News Column

Director Robert Rodriguez is still making trouble

October 9, 2013

YellowBrix

Oct. 09--AUSTIN -- The first time I saw "Machete" was on a ferry from the mainland of Nicaragua to the volcanic island of Ometepe. Clearly a bootlegged copy, the 2010 film was dubbed in Dutch with Spanish and English subtitles. The ride was rough, and the ferry pitched about so aggressively the latrines spilled over. In one scene, Machete -- a former Federale on a revenge mission -- escaped a tight spot by flaying a pursuer's midsection, grabbing his large intestine and using it to swing through a window to safety. Several passengers quickly headed to the side of the boat.

Director Robert Rodriguez, whose sequel "Machete Kills" opens Friday, seems amused at the idea of his film being bootlegged and placed into such a bizarre context -- with children watching, no less.

"Even being on the boat, you could still see the artistry in the movie, right?" he jokes.

Rodriguez's two "Machete" films defiantly dispatch with anything as self-important as artistry. True, both are embedded with commentary about American immigration policy. But Rodriguez says filmmaker James Cameron told him the movies are "filmmaking from the id. It makes sense the moment you watch it, and not a bit after."

Among the weapons included in "Machete Kills" is a bra that rapid-fires bullets. Where the bullets come from is beside the point. The point is to have the weapon attached to Sofia Vergara's chest with fire protruding from it.

These sorts of ideas spring from Rodriguez's youth as a cartoonist, which was the profession he first thought he'd pursue. He got his start cartooning for the Daily Texan, his work appearing alongside that of Berke Breathed and Chris Ware. "By doing film I could still draw," he says. Often those drawings end up as schematics for his movie's tools, which, he says, reflect his deep affinity for the James Bond films.

But the two "Machete" films aren't as slick as a Bond movie. The look of "Machete Kills" is decidedly 1970s.

"These were supposed to be homages to the kinds of movies they had in the '70s and early '80s," Rodriguez says, "where filmmakers wanted to say something socially but the only jobs were working on a Roger Corman movie. So you've got to have (breasts), and you've got to have violence. Say whatever you want, but you still have to put (people) in the seats. The juxtaposition of the two ideologies is what makes it fun. It gives you permission to be very surreal. 'How does that thing fire out of her breasts?' It doesn't matter in the moment."

The character Machete wasn't supposed to come into being. In 1995, Rodriguez detected a void and wanted to fill it. "There was never a Latin action hero," he says. He came close with "El Mariachi" and "Desperado," but Rodriguez considers his two early films to be Westerns.

Rodriguez told Danny Trejo -- a scowling character actor who typically plays toughs -- he was developing a character called Machete, a former Federale who could unleash all sorts of hell on those who cross him, often with the blade from which he got his name. When Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino were making their dual feature "Grind House," they decided to create some fake trailers to run between the films. One of them was "Machete."

"I was satisfied," Rodriguez says. "It was the best version possible. I got to show all the action parts and didn't have to worry about the story."

The trailer generated more buzz than the film. Demand for a proper "Machete" grew, so in 2010, Rodriguez made it with Trejo, Robert De Niro, Jessica Alba, Michelle Rodriguez and others. "Machete" wasn't a blockbuster, but it earned more than double its budget and found its audience on DVD.

Rodriguez teased two fake movies at the end of "Machete": "Machete Kills" and "Machete Kills Again." He didn't really anticipate making a second one.

"It's definitely one of the weirdest series in movie history," he acknowledges.

The "Machete Kills" plot involves the character being sent on a mission to Mexico by the president of the United States (Charlie Sheen, billed as Carlos Estevez). It has pursuers and pursued, a nuclear missile threat and other plot points that mostly serve as a tortilla for the action.

On that subject, the guns and stunts in "Machete Kills" suggest a big-budget action film made in Hollywood. But 20 years after Rodriguez famously did "El Mariachi" on the cheap, he's still making his movies around Austin on a more modest budget than other fare with explosions.

As he looks out the window of the W Hotel toward the Hill Country, it's hard to envision any place nearby passing for the U.S./Mexico border.

But Rodriguez's stages are housed along unused airport runways just outside the city. They provided scenes set on the highway, at the border and in Mexico.

"We used the same little area over and over," he says. "Just going in circles. The only thing we had to do was erase the old airport tower, which was in all the shots.

"I never give us much money or time. It makes you more creative. You can't use money as a hose to erase a problem."

Trejo is back, obviously, in the sequel, as is Michelle Rodriguez. And the director brings in a colorful assortment of players, including Mel Gibson, Cuba Gooding Jr., Antonio Banderas, Walt Goggins and Lady Gaga to participate in the mayhem. And Vergara with her ridiculous guns.

"You have to do a lot of inventing," Rodriguez says. "Sofia's been wanting to be in one of my movies for a long time. She wants the ride. She wants the treatment. So I've got to do something to make her iconic. I can't have her play the part straight. These actors want to be part of this world, so that just adds to the mayhem and the ideas. You just go further. It feels like a fevered dream anyway."

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