Flashback – Interview: Robert Rodriguez on “Spy Kids 2: The Island of Lost Dreams”

This article originally appeared in The Daily Texan on August 9, 2002, along with a sidebar on Rodriguez’s student comic strip “Los Hooligans.” In honor of this week’s release of “Spy Kids 4: All the Time in the World” on DVD and Blu-ray, I thought it would be fun to recall the second film in the series, which ultimately proved to be a significant step in the development of digital cinema that’s become predominant in the years since. But forgive it for sounding as though it was written by a college sophomore.

“Cool,” squealed a young boy who caught a glimpse of something out of the corner of his eye in the lobby of the Stephen F. Austin IntercontinentalHotel in downtown Austin. A pass form the Austin Film Society’s premiere of “Spy Kids 2” dangled around his neck as he vaulted himself from the opening doors of the hotel’s elevator to the small helicopter parked in the middle of the lobby. The boy lunged toward the helicopter, which had a small placard sitting beside it proclaiming it to be a prop used in “Spy Kids 2: The Island of Lost Dreams.” But prop or not, the young boy could’ve cared less, buzzing about the spycopter as he made a 360 around it and zoomed back into the elevator.

“What’s funny is when I was doing national press, an older gentleman said, ‘You know what one of my favorite things in the movie was? The spycopter. I always wanted one of those,’” said Robert Rodriguez, the visionary behind “Spy Kids” and its sequel. “That’s why I called it ‘The Island of Lost Dreams,’ because even adults who take their kids will remember all their childhood ideas, especially the treehouse with the helicopter pad and the elevator running through the trunk. You remember everything you wanted as a kid? It’s all in there.”

In fact, everything including Rodriguez’s quick wit and the kitchen sink are in “Spy Kids 2,” the $38 million followup to the film that gave Rodriguez his biggest hit to date and the children’s film genre a new standard. Once again, the film follows Carmen and Juni Cortez, the pugnacious siblings played by Alexa Vega and Daryl Sabara, on a mission to rescue a shielding device called the Transmooker. True to form, Rodriguez loads the film with nearly 1050 special effects shots (more than the amount in FX-heavy films like the remake of “Planet of the Apes,” which Rodriguez turned down to make the first “Spy Kids”) and enough gadgets to widen the eyes of kids and their parents all over again.

Still, the most fun of the gadgetry on set might have been the digital cameras Rodriguez himself got to use offscreen. With the first film, the director might’ve started a crusade for better quality in children’s entertainment, a cause he took up after the birth of his three sons, Rocket, Racer and Rebel. But with “Spy Kids 2,” Rodriguez is helping to hold the line on a different sort of revolution, one that will impact the future of film.

Along with George Lucas, Rodriguez is spearheading a campaign to eliminate the literal term “film” from the lexicon and replace it with high definition digital video, the format used for only two films this year – Lucas’ “Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones” and “Spy Kids 2.”

Together, the two auteurs have become the poster children for the digital age in moviemaking, using what Rodriguez coined in a recent New York Times article as “tricked out” Sony digital cameras. What Lucas and Rodriguez have been doing for months has become the subject of intense scrutiny in the film industry because of its look onscreen and the possible ramifications the technology may have on the industry’s economics. Incidentally, Rodriguez now claims that his first film “El Mariachi,” with a price tag of $5000, that turned heads back in 1993 could’ve been made now for a fraction of that cost on digital video.

“Francis Ford Coppola has also been shooting in HD, and we were having dinner together [with George Lucas], he turns to me and says, ‘It’s no surprise to me that all three guys that are shooting in HD all live outside of Hollywood,’” said Rodriguez. “And that’s the trick. If you live outside of Hollywood, you’ll come up with ways to do things that just make perfect sense, and everyone in Hollywood is so closed-minded in doing the same thing over and over again. It’s like when you go off into the world and you make your mark and you come to visit your old hometown and you see your high school buddies driving on the same streets, doing the same stuff. That’s Hollywood.”

Bill Paxton, the veteran character actor whose collaborations with James Cameron (“Titanic,” “True Lies”) have produced some of the biggest special effects movies ever, credited Rodriguez with bringing him up to speed.

“Between him and Cameron, these are the two guys who are bringing me into the 21st century,” said the actor, who appears in “Spy Kids 2” as a sleazy theme park owner. “They’re also both completely hands-on filmmakers, and they’re capable of doing every job on set. If you’re not there, they’ll beat you to the switch and I came from that school of filmmaking. I worked for Roger Corman and made my own Super 8 films, which sounds so old, so I’ve always appreciated that.”

Incidentally, Rodriguez’s proving ground for the new technology comes in the form of the most Hollywood of all possible movies – the sequel. “Spy Kids 2” wasn’t a challenge for Rodriguez because the idea for one had been running through his mind ever since he envisioned the first film. Even before “Spy Kids” rang up a $35 million opening in March of 2001, “Spy Kids 2” was already greenlit by Dimension Films, a rarity in the film industry. Still, Rodriguez had the challenge of shooting on digital on such a large scale, in addition to trying to make a better film than the first.

“If you’re doing one just to do one, then you’re working, and I don’t ever want to work,” Rodriguez said. “None of these films are work. Even though my name is on there [in the credits] 12 times, I never felt like I worked one day the whole time I made this movie.

“And I know I had a good story for it because I had been working on it for a long time,” Rodriguez continued. “I had a lot of ideas for “Spy Kids” and had to take a lot of them out because they didn’t fit in the first storyline. In the first movie, they just barely become spies, so really it’s like the pilot episode of a big TV series. With this, you’ve got a family dynamic, so as the family grows and experiences things, the movies grow also and the character world grows, so you can go on any adventure you want.”

However, this adventure proved to be much more time consuming to the filmmaker than the first. Though Paxton was only trying to make an example of Rodriguez’s tireless commitment to the picture when he talked about his “hands-on” approach to filmmaking, even he was surprised to learn of the writer/director’s 11 credits on the “Spy Kids” sequel, including editor, special effects supervisor and composer, among others. The result was a picture that had to meet the goal of both pioneering the digital age of film, a topic that has harsh critics, and to please Rodriguez’s harshest and even more fickle critics — kids.

RobertRodriguezSpyKids“Kids watch these movies over and over again,” Rodriguez said. “So I really knew my audience was going to watch this movie literally 100 times, and I thought one movie wasn’t going to be enough. I’m going to make it four movies in one because if they’re going to watch it so many times, each time they watch it, they’ll pick up something new. So I always put a lot of my favorite things into it, and I wanted to work with so many actors, and I got them all in it. And I knew, even though that opening sequence lasts only eight minutes, the kids can still dream about that place forever. They’ll have so many ideas after, so it lasts longer as a movie in their own minds than it does onscreen, which is fine, because you really just want to spark the imagination of a kid.”

Although Rodriguez’s primary audience is children, the original “Spy Kids” and its sequel are just as appealing to adults, something that Danny Trejo, a veteran of five Rodriguez films including the upcoming “Once Upon a Time in Mexico,” summed up best.

“After reading the script for ‘Spy Kids,’ I knew that thing thing was going to be huge,” Trejo said. “And I didn’t even think it was going to be as big as it became, but Robert had a knack for it. It’s not like an adult movie that kids can see. This is a kids’ movie that adults can really like.”

Almost regardless of how successful “Spy Kids 2” is this weekend, Rodriguez has already finished a script for “Spy Kids 3,” which is currently in preproduction at Dimension. Sure to film in Austin as the last two “Spy Kids” adventures have, Rodriguez is keeping mum on who or what the next journey will entail, but he’s certainly excited about it, something he wasn’t completely sold on a few months ago.

“I had two right away. I didn’t know I’d have a third for three, but I had such a great hook – kids who were spies. I thought that’s the best hook you’ve heard since a kid’s left home alone, and two burglars try and get in. That was only good for two movies. So I thought two movies would be enough. I didn’t want to run out of ideas and then do a third one just to do it. I don’t need the money. The studio doesn’t need the money. I wanted to go out on top and not do some bad excuse for a forgotten three. That’s just a ripoff. But I came up with a really great idea for three, and it comes out next July. I’m even more excited about that than these other two.”

And there’s at least one young boy in Austin who’s as excited as Rodriguez is.

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