In 1994, director Robert Rodriguez was given $700,000 and 13 days to shoot one of the best movies you’ve never heard of.
“Roadracers” was one of 10 made-for-TV movies produced for a Showtime series called “Rebel Highway,” which remade drive-in-era B-movies with a ’90s edge. The film, which is now available for the first time on DVD and Blu-ray, stars David Arquette as a rebellious greaser named Dude, whose dreams of rockabilly stardom hit a roadblock when he butts heads with the local sheriff (William Sadler) and his nasty son (Jason Wiles).
Rodriguez, who had just come off his famously low-budget action flick “El Mariachi,” was not Showtime’s first choice to direct one of the film’s installments, but after horror icon Wes Craven dropped out of the project in favor of “New Nightmare,” the 26-year-old Texas native was most certainly the logical one.
“It was a really tough schedule. It was a 13-day shoot done for about $1 million each [movie], and they were over budget and over schedule on a bunch of [the other films],” Rodriguez told me during a recent interview. “They wanted to save money on one of the episodes and heard about this guy who made a movie for $7,000. So they asked me to come in and they gave me a smaller budget and made sure I didn’t go over any time.”
As if a two-week shoot weren’t daunting enough, the late change in directors left Rodriguez and his writing partner Tommy Nix only 10 days to write the “Roadracers” script.
“We were driving from San Antonio to Mexico to go meet up with my ‘Mariachi’ buddy and we were writing ideas on index cards,” Rodriguez recalled as he explained how he and Nix wrote down ideas as if it were a stream of consciousness. “We passed a roller-skating rink in San Antonio and my friend Tommy goes, ‘Roller rink! We’ve gotta have a roller-skating scene. Let’s have a rumble on roller-skates.’ And we draw it out. ‘Oh, this has gotta happen – he’s gotta grease the floor with his hair!’”
The things they saw. The places they visited. The conversations they had. The obsessions they doted on. It all ended up in the script, whether it was a quirky billboard, a classic sci-fi movie, a philosophical examination of French fries or a late-night conversation about pigs in a blanket. Even Tommy himself became a character – Dude’s hapless friend Nixer, played with delightful irreverence by actor John Hawkes.
Robert and Tommy’s road trip adventures were originally meant to serve as placeholders for what they had planned to scrub into a polished script, but as 10 days turned into zero, the placeholders turned into the final script for “Roadracers.”
“I think that’s why it was so special,” Rodriguez said. “We didn’t have time to over think it and it came, really, from the gut, because you just didn’t have any time. So you have to go with your first instincts, which sometimes is the best way to go. When you’re getting your own way, have too much time and have too much money, you go back and say, ‘Well, that was stupid. Let’s change that. Let’s go for something that makes a little more sense.’ And then you have a movie that makes perfect sense, but that no one likes.”
Like all of Robert Rodriguez’s DVD and Blu-ray releases, “Roadracers” includes a “10-Minute Film School” featurette with behind-the-scenes footage from production, as well as notes about the making of the movie. He is also one of the few directors in Hollywood who records a director’s commentary track worth listening to from beginning to end.
“I do very extensive commentaries that go really quickly,” he said. “I crammed the movie with everything that I did … because I know I’ll forget over time. Even if no one listens to them, I really record them for my own methodology, so I can go back and look myself.”
The “Roadracers” commentary is particularly interesting due to Rodriguez’s descriptions of his early DIY filmmaking techniques and problem-solving methods, in addition to his unabashed recollections of a studio-hired film crew that simply couldn’t keep up with his rigorous pace.
“In the behind-the-scenes footage, you can see me carrying my own camera gear around because the crew would just refuse to work that fast,” said Rodriguez, who was determined to not let time and money constraints affect the production value of his film. “But it taught me a big thing. If you lead by example – if I was a director that didn’t operate his own camera, I’d be ****ed. If you sat there in the chair saying move, move, you guys, they’d say, ‘***k you. We can’t move that fast.’”
He continued, “But if you pick up the camera and you haul your own stuff – which is against the rules, it’s against the union rules – they have to follow you. They have to follow you and take it out of your hands and they have to move as fast as you. That’s how I got my movies shot that quickly, to keep the budgets low so that you have the creative freedom to do anything you want.”
In the case of “Roadracers,” anything Robert wanted had a tendency to get a little extreme.
“There was a scene where the guys were cruising looking for David Arquette, but my DP was having trouble setting up the steadicam for a shot and I’m like, ‘This is taking forever. I’ve got so many other shots,’” he said. And while some directors might wait out the delay, grab a sandwich or chat up the cast, that’s not exactly Robert Rodriguez’s style.
“I built my own second unit crew,” he told me. “It was just me, the camera, the actors. We get in the car, we drive up to a neighborhood. I get some side views. Then, it’s like, I need a front view now. I need a front view through the windshield.”
Moments later, the first unit called over the walkie-talkie looking for Robert. They got a surprising response: “He’s on the hood.”
“They were driving and I was laying belly-down on the hood with a camera getting the through-the-windshield shot – not tied down or anything – while they were driving through the neighborhood,” Rodriguez said, laughing. “I was so desperate to get my shots that I would do anything.”
What Rodriguez may not have realized then, but what cult fans of “Roadracers” know now, is that the filmmaker’s devil-may-care style of directing succeeded in capturing the same spirit that the original drive-in classics were made in. And it’s no coincidence that out of the 10 films featured in the “Rebel Highway” series, “Roadracers” is the film fans still crave. It’s still the film fans care about, because, even subconsciously, they realize that the man who made it cared enough to risk his life for a close-up of someone taking a drag from a cigarette.
“It ended up having this very go-for-broke edge that, when people watch, they can feel it,” Rodriguez said. “They don’t really know why they like the movie, cus it’s just a movie, but there’s something different under the hood. It’s hard to put your finger on it.”
“Roadracers” is now available on DVD and Blu-ray and features director’s commentary and a “Ten Minute Film School” featurette starring Robert Rodriguez.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.