The Family Man

7 minute read
Cathy Booth and Thomas/Hammetts Crossing, Texas

In a peaceful castle perched high above the Pedernales River–a castle, that is, with a turret, a crenelated roof and secret passageways–Robert Rodriguez is greeting his sons Rocket, Racer and Rebel as they emerge from their evening bath. Soon, perhaps after he whips up some beef tacos, rice and guacamole for dinner and plays with the kids a while, he will mosey down to the dungeon-dark studios he calls Los Cryptos and get to work. The sun is setting over the Hill Country outside Austin, but Dad’s day is just getting started.

“Nothing is more magical than the hours between 3 and 7 a.m.,” says the 35-year-old director. “Can’t call anybody. Can’t go anywhere.” This is Rodriguez’s idea of heaven, sitting up all night at two consoles where he writes, edits, designs costumes, dreams up sets and creates digital effects for his films while beyond the moat–O.K., ravine–running across his 63-acre Texas ranch, others sleep. Luckily, the Weinstein brothers at Miramax/Dimension Films are happy for him to work whenever he wants. That’s the luxury afforded by being cheap. Rodriguez made the first two Spy Kids movies for a mere $38 million each, even though they featured marquee idols Antonio Banderas and George Clooney, and they made nearly $200 million. “Robert does everything but act, although now he has his kids in the movie as well,” observes Bob Weinstein with a gravelly laugh. “If I were Antonio Banderas, I’d be a little nervous.”

Nervous is perhaps how Weinstein felt five years ago when Rodriguez came to him with the idea for Spy Kids. After all, this was the former University of Texas film student who burst onto the indie scene in 1993 with the bloody Mexican action flick El Mariachi. Desperado, the 1995 Hollywood version of El Mariachi, had a sky-high body count but was in turn seriously outgored by Rodriguez’s next movie, the 1996 vampire pic From Dusk Till Dawn. His upcoming film, Once Upon a Time in Mexico, due in September, is about a bloody coup. Weinstein’s response to the Spy Kids pitch: “Are you kidding me?”

But the idea made perfect sense to anyone who knew Rodriguez. Born in San Antonio, Rodriguez grew up in a Mexican-American family of 10 and started making movies at age 12 with a Super 8 video camera, using his brothers and sisters, “little kids who you’d think couldn’t even tie their shoes doing action and comedy.” These family-fueled shorts even won awards at some local film festivals. His sister Patricia Vonne says nobody was surprised when Robert became a filmmaker. “Dad’s Super 8 was always glued to his head,” she says. “It didn’t even have a view finder.”

Spy Kids, then, was not so much a departure from violence as a return to his pet subject. Rodriguez had always idolized his uncle Gregorio, a special agent for the FBI. But it wasn’t until he was shooting Four Rooms with Banderas in 1995 and a group of pint-sized actors, all dressed in tuxedos, that the penny dropped. “They looked like little James Bonds, and I thought, Wow, that’s the angle. A spy family,” he says. “I can use my family’s dynamics and values, with the spy twist to give it some action.”

The plot for Spy Kids 3-D plays on many parents’ current bugbear: the time kids spend on video games. Sylvester Stallone plays the demented Toymaker, who has created a virtual-reality game called Game Over. Once kids plug into it, it traps them inside. Agent and hacker specialist Carmen Cortez (Alexa Vega) goes in to shut the game down but gets stuck. Little brother Juni (Daryl Sabara) must go in and save her, or it’s Game Over. Juni finds he cannot do it alone and calls in his family, especially his disabled grandfather (Ricardo Montalban, who is in a wheelchair in real life), to help.

“Family is the core of your identity,” says Rodriguez. “My idea was to make family the center of my life and work around that.” So he makes his unconventionally pro-family films in an unconventionally pro-family way. He sleeps when the kids go to school, then wakes up in time to play with them at night before he goes off to work. Except for filming on a sound stage at the old Austin airport, Rodriguez did everything on Spy Kids 3-D at home, overseeing the digital effects, done mostly by Hybride in Canada, from the computer in his studio and letting his wife of 13 years, Elizabeth Avellan, act as producer and deal with the outside world. “I never go anywhere,” says the director. The Rodriguez bedroom has two king-size beds jammed together so the whole family can watch videos and play video games together on the weekend.

Family is also why Rodriguez works with such a tight budget. “I’m from a family of 10 kids. I can’t stand waste,” he says. He financed El Mariachi in part by renting his body to a science lab in Austin for experiments for $6,000. When he went to Hollywood (briefly), he slept in his studio office and pocketed the $2,000-a-week allowance he got from a writing deal with Columbia so he could put a younger brother through school. Despite Weinstein’s offers to increase every Spy Kids’ budget, it has stayed flat. “We’re so low budget, we had these blocks of green foam for the vehicles the kids ride in the big race scene. I told them, ‘Hey, man, use your imagination. It will look so much cooler later.'” Rodriguez maintains that even his garishly violent movies are really the “goofy” product of a reluctance to leave childhood. “In Desperado, I had missiles shooting out of guitar cases. Totally ridiculous.” Not to mention that the villain in El Mariachi goes by the nickname of Moco, Mexican for booger.

Is attempting to revive 3-D similarly the stuff of boyish dreams? “I loved the idea of bringing back that sort of cinema experience. It felt like old-school showmanship, like the old Tingler days when they put stuff in the seat to jolt you,” Rodriguez says. Thanks to James Cameron, who developed new digital 3-D technology for his Titanic documentary Ghosts of the Abyss, filming in 3-D is much simpler and more precise than it was–and it can be easily converted to 2-D for video. Moviegoers will still don old-fashioned paper and plastic 3-D glasses to see the effect, but only during the video-game sequences. It’s not perfect (the colors are lurid), but as Rodriguez notes, “I wanted it to look like a cheesier video game, not Star Wars.”

Still, it’s a risky move, as 3-D movies have not had a happy history–and neither have sequels. Rodriguez is unperturbed. “I like the fact that I don’t really know what I’m doing,” he says, sliding over to the music console (he has composed music for this and his next movie as well) to play something off key. “That’s terrible,” he says cheerfully. It may be his refreshingly low estimation of the seriousness of his work that makes his movies so appealing; he calls Spy Kids 3-D “the only home movie in theaters this summer.” But it won’t be the only production from the house of Rodriguez in the coming months. Elizabeth is in development on a sibling for Rocket, Rebel and Racer. No word on the name yet. May we suggest Rest?

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