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¡Viva la Independencia!

In Robert Rodriguez's mariachi trilogy finale, Once Upon a Time in Mexico, Antonio Banderas, Enrique Iglesias, and Marco Leonardi—his blowtorch guitar-playing heroes—wrap the bloodstained action flick with a noble gesture. These self-proclaimed sons of Mexico protect the good, democratic-minded El Presidente from an evil military dictatorship, making Mexico safe for yet another indie movie. The metaphor is not lost. Rodriguez has ridden again—on his terms.

The term "Filmmaker" is most aptly applied to Rodriguez. After his 1993 debut, with El Mariachi, he made Desperado, Dusk 'Til Dawn, the three Spy Kids, and now Mexico. He was never just a director, though. Producer, editor, cameraman, and helmer on El Mariachi, Rodriguez has outdone even himself on Mexico. Wearing more hats than Orson Welles, Spike Lee, and Hitchcock combined, he wrote, produced, directed, shot, gaffed, cut, scored, and production designed this one, in seven weeks on location in the hot sun of an old colonial town in the north of Mexico, with a primary cast of 10 main actors. Besides the loyal Banderas, those coming to play included Salma Hayek, Eva Mendes, Johnny Depp, Willem Dafoe, Cheech Marin, Danny Trejo, Marco Leonardi, Ruben Blades, and Mickey Rourke.

At 6-foot-3 and an estimated 210 pounds, Rodriguez is more physically imposing than one expects. His softly boyish face is oddly young on this big man's body. There is no doubt that he's an unusual character. The signature cowboy hat stays firmly on his shaggy head throughout the interview in the small hotel room. Today he wears his success lightly. The passion he has for his work is initially concealed under a relaxed demeanor. However, after the pleasantries, he's off and running like a steroid-injected racehorse out of the gate.

Journalists at the press junket muse about why he pushes the envelope of his talent. Why not focus on the writing and directing and make the story stronger? Is it to save money? Time? Is it a creative dictatorship? His answer is affirmative to all of the above. He knows exactly what he wants and won't waste time translating his singular vision for anybody who can't get it right on the first go-round. "Wearing all theses hats is easier when you're writing the script, you're writing the score, you know the movie so well, you don't overbuild [sets]," he said. Ten years deep into his career, he finds it a cakewalk to turn technology into art. "Creative people are the last people to adopt technology, but the art form is not the technology," he said.

Rodriguez has a winning formula for maintaining his freedom. By keeping his costs low, staying on time and in firm control of his product, and making whopping profits, he's managed to call the shots and have it his way. Not that the studio is complaining; Columbia has enjoyed a healthy run with Rodriguez, picking up his first film and staying closely aligned through his subsequent work.

Rodriguez builds a minimum of sets, shoots quickly, pays a shade above scale, and everyday is a family style party. Actors breeze though their scenes with a minimum of waiting and a maximum of ease. The production design on Mexico was more about location; his team found an old town that was just perfect for the action. "I could never have afforded to build this set," he said. "We had to find it, and leave it just as we found it."

Another huge bonus of staying indie is flexible casting. Rodriguez casts whomever he wants, without so much as a studio nod. Even a potentially risky choice like the volatile Rourke holds no fear for the filmmaker. And Rourke said, "Robert took a chance with me. A lot of people hear my name and say, 'God, no!' Robert wasn't afraid, he's very improvisational, and not locked into an idea. Robert's a young Coppola.'

Rodriguez is known to pick up the phone and call the actors himself. Convincing Dafoe that he'd be perfect as a Mexican drug lord wasn't easy. A perfectionist, Dafoe was skeptical, asking, 'Robert, are you sure that you want me to play a Mexican?' But his smoothly sinister performance leaves no doubt that he was well cast. The director is also very hands-on in making his stars feel at home. Mendes marveled, "Robert sent his wife and three small sons to pick me up at the airport, instead of a limo."

Rodriguez likes the safety net of working with the same actors again and again, bringing them back from the dead in flashbacks or recast as strangely familiar nemeses. The obvious comfort of working with familiar talent has allowed him to develop a shorthand that makes his lickety-split shooting possible. And actors say they like working with him. He likes to show his actors their work immediately, on a large monitor. Shooting in Hi-8 affords instant corrections and crisp close-ups. Said Rodriguez, "They can see the sweat on their skin, I'll show them something they just did and ask, 'Can you live with that?'"

Improvisation is allowed to a certain extent; but because it's an action film, the dialogue is relatively minimal. If they get the shot in one take, bueno, and they move on. Apparently Depp was astonished when Rodriguez told him how briefly he'd be shooting. Rodriguez expanded Depp's part when the actor accepted the role. Even so it was a shock for Depp when the director wrapped him eight days later. Depp was still raring to go. Rodriguez recalled, "Johnny was like, 'Well, don't you have something else for me to do?' "

It seems more than a touch ironic, then, that Rodriguez named his production company Troublemaker Productions. BSW

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