SXSW Review: RED 11 Offers A Lesson In Cinema

No substantial film budget? No problem.

In order to fully appreciate Robert Rodriguez’s Red 11, one needs to understand the film’s context. There’s a reason why Rodriguez is known as “the one-man film crew”. He writes, directs, and produces his films; but he also frequently serves as camera operator, composer, editor, production designer, visual effects supervisor, director of photography, and sound editor. His first film El Mariachi won the Audience Award for Dramatic Film at Sundance in 1993 and was later recognized by Guinness World Records as the lowest-budgeted film ever to gross $1 million at the box office. The production of El Mariachi was only $7,000. Today, Rodriguez has twenty films under his belt with his most recent, Alita: Battle Angel, having a budget of $170 million. Rodriguez does it all. Red 11 is a labor of love that’s not only a family endeavor, but also a lesson to aspiring filmmakers that with passion, creativity, and optimism, they can do it too.

Red 11 has the same production budget as El Mariachi- $7,000. Its intended purpose is to serve as a teaching tool and is paired with a docuseries containing six thirty-minute episodes of behind-the-scenes footage on how the film was made. It’s a visual interpretation of his 1995 memoir Rebel Without A Crew, which also has its own spin-off series on his TV network El Rey. Red 11 is based off of a specific chapter in Rodriguez’s book entitled ”I Was A Human Lab Rat”. At the age of twenty-three and in college, he subjected himself to a month-long pharmaceutical study to raise the money for what would become El Mariachi. Originally titled “Needles”, the script chronicled his experience but introduced the doctors as more sinister professionals with iniquitous motives. The characters in Red 11 are based off of the doctors and other trial volunteers he met during the study, while the procedural scenes are also real. To make the film even more authentic and a heart-filled endeavor, the film is written by Rodriguez’s son Racer Max, who dug through his dad’s old journals to formulate the screenplay. Additionally, Racer served as Rodriguez’s sole crew member. His other son Rebel is also in the film starring as Knives, a participant whose affinity for blades gets him in and out of trouble. A pianist by trade, Rebel also scored the entire film at just nineteen years old. Racer is twenty-three, the same age his dad was when he went into the pharmaceutical trials himself.

Red 11 is a sci-fi horror film starring Rob (Roby Attal) in lieu of Rodriguez. He subjects himself to a drug trial to make a quick $7,000 to pay back the investor who funded one of his film projects. Come to find out, the cartel backed his film and they are out for payback and blood. Once admitted, patients are categorized by the color of shirt they’re wearing. Red shirts are assigned the speed healing drug, thus requiring a small surgical procedure upon entry. There are multiple groups testing various drugs and a mysterious loner who dons a black shirt that individuals are instructed to avoid. An interesting and hilarious group mentality ensues with this kind of structure as each color group has their own type of personality. For example, the teal blue shirts are the most aggressive and bullies of the trial. One character named Spoiler (Pierce Bailey) revels in ruining film endings for one member of the yellow group whenever he tries to watch a movie in the break room. Another quirky character is Score (Alejandro Rose-Garcia aka Austin musician Shakey Graves), a red shirt who carries around an iPad containing synth software and audibly discusses various situations throughout the film while contributing melodies to heighten emotional responses and action sequences. Score’s dialogue is an entertaining and humorous lesson in and of itself for any viewers interested in film score composition. Red 11 later meets Magenta (Lauren Hatfield), a member of the all-female group, who entices him to start bending the rules a little bit. They soon discover the trial’s more sinister intentions and embark on an adventure that obscures their reality while questioning the nature of their very existence.

The third act tends to taper off at times and dives into territory reminiscent of Jacob’s Ladder and Shutter Island. In true low-budget fashion, it is evident where funds were allocated and where they weren’t. For example, using fingers as guns and mere sound effects of breaking glass, but not actually seeing anything shatter on camera. Sure, it can work in a fantastical sense, but it doesn’t necessarily fit cohesively into the storyline or script. The plot spirals out a little more than perhaps necessary from a structural standpoint. However, keeping in mind this film’s purpose, that decision could just be an extended lesson of trying to fit in various gags or examples for what options filmmakers have to work with given their limited resources. Speaking of limited resources, Rodriguez shot Red 11 in his office building over the span of fourteen days; props include coffee mugs and tee-shirts with the El Rey logo; and, the cast was all local from Austin, TX.

Like the true teacher he is, Rodriguez held a binder of notes while addressing audiences at the film’s SXSW screenings and showed a ten-minute behind-the-scenes video afterward to reveal how he obtained certain lighting and special effects. He emphasized that filmmaking is about the journey and to “think of failure as extreme learning”. Keeping things minimal and utilizing your resources can ultimately have big payoffs if you trust the process. Furthermore, just start. So many people want to make a film but always put off the endeavor. You may not have a million dollar budget right now, but you can create escalation and drama with ideas - utilize passion and creativity to drive innovation. Red 11 is ultimately an inspiring blueprint for low-budget and aspiring filmmakers. Robert Rodriguez reiterates how optimism, creativity, and passion are crucial to the process. A family endeavor and a loving lesson in cinema, Red 11 not only passes the test, but kindly shares its answers, as well.