On his new “Shorts,” directing kids vs. adults … and setting up his own Hollywood in an Austin airplane hangar.
Forget Woody Allen. The real auteur and one-man show in movies today is director/writer/producer Robert Rodriguez — who also acts as his own director of photography, editor and composer. And the creator of the hugely successful “Spy Kids” and “El Mariachi” franchises isn’t based on some Hollywood back lot. He operates out of Austin, where he has built his own personal studio, Troublemaker. It includes a world-renowned visual effects studio and music and publishing arms and, since opening, has played a primary role in making Austin a highly competitive filmmaking hub.
Here, Rodriguez talks about his studio venture, his new film “Shorts,” opening this weekend, and his upcoming projects.
Many filmmakers have dreamed of having their own studio, and — such as Francis Ford Coppola — tried and failed. How did you manage to pull it off?
(Laughs) A lot of things are happy accidents. We just needed some space down there in Austin. So we rented an old, abandoned airport hangar — the airport happened to move and there were all these empty hangars just sitting there that they were just going to tear down. We convinced them to let us stay, as we could put all these huge sets in them. So then we shot all the “Spy Kids” and “Shark Boy” movies there and “Sin City,” and we began adding A/C and soundproofing and getting offices organized.
I remember walking to the set of “Sin City” from my set going, “Wait a minute — I’ve got my own studio here! When did that all happen?” So it was really a gradual thing that just evolved.
Your timing for this business model was right on.
Yes, with the recession everywhere we have all these Hollywood studios bringing me projects, saying, “Look, you don’t even have to direct it. Can you just oversee it and put it through your studio with all your people, as you really seem to know how to make a project look like it has a far bigger budget than it really has.” We’re able to create good value without huge costs and overheads. And we have a lot of very creative people who know just how to make a movie in the style I’ve developed over the years. Plus we also benefit from tax incentives in Texas.
So you could also rent out your studio?
I could easily rent out some space, but we’re always so busy shooting our own projects. Now I’m going to produce more movies that I can oversee and be a part of. So if I want to walk on the set and pick up a camera, I can. I think that’ll be a lot more fun.
Do you ever feel outside the Hollywood loop? Or is that a good thing?
It is. Often when I come to Hollywood I hear about all these people having meetings about things you know that’ll never get off the ground (laughs). It’s all just talking about it and not doing it.
“Shorts” is a kid-friendly action-adventure film …
I began making short films when I was 12, and I always loved that format. That’s where I got the idea to do “Spy Kids.” And I always wished I could do more short films, so when my son came to me after “Shark Boy” and said, “I want to come up with the next movie, let’s do something like ‘The Little Rascals,’” which I’d been showing to my kids, I thought, “Of course! How come I never thought of it.” So we decided to call it “Shorts,” because the stories are short, the kids are short and they wear shorts.
So that’s the format the story’s told in — in a series of shorts, out of order. It’s like “Pulp Fiction” for kids.
You seem to have a real knack for directing kids. Do you direct them any differently from adults?
You actually direct every actor differently, so even the adult actors all require different approaches. And once you figure out how to direct an actor, usually you want them back on another movie so you can take advantage of what you’ve learned and take it even further.
That’s why I tend to work with certain people again and again. You’re just starting to build a great working relationship and then they’re gone, especially as fast as I shoot.
You have a great cast on this, including William H. Macy, Jon Cryer, Leslie Mann and James Spader. How was it working with Spader?
I’ve always been a fan. One of my favorite films of his is “Wolf.” He’s so slimy in it. He’s just a great actor, and so good at making you think he’s really slimy. But he’s the sweetest guy.
“Machete,” this crime thriller. I’m shooting that now, and we have an amazing cast — Robert De Niro, Lindsay Lohan, Jessica Alba, Don Johnson. Then I’ll be doing “Nervecrackers,” this futuristic thriller, for next year.
There’s a rumor you’re also doing “Sin City 2.”
Rumors! We do have a script, but we haven’t begun shooting it yet.
Spader says you never seem to sleep, that you have so much energy. Don’t you ever feel exhausted wearing so many hats?
It’s a strange thing — the more you do, the easier it is. My mom always said that to me as a kid, that if you want something done, give it to a busy man! And it’s true. There’s just an efficiency to it. If I just did one thing, I’d be more tired, and my decisions would suffer, as you’d think about it too much, instead of going by instinct, which is always smarter than your conscious self.