Exclusive Interview: Robert Rodriguez Talks Shorts

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It’s rare — if not utterly unprecedented — to have a filmmaker who moves so effortlessly between hard-R action films and the family-friendly fare. Robert Rodriguez, whose name stands simultaneously with Sin City and Spy Kids, returns to the big screen this week with Shorts, a series of intertwining short films that, told out of linear order, tell a bigger story about the children of Black Falls community and what happens when a magical wishing rock enters their lives.

Rodriguez, who based the script off ideas from one his sons, Rebel (who also has role in the film), spoke with ComingSoon.net about the film, the difficulty of balancing so many potential projects and working in the Austin film studio that he helped develop. He also promises the Blu-ray debut of quite a few of his earlier films, including one that hasn’t been available since VHS.

CS: This is a return-to-form for one of your earliest works, your short film, “Bedhead.” Was that something you were consciously going for?
Robert Rodriguez: Yes! It was my son’s idea to do this kind of movie, but he hasn’t seen “Bedhead” so he had said, “I have an idea for the next movie. Let’s do something like ‘The Little Rascals,'” and I said, “I never thought of that!” That’s all I used to do, growing up, was make “Little Rascal”-type movies with my brothers and sisters in my backyard and it got me really focused on what I planned to do one day, which was film a real movie in my backyard with my kids and release it like “El Mariachi.” So that’s kind of how we started with “Shorts.” I thought that it was just something I would do with my kids in my backyard and film with hi-def cameras. Have some cameos and stuff and make it look big budget and stuff. But the idea just grew from there. Warner Bros. picked it up when we made a fake trailer with my kids. They saw it and said, “Oh! We’ll pay you such and such to make it.” So we thought, “Okay! Now we’ll really have to get this movie done.” But the idea was just to do something like “The Little Rascals” with a bunch a kids. They’re all in a neighborhood and we have the same short-subject format. We do each of the little vignettes with their own title-cards and, originally, I though that the only unifying element would be that they’re in the same neighborhood. Just like how Spanky might be a lead character in one short and a supporting character in another one, you can see everybody kind of coming in and out of each other’s story at one point. But each story would be a completely different story. Once he started mentioning things like a rainbow rock and a canyon and crocodiles and snakes, I thought that that could be one story. But then I thought about the rock and how, if it’s a magic wishing rock, that could be the element that ties everything together. Maybe you think it’s all separate stories, but it’s really just told out of order. It all has to come together and you make it like a puzzle. It just evolved over a couple of years of us working on it.

CS: You say they’ve never seen “Bedhead”…
Rodriguez: Well, they saw it a long time ago. I think if they saw it now, they would see much more of a connection. You show kids something and they see it and say they like it, but a few years in a kid’s life and they change immensely. They don’t even remember probably seeing it at all now.

CS: How do you balance showing them things you’ve done that are made for kids versus things that you did for adults?
Rodriguez: No, they have no interest in something like “Sin City.” They all have very fertile imaginations like I did, growing up and they know they’ll have nightmares. You see some things and they just haunt you forever. They’re definitely wary that there are things that might f**k them up.

CS: Do you yourself keep a balance, purposefully between the two?
Rodriguez: Well, it’s really more for me. It’s not, “Oh, I’ve gotta give them something to watch.” There’s plenty of movies for them to watch that I don’t have to make myself. It’s more just about keeping it fresh and balancing it out. You end up needing to use your life’s experiences and I use what I know about family from growing up. It’s such a large family now, having five kids of my own, that most of the funny things I hear each day come from them. I end up writing everything down. I keep huge journals. We entertain ourselves just by going through old journals. I do word searches for their names and I see funny quotes that they said, five years ago or whatever.

CS: You always seem to have so many projects on the table. How do you keep everything focused?
Rodriguez: I don’t know why people pay so much attention to what I’m developing. Actually, any filmmaker is always developing cool things because you never know what’s going to go first. It depends on what actors are available or if you want a specific actor or what financing is available. You need to have more than one thing ready so that, even if you change your mind at the last minute, you can say, “I don’t feel like doing this. It’s going to be the summer and I don’t want to be out in the heat for the summer. I want to shoot something that’s more stage-bound.” You need to have them ready or else you’ll have to stop and write a script and get the crew ready. So I usually develop a lot of things and keep a lot of things going that are ready to be pounced on at any one time. I know for sure that I’m doing “Machete” because we just shot the first week. That’s actually in-production and “Predators” is coming up next summer and we’ve been prepping that so it’s most likely that that will go. But you never know. The studio may just go, “You know what? We don’t want to make that a summer movie anymore.” They might change their mind. At that point, you need to have something else ready. That’s why I have “The Jetsons” script. I could move and do “The Jetsons” or I could go do any number of things. But you have to have them ready. But the internet! They need to have people go to their site so they can have ads, so they’ll report any little movie-making idea. So if you’re developing something, they say, “Oh, he’s developing this! This is going to be his next movie!”

CS: You’re too cynical! It’s just that we’re all really excited.
Rodriguez: That’s good, but it doesn’t really help. Because if the movie isn’t getting made…

CS: There’s a number of cameos in “Shorts.” How did they come together?
Rodriguez: First you kind of see if they’re interested. Usually, if they have kids, they’re interested in finally doing something that their kids can watch. That’s the case with everybody. All the adults pretty much have kids and they don’t have anything that their kids can watch that they’ve done. So that interests them right away. Then you always do a rewrite that kind of caters more to them. Now that you can put a face to the character, you can take much more advantage. If [William H] Macy’s onboard, you know you can make a real scene of something that was just a moment. Make it a little more rich.

CS: Is this something you’d like to do a sequel to?
Rodriguez: Yeah! The idea is to do a “Little Rascals” type series where, if it was a series of films — and it doesn’t have to be. That’s the thing, when you come up with an idea, you have to make it something that is rich enough that you can have sequels or not — but, from then on, you could just make a series of films about Black Falls community. You could have a couple of the actors. Even if we did it four years from now, you could have Helvetica, who now is grown. But there’s other kids and she might just walk through a couple of episodes, just like they did in “The Little Rascals.” Spanky got older and it became about other kids. He would show up every once in a while, but it was just a catch-phrase for that whole group.

CS: It seems like the concept lends itself to guest-directors, which you’ve done before. Was their any thought of doing that for the first one?
Rodriguez: Yeah, there could be.

CS: Tell me about finding the kids for this. There’s so many unknowns, but they all fit so well.
Rodriguez: Yeah, it took a while to find everybody because there was so many that you needed. It’s a hard thing to followup, something like “The Little Rascals.” All those kids are amazing. Whenever I found a kid that was amazing, I would just hire them and figure out what kid they were playing later. When I found Loogie, originally, he read for Toe. I knew he wasn’t Toe, but I knew that I needed him in the movie somewhere. He’s just a great actor. You have to cast their brothers and make sure that everybody works. It’s a little bit of a shuffle game.

CS: In the writing, did you do the whole script in a linear story and then break it up or where the stories all short films to begin with?
Rodriguez: I wrote each one in a kind of broken-up method. I only shifted it once in post. The beauty of it is that I wanted to write it this way and people would say, “Are you sure it’s not going to be too confusing?” and I’d say, “It doesn’t matter.” It fits either way. The script is written that way, believe me. I’ve already made sure that it all lines up. If, in editing I find that it’s too confusing, I can just put it in a linear order. That’s more boring that way. It’s straightforward and doesn’t make it as interesting. But that’s always the option. We can go for something bolder and, if it doesn’t work, I know we’re covered the other way and can just play it in sequential order.

CS: You’ve been a big proponent of 3D. Is that something you considered for this?
Rodriguez: It’s something we talked about and something that studio thought could work. I said, “I’ll keep it in mind as we’re shooting in case we want to make it 3D in post,” because there’s some stuff flying around, but really the idea was to keep it more naturalistic. For most of the movie until the end, it really strikes. So it wasn’t really that necessary.

CS: Taking a look at all this time you’ve spent shooting in Austin, Texas, how do you think the film scene has changed there over the years?
Rodriguez: Originally when I was there with “El Mariachi,” I just made it out of my apartment because I shot it in Mexico. I didn’t really want to move so I built up a crew for “The Faculty” to just establishing a crew and a base and a stage system where I could do “Spy Kids.” That was my first trial at really making movies in Austin. Once we started building that crew up, we did “Spy Kids” and “Spy Kids 2” and “Spy Kids 3.” By then, we’re very experienced and we’re doing digital photography, 3-D. They’re probably one of the most experienced crews in the world at doing stuff that’s really cutting-edge. It’s really quite the place. People come down there now and they can’t believe the set-up we’ve got with the soundstages. I don’t think there’s another filmmaker who has got dedicated stages in the states. It’s really a very rare thing.

CS: Are you looking at any of your older films for Blu-ray releases now?
Rodriguez: Oh, yeah. The Mexico series is coming out, “Desperado,” “Once Upon a Time in Mexico” and “El Mariachi.” “Grindhouse” should come out. We just finished the ten-minute cooking school. “Roadracers,” we’re doing… I love that one. I did a ten-minute film school for that, too. That was shot in 13 days so it shows how I did it in just 13 days. It’s crazy now. I like that one a lot.

Shorts hits theaters this Friday, August 21st.