Arts & Culture

March 5, 2014

Robert Rodriguez breathes new life into an old vampire favorite

‘From Dusk Till Dawn’ premieres Tuesday on the El Rey network.

Robert Rodriguez experiences deja vu every time he steps onto the set of From Dusk Till Dawn: The Series.

The Austin-based filmmaker directed the original From Dusk Till Dawn nearly 20 years ago. The bloody/scary/funny crime spree-meets-horror movie hybrid, a 1996 fan favorite, starred George Clooney, Quentin Tarantino and Salma Hayek.

Now a TV version launches at 8 p.m. Tuesday as the flagship series on the new El Rey Network, bringing back the characters, locations and story.

“I was on the bar set, which was a re-creation of the original bar in the movie,” Rodriguez says. “There were several people in my crew who also worked on the original. It really felt like we had gone back in time. That was quite a jolt to be there again.”

Viewers familiar with the movie are liable to have an eerie been-here-before feeling, too.

The new From Dusk Till Dawn tells the exact same story of on-the-run bank-robber brothers who walk into the wrong bar, one populated by nasty Mexican vampires.

Rodriguez has fleshed it out so that the roller-coaster 90-minute movie plot now fills 10 one-hour episodes.

The first episode devotes the full hour to what the movie covered in just 15 minutes: a liquor-store shootout between the notorious Gecko brothers and a couple of Texas Rangers.

Remarkably, the show doesn’t feel slow or “padded” in any way.

Rodriguez always believed that From Dusk Till Dawn could be expanded in this way, in large part because he had a lot of ideas involving the vampires’ history that never saw the light of day.

“In the original film, after I first read the script [written by Tarantino], I researched things about Aztec cultures and mythologies and found a blood cult that worships snakes,” Rodriguez says. “I always thought that was a cool idea, but we didn’t explore it in the film because it wasn’t written that way.

“But I left in the last shot of a pyramid [behind the bar] that sort of hinted at a larger mythology. I left it there just to tickle people’s imaginations about what it could be.

“And now, years later, I get the chance to re-explore some of those ideas I had researched way back, to expand Quentin’s story to include new characters, new trajectories and new storylines and to build that mythology more with the cult.”

When From Dusk Till Dawn hit theaters in 1996, it was not a commercial success. “People didn’t really know what to make of it,” Rodriguez acknowledges.

That’s because it feels like two distinctly different movies glued together at the middle. It starts out as a gritty crime flick, then takes an unexpected turn toward the paranormal.

“But it built an audience over time and became a fan favorite,” the director adds.

Rodriguez, whose Sin City sequel will be in movie theaters in August, has always been the kind of filmmaker who has big ideas and tries new things.

The new From Dusk Till Dawn wouldn’t be happening, for example, if Rodriguez hadn’t first been bold enough to start his own cable network last year. He is El Rey’s founder and chairman.

When Comcast approached him with an offer to run his own network, Rodriguez jumped at the chance for two reasons.

“First, I’d always liked television, although the process seemed so strange,” he says. “I would see friends go work in TV and pour their life into a project, only to get a pilot that might not get picked up or to get a series that might be canceled because it was put on the wrong night.

“As a content provider, you had a real lack of control over how things were done and how things were put out. I wasn’t enthused about putting that much work into something that might not happen, so I steered away from TV.

“But what if you owned your own distribution channel? That would give you a lot of freedom, because you’d have a direct pipeline to your audience.”

The other reason Rodriguez started El Rey is he saw an opportunity to accommodate an underserved demographic.

“I have five kids,” he explains. “They live and breathe in English, but they don’t have anything on TV that represents who they are in this country, even though they’re part of the largest minority group.

“I had this flash of an idea to do a Hispanic English-language network where Latin filmmakers could make really cool shows that appeal to everybody but have an eye towards diversity, a lot like the movies I’ve been doing, movies like Desperado, Spy Kids, Machete and From Dusk Till Dawn.

“You never think of them as being Hispanic, yet they are Hispanic films. They’re also for everybody because they have universal themes and stories.”

As is the case with his movies, Rodriguez is making From Dusk Till Dawn: The Series at his own Troublemaker Studios, located at the former site of the Robert Mueller Municipal Airport in Austin.

The San Antonio native was advised many times early in his career to move to Los Angeles, the filmmaking capital of the world, but he always resisted.

“I really liked Texas,” Rodriguez says. “I felt like you should be able to make anything happen there. Then I made El Mariachi locally, shot it across the border and cut it in my apartment.

“When I sold that to Columbia Pictures, I realized I didn’t need to move to Los Angeles. I can make the movies in Austin.

“So I endeavored to stay home and build up my own film community rather than move to a city that already had a film community. We’ve made a lot of impact and now a lot of television shows shoot in Austin. They go there for the crews and they go there for the tax benefits and for the locations.

“I’m really proud of the accomplishments we’ve made there.”

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