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Robert Rodriguez on Advice From James Cameron and How ‘Alita: Battle Angel’ Brought Him Back to His Roots

SXSW: As the filmmaker prepares to screen another $7,000 feature and a new docuseries, he reflected on the arc of his career to date.

Robert Rodriguez

Robert Rodriguez

Daniel Bergeron

If you made “El Mariachi” today, would it have found a home at Netflix?

I don’t know how that would have affected things back then. I was glad I went theatrical with a lot of these projects. It made a bigger impact to have movies like “Desperado” and the “Spy Kids” series out in theaters with Latin leads. That changed the landscape. I don’t know if it would have had as big an impact if they were on a streaming service. But where they are now, they are very robust.

It’s an exciting time to be a content creator because now you have so many more buyers. Eventually, everyone’s going to gobble each other up, and then it’ll be like the days of ABC, NBC, and CBS. It’ll be like there’s only three places you can go. But, for now, it’s very exciting to have people fighting to get your content and fighting to distribute it in the most robust way. That’s really remarkable. I can’t imagine how that would have worked back in the day.

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A lot of directors are devoured by studio projects early in their careers. You go back and forth.

Yeah, I bounce around. It’s helped that I just started the way I did. You walk in and you’re not just a director, you’re not just a writer. You walk in, and they know, “We can give him money, he’ll turn it around, and he’ll give us a movie in six months.” That’s fucking cool. People want to make stuff. They need content. So I walk in, and I’ve got an idea I’m passionate about, and if it’s a good idea, they’ll buy it for me to write it and they’ll have me shooting it really quickly. I think it’s harder if you’re going in just as a director or just as a writer. If you like one-stop shopping and they know that about you, it’s different.

I don’t know what other people have experienced. I wasn’t there in the room with them. But for me, I love that if I have an idea, I can’t wait to take it out there, because I don’t have to do many stops at all before I’ve sold it and we’re off and making it.

No Merchandising. Editorial Use Only. No Book Cover Usage.Mandatory Credit: Photo by Moviestore/REX/Shutterstock (1583878a) From Dusk Till Dawn (On Set) Film and Television

On the set of “From Dusk till Dawn”

Moviestore/REX/Shutterstock

There has been a lot of talk about established independent filmmakers who make big franchise movies, whether it’s Taika Waititi or Patty Jenkins. With the exception of “Alita” and to some extent the “Sin City” movies, all of your franchises — “Spy Kids,” “Machete,” “From Dusk till Dawn” and the Mexico Trilogy — are homegrown. How did you land on that approach?

There’s really no magical script floating around that doesn’t just need so much work that you just might as well start from scratch. I just work off the George Lucas model. He wanted to make “Flash Gordon” but couldn’t get the rights so he wrote “Star Wars” instead. So I thought, “That’s what I’m gonna do.” Plus, I had so many boxes to check. I wanted my films to be more diverse, I wanted to be all kinds of things, so I figured I might as well just write it myself and put that kind of work into something only I control. So I’m actually one of the few writer-directors who has created so many franchises himself because of that. You have to make yourself do that instead of going around looking for someone else’s property.

When I go to pitch something, people know that it’s a potential franchise. I’ve done those before. So they look at the value you bring, which is a lot higher if you make yourself create your own material. Then you have a big leg up in the industry where you have to piece all that stuff together, the people and all the forces that have to align. If you’re one-stop shopping like that, if you can create franchises, well, that’s what they want. That’s what the streaming services need. That’s what studios need. They need big ideas. They need something they can go put their money behind.

Having said all that, if Fox asks you to direct another “Alita” movie, will you?

Oh, absolutely. I know that my $7,000 film really benefited from the fact that I worked with an incredible Oscar-winning editor, that I got tips from Bill Pope, the great cinematographer, that I gleaned all kinds of stuff off Jim Cameron. It affects everything you do from then on, so it’s good to take a vacation from yourself and go back to school in a way. Your learning curve just shoots up. I could make 10 movies off the “Alita” experience. I definitely recommend creating a methodology for yourself and then contradicting it as much as possible.

You’re really into giving filmmaking advice. What kind of advice did James Cameron give you?

Jim’s like the ultimate Yoda. First, he’s like, “You don’t need guidance. Stop calling me a mentor, you don’t need any mentoring.” You know, he’s just totally empowering. He does it without even trying. If I ask him a question, he will give you back a really thoughtful Jim Cameron answer. So I just have it on record. I turn my phone recorder on, because it’s like some of this will go right over my head and I’m going have to go back and study it. He’s so freaking brilliant.

It’s one of those things where you go and work with someone like that thinking, “I’m going learn as much as I can.” You assume he’s got methods and some system that he uses that gets him to create these incredible, global game-changing ideas. And then, you work with him, and you realize, yeah, he doesn’t have any of that, he’s just a freaking genius. You’re never going to get there. You’re never going to be that guy. He’s just, like, from another planet. That’s really humbling, but also incredibly inspiring to even get to sit at the table with a guy like that and ask him questions. But my admiration only went up even more, and I’ve known him over 25 years.

How would you say that your own studio, Troublemaker, evolved as a hub for filmmaking in Austin?

It’s been great. I have my television network El Rey there now, so we create stuff all the time. But now, with this series that we’re doing, where the diverse filmmakers come in, they have to do the $7,000 experience. You see people just change. They turn into different people right away, because they suddenly realize what they thought was impossible could be possible, and now they have a new level of what impossible means, which means they can shoot for the stars. It’s really awesome. That place is very exciting and different because it’s not Hollywood at all. You go there just to make stuff. Now I’ve got this really inspiring 90,000 square foot back lot of “Alita” set left over, and it’s going to be standing for 15 years, with 20-foot walls. You can turn it into anything. It’s a true studio.

But the studio’s really unremarkable. It’s just a box. That’s what they called it originally, a dumb box. But people come in and their jaws drop because they can feel the creativity in the walls. It only becomes something when you bring your imagination and you turn it into sets or stories. The most awe-inspiring thing about it is that everyone’s freaking out over this box. As an artist, it’s what you bring to the box that means everything.

You’ve referenced the diversity of the filmmakers in your series. What do you make of conversations surrounding diversity in Hollywood today?

It’s what I’ve been talking about for 25 years or more. I remember when I first went and pitched something to the network after I had just finished making “Mariachi.” I pitched a TV series based on my family, which was a Latin family. I grew up in a family of 10 kids and I said, “I just don’t see in Hollywood a lot of the ethnic faces that I used to see just growing up. I want to fill the screen with more faces like that. I think it’s needed.”

I got a call from my agent after the meeting. He said, “They loved you, they loved your ideas, but they said you have to drop the thing about the ethnic faces.” Oh well. Instead, I had to keep that on the down low and be more subversive, by doing a movie like “Spy Kids” with Latin leads. It was just unheard of back then. They didn’t know what you were talking about. So I’ve just always done it in a sneaky way. Whether it was the action movies or big family comedies, I would just make it diverse. That’s just how I made my movies and it really did help change the landscape.

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I was so proud that, by the time I got around to “Spy Kids” and “Sin City,” I had Rosario Dawson, Benecio Del Toro, and Alexis Bledel all playing non-Latin roles in the movie and they were Latin actors. There were no Latin actors working when I started. So I had to just do it in a different way, start my own network, so I could then help bolster filmmakers to do what I was doing.

Why do you think studios resisted the opportunity cast non-white actors?

It was a systemic problem. There wasn’t anyone writing these roles, and there wasn’t anyone directing those roles, to say they wanted diversity. We needed diverse filmmakers. The solution to that when I started was, “There’s no roles for these actors. So you just have to take a role that’s not diverse and then just switch it.” And that’s not good enough. It’s got to have authenticity, and that means getting authentic filmmakers. We need more filmmakers to go fight those battles and write those scripts, write those stories. So that’s been my focus, not to just swap out the crew or swap out actors. When the studio says, “Why are you making the Spy Kids Latin? Why not just make them American?”, you need somebody to say, well, they are American. They are Hispanic Americans.

And how do you feel about the push for gender parity?

When I did the “Rebel Without a Crew” thing, it was diverse filmmakers, five filmmakers, and three of them were women. They were directing where they have to do every job themselves and they were amazing. They did a great job. You can’t say, “Oh, they don’t have any experience.” They work one day, they’ll have experience. You know, on my network, I wanted Latin writers, and now, 90% of our writers are Latin. Ninety percent of our directors are Latin. And you can’t use the excuse saying, “They don’t have any experience.” After one week, they’ve got experience. So that’s why I own the network. You can make those decisions.

“Red 11” premieres at SXSW on Tuesday, March 12.

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