Rodriguez knows what kids want

Childhood favorites turn into building blocks for filmmaker

August 07, 2002|By Terry Armour | Terry Armour,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

CHICAGO - Filmmaker Robert Rodriguez grins as he settles into a chair at a long table in a room at the Chicago Children's Museum. He is reminded of his childhood days as a second-grader in San Antonio.

"They would tell us to clear our desks and take out the art paper - today you can draw anything you want," he reminisces. "I remember one time, my friend Chris Vasquez was drawing a car and I was drawing a dinosaur-cavemen fight. The cavemen were losing - there was one hanging out of the dinosaur's mouth. I remember my teacher, Miss Molina, saying, `Robert and his monsters,' and walking away. I must have been drawing a lot of monsters and creatures back then."

Talk about a trip back to the future. The 34-year-old Rodriguez grew up to put those early creative juices to the test with atypical action films like El Mariachi, Desperado and From Dusk Till Dawn. Rodriguez's family films are atypical, too, with the clever Spy Kids and now Spy Kids 2, which opens today.

At a time when kids - particularly pre-teens and teens - have become more sophisticated moviegoers, Rodriguez's family movies stand out from the usual summer fare like, say, Disney's The Country Bears.

"There really aren't a lot of cool family movies around," says 10-year-old Daryl Sabara, who plays "Spy Kid" Juni Cortez. "There's no killing, but this is a family movie with action, technology and gadgets. It's just that the kids are saving the world and not the grown-ups. That makes it fun for everybody, not just the kids."

Sabara's 14-year-old co-star, Alexa Vega, agrees.

"It's not like, `Oh, gosh, the kids are in the way,'" says Vega, who plays "Spy Kid" Carmen Cortez. "We're traveling and there are a lot of gadgets like jet pack shoes and other cool things. It's a big adventure. And though the kids are saving the world, you still have Steve Buscemi and Antonio Banderas and Carla Gugino. It's a fun adventure without being one of those cheesy movies."

And it all goes back to the mind of Rodriguez, who mixes elements of his favorite movies as a kid into the type of family movies he wants to watch.

"I really made it for myself and the kid in me and the kid in all adults," says Rodriguez, trying to get comfortable in a chair obviously made for a kid. "I know adults take their children to see these movies so I already know the kids are going and they're going to enjoy the movie no matter what. When you start thinking, `What does a kid like?' it's hard to figure out. So I just turn it around to, `What is it that I like?'"

When Rodriguez reflects on his favorite movies as a kid, it's easy to understand his take on this family movie business.

He says he particularly enjoyed Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and Escape to Witch Mountain. Elements from those three movies can be found in the Spy Kids series (the third installment will be out next summer).

But elements of a few of Rodriguez's other favorite movies can be found in Spy Kids 2 as well. He says he has a special place in his heart for cheesy action movies like 1963's Jason and the Argonauts, which inspired Carmen and Juni's sword-fight scene with the skeletons in Spy Kids 2.

Rodriguez even adopted the same rawness of the 1963 stop-action technique. Adults might actually get a kick out of it.

"I always felt that stop-motion was very surreal and dreamlike. That's why when I did this movie, I didn't perfect it like I could have with a computer," Rodriguez says. "I wanted it to have that dreamlike and surrealistic quality because that's what I remember."

Rodriguez doesn't come across as your average, everyday Hollywood filmmaker. It's not just his decidedly slacker look of casual khaki slacks, skateboarder sneakers, T-shirt and porkpie hat (he is wearing a rumpled blazer, though). It's the way he walks through the Children's Museum with a childlike wonderment, talking about how "cool" the place is.

Rodriguez carries that same attitude with him to the set of his movies.

"Robert does everything a kid will do," Sabara says. "He'll get into his truck and play his music really loud. ... He rocks out. He was playing computer games while we were shooting and testing all kinds of different video games. He's just like a big kid."

Perhaps this is why Rodriguez, the father of boys ages 6, 5 and 3 (he's married to the film's co-producer, Elizabeth Avellan), gives his family movies the same type of edge as his action movies. He's just a big kid at heart.

"You have to think like a child but, also, really think about the things that are important to you as an adult," Rodriguez said. "You have all sorts of very interesting ideas thrown into what you might think, seemingly, is a kids' movie. It's really something for the whole family but I really want the movie to feel like a child made it."

Children and adults alike might just appreciate that.

Terry Armour is a reporter for the Chicago Tribune.

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