He created and directed the Spy Kids film franchise.
Rodríguez was born in San Antonio, Texas, the son of Mexican-American parents Rebecca (née Villegas), a nurse, and Cecilio G. Rodríguez, a salesman. He began his interest in film at age eleven, when his father bought one of the first VCRs, which came with a camera.
While attending St. Anthony High School Seminary in San Antonio, Rodríguez was commissioned to videotape the school's football games. According to his sister, he was fired soon afterward as he had shot footage in a cinematic style, getting shots of parents' reactions and the ball traveling through the air instead of shooting the whole play. In high school, he met Carlos Gallardo; they both shot films on video throughout high school and college.
Rodriguez went to the College of Communication at the University of Texas at Austin, where he also developed a love of cartooning. Not having grades high enough to be accepted into the school's film program, he created a daily comic strip entitled Los Hooligans. Many of the characters were based on his siblings – in particular, one of his sisters, Maricarmen. The comic ran for three years in the student newspaper The Daily Texan, while Rodríguez continued to make short films.
Rodríguez shot action and horror short films on video and edited on two VCRs. In late 1990, his entry in a local film contest earned him a spot in the university's film program. There he made the award-winning 16 mm short Bedhead (1991). The film chronicles the amusing misadventures of a young girl whose older brother sports an incredibly tangled mess of hair which she detests. Even at this early stage, Rodríguez's trademark style began to emerge: quick cuts, intense zooms, and fast camera movements deployed with a sense of humor.
Bedhead (1991) was recognized for excellence in the Black Maria Film Festival. It was selected by Film/Video Curator Sally Berger, for the Black Maria 20th-anniversary retrospective at MoMA in 2006.
The short film "Bedhead" attracted enough attention to encourage him to seriously attempt a career as a filmmaker. He went on to shoot the action flick El Mariachi (1992) in Spanish; he shot it for around $7,000 with money raised by his friend Carlos Gallardo and from payments for his own participation in medical testing studies. Rodriquez won the Audience Award for this film at the Sundance Film Festival in 1993. Intended for the Spanish-language low-budget home-video market, the film was "cleaned up" by Columbia Pictures with post-production work costing several hundred thousand dollars before it was distributed in the United States. Its promotion still advertised it as "the movie made for $7,000". Rodríguez described his experiences making the film in his book Rebel Without a Crew (1995).
Desperado was a sequel to El Mariachi that starred Antonio Banderas and introduced Salma Hayek to American audiences. Rodríguez went on to collaborate with Quentin Tarantino on the vampire thriller From Dusk till Dawn(also both co-producing its two sequels), and he is currently writing, directing, and producing the TV series for his own cable network, El Rey. Rodriguez has also worked with Kevin Williamson, on the horror film The Faculty.
In 2001, Rodríguez enjoyed his first Hollywood hit with Spy Kids, which went on to become a movie franchise. A third "mariachi" film also appeared in late 2003, Once Upon a Time in Mexico, which completed the Mexico Trilogy (also called the Mariachi Trilogy). He operates a production company called Troublemaker Studios, formerly Los Hooligans Productions.
Rodríguez co-directed Sin City (2005), an adaptation of the Frank Miller Sin City comic books; Quentin Tarantino guest-directed a scene. During production in 2004, Rodríguez insisted Miller to be credited as co-director, because he considered the visual style of Miller's comic art to be just as important as his own in the film. However, the Directors Guild of Americawould not allow it, citing that only "legitimate teams", e.g., the Wachowskis, could share the director's credit. Rodríguez chose to resign from the DGA, stating, "It was easier for me to quietly resign before shooting because otherwise I'd be forced to make compromises I was unwilling to make or set a precedent that might hurt the guild later on." By resigning from the DGA, Rodríguez was forced to relinquish his director's seat on the film John Carter of Mars for Paramount Pictures. Rodríguez had already signed on and had been announced as director of that film, planning to begin filming soon after completing Sin City.
Sin City was a critical hit in 2005 as well as a box office success, particularly for a hyperviolent comic book adaptation that did not have name recognition comparable to the X-Men or Spider-Man. He has stated that he is interested in eventually adapting all of Miller's Sin City comic books.
Rodríguez released The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl in 2005, a superhero-kid movie intended for the same younger audiences as his Spy Kids series. Sharkboy and Lavagirl was based on a story conceived by Rodríguez's then 7-year-old son, Racer, who was given credit for the screenplay. The film was not a major success, grossing just $39 million at the box office.
Rodríguez wrote and directed the film Planet Terror as part of the double-bill release Grindhouse (2007). Quentin Tarantino directed Grindhouse's other film.
He also has a series of "Ten Minute Film School" segments on several of his DVD releases, showing aspiring filmmakers how to make good, profitable movies using inexpensive tactics. Starting with the Once Upon a Time in Mexico DVD, Rodríguez began creating a series called, "Ten Minute Cooking School" where he revealed his recipe for "Puerco Pibil" (based on Cochinita pibil, an old dish from Yucatán), the same food Johnny Depp's character, "Agent Sands" ate in the film. The popularity of this series led to the inclusion of another "Cooking School" on the two-disc version of the Sin City DVD where Rodríguez teaches the viewer how to make "Sin City Breakfast Tacos", a dish (made for his cast and crew during late-night shoots and editing sessions) utilizing his grandmother's tortilla recipe and different egg mixes for the filling. He had initially planned to release a third "Cooking School" with the DVD release of Planet Terror but then announced on the "Film School" segment of the DVD that he would put it on the Grindhouse DVD set instead. The Cooking School, titled "Texas Barbecue...from the GRAVE!", is a dish based on the "secret barbecue recipe" of JT Hague, Jeff Fahey's character in the film.
Rodríguez is a strong supporter of digital filmmaking, having been introduced to the practice by director George Lucas, who personally invited Rodríguez to use the digital cameras at Lucas's headquarters. He was presented with the Extraordinary Contribution to Filmmaking Award at the 2010 Austin Film Festival.