Director Robert Rodriguez has famously been an adherent of the do-it-yourself school of filmmaking. The story of how he made his first feature, El Mariachi, for $7,000—part of which he received for being the paid subject of drug research testing—is well-known, but people don't necessarily realize he not only wrote and photographed the film but also edited and did the sound recording for it. He spent awhile working his way up via big studio projects such as From Dusk Till Dawn and The Faculty, until he decided to go his own way and built Troublemaker Studios in his home of Austin, Texas. He again swam against the prevailing current for major directors and decided to create a movie series for children, with Spy Kids, but the more than $100 million domestic total for that franchise-creating project proved the clarity of his vision. In 2003 his movies Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over and Once Upon a Time in Mexico opened at No. 1 at the North American box office within a few months of each other. Earlier this year was his critically acclaimed adaptation of graphic novelist Frank Miller's Sin City, which he co-directed with Miller and was easily the closest shot-by-shot approximation of comic book art into cinema that has ever been achieved. Most directors would be content to rest on those laurels, but Rodriguez is instead releasing the movie he made concurrently with Sin City: a collaboration with his young son Racer and his family titled The Adventures of Shark Boy & Lava Girl in 3-D. The project got started when 8-year-old Racer told his father his idea for a superhero who was half-boy/half-shark.
"When he first mentioned it, I didn't realize what a great idea it was, because he only had the idea of Shark Boy," says Rodriguez. "The reason I didn't respond to it right away, was that it sounded like it would just be a boy's thing. It would be too boy-centric. Later I told him, 'That's a pretty cool idea. What you need is a girl character. What else do you like besides sharks?' He said, 'Lava.' We've got lava on the brain. He came up with [villain] Mr. Electric and Planet Drool. It was after that that Bob Weinstein called wanting another 3-D family movie, and I didn't have any ideas. He put me on the spot, so I said, 'What about The Adventures of Shark Boy & Lava Girl in 3-D?' He said, 'That sounds new. What's that? That's crazy.' I said, 'Yeah, it's really cool. My son came up with it.' He said, 'Yeah? I'm signing him up!'" We thought it would be fun, having a family make a movie for other families.
"The place [I] try to go back to [in making movies for children] is when [I] was 8 years old," Rodriguez continues. "Some of the ideas from Spy Kids were ideas I had when I was a little kid, that I'd drawn and won a contest with and kept. I don't know if I could come up with something like that today. I started to realize that this was as close as I could get to going back in a time machine and being 8 again, because [Racer] is so much like me—he draws and writes and comes up with things—and we also have the same sense of humor. The most I can be is childlike, but to actually be a child again would be to take ideas that he has and use those. I was doing Sin City at the same time, so I thought this would be a sort of yin-and-yang project. [Racer] would be my Frank Miller on this project. I'm going to use as many of his ideas as I can, and try to make a story out of all those ideas…. That's why it says 'based on the stories and dreams of Racer Max,' because I took ideas from some dreams he told me."
Casting About for Heroes
Finding adult actors who wanted to work for the talented Rodriguez (such as David Arquette and Kristin Davis, who play parents) was no problem. Figuring out who could play both the real-world schoolteacher Electricidad and the dream-world villain Mr. Electricity was difficult for the filmmaker, until he thought of comedian George Lopez, whom he'd recently met. The director wrote the part with the actor in mind, finally calling to make sure Lopez would be interested and available, which, due to his sitcom's summer hiatus, he was. The young protagonists, however, were a trickier proposition.
"In Spy Kids I really wanted very normal, everyday kids," says Rodriguez. "I wanted people to feel that they were very real, so they could feel like any kid could find out that they're really spies. In this film I was looking for kids with special qualities to them. Lava Girl (Taylor Dooley) is supposed to be from another planet. We ended up dyeing her hair pink to help sell that. I wanted an extraordinary sort of presence. We didn't know at all that we'd end up [at the Shark Boy casting audition with Taylor Lautner] walking in and doing flips and things; it was beyond what we ever could have imagined, that a kid like that even existed. He's a four-time world champion martial arts actor who's 12. We saw his picture and thought he even looked like a shark, with his spiky hair and this focus. He seemed so intense and focused compared to any of the other kids that came in. There was no need to look further. My casting director [Mary Vernieu], who I've worked with forever, she brought these kids in, and the very first day we met Shark Boy and Lava Girl. They were almost right next to each other in the casting line. I wondered, 'Could it be this easy? Are we done already?'"
Both Sin City and Shark Boy used tremendous amounts of green screen work, with actors standing in front of a screen on a mostly empty set, details to be filled in digitally later. This sort of work is a new challenge for actors, but Rodriguez says there were no problems for his cast in mastering the technique.
"I think kids don't know how a movie is supposed to be filmed, so, if you say, 'This is how movies are done. You walk on a green plank, and it's the bridge.' They're, like, 'All right.' They'll go with it," he says. "Even the adults know I've done so many type of these movies now, they'll trust me and go with it and perform, and they'll find that they're actors and they really can do it. The more you can give them a reference to what's going on, the better. It's probably harder for actors doing Spy Kids or Shark Boy movies, because they are so made up. Sin City is easier, because we have the [graphic novels] and we can show them, 'Look, you're in a car. You've been in a car. You're in an apartment. Here's the sofa. [There will] be walls later.' It's not that big of a stretch. But, in Shark Boy, 'You're walking on a bridge of ice over a cavern of cookies,' and I didn't have all the drawings to show [the actors]. I had to do them on the spot…. The actors only need to know as much [about the setting] as you know, and the rest they don't have to worry about, because they're really performing amongst each other. It's really not going to change their performance between the actors. They'll have a relationship with each other whether they're standing on a cookie or they're on a rock. It helps when the actors are there and they can feed off of each other, rather than looking at something that doesn't exist. I told the actors in Sin City, 'It's like theatre,' and that got them in a different head space, so they weren't thinking Star Wars; they were thinking, 'High art. Broadway.' It changes the whole perception, and then they can do [the work]."
The Most Loyal Fans
Rodriguez—whose next projects include The Grindhouse, a horror double-feature collaboration with Quentin Tarantino, and a sequel to Sin City—enjoys mixing up the types of films he makes, but he knows and appreciates who his most loyal fans are.
"I think this film fills the gap for films that are directed at families and their kids," he says. "Usually in a film that is aimed at families, the superheroes would be older. No one is really doing this for that age group, and I just know what a loyal audience that is. Kids watch the Spy Kids movies 100 times [on video and DVD]; none of my other fans would watch my movies 100 times. These kids literally watch these movies over and over again, and it marks their childhood. You take that to heart. These are my most loyal fans, here. I'm going to make movies for them. I think I tried to appeal to parents a lot as well in my first Spy Kids, but when I saw how kids watched it over and over again as opposed to their parents, I thought, 'I'm making the next ones for them.' I've started more and more trying to aim [my films] toward [kids'] dreams and their empowerment." BSW