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June 03, 2014

It's Good to Be El Rey: Robert Rodriguez

Multi-hyphenate Robert Rodriguez adds network honcho to his list of careers. 

Bob Makela
  • Robert Rodriguez

About 4 years ago, Robert Rodriguez unwittingly began laying the groundwork for a cable network he didn’t yet know he wanted to launch.

Cobbling together what he calls “a video iTunes play-list,” Rodriguez put “3 or 4 days’ worth” of viewing material on a hard drive: kung fu flicks, grindhouse classics, short films, influential movies and his favorite TV shows. The video mix became a fixture at the Rodriguez home, playing endlessly on his computer like a benevolent mashup of white noise.

“It’s not like I’d sit down and watch the stuff — who’s got the time?” the famously busy Rodriguez says. “But every so often I’d look over and see a moment or a scene I loved and get locked in."

"Plus, everyone who came over and noticed what was playing seemed to love it too," he continued. "It was like having my own little curated TV network.”

That video playlist would eventually come in handy when Rodriguez was approached in 2011 by John Fogelman and Cristina Patwa, a pair of talent agency vets.

In 2010 their show-biz incubator, FactoryMade Ventures, had helped launch the Hub, a children’s cable network for Discovery Communications, and they were looking to repeat that success in the Hispanic marketplace. Especially after an FCC ruling that required Comcast to, among other things, form ten new culturally diverse channels before it could buy NBCUniversal.

Patwa and Fogelman — whom Rodriguez knew from Fogelman’s days as Salma Hayek’s rep, back when they both helped make her a star in the mid-’90s — came to their meeting at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills armed with a business plan and statistics they hoped would entice the auteur into partnering on a cable startup.

Their stats showed that the United States Hispanic population had grown 43 percent since 2000, according to the 2010 U.S. census. That Latinos accounted for nearly a quarter of all Americans under eighteen. That the U.S. Hispanic population was projected to triple by the year 2050.

Rodriguez, a fifth-generation Mexican-American, didn’t need to hear the numbers to know the idea could work. For him, the concept was personal. “I’ve got five kids who were born and raised in this country, and their lives, their multicultural experience as Hispanic kids in America, hadn’t really been represented accurately on television.”

So the deal was a go. And by the end of 2013, Rodriguez and his co-founders at FactoryMade Ventures — with a little help from Univision Communications, a minority investor — finally rolled out their new cable channel.

Rodriguez, who began his career as the iconic prince of the independent film world, chose to call the network El Rey — Spanish for “The King.” The enterprise marks the director’s first foray into television.

Robert Rodriguez is much more than a director. The guy makes your typical renaissance man seem lazy and unqualified.

Besides being a hero to a generation of indie filmmakers, Rodriguez has also worked as a film editor, a cartoonist, a cameraman and a composer.

He’s an accomplished chef and painter, and of course, he’s in a band. And on El Rey’s flagship series From Dusk Till Dawn — based on his ‘90s cult-film collaboration with screenwriter Quentin Tarantino — Rodriguez is, in addition to writing, producing and directing, also credited as visual effects supervisor and re-recording mixer.

The nexus of his creative life is Troublemaker Studios, the full-service production facility he owns in Austin. He’s also a divorced, devoted father who’s been known to build cars with his kids in his spare time.

“He’s the chief cook and bottle washer,” jokes production designer Steve Joyner, who began his long collaboration with Team Rodriguez as a special-weapons designer on the original From Dusk Till Dawn film.

As the president, co-founder and creative engine powering the El Rey muscle car (“Ride with El Rey” is the network’s tagline), Rodriguez is heading down two roads he’s never taken before — making and buying television content — while also putting the finishing touches on Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, his second filmed adaptation of a Frank Miller graphic novel.

All of which, one might assume, would leave the man overextended and exhausted. But on a blustery spring afternoon, Rodriguez seems rested and utterly at peace with the many challenges ahead.

Five miles southwest of Troublemaker Studios and a stone’s throw from the mud-colored Texas state capital building, he sits in the lobby of his double-wide, two-story downtown office.

In March, Rodriguez mounted a nine-day public exhibition of his own collection of Frank Frazetta’s art during the South by Southwest festival to help raise funds for a museum devoted to the late comic artist.

Remnants of that show mix seamlessly with other art from Rodriguez’s personal stash: an original Frank Miller sketch of Marv from Sin City, self-portrait collaborations Rodriguez painted with former cast members like Tarantino and Josh Brolin, and a framed poster-sized painting of Keith Richards titled “Unfinished Keith” by German New Pop artist Sebastian Krüger.

Hovering above it all on the exposed ocher brick wall is a giant unframed painting of Mick Jagger, wailing from on high.

The space is dark and tastefully sinister, a rogue’s gallery perfectly befitting an artist known largely for stylized films thick with violence, vengeance and vixens.

Yet in conversation, Rodriguez is anything but brash and brooding. In jeans and a white T-shirt — along with his customary headwear (today it’s a black Chairman Mao cap) — he exudes a film student’s wide-eyed enthusiasm.

Whether he’s inquiring about a reporter’s fancy iPhone mic or discussing the making of his legendary low-budget film, El Mariachi (“I’m still most proud of that one because it was a real turning point for me”), Rodriguez is refreshingly engaged and genuinely excited.

Especially when the subject turns to the El Rey Network. He’s clearly relishing the chance to bring his outside-the-box ethos and hands-on production approach to the television landscape. 

“There’s no reason,” Rodriguez says, “that we can’t take what we’ve done with our movies — creating quality projects, quickly and economically, while working out of Austin — and apply that to making TV…”

Get the full story in Emmy magazine issue No. 2014-04 here.

 

 

 

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