The call from Cirque du Soleil came out of the blue.
“They said they were working on an action show, an action-type show,” says Robert Rodriguez, the filmmaker best known for the neo-western “El Mariachi” and the dark, graphic novel-inspired “Sin City,” as well as the “Spy Kids” franchise.
Wrong number? Rodriguez would be among the first to admit he isn’t someone most people would associate with the Montreal-based company known for its trapeze artists, contortionists, clowns and high-flying acrobats.
But when Cirque was developing the concept for “R.U.N,” its latest live-action show in Las Vegas, his name was, in fact, the one that kept popping up.
“We went to ‘Sin City’ as a reference a lot, stylistically, and we just thought, OK, let’s get in touch with who is behind this and just see,” says “R.U.N” director Michael Schwandt. “Sometimes you just have to go to the source. You have nothing to lose but someone telling you no, right?”
Rodriguez’s answer was a resounding yes.
“I got very excited, and I told my agent, I’d love to work with them,” he says by phone from his studio in Texas.
“I’ve been going to Cirque shows over the course of their history. Whenever they would come tour through Austin, I would do an exchange where I would take some of my actors or kids who were working with me to see them — see behind the scenes — and then we’d bring their performers over to my studio, and they would see us filming or things like that.”
As writer for “R.U.N,” Rodriguez is making Cirque history. The production marks the first time Cirque has incorporated a full narrative and script into a show. It also marks a change in direction for Cirque, which will feature motorcycle stunt riders, martial arts experts and pyrotechnic performers in place of its core circus-style acts.
“R.U.N” begins previews Thursday and officially opens Nov. 14 at the Luxor hotel and casino.
The fast-paced thriller is set in the underbelly of Las Vegas and incorporates iconography of the city into its narrative. “A wedding is interrupted and a guy is running for his life, and we don’t know why. We don’t know what he’s done, what he’s risking and why they are after him,” Rodriguez says, adding, “I don’t want to give away too much.”
He came on nearly a year after Cirque first decided to create a show involving Hollywood-style stunt performers. Schwandt had mapped an outline, taking desired elements of stage action and stringing them together in story form. Rodriguez took those scenes and refined them, making tweaks to give reason to the action.
“They had a loose idea of what was going to happen. I had freedom, but I wanted to work with what they had because I thought the set pieces were great,” he says. “We need to follow the Hero all the way through, so from the very beginning, we need to find his voice.”
It’s a process that Rodriguez is familiar with from creating his 2010 action film, “Machete.”
“It’s been really interesting trying to reverse-engineer something based on action and ideas they’ve come up,” he says. “I made a fake trailer for ‘Machete,’ just as a fake trailer. People loved the trailer and said, where’s the movie?’ For five years, I heard that question again and again. Finally, I said, let’s make a movie. But I wanted to include every shot from the trailer in the movie, so I had to reverse-engineer the trailer to figure out how those shots would work in an actual story. The limitation that comes from that was so exhilarating.”
Cirque Chief Executive Daniel Lamarre says Hollywood was an obvious place to seek out a writer for the show, and Rodriguez was a natural choice: “The storytelling was more important with this than in other shows, so we needed someone who had a movie background.”
The challenge for the filmmaker was juggling his “day job” with the demands of writing — and rewriting — parts of “R.U.N.” Rodriguez is known in the industry for his hands-on approach to his work, immersing himself in all aspects of the process, even composing music for some of his movies. When the Cirque offer came, he was busy with other projects, but he didn’t hesitate to take on this job.
“You just have to start something you’re excited about,” he says. “You don’t know how you’re going to do it, but you’ll start getting momentum. Then before you know it, you’re making time where there was no time before. It just starts being magically created by yourself.”
Again, Rodriguez was squarely in the middle of filming when Cirque approached him about scripting a special presentation for a July event at Comic-Con in San Diego. The segment, which featured aspects of the actual show, was the first introduction of “R.U.N” to the public.
“Even though I’m in the middle of production, I made the time,” he says, “because I love the project.”
Last month, Rodriguez finally found an opportunity to sit in on a rehearsal in Las Vegas. For the most part, he had been working off of video clips sent to him from the creative team as they pieced together the show, first in Montreal and then in Vegas.
By chance, “R.U.N” composer Tyler Bates, who was conducting his work in Los Angeles, attended the same run-through — or “stumble-through” as Cirque creatives call it — so the two were able to compare notes and adjust dialogue or music to fill out scenes based on stunt sequences or set changes.
“Once I saw it with Tyler’s music, it’s like, oh, you don’t need to be jabbering all the time. You can totally tell what’s going on,” Rodriguez says. “Minimalism is best. It’s such a spectacular show to watch, visually.”
During his visit, he says, the creatives began experimenting with some of the tools and language of graphic novels, replacing a projected thought bubble or a description on screen in the style of a graphic novel. “There’s so much to work with: You have screens, scrims, projections. It’s really unique,” he says.
Rodriguez says he’s prepared to continue to refine the script, and he plans one more trip to Vegas as the opening drew closer. “There’s sections that I haven’t seen yet,” he says, “and I have to make sure the dialogue is working just right. Then if I need to come up with anything else, I’ll just come up with it.
“So, no pressure,” he says, laughing. “No pressure at all.”