Robert Rodriguez knows how to punch up a story.
Born and raised in San Antonio, the 46-year-old director - and founder of the El Rey television network - doesn’t so much capture his audiences’ attention as he sneaks up behind it, throws it in the trunk of a muscle car, drives it to an undisclosed location, and spends a film’s run time working it over. With Machete, From Dusk Till Dawn, and Once Upon a Time in Mexico, Rodriguez created a new genre of film, part latsploitation and part hyperkineticgrindhouse. But Rodriguez also isn’t afraid to branch out. That’s why he took the job making Frank Miller’s classic comic into the 2005 hit Sin City. It’s also why – and it’s a tribute to the off-the-wall franchise that this makes sense – he came back to do the sequel.
MAXIM spoke with the director about his Texas roots and time in Basin City.
Most of your films take place in Texas…
Well, I live here. It’s a bit of a convenience, but it’s also just where I’m from. Stephen King writes all of his stories for Maine because that’s where he lives. You gotta write what you know. They usually tell a filmmaker: ‘Write what you know, write from your personal experiences first - if you’re gonna start out making films, telling stories, write what you know.' So for me, writing what I know, I’m from a Hispanic family of ten kids. One of the first big films I did - probably my biggest film series - was Spy Kids because it’s based on my family. It’s about my brothers and sisters. It’s about my uncle, who was a special agent in the FBI.
The culture of where you're from seems to be a major part of your films. You’re saying that’s intentional?
One of the things about my films - Desperado and the Machete movies specifically - is this sort of Hispanic identity, which again is writing what you know. We try to make stories that resonate with all audiences, particularly those who are Hispanic and others that feel under-represented. They see themselves as heroes and it’s cool.
Texas seems to be having a moment in the film industry. Do you think it just seems that way because the area has been historically ignored?
Yeah, I mean, that’s pretty much why I did the network. I was able to explore that and give people the opportunity to tell their stories as well. And there’s a need for it. There’s a huge market that nobody’s tapping into because no one knew it was there before. But I don’t really think it’s a trend. Rick [Del Castillo] and I have been here doing business here for 22 years. We just told stories; he’d tell a story using Texas because that’s how he grew up. If we had been from Boston, it would have been the same thing.
All that said, Sin City is clearly not about Texas.
I’m a big fan of the book - [Frank Miller] is a great cartoonist and I love the way did them visually. It was so stylized. They were bolder than anything that was being done in movies so I thought, this has to be done in film. It would really revolutionize how films are done, using 3D technology and a lot of special effects. It was ten years ago when we did the first one and it really blew people away. Since then, people have been asking for our sequel and we finally got to make it and it was a blast. It takes you deeper into Sin City, into more of the mythology, a lot more into the characters. Like I said, most of the other films I write myself, so this is a way to do something that I didn’t write but was a big fan of.
What’s it like shooting a film with so many effects?
We shot completely on green screen. People do that now, but back then – only ten years ago – it was really new. And now we wanted to use 3D cameras and push the visual aspect even further. It demands a lot of the actor because there’s nothing there. So you’d say ‘Umm, I know it feels like you’re sitting on an apple box right now but you’re actually in a car. And it’s raining.’ They just have to use their imagination. The whole thing is a challenge, but that’s kind of why you do it. It’s just an extra thing to think about and it gives you an extra thing to be proud of when you see it all put together on the screen.
How do you think 3D technology advanced the film?
This particular type of visual would better lend itself to 3D than other 3D movies. Usually 3D movies have so much on the screen that it’s hard to even know where to focus because there’s so much stuff coming at you all the time. This is so stripped down and graphic and abstract. Sometimes it’s just a black background, big white snowflakes floating around an actor. You can see the 3D much better because it’s so simplified. And it pops a lot more and it feels like you’re inside that graphic novel - inside this black and white world. It feels very immersive.
People were really excited about the look of the first film and they wondered how we would top it or make it look like it’s evolved into the second film. I knew that 3D was the answer. That it would bring a whole other dimension – no pun intended – to it. The whole thing is fun, from the making of the music to being with the actors on set. It’s good to take on a project like this because you’re going to enjoy the whole process. There’s a lot of work to be done. You start with nothing – you’re literally on an empty stage – and you have to build everything, brick by brick.
It looks like you have a ton of future projects lined up.
I got a television network, so I’ve got a bunch of shows on there that I direct as well. I’ve got a show on there called The Director’s Chair, where I interview other directors. That’s a really cool show. From Dusk Till Dawn, the series, is coming back. We’ll start shooting that for Season 2. Just shot the last episode for Matador for Season 1. And Season 2 comes back next year. There’s a lot to be done, I need to keep feeding the beast. [Laughs] It goes on all of the time, a lot of challenge, a lot of fun.
Photos by Rico Tores / Dimension Films / Everett Collection