La Musica y el Director

Robert Rodriguez and the look Danny Elfman gave him

Toca la Guitarra: Robert Rodriguez keeps the vibe
Toca la Guitarra: Robert Rodriguez keeps the vibe (Photo By John Anderson)

"There's a Bermuda triangle, of sorts, close to Madagascar. ..." -- Spy Kids 2

There's another Bermuda triangle, of sorts, close to Austin, west of town, where a 13-year-old boy lives in the body of a very successful film director. In a high tech world of his own design, Robert Rodriguez makes movies like Spy Kids, increasingly able to avoid Hollywood and occasionally ruffling feathers doing so.

From winning 1994's Sundance Film Festival Audience Award for El Mariachi to his 2003 Imagen Award for best film director and the Norman Lear Writer's Award for Spy Kids 2: The Island of Lost Dreams, Rodriguez has distinguished his films with a hands-on approach. This same approach extends to the soundtracks to his films, starting with 1992's El Mariachi and 1995's Desperado, both of which featured pure Latin music that predated the late-Nineties trend. In 1996, he spun a dark, wicked soundtrack of night music From Dusk Till Dawn that matched Tito & Tarantula with ZZ Top. Then came his enormously successful Spy Kids and its sequels.

Sitting below arresting paintings by Los Lobos' La Pistola y el Corazon artist George Yepes, flanked by two desks with an array of flat screens, a collection of guitars just inches from his chair, Rodriguez is dressed casually in a T-shirt and trademark bandanna. He sprawls comfortably on a chair amid stacks of papers, posters, videos, and CDs. The room ("It's completely the bedroom I had as a teen") has dark wood shelves displaying awards and toys; one has a statue of Frank Frazetta's iconic fantasy image The Death Dealer, while another has all the characters from Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are. And it is here in the warm, sanguine colors of his ministudio that Robert Rodriguez composed the score for his latest film, Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over.

"After the first Spy Kids was a success, the studio said, 'Hey! We can get a big pop star to do a song,'" relates Rodriguez. "I said, 'I hate that.' Someone that has nothing to do with the movie suddenly shows up at the end credits? That's not the style of what we're doing at all. If I write a song, I'll record it. Maybe with someone else, but I have to write it. I don't want someone else singing, 'Spy kids, spy kids. ...'"

Rodriguez explains that once a movie is completed, it's turned over to a composer to create the score in about six weeks.

"There's no way you're gonna love everything written in that short amount of time," admits the director. "Many composers today don't even compose the music, they have a lot of ghostwriters. They run a business. I wanted someone to give it more personal attention.

"I was complaining to Danny Elfman, 'Who am I gonna go to?' And he said, 'Why don't you do the score?' I said, 'What are you talking about? It's a huge score!' He knew I played guitar and said, 'It's not that big a deal.' It was just the way he looked at me: 'What are you babbling on about? Just do the score. Are you waiting for approval or something?'

"It made me realize it was doable, and right away I threw myself into it. I had done two of the big numbers from Spy Kids, and once I did those I realized, 'I'm gonna make myself score the next movie.' And I did. Well, 60% of it. For [the upcoming] Once Upon a Time in Mexico and Spy Kids 3-D, I'm doing all the music, so I can really learn how it works. And I do learn.

"Since I was 12, I've been putting it all together: photography, music, storytelling, drama. I'd sit all day in school and fill up a paperback with real elaborate stick-animation action movies, because that was the easiest way to make a movie, then I'd give them to my friends. I wasn't good in school, so the only way I could get any attention was by making paper movies.

La Musica y el Director

"A lot of what I do comes more from a desire to do it than any natural talent. My brothers and sister were always more talented than me, but I wanted it more. I kept at my movies, they started winning contests, and I realized, 'Man, that's what I gotta do. I gotta keep it up.'"

Though he recently turned 35, Rodriguez is very easy to imagine at 12, especially when he reaches for a yellowed Spanish-English paperback dictionary and demonstrates the flip-book cartoons he drew while eschewing class work. It's part of his well-told history, the now-famous home movies starring his brothers and sisters, the film contest win that overcame his academic inadequacies and landed him in UT's film school, and of course the $7,000 budget for El Mariachi that Sony bought for a sweet mil.

He's married to producer Elizabeth Avellán ("She watches my back") with three sons named Rocket Valentin, Racer Maximilliano, and Rebel Antonio and still takes delight in displaying his flip books. "Here's one with a machine-gun guitar. Some were really gory -- here's a sea of blood. I looked for dictionaries that were really thick and had good margins.

"I wanted to make movies like the ones I loved when I was a kid," he enthuses. "Now that I look back, it was a kind of golden age of science fiction. I was in love with movies that were imaginative, so I based the Mariachi series on The Road Warrior, The Man With No Name, Blade Runner. I really loved Escape From New York and was especially inspired by guys like John Carpenter and Sam Raimi because I saw credits that said 'wrote, directed, edited, and music.' They did it all."

Yet for a man who appears to do it all, too -- the online movie bible IMDb cross-references him under actor, director, cinematographer, composer, writer, production designer, editor, producer, miscellaneous crew, second unit director, assistant director, sound department, special effects, art department, and visual effects -- he takes the music very personally.

"One of the many things I like about working in Austin is the local musicians. They keep it really fresh. I had Rick Del Castillo doing a bunch of guitar stuff for Once Upon a Time in Mexico. Carl Thiel mixed stuff for this movie. Johnny Reno showed up with his sax and has several numbers in the movie. And you get very creative about making music when the movie comes out in a month," chuckles Rodriguez.

The soundtrack for Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over also gave Rodriguez the opportunity to work with his young star Alexa Vega, who sings the Latin-flavored title track "Game Over," raps on "Heart Drive," and is featured on a bonus mix of "Game Over." The score is instrumental by design, but in Rodriguez's hands, it throbs electronica ("Pogoland," "Toymaker"), surprises with Johnny Reno's sax on "Lava Monster Rock," and swells symphonic with "Mega Racer." The other bonus track is a bilingual dance mix from Spy Kids 2 called "Isle of Dreams," again with Alexa Vega on vocals.

Not only is Rodriguez committed to using local talent when possible, he's an avid fan of one of Austin's all-time guitar gods, Stevie Ray Vaughan. He produces a gorgeous red Fender 12-string from a case behind the door and cradles the guitar with affection.

"This is Stevie's Live Alive guitar. The brothers Weinstein bought it for me because I did them a huge favor once and didn't ask for any money. One day, this big crate arrived.

"Man, you just put your fingers near it and whoa! I haven't changed the strings. One of these days, when I need a really good 12-string on a song, I'll pull this out. Keep the vibe."

And with that, Robert Rodriguez is off to mix remaining scenes of Spy Kids 3-D. In a hurry?

"No time to think about it," grins the 13-year-old boy slyly. "It premieres this weekend." end story

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