'From Dusk Till Dawn' Turns 20: Robert Rodriguez on Exploding Vampires, George Clooney's Rat Fight, and the Movie's Return to Theaters

Robert Rodriguez on the set of 'From Dusk Till Dawn' (Photo: Joyce Rudolph)
Robert Rodriguez on the set of ‘From Dusk Till Dawn’ (Photo: Joyce Rudolph)

Director Robert Rodriguez burst onto the independent film scene in 1992 with El Mariachi, and made an even bigger splash in 1995 with the Antonio Banderas-headlined sequel Desperado. But his status with genre fans worldwide was cemented in 1996 as director of From Dusk Till Dawn, a blast of Quentin Tarantino-penned horror insanity starring George Clooney (in his first major big-screen role) and Tarantino as outlaw brothers who take a family hostage and flee to Mexico, only to wind up at a rowdy south-of-the-border vampire bar. Two decades later, the film (which also features Harvey Keitel, Juliette Lewis, Salma Hayek, Cheech Marin, and Danny Trejo) remains a touchstone of raucous neo-exploitation filmmaking in the ’90s. To celebrate its 20th anniversary, From Dusk Till Dawn will return to theaters — accompanied by an exclusive pre-movie Q&A with Rodriguez and Tarantino — on Sunday, Nov. 6 at 6 p.m. and 9 p.m., and Wednesday, Nov. 9 at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. (all local times), courtesy of Fathom Events. In anticipation of that special event, Rodriguez spoke with us about the origins of his mash-up cult hit, how it helped pioneer today’s spate of shared cinematic universes, and the reason vampires explode when shot.

How did this From Dusk Till Dawn Fathom Events re-release come about?
We wanted to do something to celebrate. We’ve been making a 20th anniversary Blu-ray, and we’ve been seeing if there were [theatrical] screenings we could have. My co-chair at El Rey knew somebody [at Fathom], and started the conversation, and they were excited about it. And then Quentin wanted to get involved [laughs], so we’re doing a special event. It also brings awareness to the TV series that we’ve been producing for the past three seasons, a terrific reimagining of the movie, which takes the characters even further. So it’s the year of From Dusk Till Dawn! We’ve always loved this movie. We loved making it, and we loved the fan base it had, which has only grown because of the series.

What was the original motivation for making it?
The reason we really wanted to make it is that horror wasn’t so big at that time. I mean, horror is usually always big, but at that time, nobody was really making horror. The studio [Dimension] didn’t even want to call it a horror film. Today, you make a horror film, and they go “It’s a horror film!” and they underline it. Back then, they were like, “Eh, we’re trying to bring in more audience. You’ll already get the horror base, so don’t call it a horror movie.”

But it caught on. It was number one at the box office its opening weekend, and then people saw it on video and DVD and cable later. I just remember we were trying something really bold. It was like two movies in one. You didn’t mention vampires the whole first half of the movie, and then it switches. Now, people kind of knew that twist in the theater, because they’d seen the ads, which gave that away. But later in the year, when people saw it “pure” — the way we always meant for them to see it — that was really when we got the great fan reaction. When people were thinking they were watching one movie, and then it switches and becomes something else.

It was our early attempt at doing a double feature, within the same feature — two genres for the price of one. It was just a very cool, bold time, when everybody was just trying different things. Pulp Fiction was a very different type of movie, and this one followed right after. It was just a real capsule of a certain period of time. And people have always loved it. I think the characters are just so endearing, which is why we’ve based a TV series on them.

The film is a love letter to B-movies, and you have some overt nods to genre classics, from the “Precinct 13” T-shirt, to the participation of Tom Savini, Fred Williamson, John Saxon, and Michael Parks. Were there any films, in particular, that you and Quentin were specifically trying to channel?
It was really the whole genre. We looked at all the actors we always loved, and it would be a combination of someone as highbrow as Harvey Keitel, mixed with guys that we’d always loved in ‘70s exploitation films. That’s why you have Fred Williamson with his big scene with Harvey Keitel, and Tom Savini from the make-up world and the George Romero movies like Knightriders. What an eclectic mix of people. And we all know Quentin’s movies now — that’s how he thinks. Anything that’s been in cinema is available for him to use as a filmmaker. It was a real mash-up of different genres and ideas, and even actors from different worlds coming together to tell a story.

The film also boasts references to your own prior work as well as Quentin’s: the codpiece gun from Desperado, the “All right, Ramblers — let’s get ramblin’ ” quote from Reservoir Dogs, the Big Kahuna Burgers from Pulp Fiction and Chongo Beer from Desperado. Did you realize, at the time, that you were pioneering the shared cinematic universe template that now dominates blockbuster moviemaking?
[Laughs] That’s true, we had like a shared universe back then. He and I had been friends since we met on the festival circuit, so if, say, I made a fake beer and put it in Desperado, he used it in his movie; or I’d use his Big Kahuna Burgers. We would create our own alternate movie universe. And more specifically, with Quentin, there are two types of movies — there’s the movie-movie within his movies, and then there’s the world of his movies. So the characters from Pulp Fiction are from the real Quentin world. But if Sam Jackson and John Travolta went to watch a film, they’d go watch From Dusk Till Dawn. [laughs] That’s a movie that lives within that other movie world. They’d be talking about Richie and Seth Gecko like they were the cool characters they wanted to emulate. And Kill Bill is also something they would go see in a movie theater; it doesn’t reside in their world. They could run into Jackie Brown, or characters that are in Quentin’s regular world, but then there is his movie world. So yeah, we were thinking even back then about the shared universe. That’s pretty funny.

Re-watching the film today, it feels like you and Quentin taking a first stab at Grindhouse, in that the first half of the film feels more like a Death Proof-style road thriller, and the latter half is a gory horror extravaganza à la Planet Terror.
Both came from the same [creative] place. Again, we were hanging out, and I looked up at his wall, and there was an old-style double-feature poster, and I said “Wow, I have that same poster at home!” Like Rock All Night and Drag Strip Girl, or something. And I said, “S—, we should do a double feature!” And he goes, “Yeah, we have to call it Grindhouse!” It came together really quickly. We didn’t know what kinds of movies they’d be at first, but we figured, let’s do genre. I did my horror, and he did his thriller. We did think this is almost like From Dusk Till Dawn. But whereas that was an unofficial double feature, this would be an official double feature.

Again, we would just play with form a lot. Independent film was really exploding at that time, and the last thing you wanted to do as an independent filmmaker was just emulate the studios. You wanted to go in a different direction and try different ideas that you couldn’t explore in a studio film.

You’ve continued From Dusk Till Dawn as a series on the El Rey network, and the show is now in its third season. Was the intention always to expand on the film in this way?
It wasn’t to do more movies later. It was really just to add more of what I call “story value.” Even if you just do one movie, if there’s more story value to it, the audience can imagine more movies. So the Salma character, and the snake dance, and the temple at the end — that was stuff I added, that wasn’t in the original script. I added that to give it a feeling that there was more lore you hadn’t explored in that story, but was there to sort of tickle the audience’s imagination. And it did — people always talked about that final shot.

I had that matte painting [from the film’s final shot] on my wall — it’s still on my office wall. I used to stare at it and go, “Wow, I wish I’d done more with that temple.” Then, when I got a network, and they said “What show should we do?” I thought, “Oh, we should do From Dusk Till Dawn, and I can finally explore through the TV series what’s really going on in the temple with that whole mythology.” So it was accidentally planting the seed 20 years ago that I was able to go back and harvest for this network. And it’s been awesome. When I first saw the movie with an audience, what really struck me was how Salma’s character zeroes in on Richie (Quentin’s character). She knows he’s a killer, and she goes right for him. And I thought, “That’s such a great moment. I want to make the whole TV series based off of that, and tie them together more.” So that’s the direction the series took.

That’s a really great final matte-painting shot.
Old-school magic. It’s a matte painting, with miniatures and footage all mixed together. It was like the last of an era before CG took over. They have a magical effect on you.

Why do vampires explode when shot with a gun?
[Laughs] That’s something Quentin wanted to bring to the mythology. He said, “I’m glad I got to add something to vampire lore — that they’re squishier, they’re softer, you can push a chair through them, and when sunlight hits them, they blow up!” You know, people always try to add another layer to the lore, so they’re a little bit different. And it’s just more visceral. Blowing the s— out of him, it seemed like a better way to have a third act! [laughs]

The finale certainly has a lot of exploding vampires.
That was fun to shoot. I would have them back into a corner with a light on them, and then I would cut, and we would put the dummy version there and explode it. It’s just an edit, there’s no CG. And you can’t tell. It works really well.

Were there any big practical hurdles in making the film?
Certainly the one I was worried about the most was the big rat. Because until you get it all greased down and lit, it just looked like a big rubber rat. We built the set high in order to have puppeteers underneath the floor, so if you watch the shot — it’s a wide shot — where it rears up on its hind legs, there’s no trick, there’s no wires or anything. It’s actually bolted by its hind feet to the ground, and the cabling is going up through its hind feet only. They’re raising him up through the mechanism in his body through his little skinny hind feet. I shot it in slow-motion, and he’s all slathered up with slime, and it just looks amazing!

I show it to my kids, who are just used to CG stuff now, and they were like “Holy s—! That’s really there, on set.” It just blew their minds! [laughs] They’re like, “Wow, we like old-school effects!” That was totally old-school. You know, George could grab it, and grapple with it, and it even reaches and grabs his foot and pulls him over. That was one where we didn’t know how it was going to look until the day of shooting, and then it was pretty amazing.

And now in the inevitable George Clooney career retrospective, they can show that shot.
Actually, my favorite line George would say at the press junket was “Quentin the writer takes care of Quentin the actor — that’s why he’s sucking Salma Hayek’s toes, and I’m fighting the big hairy rat.”