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Robert Rodriguez on his new HBO Max deal and maverick career: ‘Just jack the system’

Filmmaker Robert Rodriguez.
Filmmaker Robert Rodriguez has a new first-look deal with HBO Max.
(Kurt Volk )
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Illustration for Hollywood's Latino culture gap

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Hollywood's Latino Culture Gap

Times journalists examine the complicated history of Latinos in Hollywood and the actions being taken to increase their representation, which remains stubbornly low. FULL COVERAGE

There is a narratively insignificant design detail in the 2019 sci-fi flick “Alita: Battle Angel,” directed by Robert Rodriguez, that I’ve always admired.

As our cyborg hero, Alita (Rosa Salazar), challenges nemesis Zapan (Ed Skrein) at a cantina-style establishment on a future Earth, a viewer might notice that the enemy’s back is adorned with what appears to be a replica of the so-called Aztec sun stone. (You’ve seen the image on T-shirts, ponchos and murals; the original sits in the most prominent spot inside Mexico’s national anthropology museum in Mexico City.)

The detail doesn’t matter expressly to the story, but it is a creative flair that as a viewer I somehow can’t ever forget. Call it the Robert Rodriguez touch.

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Rodriguez stories, whether set in a sci-fi fantasy world or a border town in Texas, are full of such cultural signals. When taken together, they make the Rodriguez viewing experience measurably richer for anyone who has even the slightest point of reference to pan-Mexican identity and culture. And these days in the U.S., honestly, who doesn’t?

I shared this thought with Rodriguez — Zapan’s back, the little details — as we sat down for dinner one recent night. He smiled knowingly.

“I think that’s why I gravitate toward making movies that are very enjoyable to anybody, but for those who are Latin, they go, ‘S—, that’s us,’” Rodriguez said. “When I did ‘Desperado,’ I wanted people to just enjoy the movie, but for those who are Latin, it would mean so much more to them. The same with ‘Spy Kids,’ the same with ‘Machete.’”

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Rodriguez, a native of San Antonio, Texas, manages to reach broad audiences by the appeal of his specificity. In his case, he’s built a pop-culture canon in several genres that is constantly referencing Latinidad, and even more precisely, expressions of contemporary Mexican-ness or, if you will, Tejano-ness.

Now, the filmmaker, 53, is bringing the Rodriguez touch to a new venture, which will officially be announced Thursday: a two-year first-look deal he’s signed with HBO Max and HBO, joining his Austin, Texas-based Troublemaker Studios and his son Racer Rodriguez in a key executive role. The announcement comes less than a week after word emerged of a separate deal to revive Rodriguez’s El Rey Network, which stopped operating as a cable channel in December but is relaunching as a free streaming service.

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“Robert Rodriguez and the team at Troublemaker Studios have created some of the most compelling projects in recent memory, pushing the boundaries of genre storytelling with humor and one-of-a-kind visuals,” Sarah Aubrey, head of original content at HBO Max, said to The Times. “It is such a privilege and joy to work with Robert and his incredibly talented kids. Together, they bring a fresh perspective to genre storytelling that has specificity, originality and heart.”

Director Robert Rodriguez on the set of "We Can Be Heroes" for Netflix.
Director Robert Rodriguez on the set of “We Can Be Heroes” for Netflix.
(Ryan Green / Netflix)

“They have Latin executives, and they’re really into it,” Rodriguez said of his new HBO partnership. “Two years gives us enough runway, but they also need product. And that’s the content creator’s dream, that you have partners that need and want content, and they want it to be diverse. This is the Gold Rush era, and it just feels amazing that it’s all happening now.”

Rodriguez is tall and striking, squeezing into a booth at a discreet neo-Mexican restaurant in the corporate-park section of El Segundo. He’s been in town intermittently and quietly, finishing work on the upcoming “Book of Boba Fett,” the Fett spinoff to “The Mandalorian,” on Disney +.

In Season 2 of “The Mandalorian,” Rodriguez directed “The Tragedy,” the episode that brought back the beloved bounty hunter from the original “Star Wars” film series. According to a documentary about “The Mandalorian” on Disney+, Rodriguez managed to persuade series creator Jon Favreau to let him take a stab at Fett by mocking up scenes at home with Halloween costumes and action figures.

Rodriguez said he was sworn to silence on his work in the new series, which is scheduled to start streaming in December. The director also declined to offer any hints or details on what projects or style of story he’d take to HBO first. Yet the deal with one of the biggest U.S. Latino names in the business presents a good opportunity to reassess how the man got here.

In a conversation ranging from the intricacies of working in the series format to the persistent issue of insufficient Latino representation in mainstream Hollywood, Rodriguez returned again and again to the notion that highly focused world-building in any genre can be “Latin” in tone or content and also be universally consumed.

“I remember when I was in college, I saw a bunch of John Woo movies that were really big, and you’d walk out of that movie theater wanting to be Chinese. You wanted to be Chow Yun-Fat,” Rodriguez said. “It was because of how he was portrayed as a hero. I thought, ‘I want to do that with Hispanics. I want to do that with Mexicans.’

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“You want it to be viewed by everybody, because then you’re part of the international conversation.”

Busting through the barriers that often hinder filmmakers of color, Rodriguez has made blockbusters in genres as disparate as Mexploitation and kids adventure, including not just his “Spy Kids” films but also most recently “We Can Be Heroes” on Netflix. He effectively changed the course of the Hollywood careers of Salma Hayek, who had been facing barriers for her heavy Mexican accent before being cast in “Desperado,” and iconic tough-guy Danny Trejo, whom he turned into “Machete.” Beyond directing, he’s set out over two decades to build his own entertainment ecosystem behind and in front of the camera, through Troublemaker Studios and El Rey.

Director Robert Rodriguez, center, with "We Can Be Heroes" stars Isaiah Russell-Bailey, left, and Lotus Blossom.
Director Robert Rodriguez, center, on the set of “We Can Be Heroes” with stars Isaiah Russell-Bailey as Rewind, left, and Lotus Blossom as A Capella.
(Ryan Green / Netflix )

Charles Ramirez Berg, a leading academic on Chicano and Latino cinema at the University of Texas at Austin, remembers the young Rodriguez as an aspiring film major there.

“It got real competitive in the late ’80s — I mean real competitive,” Ramirez Berg recalled in a phone interview. “So he was trying to figure out how to get into the major. That’s how we met. He came to my office hours, even though he wasn’t my student at the time.”

By 1990, Rodriguez had showed his first short, “Bedhead,” which electrified the Texas film community. The film tells the story of a young girl who discovers she has a supernatural talent and features animation by Rodriguez and his longtime collaborator and former wife, producer Elizabeth Avellan.

“It was incredible, just so much talent, and it was up there on screen in nine minutes,” Ramirez Berg said.

“Bedhead” displays the earliest iteration of the trademark Rodriguez style; his films seem to always leave a viewer feeling a bit off-kilter, but satisfyingly so.

Then came “El Mariachi,” the Spanish-language narco action thriller Rodriguez made with just a little over $7,000 at age 23. It wowed Sundance, winning the audience award, and got picked up for wide distribution by Columbia Pictures in 1993.

The “El Mariachi” phenomenon led to “Desperado” (1995) and “Once Upon a Time in Mexico” (2003), which became part of the “Robert Rodriguez Mexico Trilogy” and set the director on a one-of-a-kind course that still inspires young filmmakers, and which he chronicles in detail in his diary-like memoir, “Rebel Without a Crew” (1995).

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A bona-fide maverick in the spirit of Quentin Tarantino and Spike Lee, Rodriguez emerged as a unique figure in that he often shoots, edits and scores his films himself.

Ramirez Berg, who now includes chapters about the filmmaker’s work in his books, referred to his method as “The gospel of Robert Rodriguez.”

“Basically, it’s ‘Go out there and make it, and don’t make any excuses,’” Ramirez Berg said. “When he’s making a movie, he’s just fluid. I’ve seen him on set, and it’s astonishing, and everyone feels it.”

After his successes in the 1990s and 2000s, Rodriguez took a major career turn — and major gamble — when he pushed his creative energies into launching El Rey, his cable channel aimed at the nebulous and inscrutable U.S. English-Latino market.

Announced in 2012, it started running original programming in 2013. But like other Latino-tinged outfits on linear TV that have made the attempt, El Rey failed to find its audience, or its audience failed to find El Rey; the network succumbed to the cord-cutting era and finally ceased operations in December.

“People were cutting cords even back then, we already knew that, and that’s how we were able to get the network,” Rodriguez said. “But we thought, ‘Let’s build a brand, because once you build a brand, you can take that anywhere, so let’s use that cable platform for establishing it. That’s what we did.”

Eventually, he concluded: “You have to sunset the linear and go toward the streaming.”

That’s why Rodriguez and co-founders John Fogelman and Cristina Patwa made a deal with niche streamer Cinedigm, which has licensed the El Rey library, including a series titled “The Director’s Chair,” in which Rodriguez interviews fellow filmmakers.

Joey Chavez, executive vice president of original programming for drama at HBO Max, described the first-look deal with Rodriguez as a “full circle” moment for him. The success of “El Mariachi” was an early inspiration for Chavez, an L.A. native and one of a handful of Latino executives in green-lighting positions.

Chavez said Rodriguez’s deal is key in a strategy to more vividly portray Latino experiences on HBO’s platforms, part of an industry-wide push to address lagging representation figures for Latino creatives on major platforms.

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“I think one of the things he taught me from early on, inspiring me, is: You also have to do it yourself,” Chavez said of Rodriguez. “You need people in these positions — as producers, as writers, as executives — to make sure we do better.”

Rodriguez will be joining Hayek, who signed a first-look deal with HBO Max last year with her company Ventanarosa.

Whether it’s his Trejo vehicles “Machete” and “Machete Kills,” or even in the “Spy Kids” family film franchise, Rodriguez is building worlds meant to appeal to all audiences but just a bit more to members of the Latin American diasporas, normalizing the tiny details and ticks that reflect the amorphous state of being Latino.

“If you can get a movie out in front of people that can get their attention, well then, that gets the attention of the studios. They want to speak your language now. So if they think they can make money off it, they will,” Rodriguez said. “There’s no prejudice. It’s just that they’re afraid to make a first step in a direction that’s new.”

His advice to up-and-coming filmmakers is as universal as his own narrative arc.

“Don’t play by the rules,” Rodriguez said. “Come up with a way to just jack the system.”

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