A new film portraying a Mexican hero fighting for his rights in America has been met with outrage by US conservatives. But the director tells Stephen Applebaum his Mexploitation movie is no call to arms
• Robert Rodriguez:"The corruption is the real problem in the States and that's something people don't talk about at all." Picture: PA
IN ARIZONA earlier this year, a controversial new law was launched that targeted undocumented immigrants; a recent report suggested it may have provoked the voluntary departure of 100,000 Hispanic people from the US state.
Provocative timing, then, for the release of Robert Rodriguez's splattery Mexploitation movie Machete, in which the eponymous Mexican hero (grizzled former jailbird Danny Trejo) and a colourful roster of Latino characters violently fight for their rights against a gallery of right-wing baddies, including Don Johnson as a murderous vigilante and Robert De Niro as an anti-immigration Texas Senator.
To some outraged US conservatives, the film looked like a declaration of war. Machete was "racist and anti-American" and "a call to revolution", according to one. Another linked "riots" in Los Angeles directly to the film's release three days earlier.
This was all hyperbolic nonsense. But to be fair, Rodriguez had primed right-wingers for such a reaction by posting a re-edited, so-called "illegal" trailer online with a tacked-on introduction showing Trejo in character saying, "This is Machete with a special Cinco de Mayo message to… Arizona," followed by scenes of a violent uprising by immigrant workers.
The film does contain provocative elements, such as a rabble-rousing speech by Jessica Alba in which she declaims "We didn't cross the border, the border crossed us", and the point-blank shooting of a pregnant Mexican woman as she tries to cross the border (if she gave birth in the United States, her child would automatically become American). But Machete is by no means a "call to arms", says Rodriguez. "People may think it's about immigration but it's not. We shot over a year ago and it's only good timing that it seems more relevant now."
In fact he first talked to Trejo about the Machete character 16 years ago, when they worked together on Rodriguez's El Mariachi sequel, Desperado. "I had an idea for an action hero who was a Mexican federal agent that's fighting the drug cartels, who loses his family and has to hide out in the United States as an illegal day labourer, and gets chosen by the bad guys to do a fake hit on the senator." Meeting Trejo, he realised he'd found his star: "Too many actors play tough guys. Danny is a tough guy. I just knew he would be believable."
Thirteen years later, Rodriguez included a fake Machete trailer in Grindhouse, the homage to exploitation cinema he made with Quentin Tarantino. It proved such a hit with fans that he decided to go ahead and expand it into a movie in the same schlocky, over-the-top style. "So many times you go to a movie because you saw a cool trailer and the movie's nothing like the trailer. You're like, 'They made this look like the greatest movie ever. Why didn't they just make the trailer?' So that's what we did." Trejo, having finally graduated from supporting player to leading man at 66 years of age, couldn't be happier. "I feel blessed," he told press at the Venice Film Festival in September. "Robert Rodriguez has made me go from ex-con to icon."
Machete's real subject, Rodriguez says, is corruption, arguing that the immigration issue is a "smokescreen" to control the border and keep the price of illegally trafficked drugs high. "You're hearing a lot about immigration, which is solvable. But the corruption is the real problem in the States and that's something people don't talk about at all."
Born and raised in San Antonio, Texas, he has seen the reality of the Tex-Mex fault-line at first hand. "People talk about a border as if there's a solution of putting up a fence or something, but that just shows they don't get it.
"There's no border. It becomes its own country after a while and if you and me want to get anything across the border, we can. Very easily. That's how bad it is."
Greed makes bizarre bedfellows of a racist good ol' boy and a Mexican drug baron in Machete, but the reality is no less extraordinary, says Rodriguez. "There are white supremacist groups in Austin (his hometown in Texas] that deal with the Mexican drug lords to get their money. It's like, 'We don't like other people than us but when it comes to money, it's OK.'" As far-fetched as he tried to make the film, he says the "people in high places" with whom he consulted "kept telling me, 'No, your script is dead on.' I would say, 'It can't possibly be, it's completely ridiculous,' and they'd go, 'No, this really happens.' I'd be like, 'Wow, that's really sad.'"
Rodriguez shot Machete quickly, cheaply and independently in Austin, and then sold the film to Fox (Sony is releasing it in the UK). It is a way of working that he discovered when his $7000 (about 3,600) debut feature (funded, in part, by the film-maker participating in experimental drug testing), El Mariachi, was snapped up for distribution by Columbia Pictures. The experience made him realise that instead of moving to Los Angeles – "I never wanted to go there" – and working for a studio, he could make his movies from home "and by keeping the budget low, the studio will make money on it no matter what".
Shooting in Texas gives him creative freedom, "because you think out of the box when you're out of the box. You're out of the box of Hollywood when you're outside the system completely, and that way you come up with new ideas." Rodriguez, remember, helped re-introduce 3D in 2003 with Spy Kids 3D: Game Over, and pushed the envelope of digital film-making with Sin City.
He, not a producer, is the master of his movies. And this is part of the reason, he believes, why he can attract actors of the calibre of De Niro. "If I tell them a part's going to be a certain way, they're not going to find out that the studio's already told you you can't do it that way. Really artists just want to be able to create, dress up, have fun and challenge themselves. Giving them the opportunity is how you make them happy when they're getting paid nothing and when they're coming down filming in the hottest month of the year."
As for Rodriguez himself, he just wants to keep creating movies his way. He recently produced Predators, after the studio came to him with an old screenplay he had written after watching the original, and a few days after our interview was about to reunite with Jessica Alba and Danny Trejo for Spy Kids 4: All the Time in the World.
The end of Machete promises two sequels, Machete Kills and Machete Kills Again. Rodriguez has his tongue firmly in cheek, but this doesn't mean we have seen the last of Trejo's laconic slice'n'dicer.
"When we did the original trailer for Grindhouse, so many people came and asked for this movie, more than for Sin City 2, that we went and made it, because we knew we had an audience just based on the reaction we had. So if people now come asking us to make those movies that I hinted at, then we'll have to make that a reality as well." So if you want to see more, you know what to do.
• Machete is in cinemas from 26 November.