Movie Feature by Susannah Macklin
PHASE9 catches the SPY KIDS with director Robert Rodriguez and their Movie Mum
It's a warm spring afternoon in London and the school Easter break is about to start. Most kids are mulling over what they're going to do, perhaps they might head out to a park, or maybe see a film. Meanwhile at a movie press conference in one of the capitals plush hotels, 12 year old Alexa Vega is discussing life since the release of her latest film SPY KIDS.
'At school there's this one group of about four kids who are always sucking up to me big time and one time I'm like, why are you guys sucking up to me? And they go, well you know how Robert (Rodriguez) is making a sequel, and they all took out their headshots and handed them to me'.
Welcome to life for a kid from Hollywood, working with one of America's hottest directors on one of his more unusual projects of the last few years!
It's the sort of movie pitch that sounds more like an idea a group of over-merry drinking buddies might come up with in a bar room discussion about their ideal film. Two mini James Bonds trying to save the world using a few dozen gadgets and gizmos of the wackiest and wildest imaginings, tie that in with a psychedelic TV show headed by an evil genius, get Antonio Banderas to play one of the leads, let Teri Hatcher wield a weapon, and oh yeah, get Robert Rodriguez of DESPERADO and FROM DUSK TILL DAWN to write and direct! But, SPY KIDS isn't the stuff of a drinking pals daydream, it's a family action movie brilliantly blurring the lines of fantasy and reality in a way not seen since the likes of eighties hit THE GOONIES. It's also the film that every right thinking kid (and adult) in Hollywood wants to be associated with.
In the movie we see Juni and Carmen Cortez, played by child actors Daryl Sabara and Alexa Vega, forced to turn their hands to espionage in a bid to save their parents from the clutches of the evil and somewhat colourful television meglomaniac Fegan Floop. Their parents are ex-world, renowned spies, hence why they've waded into deep water nearly a decade on from their last mission. Now it's up to Juni and Carmen to use some of that innate spy savvy to get their family back together.
Writer/director/producer Rodriguez came up with the unusual idea for SPY KIDS back in 1995 while working on Miramax's FOUR ROOMS.
'I was looking for a way to have an adventure action film and I story board all my movies and make a little comic book of the script so the young actors can read the script like a comic. The first drawing I did (of Antonio Banderas' kids in the Rodriguez directed segment of FOUR ROOMS) the kids wore tuxedos and looked like little James Bonds. I started thinking hey they look like little spies - what if mum and dad.... and it pieced itself together very quickly. I thought a family of spies would be so neat. I wanted a film that would appeal to parents and to kids, that would really empower children'.
For a man known mainly for his violent action films for adults which have to date been his commercial successes, and to those that imagine what Rodriguez to be like through these high octane action fests, it would be an understatement to say that making a family film seems somewhat of an unprecedented move. But as a father of three young kids, and with a history of family orientated shorts, it isn't quite as fish-out-of-water as it sounds.
Rodriguez continues, 'The truth is before EL MARIACHI most of the short films I made were family comedies. This is the film that's closest to what I've done before, I love fantasy and in a kids movie anything goes and I love that freedom. Whatever that little kid inside dreams up you can just put on the screen.'
So what of some of the fantasy elements in the film? The things that this little kid inside Rodriguez thought up? There's the wacky TV world of Floop played by Brit actor Alan Cumming.
'I needed someone very chameleon-like to create the role of Floop' explains Rodriguez. 'And I wanted an imaginative child-like world. When I saw Teletubbies, I realised that anything goes!'.
Rodriguez has had this world and a multitude of other SPY KIDS related images and ideas buried in his mind over the last few years, but could only make them possible with the help of a great design team and Special Effects. Robert fully immersed himself in the FX process, taking the unusual step of learning all aspects of this area. As he explains,
'I wanted to take on the Special Effects and learn them because I think that's really the future of cinema, directors really needing to learn how to direct in digital the way they've learned how to deal with actors. It frees you to know how to do those things so I decided to fly without a net and not hire an Effects supervisor, so I could figure out how to do all the Effects.'
Robert professes that such processes are 'not that hard to learn', which serves to highlight the way in which Rodriguez's mind is programmed. It also explains why he was able to spend time meticulously planning the gadgets that the kids use on their mission to save their parents and the world from the clutches of the aforementioned Floop. Again Rodriguez developed his ideas over a period of years, resulting in astounding gizmos that command the attention of both adults and children and add to a backdrop of subtle wit. However Rodriguez admits that 'the hard part was coming up with cool gadgets that don't already exist'. This might be why, once the unique specimens were in his clutches, he was so reluctant to let them go.
'After shooting finished Robert took all our gadgets' explains "spy kid" Alexa. 'We got to keep the promotional stuff, but they're not as cool, they're the cheapo stuff!'.
Surely then Rodriguez own kids got to play with some of the gadgets when he took them home.
'It was cool with my kids cause they got swept up in the adventure - they hadn't seen the movie till it premiered, so they would play at being "spy kids" at home, and I would say, 'you wanna play with a real Jet Pack?' They were like Oh my God! They finally realised dad's got all the inside connections'.
Dad certainly has. At only 33 Rodriguez has worked with some of the biggest names in film, including Quentin Tarantino and he's also helped the careers of a few of Hollywood's hottest properties, namely Salma Hayek and Antonio Banderas, whom he gave his first major starring role. So for actress Carla Gugino (SNAKE EYES) it must have been a compliment to be picked to play mother Ingrid Cortez in the family of espionage experts'. I got a call saying would you come and meet Robert Rodriguez in Austin for this film SPY KIDS, and not knowing Robert personally I started thinking -wow he's such a great filmmaker, clearly he would bring a really unusual take to a family film, and this was before I even looked at the script. Then I spoke to Robert on the phone and he said I've met all these actresses and I can't find the right person, but I think it might be you!'
With a solid CV of roles behind her in both television and film, Carla was one of few members of the main cast and crew that had never worked with Rodriguez before. Likewise Daryl Sabara and Alexa Vega. Casting their roles could have been one almighty nightmare, after all what's the old saying? Never work with animals or children.
'I was actually pretty confident about finding the kids', says Robert. 'The very first week I found Daryl, but I still looked for six months to be sure there wasn't anybody else that was even better. There were a couple that were better but they had to do something else', he jokes. 'With Alexa, I was seeing kids one after another and they were like terrible, terrible! Then she showed up and she was so realistic it didn't even sound like the script'. It's really rare but when you find them you know you've got them'.
And Daryl and Alexa certainly seemed to enjoy the experience and its lasting effects, as Daryl says 'all my friends think it's so cool'.
Being cast in SPY KIDS is a credit to all of these actors' talents, because Rodriguez is cautious and doesn't always like to look much further than his last film when casting for a new project. Infiltrating one of his movies isn't easy, as he says,
'I choose as wisely as I can and with the actors and crew that are really good you try to keep 'em around. I don't like to look for somebody new and regret it.'
As well as Rodriguez's old boy Banderas and George Clooney (FROM DUSK TILL DAWN), who also makes an appearance in SPY KIDS, the little known to mass audiences Danny Trejo, is possibly the actor that's worked with Robert the most. Not instantly recognisable by name but certainly recognisable by face, he plays Uncle Machete in SPY KIDS. But why would Rodriguez think this 'hard man', known well to Rodriguez's older fans for his scary image, suitable for this family film?
'On the set of FROM DUSK TILL DAWN Danny was doing an interview with his little four year old daughter sitting on his lap, and it just looked so funny seeing that face with this beautiful little girl, you know, family man Danny. He actually reminded me of one of my uncles and I thought I gotta put him in one of my family films, so his was one of the first characters I wrote into SPY KIDS.' Because of his mean looks it's no surprise that Danny is not often cast in softer roles. However Robert thinks he might go further to present Trejos' real-life softer side with his next movie.
'Danny said to me, 'Hey Robert, all you do is name me after knives! In DESPERADO my name meant knives and in FROM DUSK TILL DAWN I was Razor Charlie and now I'm Machete.' So I'm kind of running out of cutlery. Who knows maybe he'll be butter knife in the next movie.'
Doesn't Robert Rodriguez feel that he might be overdosing the public on the same people?
'People that work out I do tend to bring back a lot, but they grow on each movie. You know they have a lot of talent so you want to challenge them in a different way on each picture'.
If the rumours in and around Alexa's Hollywood school are to be believed, we can definitely expect to see more of SPY KIDS, and Alexa and Daryl may be 'brought back' for the next one. Robert Rodriguez will also almost certainly be at the helm with the next movie.
'I prefer doing these family films, and this one's the closest to what I've done before'.
But for the older fans, does this mean that all this working with children has softened Rodriguez to the point of wanting to give up on making his more adult action movies?
'Oh no I'm not done with those - I'm gonna go and blow some stuff up next week'!