Rodriguez and Tarantino Get Back to the 'Grind'

"This thing's turned into a monster!" Robert Rodriguez remembered telling his friend and co-director Quentin Tarantino after the first screening of their new film "Grindhouse."

Rodriguez and Tarantino first met in Toronto in 1992 at the city's annual film festival. Tarantino was in town to present his strange and violent new film "Reservoir Dogs," while Rodriguez was trying to sell his first feature, "El Mariachi."

In an age when the smallest film can cost millions to make, Rodriguez made "El Mariachi" for $7,000. He worked as the movie's writer, director, editor and cinematographer. He even operated the dolly grip.

"There was no crew. I was just doing it sort of as an experiment," Rodriguez tells ABC's Joel Siegel, "and I did it in Spanish to sell it to the Mexican video market. I was like my own film school."

Rodriguez planned to make a few more cut-rate thrillers, but when "El Mariachi" got picked up by Columbia Pictures, the timeline got thrown forward.

For the next few months Tarantino and Rodriguez would work side by side but separately -- they both had offices on the Columbia Pictures lot -- each crafting the movies that would introduce their strange and exciting visions to cinephiles worldwide.

By the summer of 1995, "Desperado" was playing in theaters across the nation. Months earlier, in the fall of 1994, Tarantino released his masterpiece, regarded by some as the finest film of the decade -- the lovingly vicious "Pulp Fiction."

Now Rodriguez and Tarantino will release their most ambitious collaboration yet, a new-fashioned take on the cinematic antiquity of the double feature.

"It's like a rock concert," Rodriguez said. "People are just really enjoying it. They've never seen anything like it. It's almost like circus cinema. The trailers and the different directors coming on, so many stars in the movie, so much humor and action … a lot of surprises."

Rodriguez's contribution to "Grindhouse," titled "Planet Terror," is a zombie flick set in a desolate Texas town. Actors Freddie Rodriguez and Rose McGowan catch the thorny assignment of killing off the undead.

McGowan plays a go-go dancer named Cherry, Rodriguez says, "who gets a machine gun leg. She loses her leg, and instead of a peg leg, she gets a machine gun. It's just her leg with an Ace bandage expanded around the stump and the gun jammed in so it looks like an old grind house movie. That was the idea -- to juxtapose ideas, with a sort of low-budget feel with the high tech."

It sounds campy, but that's the fun, the director says, even if the so-called substance of the film is actually a gallon of fake blood -- which, Rodriguez notes, is a product of "the same old recipe, Karo syrup with food coloring, the old Dick Smith classic recipe."

Blood is a running theme in Rodriguez's movies, and "Grindhouse" is no exception.

Before the release, news reports circulated about the possibility of an NC-17 rating for the film, a box-office kiss of death. But even as the speculation grew, Rodriguez was unfazed.

"No one had seen it," he says. "In fact, Quentin and I were a little disappointed when they didn't give us an X. Was it not good enough? We weren't trying to but you know [the Motion Picture Association of America] always has their own requests."

Back in 1992, there was a similar controversy surrounding a particular scene from co-director Tarantino's "Reservoir Dogs." It involved a gangster, a policeman and the policeman's ear, which, with the unseen slash of a knife, is stolen from its owner.

That film, like Rodriguez's "Desperado" and "Grindhouse," eventually received an R-rating.

These decisions, the director believes, have triggered a shift in the marketing of more violent and profane cinema.

"I think studios are getting away with these PG-13s that are more like R so they can get more people in there because they know people who go to a PG-13 are just going to bring their kids anyway," Rodriguez said.

"I mean, that's the only reason I made [PG-rated] "Spy Kids" is because parents were taking their kids to see "Desperado." They're not supposed to see that. That's why I made that series."

The director recalled one specific run-in with some especially permissive parents.

"I was really taken aback," he says, "when they came up to me and said, 'Oh, my son loves 'Desperado',' and I go 'Oh, how old is your son?' and she said '6.'

"I went, 'Ooooh,' he's not supposed to see that."

With "Spy Kids," Rodriguez says he set out to make a film for kids "that's got explosive action and empowers children and that's fun and safe and that has no foul language or anything."

The ethos of "Grindhouse" figures to be about as far removed from "Spy Kids" as "Escape from New York," a favorite of the director's when he was growing up.

It was from movies like John Carpenter's epic, which Rodriguez figures would only catch a PG-13 rating these days, the kung fu of Bruce Lee, and 1970s blaxploitation films that the two directors of "Grindhouse" found their inspiration.

The result, as Rodriguez says, is "a strange reality. You're creating your own fantasy reality and it makes sense for a moment when you're watching, then later you're like 'How was she firing that gun?' It doesn't make a whole lot of sense. You believe it as you're seeing it."

Call it movie magic at its darkest. For Rodriguez, after years of building the "Spy Kids" empire, the coming summer marks a return to camp.