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The Learning Curve Of a Novice Director

You walk into the hotel room, and Robert Rodriguez slaps a video into the machine. "Here's the movie that let me know it was all possible," he says. "It's called 'Bedhead.' I shot it starring my brothers and sisters. It lasts eight minutes and cost me $800. That's how I knew I could make an 80-minute movie for $7,000."

The movie shows warfare between a young brother and sister of the Rodriguez clan. There are special effects, as the sister gains psychic powers and the brother is dragged along behind a bicycle. There's humor, suspense, resolution. All on a budget.

Rodriguez is bouncing with enthusiasm. He's in the middle of a national tour to promote "El Mariachi," the year's Cinderella film, which he indeed made for $7,000, even less than he figured. He intended to sell it to the Spanish-language home video market, but sent a tape of the film to a Hollywood agent, who watched it that night and signed him the next day. The film was a hit at festivals, and now it's being released by Columbia. He has two more deals in the works.

One of a family of 10 from Austin, Texas, where his father sells kitchen wares. "In school," he said, "I wasn't good in science or math, and I spent all the time in the back of the room, drawing cartoons in the margins of books to make flip-movies."

He got his financial start on "El Mariachi" by checking into a medical lab, which paid him $3,000 for a month to act as a guinea pig for anti-cholesterol medication. "I didn't get sick, but I wanted to," he said, "because if you got sick, they sent you home early, with full pay."

The movie was shot with amateur actors, and Rodriguez himself did the direction, photography, editing and sound.

"Look at this," he says. "This is unedited rough footage from 'El Mariachi.' " He slams in another tape. We see an actor searching a guitar case for a machinegun. "He doesn't know what the scene is about," Rodriguez says. "I'm telling him what to do. Look in the case. Look over your shoulder. Look frightened. Run."

Raw film stock costs $100 for a 10-minute reel, Rodriguez says, and so he didn't waste a foot. He shot only what he needed. The saga of his low-budget production makes such a good story, it almost upstages the film itself, which is a lot of fun.

"El Mariachi" involves a gentlesouled guitar player who comes into town dressed in black, carrying a guitar case - on the same day the local warlord's archenemy turns up in the same town, dressed the same way. There's a violent comedy of errors, a love story, some action, some suspense, and in general, Rodriguez does for $7,000 what a lot of Hollywood films don't do it all: He entertains.

"I'd like to make a weekly sitcom starring my family," he says. "Real kids in real situations. You never see that on television. And you don't see many Latinos, either. We're always the killers. I'm making another movie about the mariachi - for a larger budget, this time. A Latino cast, Latino heroes. It's about time."

Rodriguez taught himself to make movies by making dozens of them on a home video camera, editing by using two VCRs. He was thrilled in film school to get an old 8-mm Bell & Howell handcranked film camera to work with, because it gave him flexibility: "You can stage a stunt slowly, but make the camera speed it up."

There's a scene in "Bedhead" where his bratty younger brother is shown being dragged along the sidewalk so fast, he leaves a cloud of smoke. "That was easy. I was in a wheelchair with the camera, pointing down," Rodriguez says. "He was on a skateboard. We put a smoke bomb under him to make the smoke. We did it slowly, and then speeded it up."

It looks great. "There must be a hundred other people like me, making movies at home and learning how to do it," Rodriguez says. "Hollywood better look out!"

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