- The Washington Times - Friday, March 30, 2001

''I feel like Im still a big kid, and its part of the reason I wanted to do this movie," filmmaker Robert Rodriguez says of "Spy Kids."
Brawny and easygoing, the young moviemaker recently spent a chilly day in Washington to help promote the espionage adventure farce, which opens nationally today.
His movie, an uneven but likable attempt to merge the spy-thriller genre with family comedy, glorifies the resourceful Cortez family. Parents Gregorio and Ingrid (Antonio Banderas and Carla Gugino) once were glamorous master spys, and they have chip-off-the-block offspring, Carmen and Juni (Alexa Vega, 12, and Daryl Sabara, 8). The children are obliged to improvise a rescue mission for their mom and dad, abducted by villains who like to turn their victims into gnarly-faced mutants.
Mr. Rodriguez vaulted to prominence almost 10 years ago as the one-man gang behind the vigorous, inexpensive thriller "El Mariachi," which he had shot for an estimated $7,000 a few years after graduating from film school at the University of Texas. Made to attract the Spanish-language straight-to-video market, the movie was acquired for conventional theatrical release by Columbia. The studio then bankrolled a full-blown sequel, "Desperado." The latter introduced Mr. Rodriguez to Mr. Banderas.
The subsequent Rodriguez professional projects also were R-rated thrillers: "From Dusk Till Dawn," "The Faculty" and a segment of the miserable anthology titled "Four Rooms." To see him veer in the direction of PG-rated family fare, especially under the auspices of Dimension, the so-called genre division of Miramax, comes as something of a surprise. "Scream" has been the defining Dimension hit to date, if one doesnt count last years gross-out parody "Scary Movie."
Mr. Rodriguez says "Spy Kids" found him operating closertothe heart as well as close to home. Born to third-generation Texans of Mexican ancestry, he was raised in San Antonio as the third child in a family of 10 siblings. He now lives in the Austin suburbs. Most of "Spy Kids" was shot in what was an airplane hangar at the former Austin airport.
Mr. Rodriguez is the father of three boys, ages 5, 3 and 2. Nicknamed Rocket, Racer and Rebel, respectively, these boys also were christened with four names apiece, "in accordance with family and Hispanic tradition."
The filmmaker has recruited his wife, Elizabeth Avelian, a native of Caracas, Venezuela, and graduate of Rice University in Houston, to be his movie producer. If Mr. Rodriguez has his way, most of the movie projects he contemplates for the next several years will be made in the Austin area and cause minimal disruption to his family life.
Mr. Rodriguez acknowledges that he exemplifies a "weird evolution" for a professional filmmaker of his generation. "I never thought I could be a filmmaker," he says. "I thought it was something that only people with a lot of money could probably do. I was shooting on video. I loved drawing, music and photography. Filmmaking seemed to encompass all my hobbies. Without any realistic hope of getting anywhere, I kept making all these short films on video. I spent a lot of time on them and started to win awards when I entered them in contests."
Most were shot with his younger brothers and sisters as mischievous characters. He also used his siblings as the models for a gang of youngsters in a comic strip, "Los Hooligans," published in the University of Texas paper during his college years.
"Invariably, my stuff would get laughs and win the audience awards," Mr. Rodriguez recalls. "Theyd always come as a contrast and change of pace to the morose, arty films. I began to think that giving people a good time could be my trump card. I made 'El Mariachi as an action film because thats what the Spanish-language video market wanted. I was amazed when Columbia bought it and released it in regular theaters. It gave me this kind of accidental identity as a kid who had a flair for cheap thrillers. But Columbia was also familiar with my student films and the comic strip. I told them that eventually I wanted to make a family adventure. It got done at Miramax, but thats pretty cool, because they arent known for family films and they were really enthusiastic about trying something different."

Mr. Rodriguez outlined his plot for "Spy Kids" in 1994 but decided he was unprepared to realize such a project. "I expected to go right into it, but the more I wrote, the more obvious it became that Id require a lot of effects and trick shots," he says. "I needed more experience, especially to do it the way I wanted, inexpensively, doing as many jobs myself as I could. It was important to keep a hands-on approach, to be as inventive as possible.
"If you think about it, most effects supervisors are just figuring out ways to do something that looks impossible. It can be an expensive, uncreative way or an inexpensive, creative way. I love magic tricks, and the same principles can be used in movies. There are cheap, fast, uncool ways to do stuff that looks perfectly cool."
Mr. Rodriguez proposed a budget for "Spy Kids" and evidently maintained it that made Miramax at once receptive and permissive. The figure: $36 million. "Most effects-intensive family movies cant be made for less than $80 million," he says.
"The low end was '102 Dalmatians at about $85 million. 'Inspector Gadget went for about $90 million, and 'Stuart Little was over $100 million. I hired an effects shop located in a little town near Montreal. They had worked on 'The Faculty. We communicated by computer from their office to my garage, where I do all my editing. We can look at shots together. I can draw on them so that theyll know instantly how I want something changed. You dont have to fly back and forth anymore to supervise the effects."
Mr. Rodriguez says his parents closely supervised the movie-going of their children. The size of the brood encouraged his mother to economize by attending favorite revival theaters in San Antonio. "My favorite memories are going with my mother to see things she grew up with and loved: the MGM musicals and Hitchcock mysteries, for example. It was just such an enjoyable experience to go as a family, then come back and talk about it or repeat lines and act out scenes.
"Typically, wed sit through whatever it was twice, to get extra value out of the trip. Our record was seeing 'Gone With the Wind three times in one day. We sat through it twice while going on our own. Then in the evening, a friend of my mothers called and said shed like to go. So we all trooped out and saw it a third time."
Mr. Rodriguez also takes a keen interest in the movies his boys see. "I get to cheat, being a filmmaker," he says. "I have an editing machine at home. If I think theres a movie theyll really enjoy, even its rated R, Ill check it out and then edit it down to a PG-rated version. Sometimes Ive condensed things to about 10 minutes, but theyll get to some cool visual elements or something else I want to share with them. Ill probably lengthen these private editions when they get closer to the PG-13 range. Its too bad the companies copyguard DVDs now. Parents could do the same thing Ive done with home editing equipment and the right computer program."


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