The story of the making of Robert Rodriguez’ first feature, El Mariachi, is one of those infamous guerrilla filmmaking stories and is chronicled in the excellent book Rebel Without A Crew.
The film was shot in numerous locations in Acuña, Coahuila, located in Northeastern Mexico. Rodriguez had a $7,000 budget, almost half of which he raised by participating in experimental clinical drug testing while living in Austin, Texas.
The opening scenes feature a shootout in a jail. It was the local Acuña jail situated on the outskirts of the town. Also, the female warden and the male guard were the real-life warden and guard; Rodriguez thought it convenient because it saved him the cost of hiring actors and renting clothing.
The intro bar scene was shot inside the Corona Club, and exterior street scenes were shot on Hidalgo Street. The shoot out was filmed outside at “Boy’s Town” the local red-light district.
Not everyone in Acuña was pleased at first: local journalists Ramiro Gómez and Jesús López Viejo were especially critical of the filming, and to win them over, Rodriguez gave them small parts in the film.
Due to the high body count of the film (i.e. people whose characters had been shot could obviously not return), Rodriguez increasingly had difficulties finding adult men to play thugs; for that reason, when the Mariachi meets Moco’s gang in the end scene, the gang consists mainly of teenagers.
On the El Mariachi DVD, Rodriguez devotes both a DVD commentary and an “Extras” section to explaining the tricks of filming a feature-length movie with just $7,000. Rodriguez heavily stresses the need for cost cutting, “because if you start to spend, you cannot stop anymore.”
This is why he cut costs at every possible opportunity, such as not using a slate (instead, the actors signaled the number of scene and number of take with their fingers), not using a dolly (he held the camera while being pushed around in a wheelchair), not using on set sound recording equipment (the film was instead shot silent with audio dubbed in post production), not using professional lighting (essentially using two 200-watt clip-on desk lamps) and not hiring a film crew (the actors not used in the scenes helped out).
Also, Rodriguez believed in filming scenes sequentially in one long take with just one camera: every few seconds, he froze the action, so he could change the camera angle and make the audience believe he had a couple of cameras at the same time.
Also, bloopers were kept in to save film: noted by Rodriguez were scenes when the Mariachi jumps on a bus, where Rodriguez is visible; the Mariachi bumping his weapon into a street pole; him failing to throw his guitar case on a balcony and Dominó twitching her face when she is already dead.
Rodriguez spared expense by shooting on 16mm film as opposed to 35mm, and transferring the film to video for editing, avoiding the costs of cutting on film. In the end, he used only 24 rolls of film and only spent $7,225 of the $9,000 he had planned.
Rodriguez also gave insight into his low budget approach to simulate machine gun fire. The problem was that when using real guns, as opposed to the specially designed blank firing firearms used in most films, the blanks would jam the weapon after being fired once.
To solve this, Rodriguez filmed the firing of one blank from different angles, dubbed canned machine gun sounds over it, and had the actors drop bullet shells to the ground to make it look like as if multiple rounds had been shot. In addition, he occasionally used water guns instead of real guns to save money.
Rodriguez also describes that the squibs they used in shootout scenes were simply condoms filled with fake blood fixed over weightlifting belts.
Rodriguez also noted the use of improvisation. The tortoise that crawls in front of the Mariachi was not planned, but was kept in as a good idea.
Similarly, there is a scene in which the Mariachi buys a coconut, but Rodriguez forgot to show him paying for the fruit; instead of driving back to the place to shoot additional scenes, Rodriguez decided to build in a voice-over in which the Mariachi asserts that the coconuts were for free.
Improvisation was also useful to cover up continuity mistakes: at the end of the movie, the Mariachi has his left hand shot, but Rodriguez forgot to bring the metal glove to cover up the actor’s hand; he solved it by packing his hand with black duct tape.
In the DVD commentary, Rodriguez describes the acting of Peter Marquardt (who portrayed gangster boss ”Moco”). As the language of the film was Spanish, which Marquardt did not master, he had to learn his lines without understanding what he was saying.
The running gag, in which Moco lights up his match using the moustache of his henchman Bigotón, was described by Rodriguez as a means to start and end the film: the end scene is a parody of this scene.
Also, Marquardt suffered some physical discomfort in the final shooting scene. When Moco was hit in the chest, his blood squib exploded with such force that he really crumpled to the ground in pain.
Originally, the film was meant to be sold on the Latino video market as funding for another bigger and better project that Rodriguez was contemplating.
However, after being rejected from various Latino straight-to-video distributors, Rodriguez decided to send his film (it was in the format of a trailer at the time) to bigger distribution companies where it started to get attention.
When the sequel film Desperado was produced, Banderas replaced Gallardo as the actor for the main character of the series. The filmmakers re-shot the final showdown from El Mariachi as a flashback sequence for Bandera’s character in Desperado.