El Mariachi is a 1992 Mexican-American action film that is the debut of writer/director Robert Rodriguez. The Spanish language film was shot in the northern Mexican bordertown of Ciudad Acuña with a mainly amateur cast. The US$7,000 production was originally intended for the Mexican home video market, but executives at Columbia Pictures liked the film so much that they bought the American distribution rights. Columbia eventually spent several times more than the 16 mm film's original budget on 35 mm transfers, promotion, marketing and distribution.
The success of Rodriguez's directorial debut led him to create two further entries, Desperado (1995) and Once Upon a Time in Mexico (2003), in what came to be known as the Mexico Trilogy. In 2011, the film was inducted into the Library of Congress to be preserved as part of its National Film Registry for being culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.
In a small Mexican town, a ruthless criminal, nicknamed Azul (Reinol Martínez), breaks out of jail and vows revenge on the local drug lord, Moco (Peter Marquardt), who put him there in the first place, by using a guitar case which carries a small arsenal of guns. At the same time, a young mariachi (Carlos Gallardo) arrives in the town looking for work, carrying his guitar case with his signature guitar. From the confines of his heavily guarded villa on the outskirts of town, Moco sends a large group of hitmen to kill Azul, but because both men are dressed in black and carrying guitar cases, the hitmen mistake the mariachi for the criminal. Only Moco knows what Azul looks like. The mariachi kills four of Moco's men in self-defense. As the mariachi seeks refuge in a bar owned by a woman named Dominó (Consuelo Gómez), he falls in love with her. Unfortunately, her bar is financed by Moco.
When Azul visits the bar for a beer and information about Moco, he accidentally leaves with the mariachi's guitar case. Moco's thugs capture Azul on the street but let him go when they learn that the case he is carrying contains only a guitar. A short time later, the mariachi is captured and taken to Moco, who identifies him as the wrong man and sets him free.
Meanwhile, Azul, who has no directions to Moco's home, takes Dominó with him and orders her to take him to Moco's, or Moco will kill the mariachi. Dominó agrees in order to save the mariachi's life. When they arrive at Moco's gated compound, Azul pretends to take Dominó hostage in order to gain entry. Moco soon realizes that Dominó has fallen for the mariachi and, in a rage, shoots both her and Azul. Suddenly, the mariachi arrives to find the woman he loves gunned down. Moco then shoots the mariachi's left hand, rendering him useless as a guitar player. However, overcome with grief and rage, the mariachi picks up Azul's gun and kills Moco, taking revenge for Dominó's death. Moco's surviving henchmen, seeing their leader dead, walk off and leave Moco's body and the wounded mariachi behind.
In the final scene, the mariachi leaves the town on Dominó's motorbike, taking her dog and her letter-opener to remember her by. His dreams to become a mariachi have been shattered, and his only protection for his future are the weapons of Azul, which he took along in the guitar case.
The film was shot in numerous locations in Acuña, Coahuila, located in Northeastern Mexico. Rodriguez had a $7,000 budget, almost half of which he raised by participating in experimental clinical drug testing while living in Austin,Texas. The opening scenes feature a shootout in a jail. It was the local Acuña jail situated on the outskirts of the town. Also, both the female warden and the male guard were both the real-life warden and guard; Rodriguez thought it convenient because it saved him the cost of hiring actors and renting clothing. The intro bar scene was shot inside the Corona Club, and exterior street scenes were shot on Hidalgo Street. The shoot out was filmed outside at "Boy's Town" the local red-light district.
Not everyone in Acuña was pleased at first: local journalists Ramiro Gómez and Jesús López Viejo were especially critical of the filming, and to win them over, Rodriguez gave them small parts in the film. Due to the high body count of the film (i.e. people whose characters had been shot could obviously not return), Rodriguez increasingly had difficulties finding adult men to play thugs; for that reason, when the Mariachi meets Moco's gang in the end scene, the gang consists mainly of teenagers.
On the El Mariachi DVD, Rodriguez devotes both a DVD commentary and an "Extras" section to explaining the tricks of filming a feature-length movie with just $7,000. Rodriguez heavily stresses the need for cost cutting, "because if you start to spend, you cannot stop anymore." This is why he cut costs at every possible opportunity, such as not using a slate (instead, the actors signaled the number of scene and number of take with their fingers), not using a dolly (he held the camera while being pushed around in a wheelchair), not using professional lighting (essentially using two 200-watt clip-on desk lamps) and not hiring a film crew (the actors not used in the scenes helped out). Also, Rodriguez believed in filming scenes sequentially in one long take with just one camera: every few seconds, he froze the action, so he could change the camera angle and make the audience believe he had a couple of cameras at the same time. Also, bloopers were kept in to save film: noted by Rodriguez were scenes when the Mariachi jumps on a bus, where Rodriguez is visible; the Mariachi bumping his weapon into a street pole; him failing to throw his guitar case on a balcony and Dominó twitching her face when she is already dead. In the end, he used only 24 rolls of film and only spent $7,225 of the $9,000 he had planned.
Rodriguez also gave insight into his low budget approach to simulate machine gun fire. The problem was that when using real guns, as opposed to the specially designed blank firing firearms used in most films, the blanks would jam the weapon after being fired once. To solve this, Rodriguez filmed the firing of one blank from different angles, dubbed canned machine gun sounds over it, and had the actors drop bullet shells to the ground to make it look like as if multiple rounds had been shot. In addition, he occasionally used water guns instead of real guns to save money. Rodriguez also describes that the squibs they used in shootout scenes were simply condoms filled with fake blood fixed over weightlifting belts.
Rodriguez also noted the use of improvisation. The tortoise which crawls in front of the Mariachi was not planned, but was kept as a good idea. Similarly, there is a scene in which the Mariachi buys a coconut, but Rodriguez forgot to show him paying for the fruit; instead of driving back to the place to shoot additional scenes, Rodriguez decided to build in a voice-over in which the Mariachi asserts that the coconuts were for free. Improvisation was also useful to cover up continuity mistakes: at the end of the movie, the Mariachi has his left hand shot, but Rodriguez forgot to bring the metal glove to cover up the actor's hand; he solved it by packing his hand with black duct tape.
In the DVD commentary, Rodriguez describes the acting of Peter Marquardt (who portrayed gangster boss ”Moco”). As the language of the film was Spanish, which Marquardt did not master, he had to learn his lines without understanding what he was saying. The running gag, in which Moco lights up his match using the moustache of his henchman Bigotón, was described by Rodriguez as a means to start and end the film: the end scene is a parody of this scene. Also, Marquardt suffered some physical discomfort in the final shooting scene. When Moco is hit in the chest, his blood squib exploded with such force that he really crumpled to the ground in pain.
Originally, the film was meant to be sold on the Latino video market as funding for another bigger and better project that Rodriguez was contemplating. However, after being rejected from various Latino straight-to-video distributors, Rodriguez decided to send his film (it was in the format of a trailer at the time) to bigger distribution companies where it started to get attention.