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I Walk the Line

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We can all cite instances of dubious screen credits, particularly in the areas of writing or producing. In practice, the doling out of credits for a screenplay or the hard-to-define job of producing have eluded strict definition. The Writers Guild has a bias toward a first writer or writing team, and that’s lodged in the difficult-to-argue bedrock that without that initial piece of writing, subsequent work would likely not have occurred. Producing issues are less readily rationalized and often involve credit in lieu of litigation.
Historically, credit for key craft work has rarely been controversial. There were raised eyebrows when Peter Hyams first took the director of photography credit on the film 2010 back in 1984. Hyams argued that he designed, lit and often operated the camera and therefore deserved the screen acknowledgement. He’s taken it ever since. Conversely, Stanley Kubrick often did the same things Hyams did on his movies but must have felt that his cameramen, including John Alcott, contributed something to the mix deserving of the cinematography card.
Along the same vein, Steven Soderbergh sometimes takes the main camera credit under the pseudonym Peter Andrews and the Coen brothers invented Roderick Jaynes as their nom de screen when they edit their own movies. The brothers decided early in their careers that editing was one Coen too many for the screen. John Carpenter has composed the music for most of his films and Mike Figgis, a professional musician before he turned to the movies, also scores his pictures.
While hardly a virus, the prospect that one’s artistic or technical contribution might be usurped by a filmmaker has to be unnerving. It’s common to hear a DP say something along the lines of “I was doing the director’s bidding” or any one of a number of below-the-liners characterizing their film work as being at the service of a filmmaker. I’ve forgotten who’s credited with the following quote but it bears mention: “collaboration is getting a lot of people to do what I want them to do.” The source was obviously not lacking in self-confidence.
Unlike writing or producing, credit in key artistic and technical areas hasn’t developed into a battlefield because on balance it has more deficits than assets. From the outside it appears as if one is robbing someone’s resume and possibly even cash. It’s also a fact that these below-the-line contributions are not part of major profit sharing, so for many they’re not worthy of an impassioned argument.
Several months ago I was quite taken aback by the credit scroll of Once Upon a Time in Mexico. As the cards came up successively, I saw filmmaker Robert Rodriguez’s name appear as the composer, cinematographer, editor and production designer in addition to his work as writer, director and co-producer.
Personally I feel that officially taking credit for even one of these positions should give a filmmaker pause. Four such insertions ought to result in an ulcerous condition. So, when I eventually sat down with Rodriguez, I glibly asked how his costume design classes were proceeding. He had yet to appreciate the subtext and beamed, “It’s really enormous fun. On the last Spy Kids, I really got into designing on the computer. You know, it’s one thing to draw these outfits on paper but to then be able to see them in perspective is amazing. You can see right away that the shoulders are too big or the length’s too short and make the changes.”
Rodriguez isn’t defensive, nor is he apologetic. In fact, when asked why he didn’t take a credit for costume design, he’s taken aback. Why would he do that when he hadn’t designed and executed a lot of the wardrobe, he replies.
Though he’d been making movies from a very early age, Rodriguez didn’t think he’d be able to make a living as a filmmaker. He never dreamed his first film would play in cinemas, so he shot El Mariachi on video for $7,000 in Spanish. He still finds it miraculous that it played festivals and excited Columbia Home Video enough to give him money to make a 35mm print for a theatrical release.
The spirit of the first experience and a bit of good fortune guided his film career. The bit of luck was securing a couple of airplane hangars that were scheduled for demolition in his native Austin and converting them into studio and construction space. He is unabashedly not Hollywood in his set up, infrastructure or attitude.
“I think people’s best films are usually made early when you don’t have the money and are forced to find creative solutions,” he says. “I know this sounds crazy but with each film I draw up a budget and then take out $5 million. It forces everyone to be creative. People who work on my films—and it has been a pretty consistent group—know that it’s not about showing up, punching a clock and working like a drone. They’re expected to do all kinds of things because that’s the only way to keep them engaged and making them better at what they do.”
Rodriguez has been perceived as a control freak and, while he objects to such a fierce description, he won’t argue that he’s a hands-on type. He says it begins when he’s writing a script and visualizing how a film will look and sound. It just follows that he should be operating the A camera on set and tries to downplay the politics of crew jobs with credits that read: “chopped, shot and scored.” Union officials may not like that aspect but Rodriguez says all his movies are made strictly according to contracts and work rules and that his sets are happier and more efficient than what one generally finds in Hollywood.
He also says that he’s even more relaxed and collaborative when he’s directing someone else’s script—although of the eight-and-a-half movies he’s directed that’s only happened twice.
It still bothers me philosophically when a filmmaker’s name is that intrusive on screen credits. But there’s ample evidence that Rodriguez doesn’t make films in a mainstream tradition but more in keeping with the ways of a medieval craft guild. Not having been on one of his sets I’ll assume there’s some veracity to his description of harmony and democracy and the fact that everyone receives credit on and off the screen.

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