- Text by D'Arcy Doran
Whether it’s persuading the cast of Sin City 2 to paint canvases in character, or talking the actors in Once Upon a Time in Mexico into scoring their own theme music, Robert Rodriguez loves throwing down creative challenges. Now with the help of BlackBerry, the director is challenging you to help finish his latest film in the interactive film experiment Project Green Screen.
Rodriguez and his crew had just wrapped up shooting on Sin City 2 when they made the short Two Scoops, starring the director’s nieces Electra and Elise Avellan of Machete and Grindhouse fame as ice cream sellers-turned-undercover monster hunters. But Rodriguez left green screen blanks in key parts of the film that he wants you to help fill.
The short film is fast and fun, but Rodriguez tells HUCK that he’s serious about pushing people to use their creativity and finding new collaborators.
Why do you like about working with filmmakers who are just starting out?
You’re always a student. One of the best things you can do as a student is teach other students. You learn more from teaching than you do sometimes from sitting in the class. So I’m always eager to teach people what I’ve learned because it reinforces what I’ve learned myself. Sometimes a piece of advice will just fly out of your mouth that you don’t even do yourself but you know you should. You think, ‘Wow, that’s really good advice. I should take that advice myself. I’m gonna write that down and use that myself.’
What’s your biggest piece of advice for aspiring filmmakers?
Not to fear failure. Step forward and start creating. Start making your dreams happen. I didn’t wait to make a film before saying I was a filmmaker. I just said I was a filmmaker. So I tell people if you want to make films, don’t say you want to make films. Just make a card and say you’re a filmmaker. What will happen is people are very true to their identity. If your identity is someone who someday would like to make a film then you’re going to remain someone who someday would like to make a film. If your identity is being a filmmaker, you’re going to do what filmmakers do, which is make stuff. So you have decide what you are and then you’re going to stay very true to that vision of yourself. Your mind has to go for it and your body will follow. You have to believe in it.
So I tell people the first step is to take the first step. Then follow it up with another step, even if you’re afraid you might go the wrong way. There’s no wrong way. You might be afraid you’re going to stumble, but you might stumble upon some idea that no one else came up with because you went that way. You can’t mess up. If you fail, you’re going to learn from that failure and achieve something that no one else could have gotten to because you took that wrong step that got you somewhere else.
If you don’t take that step, you’re always going to be on shore while everyone else floats off to sea.
You’ve put out a call for collaborators in Project Green Screen, what advice would you give people who really want to catch your eye?
Take it seriously. I want to be able to see that the work is being done by somebody who is really putting their effort into it. That’s gonna attract your attention. You are inspired by the people who go beyond the call of duty. If someone is over-delivering, just their enthusiasm makes you enthusiastic. Even if the idea could be better, I might go, ‘You know they’re so into it obviously. You sent me something with two heads, now I’m greedy, I want three heads. Whether the third head would make it completely different I don’t know, use your creativity that I’m seeing you display.’ Do that one other thing that will separate you from everybody else. Then you go with that.
If somebody sends you something half-assed, then you’ll know they’re not taking it seriously so we can’t reward them.
People will take it seriously. People usually do. When they start working on something they’ll get inspired and it will take on a life of its own. I often see friends who make gifts for other people and it’s turned into something else. You’ll say what is that? Well it started out as a birthday present for somebody, but now I don’t want to give it away. That’s what happens, you just start and sometimes it just keeps going.
Leaving ‘holes’ like this in your scripts is something you actually do, where did that habit come from?
I just don’t have all the answers right away. I’ve turned in scripts before where it just has in bold a missing section. It says, ‘Mini road warrior action sequence — very cool. Details to follow.’ I don’t know what it’s going to be. You’re not going to know until you get to the location and see what there is around you. Maybe we’re shooting in Mexico for one, so I can’t imagine what’s down there. I’m not going to try and come up with something that I’m going to pigeon hole myself into.
I know what I need to accomplish in those beats. Let’s just go and see. We get there and there’s a whole cactus town. A whole town that’s nothing but cactus. OK, we’ve got to go through that. Have them go through there on this motorcycle, he ends up here at that location, and so on. So you kind of leave holes to let chance and circumstance in. You know that other missing element is going to come to you if you move forward.
If I held off all filming until I figured that out, I would never film. So you don’t want to let it stop you. So you just say ‘Note’ and that’s going to have to be part of the magic. It always comes. I have enough experience to know if you have a hole, you don’t know how you’re going to figure it out, but you will figure it out. It’s just going to come to you if everybody has that like-mindedness. If the actors and everybody knows we’re going to have a back-up plan in case none of us are inspired that day it won’t be the same. But because we left a hole, it’s going to come to us at the right moment. The moment isn’t now. It’s going to be as we get closer, if not the very moment that we’re doing it. That’s fun. It’s fun to see that happen. We’ve captured that before behind the scenes where you see an actor say, ‘This thing, it’s not working for me’ and I’ll say, ‘You know that didn’t work for me either. I knew I was going to change it but now that you’ve said it, this is what I had in mind.’ You see them get excited and they give you another idea and top-top-top and the sequence in no way resembles what was written but is a hundred times better. You could not have come up with it until you’re at that moment.
I didn’t wait to make a film before saying I was a filmmaker. I just said I was a filmmaker
Was there a particular moment when you first realised how collaboration can be the key to filling in those blanks?
Just by doing stuff. You’ll see that it’s always happened. From the very first project, there’s going to be an element of magic that happens. That’s what’s most addictive when you do that each time. Sometimes you’ll fear early on in your career that’s not going to happen again. But it always does. You say, ‘What if it all doesn’t come together?’ But it does.
Once you give up that fear, you just do it with so much positive energy. An actor comes to me and the first thing they say is ‘I’m not quite sure what I supposed to do here,’ and I say, ‘Don’t worry, that’s part of it. Trust me, we’re going to know by the time we get there.’ It’s because we have the right attitude. If we don’t fear what we don’t know and embrace what we don’t know, that’s when the magic’s going to come.
Now on this project with Blackberry, you’re using technology to collaborate on a massive scale.
I love technology. Technology just pushes art and art pushes technology. When we want to do something, we might have an idea but the technology doesn’t exist, so we create the technology for it. Or if there’s a piece of technology that is introduced, people might say, ‘Digital cameras? What are you shooting with that for?’ But it’s going to make us come up with ideas that we won’t come up with on film. Like 3D, I did the first digital 3D movie. People don’t realise Spy Kids 3 was the first digital 3D movie. Now there’s digital 3D movies all the time but that was the first. Because I was outside of Hollywood, I was shooting digital before anyone. I figured out that you could do that. I shot on a green screen and realised I could do Sin City that way too. By just going that way with technology, it makes you come up with innovation that you could not have if you were just using the old tools. Any new tool you get is just going to be something you’re going to use your creativity to figure out something — even if it wasn’t intended for that.
I always love when people bring new technology to try out. That’s the best. Early on, people were bringing me new digital cameras, new digital equipment and no one else was using it. They said, ‘Can you test it out in the field for us?’ I was like, ‘Sure! I’ll try it out’ and we would come up with all sorts of things.
Is there any type of person you’d ideally like to reach with these challenges?
I don’t know who it’s going to be. Anybody who happens to be following us and interested and they feel they were the person who was supposed to receive that call. They’re going to know it and they’re going to put their foot forward. It’s pretty exciting.
How old were you when you first picked up a camera?
Before I was shooting movies even, I had a Polaroid camera and I would shoot photographs that were staged like movie scenes. I remember my brother — we had a blue rug that kind of looked like a sky and I stood up on the bed and we had these little rabbit furs that looked like clouds that I put on his feet. I took a picture of him like that as Superman. By shooting down, it looked like he was flying in the photograph. I’d stage things like that — trick shots. My dad finally gave me his Super-8 camera, but it was too expensive — $8 for film for two minutes, no sound, $8 to develop. We were from a family of ten kids.
But then he had a VCR that had a video camera attachment, one of the early ones that you had to look at your TV to see what you were filming. It had manual focus and a ten foot cable. I used that to make movies. It was two hours of picture and sound for $8 and you could erase it if you didn’t like it. I shot my brothers and sisters with it. Filmed all these little home movies that were pre-cursors to Spy Kids, action comedies. So from 12 on I’d been making movies like that, editing in my room between two VCRs. It hasn’t changed since, I still edit in my bedroom.
How would twelve-year-old you respond to the challenges you are throwing out there?
It was so hard for me to find like-minded filmmakers. That’s why I was such buddies with Quentin [Tarantino] right away. When I went to a film festival, I didn’t even know anyone else who made movies. It was the really early stages of home movie making on video. When I met somebody else it was like we were long lost brothers. ‘You do this too? No one in my town does this.’ Now it’s so much more common.
The 12-year-old me — I was always writing directors and sending them my movies and hoping they would respond. I would go to the studio. Now I know now they were never going to see it. I’ve gone to some of those filmmakers since and said:
‘I sent you a tape when I was 14.’
‘I never got it.’
‘It had a letter and everything.’
‘Now I want to see this film.’
‘I can show it to you, I’ve still got it.’
I would probably be very eager to give it a shot. The 12-year-old me would not have known this technology existed where you can just send in an idea and people would actually see it. I was just sending stuff out in blind faith. That director would have needed to have a staff to read all that stuff. But we do have a staff.
How will you review the submissions?
I have people who will filter out the serious ones from the not-serious ones. I’ll get to look at those. It will be very easy to flip through drawings and conceptual stuff and say ‘I don’t even know who this is, but I like this, I like that.’ That’s how I do things in general when I work with a team of artists. I don’t know who submitted what. I just look at all of them and say, ‘This is exactly what I didn’t even know I wanted. This is it. Who’s was it? Bring that guy to me and I’ll work with him some more.’
Are you excited about it?
Yeah, this is just what I do normally with actors and other people. A lot of the time I work with new people. Some of the people I get most excited about are local actors who have never acted before. We’re doing a scene with Robert De Niro but the guy that he’s talking to we can’t bring him from L.A. We have to cast locally and I go with interesting people who come in and they audition. They might not even say it right, but they’ve just got an energy that I like and suddenly they’re pushed into acting with an Oscar-winning actor. They achieve something. So I get most excited about giving people a chance who are just there out of blind faith and really hard even for a menial job. They work beyond what a normal person would do. They stand out and you give them a shot that changes their life.
What do you think about the level of talent that’s out there?
It’s staggering. People send me stuff all the time — a lot of great work. drawings and painting and short films, demos, people wanting to act. Now this is their chance. They’re always like, ‘Can you please put me in a movie?’ Well here’s your chance. Send me your tape. If it’s up to muster, you can be in the movie.
Do you have any insider tips for readers of HUCK who want to send you their work?
Just make it very imaginative, really creative, different from what you would normally expect. You want to stand out so you want to go a little off centre. Down the centre might work too though. It’s hard for me to tell. I’m not really going to know until I see it.
Sometimes with the actors I choose people say, ‘Wow. How did you think to cast that actor?’ Something about them just spoke to me for that project. It’s very subjective. It’s just what will click with everything else. You just never know.
Just do a good job. That’s got to get you in the door. Even if you can’t draw that well, you can tell when somebody’s really put some thought into it.
Don’t be safe. You’ll probably stand out more. Unless everyone is not safe and there’s only one person who is safe and it’s the better one. I don’t want to put any parameters on it because you never know. Everybody else might be so off-the-wall wacky that the one who’s just dead solid might be the one that wins because it plays better with the girls.
It’s all up to the artist.