Shockingly high concept for its astonishingly low budget, Robert Rodriguez’s “Red 11” was never meant to see the light of day, but turned out so well (for what it is: a run-and-gun, $7,000 exercise in DIY filmmaking) that the director opted to share it with the public as a kind of empowerment tool. Make no mistake: The thriller — which takes place in a medical research lab where young people sell their bodies to science, at a price — is a clunky, badly acted, and frequently embarrassing by-the-numbers picture at best, held together with shoestring and paper clips, but that’s almost beside the point.
Debuting at SXSW just weeks after Rodriguez’s most expensive production yet, “Alita: Battle Angel” (and shot over 14 days during post-production of that project), “Red 11” was inspired by the unorthodox way Rodriguez made his Sundance Audience Award-winning debut, “El Mariachi,” and designed to prove that resources are irrelevant when it comes to teaching oneself how to make movies, whereas the only constraints aspiring directors ought to be worrying about are the limits of their ingenuity.
Though its release strategy remains to be decided, and it could easily earn its money back via online self-distribution, “Red 11’s” true reason to exist is as the proof of concept for a new guerrilla film school series — a natural extension of Rodriguez’s “Rebel Without a Crew” series for his El Rey Network — in which the cocky-charismatic multitalent pep-talks aspiring directors into overcoming their fears by walking them through the process of this aggressively corner-cutting, ruthlessly creative exercise. “Red 11” may be rotten (worse even than “Machete Kills” or “The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl in 3-D”), but it’s meant to be studied, not watched, and the fact that it cuts together at all shows just how resourceful Rodriguez is.
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On May 31, 1991, Rodriguez checked himself into a monthlong pharmaceutical study, using his time as a “human lab rat” in a medical research lab not only to write but also to raise the budget for, what would become “El Mariachi.” Turns out he hatched another script during that time, tentatively titled “Needles,” in which he took the experience itself and reimagined it as a sinister thriller, in which the scientists had nefarious ulterior motives.
“Red 11” was the pseudonym the doctors gave Rodriguez, part of the group that was color-coded to wear red shirts at all times during the study. Here, that identity goes to actor Roby Attal, whose character — like Rodriguez back in the day, a wannabe director forced into such drug tests as a way to make a quick buck — faces considerably higher stakes because he owes money to the cartel. (The most overtly “El Mariachi”-like stunt features his best friend being chased by thugs on a roof, which was really just Rodriguez shooting low-angle footage of the actors balancing on a ground-level air-conditioning unit.)
Once inside the medical facility, the test participants are brought down to the basement (or so we’re told, though it sure looks like ground level), where the experiments are ostensibly more malevolent. Red 11 and his fellow red-shirts stick together — including repeat research subject Red 7 (Eman Esfandi, the movie’s MVP), who provides exposition and some much-needed humor, and a guy called Score (Alejandro Rose-Garcia), who carries an iPad on which he’s composing the soundtrack cues as the story unfolds (although technically, Rodriguez’s son Rebel wrote the music) — while other groups form makeshift gangs of their own. Most of the subjects are male, but a magenta-shirted stranger (Lauren Hatfield) creates what passes for a love interest.
No sooner has Rodriguez given the lay of the land than patients start getting sick, and Red 11 starts getting paranoid. Everything that follows — and there are some fun gags, including a psych-out hallucination in which a doctor stabs one subject in the eye with a used syringe, and several lo-fi examples of people moving objects via telekinesis — springs from the suggestion that the drugs are messing with the subjects’ minds. But the more outlandishly science fiction the story becomes, the harder it is to follow the logic, and by the time the Collectors from the cartel arrive for their money, characters are basically shooting at one another with their fingers.
Just how hard should critics be on a movie made for $7,000 (or less, according to the director’s final calculations)? If anything, it’s more tempting to scrutinize that budget claim, since it assumes that directors can borrow the cameras and equipment they need while convincing their actors to work for next to nothing. (Rodriguez paid his entire ensemble roughly $3,000, calling in favors from old friends like “El Mariachi” star Carlos Gallardo, who has a cameo.) Then again, quibbling over how he spent the money distracts from the purpose of the exercise.
Considering that Hollywood tentpoles cost somewhere in the ballpark of $25,000 per second to produce, and that even the lowest low-budget movies typically run well into the six-figure range, Rodriguez wants to show that being smart about the resources you have — which for him evidently includes a few trippy uses of the “Alita” set, even if most of the film takes place in his nondescript production offices — allows filmmakers to focus on problem-solving. Too many of his solutions involve quick cutting and canned sound effects (the fake punches are especially egregious in a fight scene between test subjects), and post-production color tricks actually make the HD footage look cheaper, instead of adding atmosphere. Another lesson: “El Mariachi” was aided enormously by the fact that subtitles covered the clunky Spanish-language line readings. Here, you get what you pay for, performance-wise.
But keep in mind that “Red 11” was conceived as an experimental film in the most literal sense. Rodriguez applies that idea to the narrative as well, toying with the question of whether everything that happens might just be some kind of elaborate side effect of the tests — a convenient excuse for its occasional incoherencies. The real explanation, of course, is that it will all make sense when you see the TV series, which will ideally inspire people to think: “Hey, I can do that, only better!”