Saturday, February 22, 2014

"El Guitarist" by J. Fabian

Texas-based filmmaker J. Fabian describes the rocky road to making his second feature, including the travails of adding name talent to his project, in the person of Jason Mewes:

I had the idea of doing a spoof of Robert Rodriguez's El Mariachi trilogy for a few years because my best friend, Elvin Bibiloni, who had already starred in the first feature I had produced, bears a pretty decent resemblance to Antonio Banderas. Their accents are very similar, and they even have the same birthday.

But I resisted the urge to try to shoot another ultra-low budget feature, because it's such an overwhelming task. In order to do it, you have to make it your obsession, thinking about nothing else but getting your film made.

I had been working at a gentleman's club with a floorman named Tracy. I had been cordial to him but had never really gone out my way to talk to him, when one day we were talking about a feature I had produced called movinG.

He had heard about it through a mutual friend and had not only watched it, he spotted a copy of it at Blockbuster. He thought it was kind of cool that someone from Dallas had produced a movie that was in the famous video store. Now, at the time I had never realized my feature was in Blockbuster—my distributor had never told me that we were in there—but that is another story.

But just the fact he had seen my movie and spoke well of it, I have to admit it appealed to my ego a little bit. So, I was definitely warming up to him, and then he mentioned he had a working studio and had shot a few shorts.

All of a sudden wheels started turning in my head. Maybe I could get this guy to partner with me on my next feature. So, after getting him a few shots at the bar, I told him about the idea I had for a spoof of El Mariachi and that whole trilogy and introduced him to Elvin, and he loved the idea.

I told him I thought we could shoot it for ten grand, since I didn't have to buy or rent the equipment, plus paying the actors by deferment. He looked me straight in the eye and solemnly assured me, “yeah, for sure we could.”

Judging from what it eventually cost us, I guess neither Tracy nor I could count very well. I started working on the script, and I couldn't believe how fast it came, and Tracy had a lot of funny ideas that he contributed to the project.

I was so excited when he told me he could get his Dog Pack production company to help out. Wow! We were going to have a whole crew to help shoot his thing. But quite prophetically he said that in the end it would probably be just him pointing the camera, and me holding the boom mike, which eventually is what happened when we were finishing up shooting the small stuff.

Tracy and I agreed Elvin's character, who goes by "El" (as in "The") is a buffoon, but he is also a badass. And though we were making a comedy spoof, our goal was to have more and better action than El Mariachi. Not that we thought we thought we were better filmmakers than Robert Rodriguez, we thought this was possible because our lead had years of training as a martial artist, and Tracy and most of his Dog Pack brothers were martial artists, as well. Plus, we had technology that Robert didn't have at the time he shot El Mariachi.

As Tracy was working on the fight choreography, and I was finishing up the script, I thought, "man, wouldn't it be funny if the villain Nacho was Jason Mewes playing himself, and Nacho was the name he used in Mexico to run his criminal empire?" Tracy loved the idea, so that's how I finished the last part of the script, with Jason as Nacho.

About a week later I saw Tracy at work, and reality came crashing down on my little fantasy. "We can't get Jason Mewes to do our shitty little movie," I realized. "He makes real movies in Hollywood with Kevin Smith!"

So, now we begin casting for our big feature, with no ending because we have no established star to play Nacho. We pressed forward looking for shooting locations, and since the gentleman's club we worked at was really nice and was huge, it would be a great place to make the headquarters of Nacho's criminal empire.

I asked the General Manager if he thought the owner would let us film there, and he assured us no problem, which was perfect because this building really was a monster.
Things were coming along well on the script. I had added a few scenes spoofing Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill, since Tarantino and Rodriguez collaborate on a lot of stuff, and because they are two of my favorite directors. I thought of it as a tribute. I also made one of the leads never speak till the very end, as sort of a tribute to Kevin Smith.

We had some success in finding actors by placing an ad, but they weren't what I wanted. So, I contacted Katrina Cook of Katzcasting and hired her to help us get first-class actors who worked for deferment, which really means free, unless your crappy little indie movie makes money, which almost never happens.

When we told her how we really wanted Jason Mewes for our movie, she said that she had worked with Jason before and would contact him and send him the script. His agent said Jason liked the script but was doing a project right now but might be available later. Which I thought meant "No, Jason will never do your crappy little movie." So the search was on for our villain.

During a preproduction meeting, we happened to mention how we needed a star for our feature, when an actor we had cast who told us his business partner knew Carlos Gallardo, THE guy who starred in El Mariachi, and he likes to work in small movies to help small filmmakers. I was like "wow, if we could get Carlos to play Nacho, that's perfect for our twist ending, and it kind of ties us in to the whole El Mariachi trilogy."

We had a meeting with our crew, and I told them the news that we couldn't get Mewes but we had a great shot of getting Carlos, who had asked for a copy of our script and liked it, and this would really be better than having Mewes in our movie, even though I was really crushed about not getting Mewes, and honestly how many people knew who Carlos Gallardo is? But, at the same time I was pumped about the idea—how freaking cool would it be to have EL MARIACHI in our movie!

A few days after the meeting, we get an email from Carlos's agent saying Carlos asked to see my and Tracy's filmmaking resumes, which were pretty slim. After seeing what we had actually done, he let us know that he wouldn't be available, but great script though.

So, now I'm trying to come up with any second-rate or washed up celebrities, Vanilla Ice, Ron Jeremy, Big Black, Kato Kaelin, Mel Gibson, seriously I told Katrina to make Mel an offer. What could it hurt, maybe we could get Mel?

As all this is going on, I'm buying costumes, props, air guns... the costs are already at 5 grand, and we haven't even started shooting.

I'm starting to feel that maybe I bit off more than I could chew, trying to make a big action film for ten thousand dollars, when out of the blue we get a call from Mewes’s agent.

Jason is available on this given date, but it's going to cost us more than we offered, plus we have to fly him out first class, and that's going to expensive as hell because we have to do it within a week.

Now, if I decide to agree to the terms, I've more than doubled my budget. Hmm, I don't have 20 thousand cash, but I do have credit cards. And I accept the offer.

We start shooting in one week. It's nut cutting time but I'm damn excited, so I inform our GM that we need the club on this day when it's closed, and I'm told to quit bugging him about this movie, and think about my job. This puts me in a pickle because I signed a pay-or-play agreement, and Mewes gets paid whether we shoot on the agreed days or not. So I cut Mewes a check for the agreed. Tracy and I quit our jobs and start looking for a place to shoot our epic climatic action scene where El faces Nacho.

We have less than two days till Mewes flies into Dallas, and I went to someone I had known for a while and thought we were pretty good friends, Jason Kabolati, owner of Agora Entertainment, one of the biggest movie studios in Dallas and basically offered him oral sex if we could shoot at his studio. After a long uncomfortable silence, Kabolati replied, “Fabian I'm flattered, and maybe even a little curious, but I don’t swing that way, buddy.”

OK, that’s not the way it went down, but I did basically go to him hat in hand like a mortal climbing Olympus and begged for him to help us anyway he could. I told him the deal I had with Mewes and that I desperately needed a place to film our scene at his studio for one day. Jace asked how many days we needed and very generously offered us Saturday and Sunday at no charge, and he let us shoot a couple of more Sundays to finish anything we needed, at no charge as well. My man Jace! Coming through in the clutch.

That whole week I was a bundle of nerves. We actually got to speak with Mewes on the phone. That was pretty cool, Tracy and I were excited like schoolgirls on our first date. Mewes was really going to be in our movie!

Finally, the day came to pick up Mewes at the airport. It was really cool meeting someone whose work I had enjoyed for a long time.

He was pretty tired from podcasting the night before with Kevin Smith. I dropped him off at the hotel and told him what time he would be picked up.

The next day was the big shoot. We probably had sixty or seventy people on the set with all the extras and crew, with 3 cameras running. It looked like we were making a real movie.

Jason was totally professional. All the leads thought he was really cool, everything went great.

I wish the rest of the shoot had gone that way. After the first week, our lead who had taken a week off from his real job so we could shoot hard 6 days in a row, went back to work and then took a second job, because he was having financial problems, so I was only getting him on Sundays.

Then our female lead moved to Lubbock and would come back to Dallas once a week, so the days I had them together shooting didn't happen very often, so it dragged the shooting schedule out.

Then one of my leads gets arrested, and I have to spend $1500 bailing him out of jail.

I have no job, and I'm hemorrhaging money at this point. When I get a letter from the hotel where I had put up Mewes, for extra charges because Mewes upgraded to a suite, ran up a big room-service bill and was charged a hefty penalty for smoking, which is not allowed in the hotel.

I called him up, and we discussed the situation. He said he had no problem paying for the upgrade to the suite and the room-service bill, but he didn't think he should have to pay for the smoking fine because no one informed him that he couldn’t smoke. We went back and forth, and he never did pay me back for the fine.

In hindsight, I wish I had not said anything, because I had called him a few times, and I wanted to use him for a horror movie, and he seemed pretty interested in it, and he was a cool guy to talk to. But after this, I was going through one of his assistants to get my money back. I'm sure he thought I was being a dick, but I was just a struggling filmmaker who was rapidly going through all of his money.
We finally get the thing shot and in the can when, about a week later, another arrest threatens the project: the guy we had hired to edit our movie!

My world is collapsing at this point. I can't get ahold of him for a week. I don't know if the cops have taken the computer that the whole movie is on. I'm losing my mind, until we finally we get word that the computer is at his house, and luckily the cops didn't take it as evidence.

We finally get the thing done for about 28 thousand and had our screening at the Texas Theater. The response from the audience was fantastic. It made me feel good, but now we need to get distribution. So that’s the next phase. Living the dream, baby. Living the dream!
The movie's website is, and the Facebook account is "Fabian Elguitarist."