- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 5, 2007

At 16, Robert Rodriguez’s boss at the photography shop where he worked told him to take one of the store’s cameras home. Knowing the camera will help you sell the camera, the man told him.

His boss later raved about the pictures the young Mr. Rodriguez took.

“These are really creative … that’s a real gift,” Mr. Rodriguez recalls his boss telling him.

The budding filmmaker took two lessons away from the exchange. It confirmed that he had an eye for composition, but just as important, it taught him the importance of knowing the tools of what would become his trade.

Today, the man behind “Desperado” and the “Spy Kids” trilogy does everything on his movie shoots except fetch his stars’ coffee. He writes, directs, edits and produces his films and sometimes composes the music and serves as his own cinematographer. Reading the latest tech manuals and multitasking on the set gives him creative freedom, the 38-year-old filmmaker says.

It’s similar to the hands-on approach of his idol, John Carpenter. Mr. Rodriguez decided to become a filmmaker after seeing Mr. Carpenter’s 1981 film “Escape From New York.”

Mr. Rodriguez’s “Grindhouse,” the new double bill of horror he directed along with longtime pal Quentin Tarantino, takes its cues from “Escape” in more ways than one.

A grind-house feature is one with no big stars but plenty of what Mr. Rodriguez calls “exploitable elements” — pretty girls, big explosions and lots of action.

Of course, Mr. Rodriguez writes, directs, edits, etc., but the film’s genre underpinnings directly link to “Escape.”

Mr. Rodriguez’s segment of the film, dubbed “Planet Terror,” features zombie action and a heroine (Rose McGowan) with a machine gun where her leg once was.

Having such an iconic image is key to a quality grind-house film, he says.

Quentin Tarantino directs the second half of the film, “Death Proof.” Kurt Russell plays a stuntman-turned-killer who hunts his prey not with a knife but with his car.

The filmmaker wants “Grindhouse” to replicate the loosey-goosey feeling he gets when he settles in to watch B movies at his pal Mr. Tarantino’s home theater.

Mr. Rodriguez shot his 1992 breakthrough “El Mariachi” for a mere $7,000. He gets to play with much more money these days, but his budgets remain leaner than those of most mainstream directors.

“Financially, the studio has a movie that looks huge,” he says. “You’re exchanging budget for freedom.”

If “Grindhouse” is a hit — and it’s got a head start because the box-office receipts won’t have to cover bloated production costs — expect more movie mayhem.

“Grindhouse” compatriots such as Eli Roth (“Hostel”) and Rob Zombie (“The Devil’s Rejects”) directed trailers that run between the two features. They could be called upon to direct more movies under the “Grindhouse” banner, Mr. Rodriguez says.

If Mr. Roth and Mr. Zombie aren’t available, perhaps a new generation of genre auteurs will take over.

Mr. Rodriguez is trying in his small way to start such a wave.

His films’ DVDs typically feature how-to segments for budding directors.

“As a young filmmaker, I would always look for information like that,” he says.

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