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Robert Rodriguez' spies on the stars of his Spy Kids sequel


By Patrick Lee

R obert Rodriguez, the maverick writer/director/editor/producer behind last year's surprise hit film Spy Kids, actually cut out enough adventures and hijinks from the first movie's script to fill another one. So when Disney OK'd a sequel even before the first movie came out in theaters, Rodriguez was able to throw together a second script and rush into production with stars Alexa Vega, 13, (Carmen Cortez) and Daryl Sabara, 10, (Juni Cortez) before the kids became too big for their high-tech britches.

The second movie, Spy Kids 2: The Island of Lost Dreams, reunites Vega and Sabara with onscreen parents Gregorio (Antonio Banderas) and Ingrid (Carla Gugino), pits them against new kid rivals, played by Matt O'Leary (Frailty) and Emily Osment (Haley Joel Osment's younger sister), and gives them a whole raft of new creatures, gadgets and nemeses to play with. But though the new film ups the visual-effects ante of the first modestly budgeted Spy Kids, Rodriguez said that he didn't ask the studio for more money. The challenge, he said, was to get bigger without getting more expensive. He did that in part by handling virtually everything himself, from writing and directing to music, production design and cinematography. Rodriguez also cut costs by following George Lucas' lead, shooting Spy Kids 2 entirely on high-definition digital video.

Rodriguez, who is also known for the Mariachi movies, starring Banderas; Vega, who makes her music-video debut in the new movie; and Sabara took a few minutes to sit down with Science Fiction Weekly to talk about Spy Kids 2, which opened Aug. 7.



Robert Rodriguez, were you trying to make your own version of a Ray Harryhausen movie here?

Rodriguez: Oh, I've always wanted to do one, and I used to think, I want to make my Sinbad movie someday. Jason and the Argonauts. ... When I was doing Spy Kids, I realized, "Wow, if we do a Spy Kids 2, I can make that Ray Harryhausen movie, and it won't be dependent on being on its own. And since it's part of a sequel, it would be easier to get it made, and the ... spies ... would go great together, because you can load them up with gadgets, then strip all the gadgets away, and make them go on an old-fashioned Ray Harryhausen adventure." So definitely, [I] wanted to do that and go more old-school with the look, so it felt more like stop-motion and not look so Jurassic Park-ey.



So that wasn't pure computer animation?

Rodriguez: [It was] pure animation, [but without] all the blur frames. [We] just took out the blur frames, so that ... especially ... the lead character, the [spider ape] guy, I thought ... would be more personable. ... He just feels ... that he is a good guy, because he moves like in stop-motion.



Some of the visual effects look crude.

Rodriguez: You can clean that up, [but] sometimes when stuff was a little not right, I just left it, because I wanted it to look kind of like that. I like when they are in the nest up there, it looks like an old Haley Mills movie, when they are up in the nest and it's real bright. ... That's why it's called Lost Dreams. Because it's like my old memories of [lost] movies.



In the first movie, you were working with a relatively limited budget, and you had to improvise and come up with stuff that looked bigger than it was. On this one?

Rodriguez: Even more so on this one, ... because I didn't get more money. I asked for the same budget [reportedly around $30 million], because even though there was more than twice as many effect shots—over 1,000 effects shots—I told the studio I don't want more money. I just want to be more creative. So give me the same budget, which will actually mean less on this movie, and I'll just have to be more creative. And that's what's going to make this movie bigger and better, not the budget.



So what'd you do this time?

Rodriguez: All kinds of stuff. I production-designed it this time, I D.P.'d [director of photography] this time. ... Here's an example. When Steve Buscemi is in his little lair, where the little miniature island is, and all those big rocks are behind him because they are in the bottom of the cave, there's only three rocks. Three rocks on wheels. So when he's standing there, I wheel the rocks behind him. And when we cut to another angle, I wheel them over there. And then we're locked off here, we have the three behind him, and so we don't even have to put up green screen or do any compositing. And then I just keep moving the rocks. ... So on those wide shots, if you look close, it's the same three rock formations, but they're all just lit a little differently. Now any [other] production designer would never let you show up on the set and he'll be there with three rocks and a lair. He'd get shot, right? He'd make 50 [rocks]. But I only made three, because I don't care, I have no ego for that sort of thing. I'll just move the rocks, put them on wheels like the old days, and you save so much [money].

When Antonio is on the big ship, I wanted to make a big statement that he is in a big mother ship, right? And when the parents show up [Ricardo Montalban and Holland Taylor], they're all like huddled behind him, like he's on a Suburban on a road trip to hell. So you got to set it up first with the big shot. So when he's sitting there in his chair, and he looks across, and mom's over there in her big chair, there's [actually] only one chair. I only built one seat. ... So I show up on the day. OK, let's sit Antonio [in the chair] and shoot him. And then we'll shoot across him, and now let's stand mom where she will be sitting so he has somewhere to be looking. Now move the camera over there, and now switch places, and mom will sit here, and dad will stand there. We'll film mom. Now we'll flip the image, and now it looks like he's looking at her, and we've just doubled the size of the set, and all those shots, they're in the same seat. I didn't even part her hair different. I wanted her hair to be different so you can see, "Hey look, her hair's on the wrong side!"



Do you get particular satisfaction out of solving such problems cheaply?

Rodriguez: You have to, because you don't have the money. And it's more fun that way, because then you have to think, "OK, I don't have the money. How can I be creative? How do I still make the big movie without doing that?" It's more satisfying. It's more fun for the crew. And you save so much money that you get in return ... a lot of creative freedom, I mean total creative freedom. I even made the posters. The studio doesn't call you then; you are able to just do [it]. I want to do a Ray Harryhausen scene, no one is going to say no. You want to be the painter who can just sit there and paint. You don't want to have to be there going, "Did they take the paint brush away?" "Don't use yellow; use red." "Why?" "I don't know, just use red." "Ah, OK." After a while, you don't know what you are even doing. So this way you are really free to just be able to do whatever you really want.



Can you talk about some other films that influenced Spy Kids 2? Are there other old movies that you are trying to capture the spirit of?

Rodriguez: I just like the inventiveness of old movies. ... Like [1968's] Chitty Chitty Bang Bang that Ian Fleming wrote. I was showing the breakfast scene to my kids. They haven't seen the whole movie yet, but I was saying, "Yeah, look at this scene," because I knew they'd flip out when I showed them the breakfast scene, which has got the little gadget that builds the breakfast and ... while they are singing a song ... shoots the little breakfast over to them on little wheels. My kids are like, "All right! In the kitchen, we can put a track over here, and a little train over here." They're flipping out. So I really wanted just that sort of old-school inventiveness. And fun. And then values.



In one scene, Carmen picks up the gold idol from Raiders of the Lost Ark. Did George Lucas let you use the idol?

Rodriguez: No. All the geeks have them. If you go to any of these conventions, you can buy them for like 10 bucks. They have them there. I've got one at home, and they're saying it's supposed to be Incan treasure. I know Steven [Spielberg] and George, so they probably won't get too mad. And I thought, I've got one of those at home, let's just stick it in there, and it will be funny for adults. You know parents have to drive their kids to these movies, and you wanted to put something in there for them. So I like it. The parents like it [that the kids] don't know what the hell parents are laughing at [when] they see the idol. [Carmen] doesn't know what it's worth, [so] she tosses it, "Oh, yeah, [just] more treasure."



You thank George Lucas in the end credits. Did he help you out with shooting in high-definition digital video?

Rodriguez: He just inspired me to go shoot it. I mean, it changed. I wouldn't have been able to make the same movie if I hadn't shot digital. ... [I was] mixing Spy Kids ... early on. [Lucas] had only done his first wave of shooting [on Star Wars: Episode II, and] he was generous enough to let me come see early footage of Episode II. Then he convinced me. I saw it. "It looks remarkable, but I have to go home and do a test myself. See it side by side, film and HD, of the same set." And I was already doing a reshoot on Spy Kids, so I shot with the film camera, and then I brought in the HD, and I shot the same shot, and I transferred them both to film, and thought I would see where it breaks apart, where it looks like video, you know? Where it doesn't quite keep up. I don't want that video look at all. And then I looked at the two, and I thought, "Oh my god! Look how bad the film looks!" I couldn't believe it. It looked like Super-8 next to the HD. HD transferred to film, not HD digitally projected. ... Transferred to film, it looked better than film.



What did the HD allow you to do that you couldn't have done on film?

Rodriguez: It's almost like the difference between editing on an Avid [computer] and editing on film. You know, you sit there, and you cut film manually, and you can't really see what you are doing. And then on an Avid, no one cuts on film anymore, and back in the early '90s, I remember ... all the editors were ... scared to death of Avids. ... So you're going to have to relearn everything. [But it] doesn't take but 10 minutes to relearn that stuff. Now you put a gun to their head, and they won't go back to cutting on film. Forget that! ... Cinematographers are ... all afraid of this new [HD] camera. They're [afraid they're] going to have to relearn everything. And you do have to relearn, but it takes 10 minutes. I mean, I didn't even know what I was doing, and I was down there shooting in Mexico, by myself, and I was D.P.'ing it, because I knew that no D.P. wanted to touch the HD stuff. And it looks amazing. So it's really not ... difficult. Creative people are just the slowest to adopt new technologies. They're always against any kind of change, and it's ridiculously sad.



Do you have any plans for the DVD and also a special edition of the first Spy Kids?

Rodriguez: I didn't know when to put out the special edition. I've always been so busy. And I thought we are already doing Spy Kids 3, and it will be out next July 23. That means the DVD will come out that Christmas. I think I'll wait until then to do a triple box set that has all the making-ofs and all the fun "Film School for Kids" [features] and do just one big thing, so I don't have to sell the people the same movie 20 times.



When was the decision made to go ahead with Spy Kids 3, since this one hasn't even come out yet?

Rodriguez: I just called the studio back in March and said, "Guess what we're making? Spy Kids 3!" [They said,] "I didn't know there was going to be a 3." [I said,] "Neither did I! But I've got an idea, and I'm going to tell you right now." I told them the idea, and they said, "Oh my god, let's make Spy Kids 3." This is such a different movie. It's not Spy Kids Go to Vegas. Even people who have no interest in Spy Kids would go see it. We shoot in November. I'm still writing the script. I mean, it just comes, because it's ... one of those big ideas that ... you don't even have to write it, it just comes to you. "Ah! That's what happens next!"



Alexa Vega and Daryl Sabara, when we first talked to you for the first Spy Kids movie, you were just getting the hang of this action thing. Are you now full-fledged action heroes?

Sabara: Action is like a thing in the past now.



Now you want to direct?

Sabara: That's actually what I want to do when I grow up. I want to direct. Spy Kids 2 was amazing, and we got to do all of our own stunts. Except, like, two or something, so it was really cool.

Vega: Yeah, action! It was a lot of fun, like James Bond. ... Like this is great action, but it goes as far as kids can go, whereas action movies like James Bond, they can have like exploding cars and going out of control.

Sabara: Like on the boat.

Vega: So I don't think I've hit the full-on action, but I'm getting there.



Why do you think it's important to have movies with kids as the heroes?

Sabara: So kids can watch things. Actually, it's kind of amusing to see kids save the world, instead of, like, all these grown-ups that know everything. You see kids use their minds and do everything themselves without any grown-ups' help.

Vega: I think it's actually interesting, because kids have a different way of thinking. Like adults will be a little bit more strict about doing the [spy] missions, whereas kids have this imagination where they're going, "Wait, but if I do this, then I can do that. I can get the Ukata assignment." They just do things differently.



Can you talk about shooting in Costa Rica, where you shot many of the jungle and island exteriors?

Sabara: Costa Rica was so much fun.

Vega: I would say it was really cool, but it was very hot there.

Sabara: We had to wear leather jackets and stuff, and the one scene that was a lot of fun, but it was pretty hard, is [the one in which] our [giant inflatable] suits had to ... deflate, and we had to crawl up onto the beach.

Vega: It was hard, because they were soaking wet. ... But the water, it was perfect. It wasn't too hot, but it wasn't too cold. It was just amazing, and we were looking for a place to rent surfboards there, but we couldn't exactly surf until we were finished with the movie. But we went body-surfing [when the movie wasn't shooting,] and it was so beautiful out there, the weather. We would stay up 'til 11, and it would be raining and everything, but we'd be playing hide-and-go-seek or tag. On work nights, 11 is pretty late for us, but in the morning we'd wake up at 4 a.m. to go searching around in the jungle for monkeys. It would get light probably around 4:15. ...We were there for two weeks, and it was just the best experience. I brought my family, and I have four sisters, a lot of girls, no brothers though. It was a great experience, because you get to look at the town and the culture and the way they do things. It's so weird, because they have all these little open towns where people just walk around. They don't use cars. They just walk around all day.



Alexa, growing up, did you want a brother?

Vega: Actually, not really. Working with Daryl ... no. Not really. Actually, I think it's kind of different, because when you call our house, it's like, "Hi. You've reached the girls' house." And we're all saying "the girls' house." It's nice to have all sisters, because then you can share clothes with everyone. It doesn't matter. You can all take showers together, because you're all girls. ... I think that's what makes our family special is that it's all girls.



So is Daryl like a little brother?

Vega: Yeah, he really is. He's like the little brother that I might never have, but our relationship is kind of like with my sisters. But actually my sisters and I are really close. My sister, she just turned 12. She's my best friend. I can talk to her about anything, and she's also my sister. We'll still, like, bicker and everything, but we don't fight.

Sabara: I have a twin brother. His name is Evan, and we're fraternal twins, so he's my best friend, and I'm his best friend, and he came to Costa Rica. He goes everywhere with me.



What gadget or animal from the movie do you wish was real?

Sabara: My favorite gadget is Ralph. He's my pet [robot] spider. My favorite animal would probably have to be the spider ape.

Vega: I really like Ralph, but for me, I'm going to have to go with the spider climbers. Those are so cool! I didn't forget about them, but until I saw the movie last night, I was, "Oh my gosh, how could I forget?" That's my favorite gadget now. I always say the watch, and the watch is really cool, but spider climbers are so different. They're awesome.



Can you talk about working with Ricardo Montalban?

Vega: Oh my goodness, the legend.

Sabara: Ricardo was so cool.

Vega: I'm in love with his voice. His voice is so amazing, and you melt when you hear it. You go, "Oh my gosh, that's an incredible voice." He's so great to work with. He's the sweetest guy and so many people are going ... like my mom knows about him. Everybody knows about him. I don't know too much about him. I just know he's a legend, and he's incredible. But he's the greatest guy to work with, and when you see him, you go, "That's what an actor should be like." He's incredible. He's still sweet, he's humble, he's grounded.



Alexa, are they grooming you to be a pop star now?

Vega: It was really funny actually. Robert got the idea [for the music video] when we had a talent show at the wrap party. The guys were supposed to do a break-dancing routine, and they chickened out at the very end.

Sabara: No, you guys were going to steal the break-dancing routine!

Vega: Uh-uh! I didn't break dance. Actually I didn't sing there, but I did, like, a four-minute performance and that was a lot of choreography. And it was Emily and a couple of other people from the movie and me. We were dancing. It took us about a month to get four minutes of choreography. It was really hard, but we had so much fun. It kind of took off from there.

Robert called me up on the telephone, and he goes, "I've got an idea, but I need to hear your voice." I said, "OK. Hello?" He said, "I'm not going to just give you this idea. I'm going to make you audition for it." I'm like, "What are you talking about?" He said, "Sing to me right now on the telephone." I'm like, "What?" He goes, "Sing something." "What would you like me to sing?" "Anything. Whatever you think that you can sing to." So I ended up singing "When You Believe" by Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston, because my voice can get really loud. But I just sang the very last part, where it's really loud. He goes, "I don't know. OK, I'll tell you now. You passed." Robert's hilarious. It just took off from there.

Actually, when we shot the video, I was really sick. I was throwing up. I had the worst voice, and as soon as I got there I was supposed to record it that day. And I'm like [sick voice], "Hi, Robert." He goes, "Why are you sick?" I just got sick on the airplane, and finally my voice sounded a little better, but I wish I wasn't sick, because I could have sounded better than that. But it was still fun.



Daryl, you play guitar in the video?

Sabara: Robert gave me lessons for how to be a rock star. He showed me [clips of AC/DC guitarist] Angus Young. I'm wearing this [indicates his gold OSS dome ring], so I wanted to put a little style in it, like the schoolboy clothes, the roller shoes and the gold ring. He, like, showed me the moves I was supposed to do, and he showed me Stevie Ray Vaughan and what else, Carlos Santana. I listened to a CD.

Vega: It was actually really funny, because when I was watching the movie last night—when Daryl's part came on, everybody was just screaming. I'm like, "Yeah!" I looked at Daryl, "Yeah, man, we did that whole thing." It was great. I'm really happy that we got to do that, because it really added to the movie at the very end when you think it's over.



Daryl, you do a little ballet in this movie. Do you really know ballet? Did you help choreograph the dance you did?

Sabara: Robert's sisters helped me choreograph. But I've been taking ballet for seven years, and my company is South Bay Ballet Company.

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