and praise they do today.

Above all else, El Mariachi stands as a testament to the staying power of a well-directed film, even with the hindrances that come with a limited budget. Rodriguez should act as a role model for any upstart filmmaker, a constant reminder that making it in the industry can come from the humblest of beginnings. For me, El Mariachi was the gateway into which I found my love of film — not just watching movies, but actually learning about how they are made, and how much effort goes into each scene and every take. I would have never found my passion for the industry without this film, and I’ll forever be in its debt because of that.   

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