Robert Rodriguez: Meet the action man

Robert Rodriguez is a frenetic film-maker who does everything - even the catering. Leslie Felperin talks to the master of low-budget epics and hears why the search for perfection doesn't interest him

Robert Rodriguez makes it very clear that he's not interested in perfection. Which is just as well, because his films have "rough edges", I suggest, if he doesn't mind me saying so. "No, absolutely!" says Rodriguez, without a trace of rancour, grinning broadly from the shade of his cowboy hat. "They're very flawed - they should be very flawed. If you accept the idea that art should be flawed, you'll accept that you'll never get perfection, no matter how much you spend. It will never be a perfect movie. And even if it is, it will just be airless."

The friendly, bear-like guy in the cowboy hat likes life, struggle and intensity so much that he finished two movies this year, shooting one - Spy Kids 3: Game Over, the last part in his Spy Kids trilogy - from scratch in time for its 25 July release in the US. The other - Once Upon a Time in Mexico, which completes a three-part set with El Mariachi and Desperado - he actually shot about two years ago. But, he explains, lest I think he was slacking, he could only finish the post-production on Mexico recently because after he first shot it he was contractually bound to make another movie, Spy Kids 2: Island of Lost Dreams first. By the end of 2003, he will probably have finished a CG animated movie "which means I can stay at home", in his garage where he does most of his work, and then he'll start on a thriller. "I can't say anything about it," he says of the mystery project in coy, conspiratorial whisper, "but it's cool!"

So, if all goes to plan, Rodriguez will have finished three and started one film this year, while his old buddy Quentin Tarantino will have only squeezed out his first film in six years, Kill Bill. Several critics I know of hated that film on policy, but then hardly anyone ever hates a Rodriguez film. They might complain that they don't always make much sense, but mostly there's an indulgent, "they are what they are" attitude towards his films.

There's something a bit tortoise and hare about the QT and RR, especially since they both started out at roughly the same time. Tarantino's first film, Reservoir Dogs, made the director every video-store clerk's hero around 1992, while Rodriguez's El Mariachi (shot on a budget of $7,000, mostly raised by Rodriguez submitting to medical experiments) debuted six months later at Sundance. The two collaborated on From Dusk Till Dawn (Rodriguez directed, while Tarantino wrote the script and co-starred) and they remain friends to this day, although Rodriguez explains that "I don't get to see him that much because I live in Texas and he's been away a lot." QT may have won an Oscar for Pulp Fiction, but he famously stalled for years while Rodriguez is practically a one-man studio and wealthy from his string of hits, especially the respectably performing Spy Kids franchise.

Rodriguez does just about everything on all his films: the writing, directing, producing, sound designing, holding the camera and supervising the sound, editing, making the visual effects, composing the music. He does have a regular band of collaborators (including his wife, Elizabeth Avellan) but mostly it's him. He even does the catering, during the post-production. "I'm from a family of 10 kids, so I can only cook for a big group. I have little menus in my house so you can order what you want. Every night I cook - It's a great way to take a little break from the work, its creative and you can eat the art," he chuckles, seemingly delighted with the idea of something that only becomes finished once it is consumed.

Is there anything he doesn't do on his films? "Sleep," he chuckles, but he's quite zealous about his methods. "It's a choice now. It's so much of an internal process, and sometimes you're very inarticulate trying to describe what you want. You give them a feeling, they go on it, it's not right, you redo it - you spend a lot of time redoing stuff on an ordinary film. This way it all happens at once. As you're writing the script you're already designing the lighting, how the set's going to look, writing the score. It's more organic. And it's fun. Ask any director what they're favourite moviemaking experience was, and they'll say 'the first one', when they didn't have enough money, time or resources. I have a lot of directors call and say, 'You seem to be having fun. How can I have fun? It feels like work. After I finish a movie I just want to take a couple of years off to get ready for the next wave.' I say, it doesn't have to be like that. So I keep it like the first one - I never have enough money or enough time, it's always a struggle so you always have to rely on your creativity and that's the charge. Having to make it out of matchsticks and string [he laughs] and you're always more proud of the stuff you come up with like that."

Another thing Rodriguez is zealous about is shooting on high-definition digital film. "I shot a bunch of movies on film but I hate film!" he cries. So why do so many directors still use it, I ask. "Because they're stupid," he replies, the note of petulance sounding a bit like a stroppy teenager frustrated with the idiocy of the adult world.

But it's because of high-definition, Rodriguez only needed Johnny Depp on set for eight days for Mexico, even though he was playing a major role. I interviewed Depp not long after the shoot when he was still high on the experience. "Rodriguez is a really good, really fun guy," he said. "Shooting on high-def was incredible! Robert was just shooting this stuff and you'd never hear 'Cut!', you'd just keep doing this scene until he said, 'Do the scene again.' You never hear 'Reload!' - it was amazing."

A proud host, Rodriguez believes it was the fact that Depp had so much fun making Mexico that he went and shot Pirates of the Caribbean. "He doesn't usually do action, but I could tell he was starting to get into it," he recalls. "I said, 'I can tell you're starting to like doing action,' and he said, 'You converted me!' [laughs] He was really getting into it - doing all his own stunts, like spinning around and shooting a guy in the head."

Now that his films provide a tidy income stream and he's in with Miramax, does Rodriguez still think of himself as a rebel, outside the system? "You're very much outside the system," he replies. "Well, you've seen how many times my name shows up on the credits! Everyone on my crew does multi jobs so we do it very anti-Hollywood, because it doesn't make sense. You spend a lot of money, you waste a lot of money, and a lot of time. And then you can't make your money back. Spy Kids 3 opened at number one, by a lot, and we're a $36 million movie up against four other movies that cost about $80-100 million each." I presume he means Matchstick Men, which opened on the same weekend, and blockbusters like Pirates of the Caribbean.

I protest that everyone says those films do make money back eventually, if only once they become DVDs and videos. "They can't," he insists. "It's impossible - it's Enron. You think they eventually make their money back but they can't. So yeah, I'm rebellious against that. I don't want to do it like that, it doesn't make any sense. I'm lucky the first I made was El Mariachi, because I've made them all like that. I've never thought, right now I have to go be official or a professional. Instead I can move at the speed of thought."

Does he think of himself as an artist or a crafts-person? "I like to call myself an artist in the right way," he says thoughtfully. "A lot of the time it's [hushed solemnity] 'oh, an artist'. But artists are just regular folks. Regular people and people are flawed. You'll never get it perfect and if you do you'll kill it. That's really liberating when you realise that, because you say well I can be flawed. [he laughs] I can be very flawed! You can be odd and different and wrong and it's exhilarating."

He pauses, and adds one more time for good measure, "To seek perfection is to seek something that's not human."

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