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Robert Rodriguez On We Can Be Heroes And Joining The Star Wars Universe - Exclusive Interview

Over the course of his long career, Robert Rodriguez has amassed a resume that bursts with diversity. He has written and directed several intense and stylish films for mature viewers. Some of his biggest hits — Machete, Sin City, and El Mariachi, for example — are no-hold-barred cinematic rollercoaster rides that feature compelling characters who make their stories memorable. Yet as much as he's known for films geared toward adult audiences, Rodriguez's treasure trove of family films has also helped him garner a wealth of fans.

With Spy Kids and The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl among his kid-friendly flicks, Rodriguez released the made-for-Netflix movie We Can Be Heroes in December 2020, which pulls in the Sharkboy and Lavagirl characters into a world where kids with an array of superpowers engage in an epic — and, of course, heroic — adventure. The fun and fantastic magic the movie offers has already resulted in plans for a sequel.

In an exclusive interview with Looper, Rodriguez talks about reuniting after 15 years with Lavagirl actor Taylor Dooley, as well as the power that comes from working with kids — including his own children. He also got to dive into the Star Wars universe, directing an episode of The Mandalorian, and he shares the excitement that gave him as a director as well as a fan.

Sharkboy and Lavagirl are all grown up

It's been 15 years since The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl. What was it like for you to come back to these characters after so long?

It was so fun. It wasn't intentional to come back to them in particular, because it was a new film. Netflix came to me and said, "We loved the Spy Kids and Sharkboy movies. Those all played really great on our service." Then they asked, "Could you could come up with a family film, in that vein, something new for that audience?" I loved the idea. I loved making those films. They just didn't seem as viable for the theater because parents would maybe take their kids to see them once or twice. But if the kids could drive themselves, they'd be going every day because when they would finally come out on video, they would watch them over and over on TV.

Over the years, people just watched them a lot, so I was excited about doing something like that for Netflix where it could go right to the audience. If my daughter wants to watch Glitter Force, I don't have to take her to a theater. She can click on it on Netflix and watch it over and over and over.

And then We Can Be Heroes was born?

Yes, I came up with a new idea, We Can Be Heroes, wrote the script. And as I came up with it — my kids are now old enough — we all got to work together on it. And we came up with all of these characters. Originally we had 16 kids with so many different abilities. I kept wishing that one of them could have shark strength. I thought, "Wow, we cracked the code on that 15 years ago." That thing [Sharkboy and Lavagirl] was such a great, empowering idea my son had come up with when he was the same age as the little girl who plays Guppy [in this new movie]. He was that age when he came up with Sharkboy and Lavagirl.

It's great that you can collaborate with your kids.

When a kid comes up with an idea, it speaks right to what it is they want. They need empowerment at that age and feel like they could do anything, and they are looking for wish fulfillment. So I'd already turned the script in, and we were getting ready to make it, and I went to Netflix and I said, "Can we maybe do what Marvel did when they borrowed Spider-Man from Sony?" The plan was to borrow Sharkboy and Lavagirl and have them be adults. They would legitimize my adult superhero team, which has characters you've never heard of, like Miracle Guy and Blinding Fast. To see Sharkboy and Lavagirl in there, people in pop culture have heard that name somehow, even if they never saw that movie. That would make it feel like a legit team. But then also, selfishly, I could have one of the kid characters be their child and have their combined powers.

It's not a Sharkboy and Lavagirl sequel, though?

It became an unofficial sequel even though it doesn't really work as a sequel because in the original film, they existed in the dream world, and in the new one, they're just real — Sharkboy and Lavagirl just exist.

You got Taylor Dooley to return as Lavagirl.

Yes. It was very fun. I didn't even have to use the original actors because the story is more about the kids, not the parents so much. But when they called Taylor and asked if she'd be interested — and told her she wouldn't even have to dye her hair and could wear a wig — she said "No, no. I'm dying my hair. I'm Lavagirl. I've been wanting to go back to that color." It's now become a popular color. It wasn't back in the day. We had to concoct it, and now there are all kinds of versions of that color that you can find readily available. And she totally went for it, and it was really fun.

Did you ever have a Sharkboy and Lavagirl sequel in mind?

Oh, I loved that film. I always wanted to do something with it, either a sequel, reboot or maybe an animated film — something with them still as kids, not adults. That just came out making this film, and it worked because now those actors are old enough to have their own kids — Taylor has two, in fact. It actually worked out really well.

Technology has evolved a lot since Sharkboy and Lavagirl. Did that affect the making of Heroes in any way?

Not necessarily. I like being scrappy. And a lot of the ideas that are always in these films are just really clever, two-dollar effects. I like that kind of storytelling, and being creative and childlike in that way is what I love about making these films. You tap into that part of the imagination where you can make things really happen and feel very profound. And they're really simple. It's so simple that an adult film would never put those techniques in there because it would seem like they're cheating — it's too easy. But it works really well in this kind of thing. Those clever ideas sometimes stand out the most.

Working with kids is something the director doesn't take for granted

You seem to love directing kids. What about it resonates with you?

You get to use your total imagination. You can't quite put all of these ideas in a grownup film. The colors are brighter. The watercolors come out. The shapes can be very interesting and fun. The jokes are aimed at the whole family. Not many people get the privilege to get to work in the duality they live in. We all have our lives outside of the kids that's Machete or Sin City — more rated R — and then we have the hat we put on when we're with our children. You have to pick one or the other. You don't have both. So for me to get to do big action stuff and then turn around and do something that's closer to me is great. I come from a family of 10 kids. I have five kids of my own. What I've learned through parenting and being a sibling and a son, through family, that whole part of your life doesn't usually get to be in your work.

It's a great opportunity that you have.

I'm glad I had set up early on to be able to capitalize on that in some way, because that's so much of what you care about more. Like it shows in the movie, partnering with your children, teaching them, mentoring them so that they can be better than us and they can come save the world that we've obviously screwed up really bad. I wanted that to be the message that they got in a very fun way — and in a family way where you could see characters that they could model themselves after, and see a path, and see a mythology.

Is that mentoring aspect one of the biggest things you want people to take away from Heroes?

Yeah, and help them through leadership and leading by example. That's why you see the little girl and the dad. By the end, they're a team. She's like, "No. You're not going anywhere without me. I'm going to be there," because they're partnering, and they've become partners. And a lot of times, we're taught to parent like, "That's me telling you." And it's much better to lead by example and for a kid to see how you move through the world and you be the better self so that they can be an even better self, and I saw that happening in the film.

My kids all worked on the movie. My son, who is 20, had written some scores for me in other movies, little low-budget things just on keyboard. I brought him along with the idea that I was going to mentor him and say "Hey, I've done orchestral scores, so come write with me; that way, you learn orchestral writing. You can write some of the music. You can do as much as you want." He came in, and he wrote the first big piece when the aliens are fighting the humans, and it was so incredible and beyond my level of writing that I told him, "The good news is this is fantastic. I thought you were going to give me a kid's score, so it sounded like a kid wrote it." And the joke was it is more sophisticated than anything I could write, and it sounded like John Williams or something.

I also said, "The problem is I can't write with you now because you've set the bar too high, so you're going to have to write the whole score, and I'll just keep you fed, and I'll be your assistant." I couldn't help. I wrote the dorky parent music. That's about all I could muster. Everything else, I was just in his shadow now. I saw that happening in real-time in front of me — that our kids do surpass us if you partner with them early, mentor, and have a relationship where you are challenging them. And they blow past those challenges that you thought you licked at a certain age, and they just blow right past them because they're just so much more evolved.

Was there anything notable that happened on set with any of the kids you would want to mention?

There were so many fun things. A lot of the things really happen when you cast properly. You hire the right kids, and then a lot of the writing gets finished when they show up because then you see them in costume, you see them there. And the little girl who was playing Guppy, she was so tiny. She was younger than the other ones and still had all her baby teeth. She looked like she was five even though she had just turned seven. I thought, "She has to be the one to flip the guards and kick them across the room, and then we'll call it shark strength." I came up with that the day before we filmed it. I really changed it on the spot. Just seeing what's in front of you, you see the magic that's there, and then you shift things around. That's why I have to be the writer, the director, the editor, the cameraman, the DP.

And it can be as fluid as you want it to be?

It's fluid because it has to be super fluid because it's just going to change daily. And then how I'd get her to react to things is by engaging with her. All the other kids were so much older than her. They played video games on their phones, and she didn't even have a phone, much less know what they were doing. She'd have her little thing of Go Fish and this other game called Avocado Smash and always looked so sad. No one would play with her. "I'll play with you." I miss that age. My kids grew past that. I want that time period back. I'd have her mom videotape us, so I'd have some record of me getting one last chance to play with my cinematic granddaughter.

I would use that to get reactions out of her. There's nothing there to react to, so I'm saying, "Look on the screen, and you're cheering for your parents, and they're not there." So she'd cheer, and I'd say, "Okay. Pretend it's Avocado Smash," that other card game. She goes, "Avocado Smash!" I'd get the big reaction out of her that I needed. So I'd use those games to trigger a good response.

Boba Fett is Rodriguez's favorite Star Wars character

You've now worked with Pedro Pascal in Heroes and in the episode of The Mandalorian you directed. What was it like watching him bring different things to the table?

Oh, it was so fun. He's from San Antonio also. I grew up there, so we had that connection. And I can immediately see why he's got such a wide range of work he can do. He reminds me of George Clooney, who I'd worked with before, or like a Harrison Ford type. Very much like an everyman who can have a lot of range, like George can be a pediatrician on ER or he can be a killer in Dusk Till Dawn, and he can do everything in between.

Pedro's like that. He's got that wide range because you can just identify with him. He's very charismatic and just kind of cool and feels like an everyman, like somebody that anyone could identify with. And that's very valuable, and he's got such a wide range. He can play any role, and you'd go with him on it. He's just so fantastic. So yeah, that was fun. It was fun to work with him on both teams.

You directed what a lot of fans consider the most upsetting episode of The Mandalorian.

I read the script and saw the art a year prior, and I thought to myself when I first read it, "In a year from now, a lot of people are going to have a lot of feelings about this."

How did it feel to take on a big responsibility in the Stars Wars universe?

It was just fun. You get to go and play, plus [The Mandalorian series creator] Jon Favreau and [executive producer] Dave Filoni [are] there. Those guys are masters. And [Star Wars franchise creator] George Lucas, I've known for a long time. The material is just so rich and funny that it doesn't even feel like work. You're going there to play with Star Wars action figures. And I was a big Star Wars fan when I was a kid. Boba Fett was my favorite character when I was 12 because The Empire Strikes Back came out, and I just loved that character. So I couldn't believe it when he sent me a script that had Boba Fett in it. I thought, "What? What kind of world is this where I get to relive my childhood and make the characters super badass?"

You and Quentin Tarantino have a notable friendship and working relationship. Do you plan to collaborate again in the future?

Oh my gosh. I haven't gotten to see him with all this COVID stuff. I haven't seen him in so long. I haven't seen him since the Cannes premiere of his last movie, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. I'll have to ask him that next time I see him. But I think, I don't know if it's true, he says he's got one more movie left. I'm sure if he's going to do one more movie, it should be all his, not me sneaking in there.

Do you have anything else coming up?

I'm about to shoot a movie in April, hopefully. Who knows anymore? Things change so quickly with COVID. But supposedly in May, I'm shooting a Hitchcock-type thriller called Hypnotic that I wrote.