One of the most iconic movie posters in the past 20 years is the one for Desperado. It became an instant collectors item when first released, and I remember bus stops in Los Angeles were being vandalized in order to steal the poster.
The poster portrays a younger Antonio Banderas at the height of his smoldering sex appeal, in a melancholic and romantic pose, head down, eyes closed, as if praying for redemption. But the sawed off shotgun he holds to his forehead tells us there is no redemption for this man!
I shot this poster 18 years ago, and this is the story of how it came about.
There is an early scene in the movie, where the Mariachi opens the door to his hotel room and let's his buddy in, portrayed by Steve Buscemi. At the end of this scene, when Buscemi leaves the room, Antonio, who sits on the bed with his back against the wall, lifts a gun to his forehead. I took several shots of that moment, and thought to myself, what a cool image. Not just the image of a man leaning a gun to his forehead as if in prayer, but the way Antonio portrayed this character, with sexy melancholy, his long flowing hair giving him an air of sexy virility.
Antonio would sometimes sit alone, in between takes, lost in his thoughts, getting into character, spinning a gun in his hands. In this time of reflection, he would raise the gun to his forehead. I kept thinking to myself, what a ccol image!
After a few weeks into production, I got a call from the publicity/stills department at Columbia Pictures. They knew I had a very good working relationship with Antonio and Robert Rodriguez, and they were so pleased and impressed with the shots I was sending them from the set, they decided to have me shoot the poster of the movie. This was a great honor, specially since I had only been working as a still photographer for three years, and had never shot a poster. Advertising departments at the major movie studios usually hire well established poster or commercial photographers to shoot their posters.
I felt honored and ecstatic. They informed me that an advertising agency had been hired and were working on concepts for the posters, which I would receive in a few days.
A couple weeks later I received a book of drawings with 15 different concepts. As I turn the pages I am disappointed by what I see. Most of them look too cartoonish. Too campy.
Concept 1: the mariachi enters a smoky and dark saloon, holding a guitar case in one hand and the sawed off shotgun in another. He is silhouetted by the exterior light. Tables with mean looking hombres, playing poker and drinking hard liquor, all stare in the mariachi's direction. Boring,
Concept 2: we only see the back of the mariachi's legs, holding a sawed off shotgun to his side, staring off into a lonely road which recedes into the desert, littered with dead hombres and empty shell casings. "Are you kidding me?" You got Antonino Banderas, a hot Spaniard who exudes sex appeal, and you want to show the back of his legs?
The rest of the concepts were your standard shot of the hero in different poses, shot from different angles and focal lengths. All boring.
As I was looking through these absurd concepts, one image kept popping into my head- the mariachi leaning his head on his gun. To me that represented the hero of Desperado. A sensual and romantic hero, torn and tormented by his past, praying for the redemption he will never get.
I quickly realized that the best way to capture this image was to shoot Antonio from the side, in profile. I told Robert Rodriguez, the director of the movie, about my idea, and asked him to pose for me. I shot a polaroid of him holding the gun to his forehead, and from this I made a drawing which I sent to Columbia pictures. They said they liked the idea and to go ahead and shoot it.
We scheduled to shoot Antonio on a day he was not working on set. Unfortunately, the day of the shoot he got a stomach flu! I had to use a body-double to shoot all the elements needed for some of the posters.
A decision was then made by the advertising department at Columbia Pictures to schedule a photo shoot in Los Angeles with Antonio, after the movie wrapped.
Two months later, I find myself in a photo studio with three assistants, a hair/make-up artist, a wardrobe stylist, a propman, creative artists from the Ad agency and the advertising department of Columbia Pictures, and Antonio.
Towards the end of the photo shoot, after I had shot all the concepts requested by the studio, I got ready to take the photo I wanted to take. The shot that later became the poster.
I had Antonio stand in front of me in profile, holding the gun to his forehead, and lit him with a single light source- a medium sized Chimera lightbox with a diffusion screen. That was it. Very simple. We were running out of time, so I only took a few shots and we ended the photo session.
Several months later, the ad agency in charge of creating the poster had a meeting with the top advertising executives at Columbia Pictures, to showcase all the poster mock-ups they created. They laid out over a dozen different posters on a long conference table. After looking at all of them, the execs decided on my original concept.
I was filled with pride that the idea I had for the poster was chosen over all the concepts from the ad agency. I don’t consider myself to be smarter or more creative than a team of conceptual artists who created the various concept ideas for the poster. I was just lucky. Lucky to have been on the movie set the moment Antonio lifted a gun to his forehead. The ad agency did not have that luxury, and they were basing their concepts on the script and Columbia Pictures’ concept ideas.
There is something to be learned by this. Movie studios should allow the movie photographers to shoot the poster, or allow them to participate in the creative process, because by being on the movie set every day, we have a better understanding of the character and what the actor brings to the character.
The Poster of Desperado started a 20 year collaboration with Robert Rodriguez, where I have had the privilege and honor to create the posters to most of his movies, including Sin City, Grindhouse, Machete, Once Upon a Time in Mexico, and more.