Should Texas taxpayers provide financial support for a violence-packed movie that plays off the tensions gripping the state and the nation in the raging debate about illegal immigration?
That's an emerging question as a new movie from Austin filmmaker Robert Rodriguez generates controversy that's reaching all the way to Gov. Rick Perry's office at a time when the state faces massive financial problems and is embroiled in the immigration debate.
Rodriguez is finishing up his latest film, "Machete," about an assassin from Mexico working as a day laborer in Texas and battling a Mexican drug lord, as well as politicians opposed to illegal immigration. He says the controversy is overblown.
The movie, which uses the Texas Capitol as a backdrop in at least one scene, is generating plenty of buzz, not just for the immigration controversy but also for a star-studded cast that includes Robert De Niro, Lindsay Lohan, Jessica Alba, Don Johnson, Cheech Marin and Steven Seagal. Quentin Tarantino is the producer of the movie, set to hit theaters Sept. 3.
Several conservative bloggers have called the film inflammatory in light of growing tension over an Arizona law cracking down on illegal immigration. And some are outraged that the Texas Film Commission might grant Rodriguez's Troublemaker Studios tax incentives for shooting the film in the state.
"We need to get the funding at the state level stripped out of the film commission if they do not stop this," said Austin radio host Alex Jones.
Austin-based Troublemaker Studios applied for the tax incentives before the start of shooting. Under a state law passed in 2009, the Texas Film Commission can deny the incentives if a film includes content that's inappropriate or portrays Texas or Texans negatively. The commission is part of Perry's office.
"No film/production company can receive any state funding until we have reviewed the final product," said Allison Castle, a spokeswoman for Perry's office, in an e-mail. "At this time, no funds have been released to Troublemaker Studios."
Rodriguez helped draw more scrutiny to "Machete" on May 5 when he released a fake trailer that framed the movie as a kind of revenge fantasy for illegal immigrants. At the start of the trailer, star Danny Trejo says he has "a special Cinco de Mayo message to Arizona."
Rodriguez later said the trailer was a joke.
"The movie is very over-the-top satirical, and it's only because of what's happened in Arizona that some scenes actually feel at all grounded in reality, which is pretty nuts and says more about Arizona than any fictional movie," Rodriguez told Harry Knowles of the movie news website Ain't It Cool News.
The film's distributor, 20th Century Fox, did not return calls seeking comment.
Texas Film Commission Director Bob Hudgins said the unease about "Machete" is similar to the concerns raised concerning a planned film last year about the 1993 raid on the Branch Davidian compound.
Hudgins reviewed the script of "Waco" and thought it was historically inaccurate. He talked to the filmmakers about his concerns, and they chose to never officially apply for the incentives, he said.
The commission has yet to reject an official application for film incentives based on content, Hudgins said.
Hudgins said he saw a script for "Machete" around the time the filmmakers applied for the incentives. He didn't talk to the studio about the script because it didn't involve any nonfiction characters, he said.
"There were no real Texans involved in the story line," Hudgins said. "That may change. We don't know."
Hudgins said the language in the state law is vague enough that the commission could reject a film's application even if the film is completely fictional.
Hudgins is reserving judgment on "Machete" until he sees the final version.
Oddly, "Machete" might have been shot in a different state if not for Perry, who signed a bill last year giving his office the ability to grant larger tax incentives to lure filmmakers to shoot in Texas.
Perry signed the bill at an April 2009 ceremony at Rodriguez's Troublemaker Studios. Rodriguez told The Associated Press at the time that, without the bill, he would have had to move the production of projects including "Machete" to another state.
"Thanks to this bill, I don't have to go shoot out of the state," Rodriguez said.