In addition to his rock-star duties as the guitarist for The Mars Volta, Omar Rodríguez-López has technically made seven movies, but he won’t let you see most of them.
The eccentric musician-filmmaker (formerly of At the Drive In, which recently announced plans for a reunion at Coachella) has worked on movies with a close-knit group of friends in Mexico, but has only allowed the last two to screen at festivals: “The Sentimental Engine Slayer” played at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2010, while the outrageous exploitation movie “Los Chidos” premiered in competition at SXSW this week.
A gross-out spectacle done in the style of Spanish telenovelas but positioned as a satire of male chauvinism, “Los Chidos” technically revolves around a Mexican family dealing with crime and other misdeeds while sorting out their interpersonal dramas. Intentionally dubbed and filled with countless provocative images, “Los Chidos” is one of those movies that begs for further explanation.
So I tracked Rodríguez-López down at Austin’s Driskill Hotel this week to figure out what he was going for. And boy, did I get some answers — not to mention a lengthy diatribe against the music industry and capitalism as a whole (he also trashed fellow Mexican filmmaker Alejandro Gonzalez Iñaritu). Frequently out of breath as he spoke, Rodriguez-Lopez sounded like one of The Mars Volta’s lively compositions.
It seems like you’re only making movies to satisfy yourself and your friends. But these last two have played film festivals. What made you more comfortable about getting them out there?
I wasn’t comfortable getting them out there, but I had to be responsible in terms of having a concept of other people. My editor and sound person sat me down and said, “Hey, listen, we respect your philosophy but we work really hard on these films and want to be able to put them out there.” I have to honor that, because they do work very hard. I can’t take the credit for it. Adam Thompson, my editor, he’s the reason we’re here and had the last one at Tribeca. He’s the one who fills out all the paperwork and is very passionate about that.
So why didn’t you let him do that for your earlier films?
It was just part of the agreement with everyone I got involved with. We were doing this because of the process and because we’re doing it. When you start to do something and you start to bring in people who are thinking about the end result, it really alters it.
Of course, you have the luxury of saying that since you have another career going on as a musician. Filmmaking can be a hobby for you. A lot of people don’t think that way.
That’s an interesting point. This is another reason why I have to honor this, because it’s how my career in music started. I never had an idea that I would ever do music for a living. I just did it. I didn’t have that exterior influence of making things a certain way. I just followed my intuition and eventually someone said they wanted to produce me. Then we made a record, and so on and so forth. In that sense, I have to stay true to that spirit because it got me where I am. That’s why I won’t ever complain. You know, a lot of bands complain about being on the runway for three hours and all this stuff. Yeah, what did you do just after? Did you go to Japan? Did you go to Australia because people wanted to hear your music? So I have to keep things in perspective in an industry that caters to the ego. When you’re in a tour bus or backstage, there’s very little social interaction, and the interaction that is there are with people who work for you. There’s money in it for them so they’re gonna be nice to you. That’s not real.
And you’re saying it’s the opposite for filmmaking?
Yeah, because you have to collaborate. It gets me out of the house. I have to go to rehearsals, go to the store owner and ask if I can film there, articulate myself, not be afraid of the society I live in. That’s key for me, it’s one of the strongest medicinal properties of making a film.
Both At the Drive In and The Mars Volta have very thick, energizing sounds; a lot of your songs take unpredictable turns. You could say the same thing about your approach to the narrative in “Los Chidos.” It’s very strange and confusing at times but also adheres to its own weird, satirical logic.
For sure, it’s all coming from the same place, because I’m fortunate enough not to have any technical schooling in music or film or cooking or anything I really love doing. It’s all dictated by whatever is happening at that moment. Cinema has to be collaborative. Music is confined to one room. If you know how to play a lot of instruments, which I do, and if you know how to engineer and record, which I do, then you can do it pretty much on your own. More and more we see that with garage bands. People can really get out there and make their music by themselves. You can’t do that with film. You’re forced into a collaborative situation.
But music doesn’t force you to say something about reality. You’re just making sound. But cinema confronts reality by its very definition. “Los Chidos” takes a very critical perspective of chauvinistic behavior in Mexico. Is this something you wanted to deal with through your music as well?
Yeah, I’ve grown up with it all my life. All my work touches on these same issues but like you’re saying, with music, not only do you not have to do it, but it’s not as obvious unless you’re playing in a real political band — “Women arise!” — but that hasn’t been my thing. So these themes have been visible when I was doing At the Drive In and even during that really kinetic time [for feminist bands] in the nineties when Bikini Kill and Fugazi were happening and it seemed like this huge change was going to happen. Then that got bought out.
When I moved back to Mexico and worked with artists and progressives there, seeing that their vernacular is still the same — that was why I did this film now. I was working with people I consider my peers but they still say “puto” [Spanish for “slut”] and treat women in a certain way. And they view men a certain way, too. When you’re in a room with guys and they start talking about sexual exploits and you get uncomfortable, they say, “What are you, a faggot?” That’s what we’ve had to live with. I said this at a Q&A and could see people cringe at it, but that’s the world we live in. And that’s why I use satire. You have to have a sense of humor or else it’s just a mean film. I don’t want to be bitter. I choose to believe in people regardless of the ugly things I see around me.
The story focuses on a naive white character who crashes with the family and gets involved with their problems. How does that fit into your allegory?
What I was trying to drive home there was that the film goes beyond this culture. You could replace it with any culture. You could put the Arabs or the Jews in there. You could put the Japanese people there. Every culture puts its foot down on women. To me, he’s the biggest oppressor of the whole film but he’s put there in a way where you want to like him or you’re disarmed by him, much in the same way American global culture disarms the world by giving its such great products, but at the same is responsible for Noriega and all these dictatorships. And yet what does the rest of the world do but eat up America’s culture?
It’s like, yes, shit on us, and yet at the same time whatever movies are big there, those are the movies we want big here. Whatever product’s big there, we want it big here. As a result, 85% of films in Mexican theaters, Puerto Rican theaters and South American theaters are American films.
This basic psychology is seen in the clearest way with Stockholm Syndrome. You have love for the kidnapper. The relationship between the exploiter and the exploited keeps getting regurgitated. It’s eaten up and shit out and the next person eats that shit until people have the discussion and make the decision that they want to be aware of it. [Editor’s note: There is, in fact, shit-eating featured “Los Chidos.”] We should be aware of the words we use, because the main oppressor uses language as the strongest weapon. You ingrain it in the culture and then you have young people who don’t know what they’re saying so they think it’s cool.
Why did you decide to present this in the mold of an exploitation movie?
The rest of my films aren’t like this. I wanted to make the style obvious through the music and the ADR. So definitely Almodóvar and Buñuel and Jodorworsky and John Waters inspired me. It’s a fun genre to play with because I don’t want it to be just mean. I need that juxtaposition. It’s one of the problems I have with Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu’s treatments of Guillermo Arriaga’s scripts. I’ve seen the scripts. They have a lot of playful moments that are taken out, so everything has to be awful, and then it gets worse. Even making love is awful! I don’t view the world that way. I mean, I know the world’s fucked up, but I also know there are amazing people in it. We all know that. But this was a particular choice for this film because of what I want to talk about.
Have you screened it in Mexico?
I have. And women have come up to me and said, “Thank you.” It took me a while to process that. Then I’ll run into men who say, “Why this?” That’s telling in it of itself. I couldn’t have made it without the theater group I worked with. They saw the script and loved it and said, “This has to be talked about.” That’s what makes me happy because they know it needs to be talked about. It’s extreme, but the sad thing is that it’s based off real things.
In the mid-90’s, I got a chance to tour with Diamonds in the Coal and Bikini Kill and hear this whole movement and eat up all the literature they were writing at the time. The image in the film of a girl hurting her foot on broken glass is extreme, but it comes directly from a woman who I won’t name whose father used to make her walk around barefoot. He would cut the bottom of her feet so she couldn’t run away and then he would rape her. That’s the world we live in and anyone who wants to think it’s not should, by all means, walk out of the theater. It’s a cycle that keeps going — we allow the exploitation of women every single day.
Do you want the movie to get distribution?
It would be wonderful, but if it doesn’t happen, I understand that as well. Like you said, I know what type of film I’ve made. With At the Drive In, after our first hit, MTV said, “Make a second video, we’re going to plaster it everywhere, you’re going to be huge, bigger than Nirvana.” So we chose a song that happened to be about the murder of Juarez women [a known rash of brutal killings in Ciudad Juarez, near El Paso]. We went to Juarez with [director] Anton Corbijn. We went to the place where 800 women have been buried in the desert and we just stood there with all the facts about it and where you could go to read more on the screen. We turned that in and they said, “We don’t want this, nobody wants this, we want you playing your guitar and smiling.” So they didn’t air it and that was the end of that.
Wow. Where’s that video now?
In a file somewhere. They own it. So I know what type of film I made. If it doesn’t get distribution, I’m not going to play the role of the angry artist.
Not to mention that you’re pretty busy these days.
Are you working in the studio now?
Yeah, I’m producing Le Butcherettes’ next record. They’re a great feminist group from Mexico. I’m also doing one for Apollo, another group from Mexico. And I’m hoping to work with Nina Dios, which translates as Girl God, also from Mexico. She’s a really talented hip-hop artist. Also, we’re doing At the Drive In records and Mars Volta has a new record coming out on March 26th.
At the Drive is playing at Coachella soon. Does that mean you guys are officially back together?
Well, we are now. We’ve been hanging out and taking it step by step. Obviously everybody offers us everything, but we just turn it all away and deal with our interpersonal relationships. We just took a show in Spain. As long as it’s spaced out, we can work on it.