NEW YORK — Robert Rodriguez helped ignite an independent film movement in the 1990s with “El Mariachi,” shot for a mere $7,000, before moving on to blockbuster fare such as “Sin City” and the “Spy Kids” franchise. Now the restless filmmaker, 45, is trying to revolutionize the small screen with the recently launched cable network El Rey, aimed at a young, English-speaking Latino audience. It’s available on Time Warner and DirecTV, among other outlets.
Q: You’ve had a lot of success in films. So why start a television network?
A: I had always loved television, in fact even networks were interested in me doing TV as far back as “El Mariachi.” But I had so much creative freedom in the film world, whereas I would have a friend trying to make TV shows and they had no control over it. I didn’t like the process of TV, but I did like the medium, so I just stuck with movies. Movies always seemed like the safer bet, until about three years ago when John Fogelman, who used to be Salma (Hayek)’s agent, came to me with a proposal.
Comcast is giving away networks as part of their merger with Universal. The first four had to be minority, and my hand went up right away. It just hit me on a personal level. I have five kids. They are bilingual but really they live their lives in English, like most second- and third-generation Hispanics, and there really wasn’t anything on television that represented who they were. I looked at the landscape, there were around 110 English-language networks in the U.S., about 10 or 11 are African American. The largest minority is Hispanic, and there wasn’t one English-language network aimed at them, but there’s two dog channels. It needed to happen.
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Q: The network’s first original series is “From Dusk Till Dawn,” adapted from your movie and premiering Tuesday. What made you want to revisit that material?
A: For the first show, I didn’t think it would be a good idea to present a property no one’s heard of on a network no one’s heard of. I thought it would be better to have a known title to help point people toward the network. I thought it was worth revisiting the film, especially having a Hispanic slant. You can dive into this Mayan and Aztec culture, explore in a way that you never see on TV, and give all the original characters a bigger life on-screen. We added a character, a Hispanic-American cop who doesn’t really speak Spanish but who travels to Mexico after his partner is killed, and he’s the eyes of the audience.
Q: El Rey Network arrives at a time when the Latino vote is becoming more and more important. Do you plan to get into political and social issues facing the community?
A: I haven’t decided yet. We certainly have a way to reach people with things that are important. I’ve worked with the president and the White House before when they’ve asked for help in reaching people in the community. I think that could become part of it, but for now it’s all about the entertainment and making something that has a brand and an identity that people can feel good about and they can go there and feel taken care of.
Q: You’ve got a track record as an innovator. Any other big ideas for the network?
A: I want to do a show called “The Mariachi Project” where I give $7,000 to a filmmaker to go make a feature. We’ll show it on the network, give it some critiquing. At the end of the season the winner, chosen by the audience, will get to remake the film with a bigger budget, a real crew and bigger actors. If I did “El Mariachi” now it would cost like $700. The biggest expense was the film stock and now everybody shoots digitally. The film camera I had was so noisy, I had to record the sound separately. It sounded like all my money running away.