News Column

In His Element

July/August 2001

By Teresa Talerico, HISPANIC BUSINESS® magazine


Robert Rodriguez can’t help immersing himself in his film projects. Hollywood and the movie-going public love him for it.

Robert Rodriguez can’t come to the phone right now. Not that he doesn’t love talking movies. The 33-year-old director is just much happier making them.

It’s summertime in Austin, Texas, but Mr. Rodriguez isn’t enjoying the bluebonnets or basking in the success of Spy Kids, which grossed $105 million in its first nine weeks of release. He’s already busy shooting his next picture.

Between shooting the final film of the El Mariachi/Desperado trilogy in Mexico, gearing up for a Spy Kids sequel, and planning a biopic about late blues guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan, he seldom has time for journalists. In fact, he declined to be interviewed for this story.

“He just enjoys the heck out of what he does,” says Bel Hernandez, editor and publisher of Latin Heat, an entertainment trade magazine that has followed his career. “To him, it’s not work. It’s something that keeps him going and something that he loves to do.”

Anointed one of the hottest filmmakers of his generation and praised for his ability to make hit movies on the cheap, Mr. Rodriguez remains unaffected by all the attention. He’d rather be on a set juggling duties as director, cameraman, film editor, special effects guru, and the guy who strums guitar during breaks. Or with his wife and three kids in Austin, Texas, where they make their home.

“He’s very loyal, thoughtful, sensitive,” says Charles Ramirez Berg, a film professor at the University of Texas at Austin and a longtime friend and mentor who had a bit part in Spy Kids. “He never fell for the Hollywood thing or got swept off his feet.”

Actually, it happened the other way around. The Texas native swept Hollywood off its feet in 1992 with El Mariachi, which he made for only $7,000. The film tells the story of a gentle musician mistaken for a killer who carries weapons in a guitar case. Mr. Rodriguez, then a college student, raised money for El Mariachi by serving as a paid subject in a cholesterol medication study. He recruited a fellow “lab rat” to play the movie’s head villain.

Today, he commands big bucks for his movie budgets (Spy Kids was made for $36 million) and top stars are eager to work with him. Yet he remains thrifty and still loves putting friends and relatives in his movies. He has never forgotten his roots.

“Living in Austin helps a lot,” says his wife and producer, Elizabeth Avellan. “[We keep] as close to a normal life as we can with our children. He’s a family guy. Our families are always around us. That helps you remember where you came from.”

Born in San Antonio, Texas, Mr. Rodriguez grew up in a family of 10 children. As a kid, he drew flip-page movies in the margins of dictionaries. After getting his first video camera, he recruited his brothers and sisters to star in homemade movies. At the all-boys St. Anthony Catholic High School, he filmed football games and, to the delight of classmates, made movies that spoofed the priests. He also was a skilled artist and cartoonist.

High school peers say his talents were formidable even then.

Monica Caballero, a San Antonio attorney who also graduated in 1986 from one of the city’s Catholic high schools, recalled seeing his drawings in a student anthology. Vivid, offbeat, and sophisticated, they included a sketch of some thumbs playing soccer with an eyeball and a sketch of a hand drawing another hand. They reminded Ms. Caballero of M.C. Escher’s work.

“The stuff in the anthology just blew me away,” she says. “I remember thinking, ‘Who is this guy? He’s going places.’ ”

He did. His first stop: the University of Texas, where he created a popular comic strip, “Los Hooligans,” for the campus newspaper. In 1991, the budding filmmaker impressed professors with one of his 16mm short films, an eight-minute comedy called “Bedhead.” Starring his siblings, it tells the story of a little girl who wields telekinetic powers over her brother. It won awards at film festivals throughout the country.

“It was just such an amazing film,” recalls Mr. Ramirez Berg. “I realized this guy is incredible – the talent he has and the knack for the cinematic language.”

The next summer, Mr. Rodriguez shot El Mariachi, his first feature-length film. Viewing it as just “practice,” he originally planned to sell it to the Mexican video market. The struggling student filmed it on a shoestring budget in Ciudad Acuña, Mexico. He borrowed a 16mm camera, used friends and amateur actors as stars, and skimped wherever possible.

“He’s from a big family in San Antonio,” says Mr. Ramirez Berg. “They didn’t have a lot of money, so it’s not easy for him to just throw money away.”

The resulting film was an action-packed stunner. On a whim, Mr. Rodriguez submitted it to a Los Angeles agent, and the industry was soon buzzing about the movie and its young director. Columbia agreed to release it and gave him a production deal.

At 23, Mr. Rodriguez was Hollywood’s new wunderkind.

“He’s a real filmmaker,” says Jane Evans, vice-president of physical production at Miramax. “He understands every aspect of the process – from writing to shooting to editing to music to special effects. There’s a certain economy in having all of that knowledge.”

Since then, his clout has skyrocketed. His films, which tend to be fast-paced action flicks, include Desperado, From Dusk Till Dawn, The Faculty, and The Misbehavers, which was easily the best segment in 1995’s Four Rooms, a compilation of short movies by four directors. A tale of two mischievous children, The Misbehavers served as the inspiration for Spy Kids.

His movies have starred the likes of Antonio Banderas, George Clooney, and Cheech Marin. The Desperado sequel, tentatively titled “Once Upon a Time in Mexico,” will star original cast members Salma Hayek, Quentin Tarantino, and Messrs. Banderas and Marin, as well as Johnny Depp, Eva Mendez, Willem Dafoe, Mickey Rourke, and Enrique Iglesias. Mr. Rodriguez is shooting it in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, at a breakneck pace of seven weeks. Immediately after, he will begin filming the Spy Kids sequel.

“As he’s become more successful, he has big-budget movies now,” says Miramax’s Ms. Evans. “He’s not making El Mariachi for $7,000 anymore. He’s proven himself.”

Still, the filmmaker enjoys finding cheaper, more creative ways to shoot scenes, and his action movies are less expensive than most. Spy Kids, which had more effects than the latest Godzilla movie, was relatively cheap to make – $36 million not being a particularly large sum of money in Hollywood.

“He takes a certain pride in keeping things lean, compared to a lot of other directors who kind of measure their status by how many toys they have or how much they can get from studios,” says Ms. Evans.

One way he saves money is by doing a lot of the work himself. Though he could hire a bigger crew, Mr. Rodriguez prefers to serve as writer, director, cameraman, film editor, sound mixer, and special-effects whiz on many of his movies. For Spy Kids, for example, he mastered the software for its effects and helped compose the music.

“He’s never lost the sense of how much things cost,” says Mr. Ramirez Berg. “One of the things that can happen is you get lured into the Hollywood system. The way they do things is they spend a lot of money. And you end up working for them because they’ve got the money. He has managed to avoid that by spending very, very little on his films. Then you have a lot more freedom.”

That includes the freedom to feature positive images of Hispanics in movies that appeal to a wide audience. Spy Kids is first and foremost a kid’s action-adventure movie. But it’s also a movie that happens to star Hispanics.

“He wants to make universal films with Hispanics in them,” says Ms. Avellan. “It’s always been important that his roots are shown in a movie with universal themes. Not that he doesn’t want to be recognized as a Hispanic. He wants to be a filmmaker. He wants to make sure that he’s breaking the door open for others – no matter what your last name is, no matter what your color is.”

The movie also scored some major exposure when McDonald’s promoted Spy Kids with Happy Meals. That in itself represents an achievement for Hispanics in film, according to Mr. Ramirez Berg.

“Think about how many people go to McDonald’s and how many people get Happy Meals,” he says. “So you’ve got all these little kids playing at being Carmen and Juni Cortez. … In a real subtle way, that’s seeping into the consciousness of people going to have a hamburger. Who’s to say that that isn’t just as important as Zoot Suit or Stand and Deliver?”

Source: HISPANIC BUSINESS magazine

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