Robert Rodriguez grindhouse gore-fest, Machete Kills, slices and dices its way into theaters on Oct. 11. Here, the acclaimed director of Desperado and Sin City offers up his top cult films.
‘Rolling Thunder’ (1977)
One of the earliest that I remember seeing was Rolling Thunder. It’s a revenge-thriller, but it’s done so cool—it’s intense and brutal. It’s got Tommy Lee Jones and William Devane in it, and Paul Schrader writes it. It was set in San Antonio, and you see its influence in just about every one of my movies because the guy loses his hand by the bad guys and it turns into a hook. Transformation is a big thing in my films—starting one way and going 180 degrees into something else—and usually it happens at the end of my movies. The Spy Kids don’t turn into them until the end of the movie, or El Mariachi doesn’t turn into the guy with the guitar case with the guns until the last scene of the movie. I like leaving the audience with a feeling that the character’s transformed because even if you don’t do a sequel, you can imagine sequels because they’re just now getting warmed up.
‘Escape From New York’ (1981)
This film really opened up my eyes to the kinds of movies I wanted to do and be a filmmaker for because of the freedom that it suggested. When I saw that John Carpenter had written, directed, and done the music, I thought, “That’s crazy.” And you can just declare that New York is a prison and the audience buys it? That’s the most freedom you could possibly have in a playground to create your own set of rules. And Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) is the ultimate antihero and does the types of things you’d never see a hero do. You can only get away with that in a cult-type movie. All my movies, whether it’s a kid’s movie or an action movie, have a complete sense of freedom and fantasy where they’re not realistic at all but live within their own set of rules that are defined by that particular movie.
‘Evil Dead II’ (1987)
Evil Dead II was a big influence on films like From Dusk Till Dawn. Aside from the transformation, where you had a guy with a chainsaw for an arm, it had this idea of horror and cartoonish-type comedy where you didn’t know if you were meant to be scared or laugh out loud. I loved that.
‘An American Werewolf in London’ (1981)
This was an early influence too in terms of the weird juxtaposition of laugh-out-loud comedy mixed with really horrific sequences. My best friend in eighth grade said, “Me and my dad ran out of the movie midway through! We just couldn’t take it. It was so intense!” I was like, “I thought it was supposed to be funny?” And he said, “It is funny!” I love that combination. Whenever I see John Landis, I ask him a million questions about that movie. It’s a big influence on me tonally. Landis felt like he didn’t have to follow the genre rules and really mixed it up, and it’s a very hard tone to walk the line on. It’s very impressive and exhilarating, and it felt like something really new.
‘Flash Gordon’ (1980)
I loved Flash Gordon! The Dino De Laurentiis production gone awry. I remember my younger brother and I saw the trailers on television, and my other siblings were laughing at it, saying, “You’re going to see that? That looks retarded!” So they went to see this reissue of Song of the South, and my brother and I went to see Flash Gordon, and we got the better end of the deal. A good trailer for Flash Gordon came on before the showing of Song of the South, and they were suddenly pissed they chose the wrong movie. Sure enough, to this day, it’s one of those jokes within our family and we just love it—the jokes, the kitschy nature of it. It certainly wasn’t perfect, but you end up loving things for what it is. I used to cut fake trailers for it and show them at the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, and people would go apeshit.
‘Max Max’ / ‘The Road Warrior’ (1979 & 1981)
What was surprising about Mad Max is that the first time I saw it, it was dubbed with American accents. It was a real lesson in dubbing and how important sound is, because they seemed like the worst actors in the world due to the poor voice acting. When they finally reissued it with the Australian accents, the performances are so amazing. It was an influence on Machete and Machete Kills because like Mad Max, the first one was made to establish the character, and then the second one, The Road Warrior, is a bigger adventure and you’re playing with myth and legend. The character has become larger than life, and you want the adventure to reflect that. Jesse James made me a car for Machete Kills, and it looked so much like the Road Warrior vehicle that we weren’t supposed to have Mel [Gibson] get in the car, but I said, “OK, screw the storyline…we don’t really care about that anyway! Let’s figure out some way for Mel to have it.” So, we put a sign on it that said “For Inspection,” and he got in the car and drove a bit in it to see Machete—and get that Road Warrior shot. And Mel was totally game for it. I had to get it out of my system.
‘The Thing’ (1982)
I was into a lot of John Carpenter stuff. This film really showed me how malleable material can be. When Carpenter first shot it, Kurt Russell was just one of the side characters, but when they went out on location, a lot of the location work was making him step more into the forefront. I do that a lot. Once I get an actor on and I realize what power they have on the screen, I quickly rewrite ridiculously on set, to the point where people will show up that morning, get the new pages, and we go to shoot, and I say, “Oh, no, that’s not the right dialogue!” And they say, “But I just got the pages this morning?” And I go, “Oh, those are already old!” I’m constantly rewriting, trying to get the most out of the actor with the character and think of it from the audience’s perspective of what they want to see from that character.
‘The Hitcher’ / ‘Near Dark’ (1986 & 1987)
There was a time in the mid-’80s, around the time I was going to college, where there were two films by [screenwriter] Eric Red, The Hitcher and Near Dark. Near Dark was a great cult vampire movie. It came out the same time as The Lost Boys and just got buried. It was not distributed well. Whenever I see Kathryn Bigelow I always bug her about Near Dark stories. And with The Hitcher, they remade it recently and it’s terrible, but the original one is great. I finally got to work with Rutger Hauer on Sin City, and he just has an amazing presence and is a fucking great actor. Working with him was a dream.
As told to Marlow Stern.