By Jose Martinez and Christin Divine.
Although known for kinetic, blood-soaked genre films such El Mariachi, Desperado, From Dusk ’Till Dawn and Machete, writer/director Robert Rodriguez also has the skill of Spielberg and Shyamalan when it comes to eliciting honest child performances, and his gift for presenting the world through wide eyes serves him well in films such as Spy Kids, a family action movie that satisfies all kids, young and old.
Creative Screenwriting has had the pleasure of speaking with Robert Rodriguez several times over the years, and the following article features highlights from those interviews.
What did you get out of going to film school?
I made Bedhead in the first class I took in film school. Mainly I wanted to get into the class to get hold of 16mm equipment for free so that I could make the movie, but the movie ended up costing $800. It would have been a lot cheaper and easier just borrowing or buying a camera and doing it on my own. I could have bought that same camera for $100. I was reluctant to go to film school. I really thought I would learn more there than I did. Once I got there I realized I was better off teaching myself.
How difficult has it been to remain in control of your projects?
It helped that the first movie was El Mariachi because both the studio and the public liked it. After that, it was easier to tell them: “Guys, I was the whole crew on that, so you got to let me do that again.” When Desperado came, it was a struggle for them to let me edit the movie and I told them, “Well, who else will you get? I’m free.” They just didn’t want me to have that much control, but they let me do it. That was a big mistake because it sets another precedent. If my next movie hadn’t been Desperado, if I had done one of the really big budget movies they were offering me, I would have lost that control. That’s why after El Mariachi I did Roadracers, which is a small cable movie, then I did Desperado in Mexico for $7 million rather than the $30 million action movie they offered. I made Desperado with much less and I did it on my own terms. Successes like that make precedents for yourself. You’ve got to be really smart and really persistent.
Do you think there is a future for Latin heroes?
I think people support any hero. Luke Skywalker and Indiana Jones could have been any color and people would have liked them because of the way they were presented. That’s what I learned the most from John Woo movies. When you see a John Woo movie you want to be Chinese, you want to be one of those guys. I knew it wasn’t because they were Chinese, it was how he presented his heroes. I think a hero can be of any color, or any race, if the filmmaker treats him with a lot of respect.
Let’s talk about your influences, but before you mention anyone, let me bring up two names, Sam Raimi and John Woo.
I was influenced a lot by John Carpenter and Sam Raimi starting out, because both those guys were making low budget movies with a lot of imagination. If John Carpenter hadn’t had a lot of money he still would have made Escape From New York. That kind of big idea with small money and more imagination really inspired me to do my own movies. Much more than the big movies I liked. You never feel you can do those because you need so much money and so much crew. Those movies aren’t as inspiring. When it comes to making action movies, the Hong Kong action films were always superior to what we were doing here. While we were filming Dusk Till Dawn, Quentin came up one day and he was so pumped and excited because he saw this really cool movie and I said, “Let me guess, it’s a Hong Kong film right?” And he said “Of course, what else would it be. I sure wouldn’t be excited about something we’re doing here.” Sure enough, it was a Jet Li movie he had seen. That stuff is just inspiring to filmmakers.
How do you feel about the violence in action movies?
I don’t know why I wanted to make action pictures. I guess it was like using red paint when you make a painting. Ever since I was a kid, whenever I’d go sit down and draw there would be shots of people’s chests bursting out and artistic gore flying all over the place. Everyone thought I was going to be a serial killer, but it’s just artistic expression. I just knew I wanted to make a strong action picture. I made Desperado because there really wasn’t a Latin action hero. I wanted my action movie to be just as strong as regular action movies, but with Latins in it.
Is there any added pressure or responsibility being a successful Hispanic director?
Not really. It’s an open territory. There’s not many role models for Hispanic directors out there so you end up being one of the few.
And do you have a problem being tagged as a Hispanic director?
It’s not a bad thing. It doesn’t interfere with business. For Hispanics it’s important to have role models. It’s something for them to latch onto. I know it was important for me to claim someone who had Spanish blood in them as a role model. It’s good for people.
What was your original intention with El Mariachi? Were you targeting a general or limited audience?
Mariachi wasn’t supposed to work out that well. I hadn’t really set a firm plan down. I didn’t expect that to be the movie to get out and make everything. It was in Spanish, it was very low-budget, it was designed to teach me how to make a movie. I had planned to make three of them at the same budget level, that’s why the movie ended the way it did. I was just going to make three in one year. I was hoping maybe the third one would be good enough to get me work on a real film, not be the one that went all over the world. I never expected that to be released, much less for people to see it. It’s good to map out a really decent plan that actually makes sense, that has opportunity for you to learn, because if it takes off from the start like Mariachi did, then that’s good too, but if not, you have to realize it was a learning experience. You have to keep learning and keep making movies.
You never thought of doing anything else?
I knew I wanted to do something that I liked. I was a cartoonist, and I loved that. I loved to make movies. If I went into something I really enjoyed, I knew I would work a lot harder than the person next to me. I’d rather do that than get a safe job and work half-assed at it. Let me go do something that I really love, and I’ll work all day, all night. The first thing that happens when you decide to do that is, you don’t have weekends anymore. Those days are gone. Everyday’s a Monday. You’re working really hard but you don’t care because it’s something you really love. I was making movies and I was killing myself doing it, but it was fun. I had a smile on my face and you end up getting somewhere a lot faster because you love what you’re doing.
How did El Mariachi get to Sundance?
They wanted it. We already had a distributor. We showed it at Toronto and they (Sundance) said, “We’d like to have that movie. We like it. Don’t show it at any more festivals and we’ll play it.” It wasn’t looking for a distributor like most of the films there. We already had a distributor and the movie was going to come out a few days later. We didn’t expect anything. We didn’t expect to win, that’s for sure.
From Dusk Till Dawn
How did you become involved in From Dusk Till Dawn, and how did you hook up with Quentin Tarantino?
I was already shooting him in Desperado. We were working on Four Rooms when the script for Dusk came back to him. It’s an old script of his, he never intended to direct. He wrote it for someone else [Robert Kurtzman] so when they brought it back to him to control he said, “I’ll do it if Rodriguez directs it.” I said, “I’ll direct it if he rewrites it.” So we got together, cranked it out, and here it is. It was a really fast thing to put together.
What do you think of Quentin as an actor?
Quentin is great in Dusk as an actor. We had a test screening and it was pretty unanimous. People thought George Clooney was amazing and Quentin is really, really good. Really twisted. He plays a psycho, and we all know how twisted he can be. We really played that off in here—you never know what he’s going to do next. [Quentin’s] always getting ragged on for his acting, but he’s always wanted to act and this film will shut the critics up because there’s nothing bad you can say about him in this.
Did you ever disagree?
That’s the thing in movies, or in any art—there’s no right or wrong. It’s really subjective. He has his way of doing things. He wrote the script and it was my job to make it my movie. He wanted me to direct it my way, which is different from how he would do it. So we had an understanding as filmmakers. We had a great time. He would inspire me to do stuff and was always wondering what I would do next.
From Dusk Till Dawn cost $12 million to make and some say half of it went for blood. Is that true?
We tried to put most of the money up on the screen and since the movie is pretty bloody, a lot of it is in blood. It looks much bigger than $12 million. What I like to do is have more creative freedom. That’s why you see my name so much in the credits. It’s not that I’m a control freak, it just saves money if I’m the Steadicam operator, camera operator, the editor, and the sound mixer. You get more freedom that way. Miramax gave me final cut on this picture and they left us alone. We got to shoot anything we wanted. We put Tom Savini and Harvey Keitel in it. By doing it for less you have a lot of freedom and that’s what I like. People have offered me really big budget movies, but there’s no point because you’re just working for them and it’s not as fun. This was a lot more fun because you really have to scrape to make it look big. You have to shoot really, really fast, which nobody does in this town. It really makes you an elite kind of group where you do your own thing. Do it your way and I think people will enjoy it more.
How did you come up with the idea for the Aztec Vampire?
The script didn’t specify what the vampires were and Mexico is such a vampire-rich culture. No one’s ever made a movie about the Aztec and Mayan vampire cultures. Selma Hayak plays the main vampire, the Aztec goddess, and she rocks. People’s favorite scene is when she comes out and dances with an albino snake, pours whiskey down her leg, feeds it to Quentin and kills everybody.
Have you always enjoyed horror movies? Which ones are your favorites?
Near Dark is one of my favorite vampire movies. I really like the night. That one really brought out the seduction of the night. It wasn’t fangs so much. It had a different tone. Anything you can do differently in a genre is always interesting. Ours is really two movies in one. The first half is almost like Desperate Hours/Silence of the Lambs, a really intense psychological horror and then it turns into a vampire horror by the second half, so it’s two movies in one. Quentin is used to doing that.
How were you able to get such an eclectic cast?
It was easy to get people like Harvey Keitel and Juliette Lewis, mainly because of Quentin. Quentin wrote the script and everybody wants to be in his scripts. But we were also looking, at the same time, for some really B-movie actors. Guys you’ve seen in Dawn of the Dead. We put them in roles next to Harvey Keitel and those other guys, so that people who aren’t familiar with them would also become fans. Tom Savini is incredible. He has to do all kinds of stuff. He’s flipping around and killing vampires. He’s like the only one really enjoying killing the vampires.
What was the genesis of Spy Kids?
I’ve been wanting to do a family film ever since El Mariachi, one based on a comic I had done about my family. People who saw my short Bedhead have been saying, “When are you going to do a movie like that?” I was trying to figure one out. I thought I would do a movie of that, that kind of action and adventure.
So you started developing the story?
The initial idea I had was basically the logline: Parents are spies and the kids don’t know. The parents get captured and the kids have to save them. I thought I could have the bad guy be like Willy Wonka, imaginative and childlike.
The Fooglies and the Thumb Thumbs are crazy.
Thumb Thumbs! It can’t get bizarre enough. Thumb Thumbs are something I invented when I was thirteen, and I won my first art contest. It’s so cool going back to ideas I had as a kid and seeing them come to computer-generated life.
The old stuff always comes back.
So cool finding old drawings and you wonder what you were thinking, but that’s the mindset. I wanted this to have the feel like a kid wrote it, shot it, edited it, directed it. What a kid would do.
The impressive thing about the script is they’re not typical smart-ass kids.
Exactly. Not like the kids in movies you want to smack around [Laughs]. It has to do with the age. If they’re a little older, twelve or thirteen, the awkward stage, we all remember that terrible stage in our lives, and we want to hate those kids, not like them.
Do you find it easy to write and direct for children?
Yeah. I’m still a kid.
What are your favorite spy films?
I love James Bond movies. The first thing I wrote was the opening scene. There came a point that I wanted the bad guy to be real imaginative. Instead of making him evil, I made him good and his assistant the bad guy. Having your cake and eat it, too.
It’s great that nobody dies.
Somebody read it and said Dad should go mano-y-mano with Minion. What for? He’s not gonna beat up anybody in front of his kids. Let Minion do himself in. No one has to lay a hand on anybody.
Having kids now, how does the controversy about Hollywood violence affect you?
I didn’t want any guns or violence. I wanted it to be action/adventure for kids. A guy told me his son loved Desperado. I said, How old is your son? He said, six. Fuck, he shouldn’t be watching that! I can’t make movies like that anymore. You don’t feel like it’s your responsibility, because I never had the intention for kids to watch that. But the reality is they do. Even in The Faculty, I didn’t want to gore it up. I had everybody alive at the end.
You shot almost all the film in Austin. Was it hard pulling off the global vibe of the screenplay?
Just from shooting Bedhead in my backyard, I knew it would be easy to create my own reality. There’s a lot of wacky locations in Austin that feel like they’re someplace else. We shot some exteriors in South America. A friend told me, “Kids? Green screen? You’ll be shooting for a hundred days.” We finished in forty-eight. I don’t like to shoot for the long haul, because the energy goes away from everybody.
I really did love Spy Kids. You nailed it.
Thanks, I appreciate that. I was so inspired by those kinds of movies when I was growing up, and they weren’t making them anymore.
What kind of response did you personally get from the film? Did you ever talk to kids after?
Just going to the theater and seeing how many kids were dragging their parents to it. I was at a mall, and I heard a kid saying, “Oh Spy Kids! Let’s go see that!” and the Mom says, “Oh not that again!” [Laughs] That was a good sign. While we were filming in Mexico, we had a screening with the cast, set up an outdoor screen in the plaza like Cinema Paradiso, and the whole town was there, like 4,000 people. Very cool.
Does it seem like a long way from the $7,000 El Mariachi to the $36 million Spy Kids?
Yeah, I learned so much. Amazing.
Spy Kids 2
You once said that much of Spy Kids 2 was part of your original draft for Spy Kids…
Right. I had written a lot for Spy Kids that didn’t make it. It became one and two all by itself.
When you knew they were going to be two different films, how did you restructure the scripts?
I pushed stuff over and added more scenes. Basically, I wanted them to already be spy kids, and have all the gadgets, be cool agents, but that wasn’t that first movie, it was the genesis of how they become spies. So all that stuff where they were a little too savvy, too pro-active, that went into Spy Kids 2.
When you wrote Spy Kids 2, was it a complete script or a series of scenes?
I had a lot of ideas for the first one that were never developed, so I put those aside. I had a lot more than I thought. After Spy Kids I went off and wrote Desperado 2, ran out and shot it, came back thinking I had to write Spy Kids 2 from scratch. You know, you go back to the files, and I said, “Wow, there’s already sixty pages there! I don’t even remember writing that much!” So I was thrilled because my mind was on such a different project that I couldn’t think about it while I was down in Mexico.
What were the sixty pages?
It was the whole movie blocked out in scenes. It was all pretty much there and I just filled it out.
Was the screenplay more skeletal since you had a better grasp on the story and characters, and knew you’d be adding things on the set?
Yeah, I did that a lot. Just the casting changes things, so I wrote very vague because I didn’t think I’d have time to find really good actors like I had last time. I had six months the first time, and this time I had three weeks. So I thought if I don’t find terrific kids to be their nemesis, I don’t want to have all this dialogue, then break their hearts by cutting it all away. But sure enough, I found great kids. The little girl is Haley Joel Osment’s sister and she’s amazing. I kept giving her pages every day and writing more for the boy. Their parts just grew. Originally, there was a spy grandpa, but I didn’t really have a part for him, so I decided to cast Ricardo Montalban. That part became much bigger [laughs]. He is so cool in this.
He was so fantastic in Wrath of Khan and it should’ve opened more doors for him. That was an Academy Award performance.
Me and Quentin [Tarantino] were talking about that. I got the idea at Quentin’s film festival here in Austin because he showed Khan. It was sci-fi night at the fest and Quentin went on and on about Ricardo and how amazing he is; what a compelling performance it was. He hadn’t done anything since 1990 because he had a bad back for awhile, so I said, “Man that’s fine. You’ll be in a flying wheelchair and you won’t have to go anywhere!” He came down and he said all he remembered about Khan was William Shatner coming up to him at the premiere and saying, “Thank you so much for your performance. It really guided me in what to do.” And Ricardo didn’t have anything but a wall, since he shot all his scenes first. He didn’t have Shatner to act against. He did that whole part in a vacuum. Here, he’s got a great Khan-type part.
How did you develop the kids further in the sequel?
I knew they would go beyond the antagonistic relationship, and they would be working together more. I based it on the relations I had with my siblings; like my younger sisters, if they were dating a guy I thought was rotten to the core, but I couldn’t tell them anything. They have to make their own mistakes. You can’t ever warn anybody in your family about anything until they come back later and say, “You were right.” [laughs]. I gave Carmen and Juni another set of rivals. Even though they were the first, they’re not considered the top spy kids. Carmen has a crush on the other spy boy, and Juni thinks he’s bad but can’t convince Carmen. So that’s really fun.
Did you use storyboards?
I would as I needed to. I used to be a cartoonist, so I would draw something quick on the spot, and it would look like a doctor’s prescription. All the more reason to trust me [laughs].
Did you have a bigger budget?
No, it was the same budget [$35 million]. I shot on Hi-Def. When you’re shooting on film, you’re basically shooting in the dark. Now you can really see your work at the end of the day, so this changes everything. You’re in charge, excited, and you can see everything you did. It’s like the difference between vinyl records and CDs.
Once Upon a Time in Mexico
Is that how you wrote Once Upon a Time in Mexico?
I wanted to test out this HD camera, but the actors’ strike was coming up. I thought if there’s a way to write something quick… Antonio Banderas was available, so I thought we’d try another Desperado. It gave us the chance to do everything with the camera: motion, action, outdoor, blistering sun, dark interiors… I said, “Oh, let’s do another Desperado!” Antonio said, “Do you have a script?” I said, “No, but you’ll have it Sunday!” So I called Columbia and said, “Do you want to make a movie?” I finished the script in five days. That’s the way to get anything done—set yourself on fire. The last thirty pages wrote themselves in such a flurry that I was shocked at what was happening. I didn’t know how it was going to turn out. It was like writing real time. I don’t even think I can take credit for the script—it was all done subconsciously.
How does this film differ from the other two?
El Mariachi was A Fistful of Dollars, Desperado was For a Few Dollars More, and this is The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. This has got tons more characters; it’s more epic, a bigger story. I showed it to the studio and they were surprised how big it is, that I took it that much further. This script was the reverse of Spy Kids in that I had been doodling with it for years, and I thought I had so much more written than I did. I only had three cool scenes written for the Lee Van Cleef-type character, and the idea that the Mariachi was hiding out in the town with the guitarists, but that was all I had. So I started from scratch.
Did you study the Sergio Leone westerns for inspiration?
No, I was trying to do it more by memory. I just wanted to take the idea that he was involved in the Civil War and all that, and give it a much bigger backdrop. Yet the personal story between the main characters was still tight and focused. I took that idea and thought, “What could happen? A coup d’état in Mexico!”
How long was the first draft?
That’s real funny. The first draft was sixty-five pages. It was all I could muster, so I grabbed a short story I had written about a banker whose daughter is kidnapped by the cops, who tell him to go steal from his bank for the ransom. It was a whole ten-minute short. I grabbed that and shoved it into the structure of the script so it would be seventy-five pages, even though I knew next week I would take the sub-plot out once I got the rest of the script filled out. It was just so that I wouldn’t see this anemic sixty-five pages. There were so many action sections that just said COUP D’ÉTAT! ALL THE INDIANS COME OVER THE HILL. BIG BATTLE! The studio called and said, “It’s everything we want, but we don’t know about that banker sub-plot.” I said, “Yeah, I was thinking of taking that out.” [laughs]
The Writing Process
What is your writing schedule like?
I had the worst schedule on Spy Kids, and I didn’t figure it out until the rewrite. I kick myself for not having figured this out years ago. I’d be so much more prolific. I have a writing system now that works fantastic. What threw me is that I’m a night guy. I can’t get up early in the morning. I love waking up in the afternoon. I would always write at night, and ideas get worse and worse because you’re falling asleep. When you go to sleep, you say that’s great! When you wake up you say, that sucks! I thought I was a bad writer. But I would read different interviews in Creative Screenwriting and it seemed like the most successful writers were morning writers.
It’s an acquired habit.
You’ll clean your toilet before you write. I’m a total procrastinator. You get so distracted. I came up with a method that works great and kills all these birds with one stone. I get to be a morning writer now, and get to avoid something I hate more than writing—which is hard to find. Worse than writing? I hate getting out of bed. It’s so warm and cozy.
What’s your system now?
That first eye-opener is when I pull the computer onto my lap. You can’t even spell your name. But man, talk about focus, all this stuff comes your way. I get great ideas. And your Negative Guy is still asleep. The trick is not getting up to get coffee or other distractions. Hours will fly by. I would put my computer away and the rest of the day would be great. For writing, it’s a better subconscious stage to be waking than falling asleep.
Did you have an allotted number of daily pages?
I was shocked at how much stuff I got done. Stories, dialogue, characters, all this was coming out. If I had been doing this since Desperado I could have had five novels…. One hour in the morning would turn into three, and I would get more ideas all day long.
In your book, you mention that Quentin Tarantino gave you the best advice on writing you’d ever heard. But you didn’t say what that advice was…
I did that on purpose. [Laughs] I didn’t want to put it in there because I thought it would be such a letdown. You thought it was going to be milk and honey. I don’t know if Quentin even does this any more, but he told me, “If I’m writing a scene, I quit before the end and I’ll come back the next day to where I left off.” One of the secrets!
Do you read any scripts to get inspired?
I read a lot of screenwriting books, anything to get in that mode. I probably have every screenwriting book. The ones that are better are usually interviews. I came across so many writers who said, “I write in the morning, I write in the morning…” [Laughs]
How do you approach the script knowing you’re going to be editing and directing? Do you underwrite the scenes since you know how they’re going to play?
Right. I’m trying to make them a little more skeletal as I write ’em, because I’m not trying to sell them. I have animatics, storyboards to show everybody what’s going on… so I try to work on the story and dialogue. I started with so much more in there that I was writing part one and part two.
Did you ever let your other people read any of the drafts?
No, I never show it to anybody until I’m happy with it. If I can’t sit through it, it ain’t any good. I’ll just write and write, print it out, and then read through it, cover it with ink.
How do you feel your writing has progressed over the years?
I never considered myself a writer even though I’d written everything I shot. I wrote so I would have something to direct.
Do you want to write all your projects?
Yes. I like the freedom of not having to wait for that magic script to come in.