1. It’s damn funny
2. The main camera was an ARRI S 16mm with a few different lenses including a Kinoptik 5.7 – a combo I know all too well. In other words, almost everything done in the movie I could directly apply to the movies I was making at the time.
3. A bunch of friends and non-actors made the movie, and you can feel that, but not in a cheesy way.
4. It took the concept of “lets shoot with what we have” to a whole new level; incorporating a jail, a hotel, a few bars, guns, guitars, a Mexican border town full of extras, a special FX guy and a turtle.
5. It’s edited extremely quickly with little or no establishing shots. It has a multi-camera feel with only one camera constantly changing framing and focal length.
I have used this film quite a bit in the film classes that I’ve taught. It resonates especially well with the younger kids who don’t quite know how to critically watch a movie, as many of them are doing for the first time. Typically, I’ll show the movie one time through on its own – it’s entertaining and violent, great for ADD’d 15 year olds. Then I’ll show it a second time through with just the commentary track.
The commentary is where all the meat is. At the beginning director Robert Rodriguez states that he wrote down his entire commentary in advance so he could get through all the material, and not ramble about nothing with long pauses the way many other directors do during their commentaries. Rodriguez then goes through, almost shot by shot, explaining everything that it took to create the different scenes. He points out that the Mariachi’s guitar case is actually 2 different cases – one with a nice outside and crappy inside, and one with a nice lined inside, but actually tan-colored on the outside – and how he cut between the shots so you never saw a case completely open or close. They couldn’t afford a nice guitar case, so they used what they had. He talks about editing tricks used to make single shot Uzis into multi-shot automatic weapons. Since the ARRI S is a loud camera, he had to shoot film and record audio during separate takes. Since the actors (read: non-actors) would fall out of sync quickly, he had to adjust his editing style to match. This is what gives El Mariachi its frantic pacing. He discusses his shooting style as a product of the editing he was doing in his head – he would zoom and in out and reframe during takes, in an effort to create different shots he could cut between during editing, without actually stopping the camera or the action. That’s 4 of the maybe 100 tips and tricks Rodriguez talks about during the commentary.
There’s a DVD Extra called “10 Minute Film School”, where Rodriguez goes further in-depth on how he created a few of the movie’s more memorable moments. 2 examples are the zip line from the hotel to the school bus, and another on how to make exploding squibs using condoms, fake blood and a weight-lifter’s belt. If you get Desperado, it includes “Another 10 Minute Film School”, which breaks apart the entire shootout in the bar.
I’ve found that more than any other movie, El Mariachi inspires my students to grab a camera and get out there. Mostly because it looks like so much fun!
Even without the commentary or DVD Extras this is a great movie. But the addition of these insights into Rodriguez’s mind makes for a great learning tool for all filmmakers.
“Movies Every Filmmaker Should Own” is a regular series on EricHansen.tv. The point of this series is not to say you need to watch The Godfather because it’s the greatest movie ever made. Plenty of film critics have lists like that. It’s to highlight movies that are advancing the craft of filmmaking, whether it’s through the contents of the movies themselves, or in many cases the extras and commentaries that are contained within. These are the movies that inspire me more in their construction, and are great learning tools for different aspects of the craft.