Back in the day, making an “independent film” meant something different than it does today. Back then, there were “big-budget” films and “indies”, with very little in-between. But over the years, “independent filmmaking” has come to mean something different, and what used to be considered an “indie” is now called a “micro-budget” film. Just like the indies before them, these flicks range in quality from “completely atrocious” to “holy crap who made this and how can I see more of their stuff immediately?”. Will Martin’s Roughrider is one of these micro-budget films (budget: $12,000), and I’m happy to report that—for the most part—it avoids falling into the “completely atrocious” category. It may, in fact, announce the arrival of a new director-worth-watching. Wanna know more about the flick? Read on for my review (and a report from Roughrider’s world premiere at Austin’s Alamo Drafthouse theater), after the jump, folks.
If you’ve ever read Robert Rodriguez’ Rebel Without a Crew, then you know that Rodriguez brought El Mariachi into this world with very few of the luxuries that the Sin City director enjoys on the films he makes nowadays: he stole, borrowed, and begged his way through that production, determined to get his vision of a gun-toting, guitar-playing mariachi onto the silver screen. And even if the results weren’t what we might consider “refined”, the film was notable for the announcement that it seemed to be making: Robert Rodriguez was a hard-working, enormously thrifty, passionate director, a guy who could probably do a lot more behind the camera if he were only given a shot at the big leagues.
El Mariachi famously cost Rodriguez $7,000 (and, in all likelihood, parts of his sanity that he’ll never recover). If we adjust for inflation, it’s probably comparable to the $12,000 that director Will Martin—a name you’ve never heard, but a guy whose name you’ll probably be hearing a lot more of in years to come—spent bringing Roughrider to life over the course of many, many long weekends.
Roughrider just held its world premiere at the Alamo Drafthouse here in Austin, TX, and the film’s creative team was nice enough to invite Collider.com out for the event. Now, I’ve seen these sort of micro-budget films before, and they always seem to fall into two distinct categories: “terrible” or “wait, who directed this?!” The full extent of a director’s talent is very rarely conveyed with projects like these, where the budgetary constraints can limit a director’s vision (one can’t always afford the AAA effects, the competent cast, appropriate locations, and so on) but they are great for separating the “talented” from the “untalented”. You might not watch a film made for $12,000 and be prepared to file it atop your top-ten list at the end of the year, but—if the director pulls off what they were aiming for—there’s a very good chance that you’ll see the glimmer of something greater in between the film’s rough edges.
And so, I was very curious to see which category Roughrider would fall into. The film’s executive producer, Rand Shuler (who, it should be noted, is also an award-winning filmmaker; the Roughrider press kit mentions that he’s working on getting a Drive-In Theater built here in Austin, and that makes me very happy) had been in touch with me on a number of occasions throughout the film’s post-production process, and was eager to get the film in front of me. I’d seen the trailer, heard all about the film, and read through the impressive-looking press kit he’d sent along– and all of that was well and good, of course—but the real test was going to come when the film played on a big-ass screen. That the filmmakers were able to hold the film’s premiere at the Drafthouse is a bit of a coup, and just goes to show how supportive the Drafthouse is of local filmmakers (it certainly didn’t hurt that the film was shot entirely in and around Austin).
So, here’s the setup: Roughrider concerns a young man by the name of Jack Urban (played by—you guessed it– Will Martin, the film’s writer/director), a skateboarding high-schooler with a penchant for machine guns and an ethos that borders on nihilism (on several occasions, Jack tells us “Nothing’s worth saying anymore”). Interestingly, the film jumps into Jack’s story around the time that a sequel would usually begin: following a very public blow-out with some local criminals—particularly “The King”, a crimelord played well by Brooklyn-based comedian Kelvin Girdy— Jack’s a minor celebrity. Jack’s done what he can to keep his city safe from The King’s ongoing criminal efforts, but once his sister gets caught up—and killed—in the crossfire, he sets out to avenge her death. The film goes on to weave a tale of colorful criminals, corrupt local officials, lots of bullet-play, a whole bunch of cheesetastic dialogue, and a number of crazy stunts. You’ll think of Machete while you’re watching.
But if one really wanted to be reductive about it, one could accurately describe Martin’s Roughrider—if not in terms of quality, then at the very least in tone, subject matter, and style—to Rodriguez’ El Mariachi and Rian Johnson’s Brick: you’ve got the former’s take-no-prisoners avenger who’s more than handy with a weapon, the seemingly endless supply of henchmen who seem to exist solely for said avenger to mow through, the colorful bad guy that’s in bed with local government officials; and you’ve got the latter’s stylized dialogue (more on this shortly), it’s clearly-not-teenaged-cast playing teenagers, its heightened sense of reality. These are two films one should want to be compared to.
Somewhat unfortunately, Roughrider shares another, far more important characteristic with El Mariachi: it’s not a great movie. Now, I know that there are a few Rodriguez fans out there that’ll blow a gasket at such blasphemy (not to mention a few Roughrider crew members), but hear me out.
If one goes back and visits Mariachi, one will see a scruffy, sometimes-hard-to-watch flick that feels like it was brought into the world through the sheer force of Rodriguez’ will (because, as we’ve already mentioned, it was). Watching that flick, one sees a director who’s hungry, a guy with something to prove and a talent for turning a very small amount of money into a surprisingly effective 90 minutes’ worth of entertainment. What one doesn’t see is the full extent of Robert Rodriguez’ talents. This is largely because of the guy’s budgetary constraints, and less so because—at the time—Rodriguez simply didn’t have the same grasp of filmmaking that he did later in his career. This is more than understandable, of course: Rodriguez was a n00b, learning as he went. And so, even if El Mariachi’s a rough, often cringeworthy flick, you can tell that the guy behind the camera is capable of better things. El Mariachi was basically an elaborate, $7,000 business card, and it brought Rodriguez no small amount of business.
I had this same feeling watching Roughrider. It’d be disingenuous of me to say that Roughrider’s a “great movie”, but I honestly don’t think that’s what’s important here. What’s important is that Martin saw his first cinematic child through to completion (note to self: one does not “see children” through to “completion”; must remember not to mix metaphors so awkwardly), that he’s a more-than-capable director of action, and that he shows definite signs of potential. That’s more than I can say for 60% of the directors currently churning out big-budget crap in Hollywood, and it’s why you oughtta see the flick if you get a chance: we might well be looking at the slightly-stilted, kind-of-endearing first steps of a new talent.
That said, Roughrider also shows why the “intentionally cheesy 80’s action-movie homage” is a treacherous sub-genre to muck around with on one’s first time behind the camera. For the first twenty minutes or so, I was convinced that Martin’s film was self-aware, but twenty minutes later, I began to second-guess myself: was the cheese fully-intentional, or was it a by-product of a newbie filmmaker? Yes, Martin had flat-out told us that the film was meant to be “tongue-in-cheek”, but…well, there’s a reason that the phrase “I meant to do that” is always delivered ironically. One scene in particular featured a character delivering a big, lumpy wad of groan-inducing dialogue (“Do you fight for love, or do you fight for hate?” begat “You have to stand for something you believe in” which begat “I saw something in you…”), and it was cringe-inducing enough to blur a very important line.
I believe Martin when he says that Roughrider’s intended to be “tongue-in-cheek”, though. Really, I do. But because I’ve never seen what Martin’s non tongue-in-cheek work looks like, it was difficult to separate “intentional badness” from “amateur filmmaking badness”. If Martin showed me another film he made right this minute that was on par with, say, Rodriguez’ Desperado, I’d have a completely different evaluation of Roughrider to offer you. That glimmer’s in there (Martin can direct, and we now know that he can certainly reproduce the bad dialogue and the frenetic action sequences of the 80’s action-movie genre) but I think that—like Rodriguez before him—we’ll need to see Martin produce something that can be taken at face value before we can fully appreciate the extent of his talents.
Again, though, let me temper all that criticism with another touch of positivity (one is always reluctant to deliver the latter half of the “good news/bad news” equation to a proud, new parent, especially when the parent’s baby is an indie film that’s so clearly a labor of love; any genuine film-loving critic who tells you otherwise is heartless, lying, or just a dick): there are some action sequences here that really work, especially the brief chase sequence that opens the film; though the film cost less than you probably paid for your car, it looks like it cost at least four times that amount, which indicates that Martin’s good when it comes to stretching dollars (another characteristic he shares with Rodriguez); and, although the film feels like an homage to a number of other films you’ve seen—and loved—before, it never feels like a rip-off.
So, yeah, Roughrider’s rough around the edges (I am so, so sorry), but there’s enough here to make me curious, and I find myself cautiously optimistic about whatever Martin might do next. Who knows? Maybe it’ll turn out that I’m completely wrong and that Martin’s only got one trick up his sleeve. But I don’t think that’s the case, and it’s always kind of exciting when one sees work from a new talent who might eventually be capable of great things. I sincerely hope that Martin uses Roughrider to his advantage, and that others see that same glimmer of hope within it that I do.
After the flick, the film’s executive producer, Rand Shuler, took to the stage to welcome the entire cast up for a bow. As it turned out, nearly 20 of them were in attendance (one of the actors had actually played four of the henchmen; he correctly pointed out that “you’d never notice” that he’d died onscreen four times during the film), and all of them were clearly thrilled to be there. Martin jumped on the mic and talked about how he’d scraped together the $12,000 it cost to make the film (perhaps ironically, he’d joined a union, and worked at Troublemaker Studios on Predators and Spy Kids 4), why he ultimately decided to play the lead role himself (he couldn’t find another actor “who could skate, get beat up on camera, and do it for 60 days without being paid”), and how awkward he’d felt watching himself onscreen (he noted that he could differentiate the scenes he’d shot earlier in the shoot, as they were the ones where he was “more awkward”; the latter scenes featured a “more heroic” Jack Urban). Through it all, Martin was gracious, clearly a little shy, and seemed almost overwhelmed by the crowd’s enthusiasm*. The rest of the cast was positively beaming.
Martin said that he missed the cut-off date to submit the film for this year’s SXSW Film Festival (apparently, Roughrider was in post-production when the deadline rolled around), but at least one sequence from the film will be screening during a SFX panel during SXSW, and Martin says he plans on submitting the flick to a number of festivals in the coming year. There’s no telling whether or not you’ll get a chance to see Martin’s film at one of these film festivals—one can’t help but assume that it’d be a shoe-in to screen at ActionFest—but if the chance arises, I strongly recommend that you give the film a shot, particularly if you’re a Robert Rodriguez fan. In the meantime, check out the film’s trailer below:
Special thanks to Will Martin, the Alamo Drafthouse (Village), and Roughrider producer Rand Shuler for getting Collider.com into the Roughrider world premiere: I had a blast, and will be looking forward to whatever you guys do next. If you want to learn more about Roughrider, head on over to RoughriderMovie.com for further details, and stay tuned for more from the Alamo Drafthouse—and SXSW—in the near future, folks: as always, feel free to sound off in the comments section if you’ve got anything pertinent to say about all this. Like the Roughrider trailer? Not so much? Hoping the flick gets into your favorite film festival this year? We wanna hear about it, so sound off below!
*: As a side note, I have a small piece of advice to offer any aspiring filmmaker: if you’re going to invite a family member to your big movie premiere, ensure that they know better than to constantly interrupt said big movie premiere. Y’know, stuff like: yelling out the name of every actor when they appear onscreen (and not always just on their first appearance), inexplicably shrieking the name “Rick Perry” every ten minutes or so (six times, in all), calling out in-jokes and non-sequiturs at full-volume, naming the band whenever a licensed song plays on the soundtrack, and so on. This can be detrimental to the rest of the crowd’s viewing experience, and particularly annoying for the dude stuck sitting next to said family member.