Like a Kid Again
Director Robert Rodriguez's 'Spy Kids' Has the Spirit of Youth -- and 'El Mariachi'
It's Saturday night, and the sidewalk outside the Paramount Theater is a mob scene. Actually, the whole of Congress Avenue between Sixth and Seventh streets is a mob scene, having been turned into a makeshift carnival for the premiere of Austin filmmaker Robert Rodriguez's newest movie Spy Kids. A Ferris wheel, an air-slide, a tilt-a-whirl, and a quartet of garishly homely spinning dragons crowd the street and have, for the past four or so hours, contributed to more than a few headaches for both downtown drivers (who frankly should be used to this sort of thing by now) and parents (who ought to be glad to get the kids out from under their own feet and beneath someone else's for a change).
As the crush from the screening (the first of two) lets out, I mentally tally the number of "That was coooool!"s and "Aww, mom, can we stay for the next one?"s issuing from the happy melee, but I quickly lose count when tot No. 3 caroms off my left knee with a startled "Urp!" and giddily launches himself over the curb and into the throng, beelining toward the bored-looking Dragon ride operator.
Over in the corner there's a swell of adults: Harry Knowles holds forth, and there's Rodriguez himself, wearing the omnipresent floppy hat that signaled his presence all over the recent SXSW film fest, plus a contingent of fans.
Spy Kids is the sixth feature from the Austin native and his wife/producer Elizabeth Avellan, their first directly aimed at the youth market, though Spy Kids' amiable, frenetic, wildly colorful mix of James Bond and Willy Wonka is less a kid's film than a film that feels as though it was made and then unleashed by a particularly hyper-creative kid-gone-wild. Crammed to bursting with outlandish sets and a delightfully warped sensibility, Spy Kids details the exploits of retired mom 'n' dad spy duo Gregorio and Carmen Cortez (Antonio Banderas and Carla Gugino), who are called back to action one more time, fall prey to comical villains Fegan Floop (Alan Cumming) and Minion (Tony Shalhoub), and must be rescued by their progeny Juni and Carmen (Daryl Sabara and Alexa Vega). It's the logical extension of such early Rodriguez shorts as "Austin Stories" -- which featured his younger sisters vogueing to Madonna -- and "Bedhead," his award-winning UT student film. There's also more than a hint of the famed El Mariachi spirit on display. The film is nothing if not entertaining.
To illustrate how much money he was able to save by applying the El Mariachi technique, Rodriguez offered this canny comparison: "Let's put it this way. Inspector Gadget had 300 effects shots and [an effects] budget of $15 million, and our film had over 500 effects shots with [an effects] budget of $4 million."
Big difference, and one that the Weinstein brothers no doubt appreciated.
Shot in and around Austin over the summer of 2000, Spy Kids continues Rodriguez's lengthy association with Miramax/Dimension films and features a titanic tie-in deal with über-corp McDonald's. Phase two -- the sequel, as yet unwritten -- was greenlit long ago, along with a deal to do post-production at George Lucas' Skywalker Ranch and to hold space at Austin Studios when the time comes.
I spoke with Rodriguez during SXSW about Spy Kids and the Mariachi mindset that has allowed him the leeway, via Miramax, to create virtually whatever he wants when it comes to his films, a freedom few directors enjoy, much less are allowed, these days ...
Austin Chronicle: I remember watching your sibling-short-compilation "Austin Stories" back in 1991 or '92 and thinking, this guy can really work with kids, which, for many directors, can be a terrifically grueling experience. You seem to have been comfortable with the experience from day one, though.
Robert Rodriguez: I grew up in a family of 10 -- I was the third oldest -- so I was always around younger siblings. It was always the natural thing that when I started making movies I'd put them in those movies -- instant cast, instant crew. I think Four Rooms  was the first time I actually worried about that, because up until then, with "Bedhead" and all these other movies, I'd relied on my siblings, who I had a great rapport with. The question was what would happen when I worked with kids I didn't know.
I found two groovy kids for Four Rooms that had the same sort of quiet personality as my siblings. Sometimes you don't want to cast the kid who comes and dominates the room when they walk in. That's usually the wrong type, the kind that people get tired of after a few minutes in a movie. So I looked for kids who were more shy and probably a little more focused, both in Four Rooms and in Spy Kids. I know that when you work with a bunch of kids you can end up having a sort of Lord of the Flies mentality take over, and you'll have no control over that situation. But with two kids it's a great dynamic, it's a great vibe. They're open to doing anything, to try anything. And since I do things in a very unorthodox manner anyway, they're cool with it. They'll work very hard at it, they'll want to do their own stunts -- anything. It's easier to work with kids than with adult actors sometimes because with adults you always have to get them to try things out -- the kids are right there, ready to go for it.
AC: What was the casting process like for the kids in the new film?
RR: I looked for a long time. I was pretty confident after Four Rooms, since on that I had found two great kids in a week. And I only had a week to cast for that. This time I had six months to cast, so I took all six months. I found the little boy [Daryl Sabara] the first week and then spent the rest of the six months trying to find someone better and never could. The girl [Alexa Vega] wasn't available the first time around and then became available four months later, so I was really happy. The girl was a tough one to find.
AC: You've got your own kids now -- three of them, in fact -- with your wife and producer Elizabeth Avellan. How much of an impact did your family situation have on the decision to go ahead and make a specifically kid-oriented film like Spy Kids?
RR: The timing is perfect, but with a movie like this, you have to start much earlier. I actually came up with the idea before I had any kids. The story I came up with on the set of Four Rooms. When I was doing Four Rooms I had Antonio [Banderas] there and Tamlyn Tomita playing his wife and these two kids who were dressed in tuxedoes because the film was set on New Year's Eve. I thought, "Wow, those kids look like little James Bonds!" And right there I thought of what would eventually become Spy Kids.
It took me since '94 to write it and to get more effects experience, since I knew there would be a lot of effects work in the film. More than I thought, actually, because we ended up with more than 500 effects shots in all. More than Godzilla, even.
AC: Who did the effects on Spy Kids?
RR: The same people I used in The Faculty. That film was sort of a way for us to try out Austin for sets and crew and effects. And this time out I didn't hire an effects supervisor, which is usually the first thing you get. I did that myself. I wanted to apply the El Mariachi technique to the effects to help keep the budget down and to come up with some more creative stuff, which worked really well. That's what was so cool about taking on a movie like this: getting into more computer graphics and computer effects. Everything is kind of going that way already, you know, and you've got to learn to direct in that sort of cinema in the same way you had to learn how to direct actors and normal cinema to begin with. The best way to learn is to get rid of the net.
AC: Do you know how to use things like Lightwave 3D and effects and rendering software like that?
RR: You know, it's really not that difficult. They make that stuff really simple. It's a lot of smoke and mirrors, just like when people are learning how easy it is to put images together. If you've got a mini-DV and an editing system, you can pretty much make your own movie these days. I still use the same advice my first boss gave me in high school. He said, "You're very creative, but you've gotta get technical, because most technical people aren't very creative, and most creative people aren't very technical. So if you can learn to be both then you've got it." So I took that to heart when I went to make Mariachi and willed myself to learn the technical side of filmmaking as well as the creative side. And then you can do anything you want.
AC: Do you prefer the CG effects to more traditional styles?
RR: With Spy Kids I wanted to learn the CG effects so I could come up with more creative, inexpensive, innovative ways to achieve a visual without calling in the technicians. "Oh, you want to do the kids on the water and a boat that doesn't exist? We gotta build a gimble, we gotta get a green screen, we gotta this, we gotta that ..." And what I've done is we've got six effects now for the same amount of money. Over a third of the movie -- almost half -- is effects shots. And it's only 81 minutes long. Sometimes they're all strung together, one effect after another, and it works.
There's one shot in the film where the kids run up the side of a wall and keep on going up to the ceiling and then flip over backwards and land. People are going to think we hired some guy from Hong Kong to fit a wire rig on the kids and train them for three months. But we didn't have that kind of time, and we just thought of it that day, so, you know, there are advantages to knowing the technical side of things. I want to make it look like they've been training for three months, you know?
AC: What's your take on the digital revolution?
RR: It's a great thing. I've been downloading movies off the Internet for a while now, and it's just amazing. I wish I had had that back then! It's changing so fast that I don't think people even have a chance to figure out how it's going to affect everything. For me, I'm not shooting film anymore. I'm shooting my next film Hi-Definition. George Lucas showed me his Star Wars 2 footage, which he shot entirely on HD, and it just looks amazing -- it's gorgeous. And it's a lot easier to use than film. Film is just so archaic now. That's the only thing that kept the [Spy Kids] budget as high as it was even though I did it very inexpensively. With film, every time you want to make an effects shot you have to scan the film in and out, and you have to deal with all of the grain. Even if you're using bigger lights and a tighter grain, it still has bugs all the way through it.
AC: And you can substantially cut the budget by shooting on HD as opposed to film, right?
RR: Oh, it's ridiculous! I didn't even realize it, but George [Lucas] used the [Sony HD camera] prototypes on his movie so when I went to do my thing, I got the same type he had used. You just put a tape in the side -- the tape's about $75 for an hour of footage -- and you're ready to go shoot. That's it! With film it's a big clunky reel, it's always running out, and then there's lab costs through the roof. With HD, you can basically shoot a movie on what looks like a BetaCam and the end result will look better than anything showing in the theatres right now. It's scary. And they're getting smaller. It makes mini-DV look like Pixelcam.
AC: How long do you think it will be before Hollywood moves to a completely digital system, including satellite distribution and digital projection?
RR: I think it'll be much quicker than people think. I just screened Spy Kids digitally at ShoWest in Las Vegas a couple of weeks ago. I transferred the negative to HD, and Boeing paid for it, if you can believe that! They wanted to satellite the movie into ShoWest and project it on a digital screen. And I had just been complaining to the color-timers that my film print looked so muddy compared to what I was used to editing. Then when I went over to see the digital projection I thought, oh my God, there's the movie I shot! Somebody came up and said, "Wow, what a colorful movie!" But, you know, they wouldn't say that if they'd seen the film print. It gets beat down.
AC: Spy Kids is also your first film to have a significant marketing tie-in, right?
RR: Yeah, McDonald's! The big elephant! This was actually one of the things that I felt a little regretful about at first [before McDonald's signed on]. I love working with Miramax and Dimension, because they give me the freedom to make a crazy movie like this 'cause I keep the budget low. But I thought, man, it's too bad they don't have those kinds of tie-ins, because kids are going to want to see the movie and then buy the toys, right? It's that kind of movie. I had turned down big movies before -- Superman Lives and Planet of the Apes -- that had those kinds of tie-ins. I turned them down because it wasn't something I created. I thought it'd be great if I got the chance to create something along those lines that would have that kind of marketing potential.
AC: Did you get to design the giveaways and toy tie-ins?
RR: I get approval of all that stuff, so they have to bring me all the little drawings and toys and I get to play with them and say, I like this toy, I like that toy. It's great because it's something you created, you know? Especially since this isn't a franchise-type film and not a pre-sold idea. Usually the things that get deals are sequels or remakes like George of the Jungle, Inspector Gadget, or 101 Dalmatians. You can just go on down the line, and it's all stuff that's been regurgitated in some way. It's very rare to get anybody excited about a movie like this, one that has no pre-sold idea. McDonald's immediately saw that this was their audience, though, so they signed on. And that's really helped us.
AC: And, of course, you've been greenlit to do a sequel already, right?
RR: Yeah, back in December! I've got to hurry up and write it! The thing is, they don't cost very much, right? I already told them hey, it's a win/win situation. It's going to cost even less than the original -- which never happens -- because I'm going to shoot in HD and I'm going to shoot it very Mariachi. And since it's a sequel I can really get experimental with how homemade I can make it. I'm actually going to do CG animation right at home like [stop-motion effects pioneer Ray] Harryhausen used to do. That's one of the big things about a lot of effects work, because when you don't have time to do it you hand it over to some technician artist. And they'll sit there, and they'll do it. But it's not all there, it's lacking. You can look at any of Harryhausen's stuff and as crude as it was, it always had a lot of character. So I want to try to bring that back. I think what's important about the bigger movies is that they seem big, but are really homemade. Otherwise it's a big restaurant-chain version of a movie. And this film could easily have been that, you know? It was a big enough idea that if they'd gotten McDonald's aboard initially -- you can already picture the cheesy, big-studio version of it. But I didn't want to do it that way. I wanted to do it lower-budget and make it look huge and have Latin spies running around with all my gadgets and stuff. The idea for the film was to make a movie that feels like a little kid wrote it and directed it and shot it. That's what we did, and it was cool. It was like being a little kid again.
Spy Kids opens in theatres Friday, March 30. See Film listings for Marjorie Baumgarten's review.