Friday, October 31, 2014

Frederick Aldama on Meeting Robert Rodriguez

Part of the fun of Halloween is the opportunity to embody favorite characters from film and pop culture. For most of us, that's the closest we'll get to experiencing the fictional worlds that have inspired and entertained us, but for scholar Frederick Luis Aldama, meeting and interviewing filmmaker Robert Rodriguez for his latest book immersed him in the movie magic he'd admired for decades. We asked him what that was like. Enjoy his guest blog post and some bonus Halloween costume ideas inspired by the cinema of Robert Rodriguez:

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Meeting Robert Rodriguez
By Frederick Luis Aldama

Like all the books I’ve written, The Cinema of Robert Rodriguez had its fair share of scary and even physically painful twists and turns. Like those rollercoaster rides of my younger days, there was a lot of joyful exhilaration thrown into the mix.

Ever since watching El Mariachi and then his short “Bedhead” and then writing a review of Rebel Without a Crew way back when still wet behind the ears, I’ve been fascinated with Rodriguez: his just-do-it approach and his comic-book (or more specifically, his Tex-Avery Cartoon) worldview. He would get the film done, often learning new film techniques in the process and he would go to places that straight-up realist films didn’t. Social mores went out the window and, like the wolf in Tex-Avery’s Droopy cartoons, his characters often defied all natural laws. He was hands-down the most exciting and productive Latino filmmaker out there.

As I wove my way through undergrad and grad school then became a college professor, he was churning out films of all sorts and that had us going to places never before imagined. To date, he’s made over 18 feature films, published a comic book, and runs a Latino-content cable network (El Rey).

The long of the short of it, I knew that at some point in my writing career that I’d sit with his work for a spell to understand more deeply what makes his films tick. I knew too that I wanted to share these discoveries in an accessibly written book.

Now there’s nothing like a carrot dangling at the end of a stick to get me to move. I wrote a draft way sooner than I’d imagined. The motivation: after months of pin-balling my way around nearly blind to secure an interview with Rodriguez, the message got through (and this thanks to Charles Ramírez Berg). The response: if I were to get a draft to Rodriguez pronto (and especially before the whirlwind of El Rey Network), I might get that one-on-one—and maybe even a visit to Troublemaker Studios. 

I wrote a draft of the book and sent it. Sometime later and seemingly out of the blue I got the green light. After some planes, trains, and rental cars I was Troublemaker Studios in Austin.

Ohio State University Professor Frederick Aldama, left, and director Robert Rodriguez, right.
The day before, Rodriguez had received word that he’d get his tax breaks to film Sin City: A Dame to Kill in Austin. The place was abuzz with actors, costumers, CGI animator folks, camera techs, you name it. I could see with my own eyes (even almost touch) all the props used that I’d only been able to see on my various screens: from the Humvee in Planet Terror to Juni and Carmen’s Stormtrooper-like colorful outfits (Spy Kids: Game Over) to Cherrie’s motorbike (Planet Terror) and the gun-toting Padre’s confessional booth (Machete), and much more. 
Photo by Brent Humphreys for The Hollywood Reporter.
There was moment of calm in the eye of this storm of activity. Rodriguez took pause in the middle of his gentle yet take-no-prisoner orchestration of an army of creators, actors, and technicians. With the Aliens vs. Predator mask starring at my back and seated on a bar stool across a bar-turned-office-desk, I got my interview. (This is, I believe, the very same bar where Buscemi talks up the legend of el mariachi to Cheech Marin in Desperado.)
I ended up spending the entire day at Troublemaker Studios. I watched as they pulled from crates the new 3D cameras they would use to film the next installment of Sin City. I was shown how techs design weaponry with software then make these real with their 3D copiers. I was shown storyboards, clips from works in progress as well as the inside of the biggest green screen I’d ever seen: the entire interior of an airplane hanger.

The dominant emotion of the day: exhilaration. I had seen first hand what I’d only been able to reconstruct in my mind from an excessive diet of watching and re-watching all of Rodriguez’s films. I’d been given a snapshot of all that is involved in the realization of and giving shape to an idea, a plot, a set of characters—a total storyworld—into a fictional world that was released in cinemas known as Sin City: A Dame to Kill.

After my visit with Rodriguez and fly-on-the-wall day at Troublemaker Studios, I did go back and tweak some parts of my book, bringing insights about the material practice into closer synch with the theory. That said, the main thrust of the book’s argument remained the same. That Rodriguez is a filmmaker who innovates with a lot of joy and with a comic book (more specifically Tex Avery) sensibility—a worldview where anything goes. (Notably, at the recent Latino Comics Expo 2014 in San José, The Cinema of Robert Rodriguez sold as well as my other book, Your Brain on Latino Comics. Comic book lovers tend also to be lovers of Rodriguez films.) In each film, we see him taking on and even modifying the technologies available to give shape to his film stories. In each film, his mastery of new filmmaking technology is at the service of creating stories that push the envelope on the socially credible and the physically possible.

As I mentioned, those 3D cameras I saw come out of crates were used to create Sin City: A Dame To Kill—a film that didn’t do well, nor did another of his 2014 releases, Machete Kills. No matter. What’s important is that Rodriguez continues to push the envelope of filmic storytelling. What matters is that he released two films in the same year—along with the first all Latino content cable network. What matters is that he’s one of the most innovative and productive filmmakers (Latino or otherwise) working in the film industry today. What matters is that he’s a Latino and a filmmaker who constantly makes new our perception, thought, and feeling about who we are as a people and what we can do as creators.

Frederick Luis Aldama

And now, if you're a Rodriguez fan and scrambling for some Halloween costume ideas, here's a few to get you started. Happy Halloween!
Cherry Darling from Planet Terror

Johnny Depp as Sands in Once Upon a Time in Mexico

Mickey Rourke as Marv in Sin City

Danny Trejo as the blade-wielding Machete

And, of course, Lindsey Lohan as April 'The Sister' from Machete

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