After nearly a decade, visionary Robert Rodriguez has made a comeback to the genre that arguably boosted his mass appeal to unparalleled heights. His contemporary spins on the Western from the 90s are masterworks in their own right, but Rodriguez wouldn’t start to firmly control the zeitgeist until Spy Kids came along. A filmmaker that could tell unabashed, nuanced stories heavily rooted in genre for both modern adults and children? The moviegoers of the 2000s couldn’t get enough, leading to a truly unruly run of films (The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl and Sin City were released only a few months apart… let that sink in). Fast forward to today and the filmmaker now has the El Rey television network to his name, a new Star Wars series on the way, and an extremely devoted fan campaign to launch a sequel to Alita: Battle Angel. Rodriguez has kept busy, to say the least, but as fate would have it, his long-awaited return to family films is as timely as ever.
Netflix released We Can Be Heroes to millions of starved viewers on Christmas Day. There was almost no holiday movie season in 2020, but thanks to streaming, the communal film-watching experience was salvaged. The competition was high with Wonder Woman 1984 on HBO Max and Soul on Disney+, but it’s safe to say that Netflix played their cards right. In many ways a return to form, We Can Be Heroes brings back what everyone loved about Rodriguez’s older films while telling a story for the moviegoers of today. When a group of superheroes surprisingly fail to defend earth from an alien threat for the first time, who else but their super-powered children to clean up the mess? In true Rodriguez fashion, a Latin family is at the heart of this tale. The duo of Pedro Pascal and YaYa Gosselin play the father-daughter leaders of the heroes, who happen to be the only ones without superpowers. What the two learn from themselves and each other makes for one of the most wholesome and endearing family viewings of the year.
Rodriguez strikes a balance between his signature style and new thematic ground, something that couldn’t feel more refreshing after such a long break from the genre (his last family outing being 2011’s Spy Kids: All the Time in the World). The spotlight was already on Rodriguez this holiday season for being the first Latin director in Star Wars with The Mandalorian. We Can Be Heroes, being as good as it is, has naturally spread this acclaim and amidst all the noise, we were able to sit down with the man of the hour himself for an exclusive interview. How does one start such a conversation, perhaps somewhere sweet? To kick it off, with it almost being a decade in the making, we asked Rodriguez how his warm-received return to family films has felt so far.
Robert Rodriguez: “You know, I love these types of films. I love making them. It just didn’t really make sense in the business of theatrical because even though the kids love those movies, they watched them mostly at home. Because the parents are only able to take them one or two times if the kids really begged and, you know, they couldn’t drive themselves to the theater. Otherwise, they would’ve seen them a lot more. So the parents had said, ‘Wait till you watch it at home.’ Then kids would watch it so much and there was no way to keep track of how many times they watched, it didn’t affect their box office. So business-wise, it didn’t make as much sense to make them until Netflix came to me, even though I love making them – they’re my favorite films to make.
They came to me and said: those movies did really well at our service. We’d love you to make us one. I was like, wow, that’s cool. Now the kids can just watch it as many times as they want and you can keep track of it. They don’t have to drive themselves to the theater or have their parents drive them down. Now we’ll really know how much they watch them. So I really loved being able to return to it. My kids are older now, so they can all work on the movie with me and we just made it a big family project. And it was just a blast. It was the most fun I had making anything ever. So many kids… I come from a family of ten kids so eleven kids in every shot, that was easy for me.
Any director might go like, ‘Yeah, I don’t know about that’, but I just loved it. Coming up with so many different superpowers and creating so many characters with my kids… I can’t even call it work. Now everyone got to see it on Christmas, just like on their own timetable. It just worked out perfectly now that the theater business isn’t really even viable at this moment. I would have to wait until next year sometime if they even show it. I’m glad it could come out.”
Of course, when Netflix first proposed this project to Rodriguez, there was no predicting where the film industry would currently be under the ongoing pandemic. It seems as if there has almost been “industry shattering” news for the last few weeks as 2020 wraps up. More and more studios are moving chess pieces in an effort to stay viable in the new year. The pandemic may have very well changed the cinema landscape, but at least Rodriguez came out almost unscathed. He finished post-production for We Can Be Heroes from home, meeting the holiday streaming deadline, but as he tells us, things could have been very different.
Robert Rodriguez: “I did take it to a couple of studios just to see if there was interest, and they were interested. They all had seen the value of the Shark Boy and Lava Girl action-type movies. But to me, I thought about it and, gosh, I just came back to that same thing. How many times can the kids really see it in the theater? The parents will only take him so many times. Then they just get to see it at home, but we won’t know they’re watching it and it won’t affect our box office. So I chose Netflix. Now, of course, I’m glad I did, but also just so that the availability was there for the kids to watch it again and again, for families to just be able to get it immediately as an exclusive.”
Moving the conversation to the devoted audience of his family films, he’s said before that they are some of his most “rabid” fans. Upon bringing this direct quote up, he made sure to stop and clarify the distinction he made.
Robert Rodriguez: “I meant that my most rabid fans are the kids themselves. Because you may watch From Dusk Till Dawn a bunch of times, but you’re not watching that as many times as a kid watches Spy Kids. So that’s what I meant. Those are my most rabid audiences. That’s why I loved making those films for them.”
We Can Be Heroes carries this same high replay value for children but also draws in an older crowd. Many first caught attention of the film from the return of Sharkboy and Lavagirl – two staple characters in the Rodriguez canon. The kids who were first introduced to them in 2005 are now adults, and as proved by their everlasting popularity, will still take the time to come back to these characters even after so long. In many instances, they will be watching We Can Be Heroes with the inclusion of younger siblings or friends who have yet to be exposed to Rodriguez’s work (or who just learned of him thanks to the return of Boba Fett). Bridging generational gaps is what We Can Be Heroes is about both on and off the screen. Rodriguez gave further elaboration on the topic.
Robert Rodriguez: “The things that I loved about those films, we tried to put that in here. It has a lot of plot twists because kids are just discovering plot twists for the first time. So always keep them guessing because kids like to try to figure things out in advance and I purposely planted several plot twists. Some of them that have zero clues, so you don’t see them coming just to get kids excited about the power of storytelling and how fun it can be. Empowerment is really big with kids. So that’s what really made Spy Kids and Sharkboy and Lavagirl, for instance, work really well for kids. They crave empowerment at that age. To be half-boy and half-shark is like one of the most empowering things you can think of. Or to have your own jet pack and fly yourself to the movie theater instead of having to have mom and dad drive you there, as the Spy Kids could do – that’s really empowering. That’s why they just eat those movies up. But sometimes parents don’t know why they like it so much, because parents are already empowered. They can get in the car and go anywhere they want, kids can’t. So they crave that.
So it was more putting it in that mold, just remembering what it was like to have kids. I was just one of ten, and then now that I had my own five kids, seeing them and seeing what they gravitated towards – all those experiences, mainly of being a father, went into this film. Where the first films I had made, those were more about my experiences growing up in a big family. This film was more my experience as a parent, having raised kids that are now grown and taking those experiences and putting them in there. That’s why the storyline is much more about partnering with your child and mentoring, leading by example so that the kids are strong enough to surpass this because they need to, because we obviously screwed the world up. They need to come and take the world. It’s about preparing them for a future that needs their positivity and their new outlook, a better outlook than we have.”
When making a family film, one has to keep the attention of viewers from all ages (even mom and dad). We Can Be Heroes boasts the recognizable charm seen in all of Rodriguez’s family adventures. That tongue-in-cheek humor and level of unapologetic self-awareness. Though, unlike his other films, this tale features some humor directly geared at today’s young generation. An inside joke here and there that might be unheard of to older ears.
Robert Rodriguez: “Yeah, you try not to date things too much, but there are some things that are kind of timeless. So you try to find something that is still going to play 20 years from now. Because people still see Spy Kids now. They still watch that today and you don’t want it to feel too dated. So you try to find stuff that’s not too timely but could possibly be timeless.”
Moving the conversation to his own kids, Rodriguez’s attitude changed. The tone of a proud filmmaker turned into one of a proud father. Rebel and Racer Rodriguez are the two kids in discussion. Multi-talented artists in their own right, Racer first grew to popularity for being the creator of Sharkboy and Lavagirl and basis for that film, while Rebel’s face became known for briefly appearing in his dad’s films (more notably as little Tony in Planet Terror). Now the three all work on projects together, and it’s only fitting for the two sons to play key roles in We Can Be Heroes. Racer is credited as a producer as Rebel took on the new role of composer. Rodriguez was excited to talk more.
Robert Rodriguez: “He composed a VR film that I did with Michelle Rodriguez and Norman Reedus. I wrote it with Racer, it’s called The Limit and it’s a 20-minute film. That was just keyboard-based. Then he did a $7,000 film I just did a couple of years ago, Red 11 coming out pretty soon. And that was, again, a synth-based thing. So just like in the movie [We Can Be Heroes], I just wanted to mentor and train him into doing something orchestral. I was going to write the score again, as I did with the Spy Kids movies, and I said: come learn with me, come write some pieces with me, see what you can do!
He had been playing piano since he was five. So he was a much better piano player than me. He took some YouTube courses on theory and before I could even get to it, he wrote the whole big piece when the aliens attack the parents, capture them, and whisk them off. It was five minutes and felt huge. I thought by bringing him on the score that it would sound more kid-like. And the joke was that he ended up doing something so sophisticated, it was beyond what I could write (laughs). I just thought, ‘Oh my god, I can’t even write this. How did you do this? I couldn’t even figure out how you did it!’ So it became very much apparent that he would have to write the entire score. And I would just be his assistant and keep him fed. His eyes were as big as saucers when he realized he was going to have to do it all himself. He asked, how do I do that? One cue at a time, he chipped away at it. So he locked himself in his room and for weeks on end, it started getting easier. He started getting better. Even the conductor was like, this is a magnificent score, I can’t believe you’re 20!”
Not many know that almost all of the memorable music from Rodriguez’s films is also written by him. The slick guitar riffs are the first to come to mind, and We Can Be Heroes carries similar motifs, but from the mind of his son Rebel. No more needs to be said other than it runs in the family, fitting for a film of this nature and subtext.
Robert Rodriguez: “By challenging our kids, they can surpass us. It’s one of the things I learned by making these films. I would challenge the child actors on my family films so much that I thought, I need to do that more with my own kids, which we tend not to challenge our own children very much. I throw them in the fire like that and I didn’t intend to, but he was just so good. The only cues that I wrote were just when the parents were locked in the cell and the dorky parent music is playing, that was me (laughs).
I had become the parent for real, you know, in this situation where I was just the idiot parent compared to him. So yeah, it goes both ways here: when the story you’re actually trying to tell becomes the story in the making of the movie. It just floored me, what he did. He took over much faster than I expected, but that’s what the story in the movie is telling, you know? The kids are going to be better than that. The kids have to come save the world. The kids have to show that they’re better than the parents because they are. They’re more evolved. He was much more into the technology and was able to figure things out much faster than I could. He just wrote circles around me. And I was there to teach him and he totally schooled me at 20. I was like, Damn, I’m going to keep my head on the ground. That’s it. I’m out.”
Many regard Rodriguez as a modern pioneer in gaining the title of “the one-man film crew.” Yes, he writes, directs, and even scores his own work, but he also plays the role of cinematographer, editor, and whatever else may be needed in post. An ace of all trades, one has to wonder how nice it must be to take a break in Rodriguez time. Even with all of these responsibilities, he is always pushing himself further. Exploring new territory and technology to make something different. The case is no different here and he’s gone on record to say that this is the most difficult family outing he’s made yet – just from the sheer size of the young ensemble. The screen at many points is filled with a slew of characters doing many things at the same time, for long sequences at that. We asked how he overcame the challenges of working with an ensemble of eleven kids.
Robert Rodriguez: “After the first week, I was like, I need a really big screen TV on set that I can watch whatever each kid is doing – making sure that like one isn’t picking their nose or isn’t looking at the camera; just to see because there’s just so much going on and you don’t usually have that many. Even if you’re doing an Avengers-type movie, they have all the Avengers split up into groups, they don’t have them in every scene together. It’s just too many people. Eleven? You would never do that! But this was a Genesis story. I had to show them going from the classroom, all the way to the end together. So not much splitting up at all. And we only had six hours a day to film them. We had half the time you would normally have on a shoot day because they’re children and they’re all in the same shot.
So I had to operate the camera still, be the DP, be the editor, be visual effects because you have to be very fluid and you have to move very fast and know exactly what you were getting. It was very challenging in that way, but fun because I had fantastic kids. They’re all so good. That made it easier, that I was just able to find that caliber of acting. But it was a head-scratcher for the first week, trying to figure out how to pull this off. But in the end, you have to challenge yourself. ‘I have to make this work even if I have no idea how.’ If you know too much of how you’re going to do things, then you’re probably not challenging yourself enough. It’s probably something that you’ve done before. You have to push. You have to fear it a little bit – to be afraid, to be worth your while.”
Rodriguez’s filmography boasts films with, without a doubt, some of the most dedicated fan bases out there. Whether it be from his ‘Grindhouse’ films like Machete or family outings like Spy Kids, fans are always asking for more. One group, in particular, has made the headlines, the Alita Army. Fans of Alita: Battle Angel have united and made their cry for a sequel heard. Whether it be by dominating social trends or by flying a plane over the Academy Awards, the Army has now become a household name within fandom itself. Rodriguez, of course, has expressed the desire to make a sequel, but these decisions are rarely up to the filmmakers themselves.
So instead of asking something we know the answer to already, we took a different route. Rodriguez was clearly familiar with the Alita fans when brought up. Just from seeing such massive support, whether it be from the Alita Army or other long-time fans, we asked how such a loud presence influences his drive for storytelling. What kind of inspiration he gets in return from the audience.
Robert Rodriguez: “I mean, you tell a story, ultimately, so people can enjoy it. And I hope they do. If they are affected by it enough that they would take the time to go and start a campaign, that’s like next level. And it’s so impressive and heartwarming because you went and did that really because you also loved the material the same way and you felt it was worth the number of years you’re going to put in to make it. So when it’s validated by an audience, even though, you know, there were problems during the release stages [of Alita], the studio [Fox] had just gotten bought by other people. It wasn’t the perfect time to come out with it, but that the fans still didn’t let anyone forget that they loved that movie. It’s almost better than having a movie that does really well but no one remembers in six to eight years.
To have a movie that didn’t do as well, but people are still holding the torch for… I mean, that’s all my movies. From Dusk Till Dawn didn’t do that well at the box office, it was number one the first weekend but then it fell off really quick. It made like $25 million, that’s a bomb in today’s world. Yet people talk about it and really watch that movie endlessly. Desperado, the same thing, or Machete, Spy Kids – they were not at the success you would think they were based on how much they were watched. So that’s the corner of the world of business that I operated. I’m happy because people are always coming up to me saying that they still watch those films. That means a lot more than how much they made initially. I would rather be remembered and just be less successful at the box office than be forgotten.”
Closing off on those powerful words, we couldn’t help but bring up our conversation with Danny Trejo from earlier in the year. Fans still come up to the veteran actor asking for Machete Kills in Space. Trejo is obviously down to return, but then again, if only making a desired sequel was always so easy.
Robert Rodriguez: “We tried to make it in the trailer. We said: let’s just make the trailer. That will satisfy people because they’ll see enough of it in the trailer. They’ll go, ‘Okay I already saw that movie.’ But no, they still keep asking anyway (laughs)!”
The future of the film industry is somewhat foggy, with many studios putting all their cards into streaming and no exact proof of how long that can sustain itself. COVID-19 vaccines are beginning to make their way around the globe, giving the theatrical experience a light at the end of the tunnel. There’s frankly too much in the air at this point in time, but seeing how there are more avenues to get niche projects off the ground (like the Snyder Cut and HBO Max), who knows, maybe fans could get Machete Kills in Space or the Alita sequel in the distant future? But for now, viewers should revel in We Can He Heroes and the exciting projects Rodriguez has in store.
Rodriguez is currently developing a contemporary Zorro series at NBC with his sister Rebecca and Sofia Vergara. He also joins Jon Favreau and Dave Filoni in creating The Book of Boba Fett, a new Star Wars series that has already begun shooting. It is currently unknown if he is also tackling directing duties, but it would only seem fit seeing as he played a big hand in bringing the character back into the fold. His $7,000 film Red 11, as he mentioned, will be releasing soon on Tubi along with his new docuseries, The Robert Rodriguez Film School. And it goes without saying that a follow-up to We Can Be Heroes on Netflix is also on the table. Netflix doesn’t release their precise streaming numbers, but it’s hard to imagine that it didn’t bring millions of families together over Christmas week. Also, who wouldn’t want more Pedro Pascal, superhero dad? And just like Rodriguez said, now they can keep track of how many times people are watching.
It’s a good time to be a fan of Robert Rodriguez. There’s something for everyone to enjoy from the projects on his agenda, and even if the one movie you want him to make isn’t in the pipeline yet, take solace knowing that he’s on the same boat as you. Through all the chaos of 2020, his return to family films feels just right. His place in the cinematic landscape is unlike any other, and knowing that a slew of kids are feeling the same way many felt when they first watched Spy Kids in 2001 is utterly heartwarming. In fact, Rodriguez has released a family picture close to the beginning of the last two decades, each opening the door for what would be a unique era for the filmmaker. The same is happening now and with Rodriguez’s first dab into streaming, he just assured everyone that what’s coming next is going to keep fans on their toes.