Robert Rodriguez is known as Hollywood’s DIY filmmaker, having “shot, chopped, and scored” his own films from El Mariachi to his 2007 collaboration with Quentin Tarantino, Planet Terror. This August, he’ll blaze another trail — movie making as family bonding project — with the kid flick Shorts, which Rodriguez conceived largely in collaboration with his own children. We met the soft-spoken auteur in a secluded room hidden within the San Diego Convention Center to talk about his favorite films and learn more about how the imaginations of his son led to his most family-friendly film since Spy Kids 3-D and The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lava Girl.
Jaws, because I just showed it to my kids for the first time. They’d seen snippets, but that’s the first time I said, “Okay, you guys are old enough. Gotta bite the bullet; we’re going to watch the damn thing all together.” My son, my ten-year-old, was like… So I watched it when I was seven because it was released on my birthday in 1975. June 20th, 1975, Jaws came out, and that was my birthday present. He was like — with the sheets — doing this [mimics pulling covers over head] over his head, and I was like, “What are you doing?” He said, “I’m practicing to make sure they go up high enough.” [laughs] So we watched that. They loved that, and they were like, “What else can we watch?”
The Godfather, because it’s about family. It’s just a perfect film. Five-act structure… It’s just amazing. Coppola just did the coolest stuff with that.
Blade Runner is also one of my favorites. I love film noir movies, and that was just a new way of doing it. Set in the future, made up worlds. It’s just a straight up great movie; everything fell into place, which is just rare for things to happen that way. How everything came together, the artistry that went into it, the design, the music, and how resilient the story is, how you can just keep making new versions of it, and they all still kind of work. [laughs] When you can just keep remaking the same movie with the same footage and just kind of tweak it a little bit…
Notorious, the Hitchcock movie. Between that and Strangers on a Train, I think Notorious, because it’s just… I just dig that one.
Escape From New York, because that’s the one that made me want to make movies. It was a fantasy world. It was like, “What? There’s a wall around New York? It’s a prison? You can do that? You can just make stuff like that up?” That’s a lot of freedom; I thought that was very freeing. I was twelve when I saw that, twelve or thirteen. And I saw that [John Carpenter] wrote it, directed it, and did the music, and I was just like, “This guy’s doing everything. You can do that?” It just felt like, it was so renegade. It was independently done, and it made me want to start making movies, and I started making movies from that point on. It was just very inspiring. I knew I had a lot of interest, and that made me… That was movie that just really marked my life.
Next, Rodriguez talks about his upcoming kid flick Shorts and what it’s like to draw inspiration from his own children.
RT: If you could talk about Shorts. I find it fascinating that, in your career, you’ve made more adult entertainment, but have also enriched children’s films.
Robert Rodriguez: I just started, actually — when I first started out — making action-type movies in my back yard, but also family comedies, because I have ten brothers and sisters. So I would make Little Rascal-type movies, short films, and enter them in contests, and they would win. None of the other short films were made with children doing action and comedy, and people were just laughing. There was such a great reaction that they would vote for my movies and they would win. I would hear it; I would go, and you would hear the movies, and they would play very quietly, but ours would come up, and you couldn’t hear the movie because people would laugh so much and clap so much. It was just nonstop. Really fast-paced, one joke after another, and visual, and kids… Hello, what a winning formula! [laughs] So later, once El Mariachi hit, I told the studios, “I also want to do a really good family film, because nobody’s really doing those.” You know, with live action, with kids, imaginative, based on my experiences growing up in a family with ten kids, because a lot of it was based on my family.
Now that I have five kids of my own, we come up with stuff all the time. While I’m making these other movies, I get these other ideas, and I go back to making family films, because I have some ideas for them. I think, “That’d be a lot of fun.” It helps exercise a different muscle and a different creativity and figuring out storytelling in a different way. Helps to expand your horizons a little bit. I mean, I haven’t gone that far and done a romantic comedy; my idea of a romantic screwball comedy was Planet Terror, where you have the guy and the girl, ex-boyrfriend, ex-girlfriend… He’s pissed off because she has no leg, and they kind of banter back and forth, but they’re zombies, you know? [laughs] Kind of always have to throw that in, but that’s my romantic comedy.
So Shorts. My son came up with that. He said, “I want to come up with the next family movie. My brother came up with the other one.” I said, “Well, when do you want to do it? Have at it. What’s your idea?” And he said, “Something like The Little Rascals.” I said, “Of course! That’s all I used to do, is short films! This would be great if we made a bunch of shorts, and they can all be intertwined. Kind of like Pulp Fiction for kids.” And he came up with this great rainbow rock, so we decided to make it a wishing rock, and that would be the element that tied all the stories together. We just kind of developed the idea piece by piece, and we shot a fake trailer for it at home, and the studio showed it to Warner Bros. and they bought it. So I went and finished the script, shot the real movie there in Austin, and it’s just a lot of fun. It was one of those projects that just came out of “What if we did this?” and just kept growing and growing and growing and growing.
RT: That sounds like a great family activity.
RR: It is! You’re at dinnertime, going, “What if one kid wants to keep the rock away from the other kids, and they’re all surrounding him, and he’s holding it up, and he says, ‘I wish for really long arms,’ and his arms go really high up? And then the other girl’s crawling like a spider — she’s invisible — and she grabs it. She appears, and then she disappears… [laughs] She turns into a toaster.” If they laugh you write it down. If they don’t, you come up with something else.
RT: Did any of the ideas in the movie for scenes or storylines come from your kids?
RR: Oh yeah, a lot of them. My son came up with the rock, with the canyon, with the snakes — we have a bunch of snakes. My son kept saying, “Crocodile canyon.” Yeah, they would come up with stuff that I would write down and we’d keep sometimes. You need so many ideas in a movie like that, you’re like, “I’m taking that one, too.” [laughs] It’s all up for grabs.
RT: That’s great. It’s harnessing a child’s natural imagination.
RR: Well, that, and also, it’s as close as you get to going back in a time machine and interviewing yourself at that age, of what you find entertaining. A lot of it is stuff we take for granted, and it’s basically empowerment. You know, if you want to go down the street, you can just get in a car and go; a kid can’t do that, so that’s why he would fantasize about being able to fly, or having a jet pack like in Spy Kids, or having a rock that they could just wish they could go anywhere or do anything or be anything. If you look at traditionally what movies are usually big with kids, empowerment is a big thing for them. Whether it’s Power Rangers or Spy Kids or Harry Potter or something like this, or Sharkboy and Lavagirl where, you know, he’s half boy and half shark. Little kids just eat that up. It’s like, yeah, they want to be strong, they want to have powers.
RT: Speaking of Sharkboy, it just occurred to me that Sharkboy is now Twilight-boy.
RR: Yeah, mm-hmm. [Taylor Lautner’s] great. You know, when he came in — he was the first kid who came in. I got it on video. He came in, he’s this athletic kid, does karate and stuff. I turned to my son, who wrote the idea — he was there in casting with me — I said, “What do you think of him as Sharkboy?” and he said, “Yup.” I was watching this again recently. He was only the first one that came in; I said, “You think that’s the one?” He said, “Yup.” [laughs] I said, “I think so, too. I don’t think we’ll do better than that.”
RT: Obviously, you have this reputation for making awesome movies, and doing so many of the elements yourself.
RR: It’s just fun. Like I said, I was inspired by that movie that made me think I could do those things. They’re just fun jobs. I just kept the jobs that I liked, and the other ones I gave to other people. But yeah, doing music and photography and editing and special effects and all that’s so much a part of the job for me.
Look for Shorts, opening in August, and for more Five Favorite Films, check our archive.
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