Meanwhile, back at the ranch … Robert Rodriguez and his Texas-style family filmmaking

Aug. 23, 2009 | 2:16 p.m.

Here’s a longer version of my feature on filmmaker Robert Rodriguez from today’s Sunday Calendar section of the Los Angeles Times.

Robert Rodriguez

It was not your typical Hollywood creative meeting. Instead of sparkling water and ahi salad, the Four Seasons conference room was provided with Sprite, French fries and a tray of chocolate lollipops. Magic markers and paper were piled up on the table for doodling and with good reason — most of the people in the room weren’t old enough to drive.

Clearly, the Rodriguez boys were back in town.

“We have our way of doing things and, so far, Hollywood seems pretty happy with it,” said Texas-based filmmaker Robert Rodriguez, who was sitting with two of his sons, Rebel and Racer, both of whom contributed to their father’s newest feature, “Shorts,” which arrives in theaters this weekend.

The contributions weren’t small, either: Rebel, 10, shrugged and nodded when asked if he was the one who came up with the name of the film. “Yes. It’s called ‘Shorts’ because the kids in it are short, they wear shorts and the movie is made up of all these really short stories.”

Shorts

Who needs a marketing consultant when you have that sort of logic?

“Shorts” is a collection of interlocking vignettes about kids, a sort of 21st century revival of the “Our Gang” comedies, but with a wishing rock, crocodile men and a giant killer booger. As interesting as all that might sound, the most compelling aspect of the film is how it was made: Shot entirely in dusty Texas on a lean budget, “Shorts” is being distributed by Warner Bros. but could hardly be further removed from the corporate culture.

Rodriguez was the writer, director, producer, cinematographer, visual effects supervisor and editor, and even collaborated on the music. The film’s plot was cooked up by his sons, who also appear in the film. Essentially, the Rodriguez household put together “Shorts” the way other families set up lemonade stands, and, after the success of his “Spy Kids” franchise, there are hopes that “Shorts” will click with its similarly zany, hyper-real sensibility.

Rodriguez family

“This whole thing started with me and the kids watching old episodes of the Little Rascals, which I loved when I was a kid,” he said. “They just laughed and laughed. We took that, and it eventually became ‘Shorts.’ “

Rodriguez has five children, all with Elizabeth Avellán, the Venezuela-born producer. The couple split in 2006 after 15 years but remain business partners in Troublemaker Studios — no mean feat considering the spasm of rumors that accompanied Rodriguez’s romance with Rose McGowan, star of his last blood-splattered film, 2007′s “Grindhouse.”

Despite the gossip-page intrigue, Rodriguez is shy and fills conversational lulls with a nervous laugh. Born in San Antonio, he loves his western wear. Frank Miller, the creator of “Sin City,” likes to tell the story of how he first met Rodriguez at a New York diner: “He’s the only straight guy,” Miller says, “who ever wore a cowboy hat into Hell’s Kitchen.”

He is also consumed with fatherhood and, even before parenthood, daydreamed about making home movies with a large brood. “Shorts” was supposed to be just that.

The movie started with sibling envy. Rebel was tired of hearing how his older brother, Racer, came up with the premise for his dad’s 2005 movie “The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl in 3-D,” so he decided that he would mine the “Our Gang” model for a movie. These are big thoughts for a kid, but life at the 100-acre ranch is geared toward creative fun, with hidden rooms in the main house and cedar-lined ridgelines dotted with ancient arrowheads and the occasional rattlesnake.

Sin City

That terrain inspired Rebel to come up with the idea of a rainbow rock that grants wishes and Crocodile Canyon, a nasty pit of reptile danger. The film’s unforgettable snot monster, meanwhile, was a leftover idea from Rodriguez’s short “Bedhead,” written when he was 19. The family fashioned a homemade trailer and when Warners saw it, the lark abruptly became a feature-film property. Rodriguez financed it himself. He declined to specify the budget but said it’s “very, very low.”

“It’s rare for the studios to find a filmmaker who wants to make a family film,” he said. “To find someone that has an idea, embraces it, has kids and wants to make something exciting — well, they don’t see that too often.”

He chuckled when asked if the studio suits ever get antsy with his let’s-put-on-a-show approach. “They actually like that,” the 41-year-old said. “You’re making it less expensive than they could ever make it

Spy Kids

here. And they get a movie that they can sell as a big movie, they make money off of it, I get to keep it locked down creatively.”

Rodriguez’s filmography has a split personality. He might be best known for action films with a lurid, roadhouse edge — “Sin City” (which was co-directed with Miller), “Once Upon a Time in Mexico,” “Desperado” and his startling 1992 indie breakthrough, “El Mariachi” — but his greatest commercial success has been in cheeky family films. His three “Spy Kids” movies, all fluorescent-bright espionage fantasies, pulled in a collective $465 million worldwide despite being made on budgets of less than $39 million.

After 13 feature films, Rodriguez still has the puppy-dog enthusiasm that got “El Mariachi” made for $7,000, which he earned as a paid patient in medical trials. Sitting at the Four Seasons, he stared down at his cowboy boots as he tried to remember all the things he is working on, which include a “Predator” reboot, the B-movie-minded “Machete,” a “Red Sonja” film, a “Sin City” sequel, a live-action version of “The Jetsons” and a fourth “Spy Kids” entry. The plan is to make all of those far from the Hollywood machine.

“It’s almost like they get protected from themselves,” he said of the studios. “They know that when some things get taken through the machine they end up overspending and making it worse. The movie’s not allowed to breathe.”

Antonio Banderas and Robert Rodriguez

Rodriguez still has something to prove, of course. His last youth-audience film, “Sharkboy and Lavagirl,” cost $39 million and pulled in $69 million worldwide. “Shorts” is being watched as a bellwether of his ability to cut through to family audiences without the “Spy Kids” brand.

Like the “Our Gang” comedies that began almost 90 years ago, “Shorts” presents a gaggle of neighborhood kids who in brief, frenetic episodes crack wise in the face of conflict, caste indignities and hopelessly stiff adults. (The grown-ups, by the way, include a gleefully greedy James Spader and William H. Macy in lab-coat nut mode.) They make big plans, as kids often do in comedies, but they are never belittled or patronized, which is rare.

There’s also the hyper-reality swirl of “Shorts” that might make it a cinematic nephew to Bob Clark’s wonderfully daft 1983 film “A Christmas Story,” where the world bends and twists to the physics of childhood memory and imagination. It’s a reference not lost on Rodriguez, who, of course, is immersed in pop culture and creates collages of movie trailers, music videos and famous scenes from cinema into tailor-made feed for the family television.

Shorts poster

“You can just let it wash over you,” the filmmaker said with a dreamy expression. “It’s big fun.”

“Shorts” is told out of order, but it’s not some funhouse ode to Christopher Nolan’sMemento.” Instead, it’s a bit of craft the children taught their father.

“We grew up with very linear storytelling, but now with the way they watch television and play games, they’re used to seeing part of something and then seeing another part later, out of order,” Rodriguez said. “They show me something from the Cartoon Network and they’ll show me the best part and then back up to the beginning–”

Just then the filmmaker was interrupted by Racer, who held up his finished drawing. “It’s a tarantula-grasshopper-wasp,” he said. His father leaned over and gave the drawing his undivided attention. And with good reason. You never know where the next movie might be lurking.

– Geoff Boucher

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Photo credits: Portrait of Robert Rodriguez by Ana Johannson for The Times. Johannson also shot the family photo, which shows, clockwise from top, father Robert with Rocket, Rogue, Rhiannon, Rebel and Racer. “Shorts” image courtesy of Warner Bros. “Sin City” image courtesy of Dimension Films. Photo of Antonio Banderas and Rodriguez on the set in 1994 by Rico Torres / Columbia Pictures.

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