Filmmaker Robert Rodriguez (@Rodriguez) lives a “creative life” and says, “I’m the most fulfilled, happiest, most productive, when I’m creative. and that’s when I’m at my best.” At 23 years old, Rodriguez’s $7,000 film El Mariachi was purchased by Columbia Pictures, catapulting him onto the Hollywood scene. Tim Ferriss (@tferriss) describes Rodriguez as “jack of all trades, master of many” for the variety of talents he has in fact mastered.
Rodrigues wrote the script to El Mariachi while sequestered as a paid subject in a drug research facility, using the income to fund the film’s production. “He sold his body for science so that he could make art,” says Ferriss. The film, intended for the low-budget Spanish video market, instead went on to win the coveted Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival, and became the lowest budget movie ever released by a major studio. Rodriguez wrote about these experiences in Rebel Without a Crew, a perennial guide for the independent filmmaker.
This podcast was a fulfilling inspiration with so many actionable suggestions on how to live a creative life and to diversify your talents.
Rodriguez, like Ferriss is great at cutting through clutter. His book, Rebel Without a Crew not only demystifies the process but also includes a “Ten-Minute Film School.” In it Rodriguez starts by advising aspiring filmmakers to begin by calling themselves “a filmmaker” and to move on to the next step. The the rest he says, “is inevitable.”
Rodriguez admits that is not true but “it is true, in a way. You just gotta start.” He continues, “I didn’t put in there, the mind-dumbing work that goes into it. The soul crushing lows that you’ll experience trying to realize your vision. Because I know you’ll figure that out on the way.” Like many things that are difficult, the process Rodriguez says will “separate those who are going to be doers from those who are don’ters. You’re either gonna figure out, this is for me, or this isn’t for me.”
Rodriguez is fond of the fact he has been making films long enough to know the old, analog ways. However, while others feared change, he took to digital early and loves that kids today will use any new tool and “are not a slave to tradition the way the older generation was.”
“Technology is not the art form. The manipulation of moving images can happen on a machine or it can happen by cutting film. It is not the technology that is the art form.”
While Rodriguez dislikes external rules and limitations placed on his work, early on he discovered the inspiration that constraints could provide for creativity. The extreme budget constraints of El Mariachi forced him to take stock and use what was available. In the Mexican town where they filmed for example, his friend Carlos had a ranch which served as the bad guys’ hangout. Carlos’ two cousins owned a bar and bus line which were used for scenes and he owned a pit bull which was also used. They even included a turtle so it appeared they “had an animal wrangler and that [would] raise the production value.” Rodriguez says, “I wrote everything around what we had, so you never have to go searching”
“So now that so many things are available to you. You want to limit yourself in a way. I try to limit time. I try to limit money. So that we can keep that essence of creativity. And deliver on the screen something that just looks much better. So that you can retain your freedom, creative freedom.”
Rodriguez understands that if you start spending more money, suddenly the financiers and studio are looking over your shoulders. “If you keep the budget low, it’s a win-win situation. If the movie does great, it’s a great success.” says Rodriguez, and “If the movie doesn’t do great, it’s still a success because it didn’t cost very much and it’ll make back it’s money over time. That’s kind of where I’ve lived and breathed.”
Rodriguez and Ferriss discuss the practice and benefits of journalling throughout their conversation. Rodriguez recalls that he started in college with a day planner his father had given him. He would write things to do on left and write about what he had accomplished on the right. Even in college he would push himself and would challenge himself to add more to the left so he would have more to write about on the right side. “It really made you reflect on your day and realize: I didn’t do much today.”
Both men point to memories of their mothers journalling as providing a sense of value to the practice. Ferriss specifically recalls a year abroad in Japan when his mom had written down everything he had shared during their phone calls. “So she has this record of my experience in Japan that I have no record of” says Ferriss, “and of course I don’t remember any of it without that kind of queuing.”
“For anyone who is a parent… it is a must,” says Rodriguez, “because your children and you forget everything. Within a few years they will forget things that you think they should remember for the rest of their lives. They’ll only remember it, if it’s reinforced.” Rodriguez is a family man and records details of every birthday. Each year “I’ll go tell my kids again, because they forget by the next year what their first years were like. So I’ll just read those journal entries and it just blows them away.” One time the kids asked about a camping trip. Rodriguez found the journal and the video and, “They relived it and it was better then we even remembered.”
“So I’m going to make sure I write, and now it’s become an addiction and it’s just so necessary” Ask your girlfriend or wife what we did last year and you don’t remember. So you go back and read the journal.
“You live it again and you realize the importance of it.”
Rodriguez typically only reviews his journals on need-to-know basis and prefers in life to “be the guy looking through the windshield, not the rear view mirror.” However, sometimes he will just look up old stuff. He recalls how recently talking with Jim Cameron where Rodriguez referenced an old journal. Together they reminisced about how Cameron had first show him treatments (early plans) for Spider Man and Avatar in 1994 and how it blew them away that those projects waited for technology to evolve to a point to make the films technically feasible.
On Starting With Why
Rodriguez illustrates how he “starts with why” when approaching actors to be in his projects:
“I love what you do. Always been a big fan. I’ve got a part that you would never get. I believe in creative freedom, I don’t work with the studios. I work independently, I’m the boss there. Just me and my crew, it’s very creative. Ask any of your actor friends. They’ll say go have that experience. You’re just going to feel so invigorated. I shoot very quickly, so you’ll be out – Robert Dinero in Machete in four days. I’m going to shoot you out in four days. While you’ll be on your next movie for six months. You’re on my movie for four days and it’s going to be the most fun you’ve ever had and you’ll probably get great reviews because your performance is just going to be really free because I’m going to give you that freedom. That’s why I do it.”
“How do I do it? Well, I work very independently, we have very few people on the crew, we all do multiple jobs and we do it with less money so that we have more freedom. What is that we do? Well I’m an independent filmmaker. Do you want to come make this movie?” “They’re are like… ‘Yes!'”
Conversely Rodriguez summarizes that most filmmakers would go to an actor and say, “I’m a filmmaker and I’m making a low budget film and I kinda need your name as a marquee to help sell it. I can’t pay you very much and it’s going to be a lot of work. But you want to be in it?”
Start With Why and you find people “who believe what you believe” says Sinek.
Rodriguez is a wildly creative guy who believes we can all be creative if we, “just try and live as creatively as possible.” He says, “because that’s the unknown, that’s the gift you can bring to the table that could change everything. Even if you don’t think you’re creative.” Rodriguez sees inherent creativity in everyone but explains that people “block themselves immediately by saying ‘oh I’m not creative’ and well of course” they’re not going to be creative.
“Apply creativity to everything and you’ll see into everything, and you’ll see that you’ll just become more creative. because you’re applying it to everything. Everything is an opportunity to be creative. I’m creative all day. There’s nothing I do that doesn’t involve creativity.”
From making meals to satisfy my kids or the games we play; how we journal or cross reference things or present things. How you inspire your crew or other people around you in general. How you inspire yourself. It’s all creative. Rodriguez continues, “if you say you’re not creative, look how much you’re missing out on. Just because you’ve told yourself that.”
“So I think that creativity is one of the greatest gifts that we’re born with that some people don’t cultivate, that they don’t realize could be applied to literally everything in their life.”
“24/7 be creative, think of everything creatively,” says Rodriguez.
Prior to El Mariachi, Rodriguez had a job cartooning while at the University of Texas at Austin which taught him a great deal.
“Cartooning made me realize a lot about the creative process.”
He would have to do a strip a day and sometimes he would feel like he just did not want to “face the blank page” and he would go lay down and stare at the ceiling hoping it would just appear. Rodriguez came to understand that the “only way to do it, was by just drawing. You’d have to draw, and draw, and draw, and then one drawing would be kind of funny or cool.” Eventually finding one, “was kinda neat, this one kinda goes with that.” Rodriguez continues, “Then you draw a couple filler ups, and that’s how it would be created.”
Rodriguez discovered that, “You had to actually move” and applied that to all his work. “You just had to begin. [For] a lot of people that’s the part that keeps them back the most. ‘Well I don’t have an idea, so I can’t start.’ It’s like no, you’ll only get the idea once you start.” Rodriguez exclaims.
“It’s this totally reverse thing. You have to act first before inspiration will hit. You don’t wait for inspiration and then act or you’re never gonna act,” Rodriguez says, “Cause you’re never gonna have the inspiration – not consistently.”
“You can consistently perform and act and get there and sit and draw until it comes out – and it comes out… if you trust it and you get our of your way.”
Rodriguez certainty about creativity stems from his believe that creativity flows through us like a pipe and that we are not the source. Rodrigues says that we each get creativity in our own way, that “thinking that you need know something, a trick or a process” blocks it. That, “if you got out of the way, it would just flow.” Rodriguez follows by clarifying; “What gives you permission, to let it flow sometimes” is that “you take four years of schooling or you study under somebody. Then you’ve suddenly given your permission to let it flow.”
Rodriguez offers Ferriss a shortcut, “just get our of your own way. You’re just opening up the pipe and creativity flows through,” and that if you let your ego get in the way, “and you go, ‘But I don’t know if I know what to do next.’ you’ve already put ‘I’ in front of it and you’ve already blocked it a little bit.” If you did it once and you don’t know if you can do it again, “It was never you. The best you can be, is to just get out of the way so it comes through.”
“They say knowing is half the battle. I think the most important part is the other half. Not knowing. Not knowing what’s going to happen but you trust that it’s going to be there.”
“You have to trust first and then it’ll happen.” Rodriguez says.
“If everyone is trying to get through that one little door, you’re in the wrong place.”
Rodriguez sees so many ways to define success. However, his first thoughts are of his father who sold cookware and always knew exactly how much he would need to sell to meet the needs of the family. His freedom to earn what he needed for his family inspired Rodriguez and his brothers to all seek success in their own ventures. Rodriguez is teaching his own children the same ideals and says its fun to look back and realize, “I created every job that I have right now.” He explains, “thats a great freedom, that feels like a great success. To be able to live the life you want and be able to carve out some much time for you family and relationships.”
Regardless of outcomes, Rodriguez is not one to follow the herd, “Go the other way. If everyone’s going that way, you go this other way.” Explaining that if you go your own way, you are going to stumble, “but you’re also going to stumble upon. You’re going to stumble upon an idea no one came up with.”
For Rodriguez it is the road not taken that provides the best treasures:
“You’re gonna stumble, but your gonna stumble upon something no one ever else camp up with, because it’s freak’n lined with gold over there. No one goes that way. It hasn’t been picked clean yet… you’re gonna consistently stumble upon an idea that no one’s come up with by going that way.”
Rodriguez also believes that, “There’s a key to success in every failure. If you look through the ashes long enough you’ll find something.” Attitude dictates what we find in the ashes and by seeking the opportunities in failure Rodriguez has consistently created successes directly from lessons and experience gained in what would often be considered failures.
He points to the anthology Four Rooms as a commercial failure that provided two seeds for success. The casting provided inspiration for Spy Kids which now consists of four successful movies and a forthcoming TV series. The overall experience gave him the confidence to take on Sin City, in a uniquely creative way, which was also successful.
“Sometimes the only way to get across that river is by slipping on that first rock.” says Rodriguez, “That’s the way there and when you get to the other side, you look back, and sure enough I could only have gotten here, had I done those things.”
This podcast is an invaluable conversation about creativity and letting yourself be driven by passion. Rodriguez as a filmmaker: Writes. Directs. Shoots. Composes. Edits. He has mastered every aspect of the filmmaking process. He even shoots his own posters and teaches his actors how to paint between takes – often while strumming a guitar to keep himself centered. When asked how he does so many creative things? He responds:
I only do one thing. I live a creative life. When you put creativity in everything, everything becomes available to you. Anything that has a creative aspect is suddenly yours to go and do and there’s no separation between work and play.
To channel creativity? “Get your ego out of it. It’s not you anyway. The sooner you shut up, the sooner it will come through.” he reminds us, “Get out of the way, let the pen glide where it needs to go and it’ll be there and you’ll be amazed and you’ll be going; ‘How did I do that?’ and the creative spirit will be like – ‘bastard taking credit for it again.'”
Ferriss really finds a groove in this conversation and the two of them cover so much. Ferriss concludes, suggesting “everybody, stay naive, keep a journal, be creative. Because whatever you [are] doing in your life you have that opportunity.”
Rodriguez, who appreciates how Ferriss works to demystify things and provide a path for people, feels a kinship in what they do. People ask, “Why are you giving away all the secrets?” of Rodriguez, who responds, confidently, “Well cause you’ll come up with more secrets – and you give those away.”
Both Rodriguez and Ferriss in this conclusion illustrate beautifully the sentiments of Maria Popova, “that creative culture is woven of these invisible threads of good will between people who believe in one another and art is carried on the wings of this kinship.”
This podcast was a fulfilling inspiration with so many actionable suggestions on how to live a creative life and to diversify your talents.
Earfare is a curated collection of podcasts serving valuable wisdom from people not often accessible. I am sharing these discussions to spread their delicious ideas, philosophies, and practices.