Listen to Austin 360 Radio

Will Rodriguez's 'Machete' get Texas film incentives?

Charles Ealy

When "Machete" opens nationwide Friday, moviegoers will see crooked Texas politicians and a shoot-to-kill immigration policy, all wrapped up in Robert Rodriguez's signature grindhouse style. Such a controversial topic has already spurred debate, but it's the opinion of one man that counts the most when it comes to filmmaking in Texas.

A little more than a year after telling the producers of "Waco" that they need not apply for state film incentives, Bob Hudgins, the head of the Texas Film Commission, faces another big decision: whether to approve funds for the locally filmed "Machete," which has a special sold-out Austin red-carpet premiere Thursday night at the Paramount Theatre.

Some opponents say "Machete" has an incendiary political message and shouldn't qualify for funds, especially in light of the ruling on the "Waco" script, which Hudgins said was historically inaccurate. But backers of "Machete" — which, unlike "Waco," is fictional — say critics are jumping to conclusions about the new movie's content, mostly based on a fake trailer from earlier this year, and see no reason for a denial of incentives.

"Am I thrilled at the prospect of having to tell the most prolific filmmaker in the history of Texas no?" Hudgins said recently. "No! I wouldn't be excited about doing that. If I have to make that determination, I have to make that determination. I am not saying I am. But, gosh, you know especially when these filmmakers have brought so much to Texas."

As Hudgins knows, Rodriguez is one of the biggest filmmakers in Texas history.

Since his 1992 feature film debut, "El Mariachi," Rodriguez's movies have grossed more than $620 million, according to thenumbers.com, a website that tracks box office totals. That kind of success translates into jobs for Texas film professionals.

And that was the point when the Legislature passed in 2007 — and then strengthened in 2009 — a bill that would increase incentives for people who spend money making movies in Texas. (The new tax incentive program offers grants of 5 percent to 17.5 percent, based on the type of project and the amount of money spent in the state.)

But the law requires that productions meet certain standards and rules out incentives for movies that cast Texas in a negative light — a provision that legal scholars say can be broadly interpreted.

The debate over providing incentives for "Machete" started in May, when Rodriguez's Troublemaker Studios released a trailer for the high-profile production, which stars Danny Trejo, Michelle Rodriguez, Robert De Niro, Lindsay Lohan, Jessica Alba, Don Johnson and Steven Seagal. The trailer, which came out just after passage of a new immigration law in Arizona, featured one of the stars, Trejo, saying he had "a special Cinco de Mayo message to Arizona." He then proceeded to use a variety of weapons in inventive ways.

The clip ignited a controversy about the content and potentially incendiary political message of the movie.

"Machete" producer and longtime Rodriguez collaborator Elizabeth Avellan said that she finds the uproar over the film unfounded and unnecessary and that she sees no reason for a denial of incentives.

"A lot of people made up a lot of stuff in terms of what the movie is about and who the bad guy is," she said. "There were a lot of things that people misconstrued ... without even knowing the script and pretending they have a script."

Although the film features graphic violence and some nudity, Avellan said she does not think the movie sullies the image of Texas.

"You know, in every state there's certainly been plenty of crooked politicians," she said.

"Actually, the politician in the movie is actually a puppet of the really bad guys. The politician is just being fed and manipulated. There's always going to be a bad guy, and he's going to be from somewhere. It just so happens in this case the bad guy is a guy from Mexico who is in cahoots with a guy from Texas. The way Texas is portrayed is not bad at all; it's actually kind of fun. Texas is cool."

"It feels like this movie couldn't have come at a more perfect time," Rodriguez told the Hollywood Reporter, "even though we came up with it a long time ago."

The movie, which was screened early for some journalists and had a Hollywood premiere Wednesday, includes a corrupt Texas politician, Sen. McLaughlin (De Niro), who advocates killing "the parasites" during a re-election campaign that focuses on stopping illegal immigration. It also features a character named Lt. Stillman (Johnson), who shoots immigrants trying to cross the U.S.-Mexico border in what he describes as "vigilance."

KLBJ radio talk show host Alex Jones, who said he received a final script of the movie a few months ago, raised some of the earliest questions, telling the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in May that funding should be denied. However, he recently told the American-Statesman that he has changed his mind, even though he still thinks "Machete" paints white people as a "bunch of blood-thirsty, foaming-at-the-mouth killers" and "reflects bad on Texas."

"I support tax incentives for industry and for film and the arts," Jones said. "Robert Rodriguez has a right to make any movie he wants. If he's putting out this hard-core, race war film — if he's releasing it the way the script states — I think it should get its funding, but they had better remove any controls off of any other films. ... If they let this go forward and give it funding but then block other things, it's outrageous."

Hudgins acknowledged that the immigration-themed trailer raised eyebrows and caused alarm, but he's recommending that people not rush to judgment.

"For whatever reasons, Robert chose to make that trailer, and that's his right and privilege to do," Hudgins said.

"But I never thought that that trailer was truly representative of the story that was going to be in the final product. I have to make my determination on the final version of the film. I have to be Switzerland about it until they say, 'Here is the final version of the film, and please watch, Bob.'"

Rodriguez has 60 days after the spending for the production of "Machete" has ended to submit the movie to the Film Commission for review. And Hudgins said it could take months to decide whether "Machete" qualifies for incentives. As with "Waco," which focused on the 1993 Branch Davidian siege, Hudgins said the final decision rests with him.

"I have to do my best in making a determination on the intent of the Legislature. It's not as cut-and-dry," Hudgins said of his upcoming decision. "Wouldn't it be nice if we lived in that tidy little world where all the decisions were easy and black and white. But, you know, with this program comes this responsibility."

modam@statesman.com

Additional material from staff writer Gissela SantaCruz.