'We Can Be Heroes' Director Robert Rodriguez Shares The Lessons He Learned From George Lucas And James Cameron [Interview]

Robert Rodriguez has made a throwback to his Spy Kids and The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl days. We Can Be Heroes is another Rodriguez kids' movie full of rainbow colors, unrestrained giddiness, and childlike imagination. The original Netflix superhero movie is wish-fulfillment for children. It's also another movie that feels hand-crafted by Rodriguez, a famously do-it-yourself filmmaker.

It's a big month for the director, who reintroduced audiences to Boba Fett in a killer episode of The Mandalorian. Both the director's entry in the Star Wars universe and addition to Netflix's library bears his signature eye for playful escapism. With almost 30 years in the business, Rodriguez's childlike wonder for filmmaking remains firmly intact.

That enthusiasm comes through on-screen and even over the phone when you interview the Austin-based director, who recently told us about the benefits of creating original properties, lessons from George Lucas and James Cameron, and his fond memories from making Alita: Battle Angel.

This movie has a nice child-like imagination you don't see a lot.

For sure. Those are very rare kind of films, especially with live-action family films. I think that's why Netflix came to me originally, asking for this. They said, "Could you make us something like Spy Kids or Sharkboy that played so great on our service?" I went, "Wow, really? I would love to do that." I loved those films. I kind of stopped making them because the parents will take their kids maybe a few times at the most. They'd now say, "Ah, you can watch it later on video." They'd watch it again and again on video and on TV, but you could never keep track of how much they watched it. It didn't really reflect how successful they were. They're not economically feasible, because they will be watched mostly at home.

With Netflix, they can keep track of how many times they're watched and show the true success of the film. I was excited that kids wouldn't need their parents to drive them to a theater to see it. When my daughter wants to watch something, she can watch it as many times as she wants on Netflix. I don't have drive her to the theater.

I thought this was the best delivery system for a film like this, where kids have instant access. To be able to watch it with their parents, great, but if they want to watch it 50 more times, they can just go at it. I was thrilled to go and do something in that vein, that has that level of repeatability, a lot of jammed in there, a lot of different effects and jokes and ideas and twists so that kids will be thrilled to watch it multiple times.

Sharkboy and Lava Girl, that's a movie that has remained in pop culture. People even just enjoy still saying the title of that movie. 

They didn't even see it at the box office. It didn't do that well at the box office, because their parents thought, "Oh, well, that's garbage. It sounds like something that my kids will be interested in watching, but we'll wait for it to come home on video." We'd see it, maybe once, and then that's it. We'll wait until later because the kids would want to see it again and again.

I had one actress, I remember her telling me, "My son will still not take those Sharkboy 3-D glasses off. He still runs around the house with them on." This was a year after I'd made the film. I couldn't understand what the fascination was. But it's just, my son came up with it when he was the age of the little girl who played Guppy [in We Can Be Heroes].

When kids make jokes to other kids, as adults, we don't know what they're laughing at. It just makes no sense. Kids like to speak their own secret language. And so, it spoke to them on a very empowering level, to be half-boy and half-shark is very empowering. Kids crave that at that age. Or to have lava powers, they crave that. It's why they watch it again and again.

The people who grew up with that movie and Spy Kids are now adults, too. So with We Can Be Heroes, are you still thinking about the audience, those kids that you made those movies for almost 20 years ago?

Yeah, yeah. Now they're parents and they can watch it. For their kids who think Guppy's cool, parents can be like, "Well, we grew up with the OG, the parents." Those are my favorites. Sharkboy and Lava Girl, that movie didn't do that well. Some people wondered why I was even making that film. In the commentary, I say, "This is my favorite film I've made." I don't think people believe me, but it's good to be validated some 15 years later.

Over the years, I imagine you've been offered superhero properties, but has that just never been an interest for you?

Yeah. I mean, I learned that from George Lucas. He wanted to do Flash Gordon, but he couldn't get the rights, so he went with Star Wars. It worked out much better for him. I haven't even tried lobby to do like a James Bond movie. Just go make your own, make it Spy Kids. I would always create my own thing.

Sometimes when you get a superhero script, by the time they get to me, they're not the scripts ready to shoot. It needs a lot of work, and they know that. They go, "Here, this is a project, we've got a title, we don't like the script. Could you put this together for us?" Well, no, then they own it, control it, and I don't really want to work for people. I'd rather, if I'm going to put that much work into something, it might as well be something that I own and I control and that I can say is mine.

So that's usually why I would shy away from doing one unless it was a title like Alita. There's a lot that's going on there. That's a cool character, but also, working with Jim, or going and doing Star Wars, that's cool. Normally, you're much better served to create your own intellectual property. It gives you more control. You can cast very diverse, as I've always done. You can end it the way you want. You can focus it on the children instead of the adults. You have to understand, when Spy Kids came out, it got very low ratings in the test screening.


It tested lower than Inspector Gadget. The parents were like, "What's wrong with this movie? It's all wrong. The parents are in it for just a few minutes, and then they're gone for most of the film." They just weren't used to that, but it's the kids' adventure. It was just a very new genre, so it was cool to have that freedom when you write your own projects. People couldn't say, "Well, that's not quite right." You can have it be as weird as you want it to be and then have the audience discover it and love it for that strangeness and being different.

We Can Be Heroes TrailerYour kids' movies have this live-action Saturday morning cartoon aesthetic. What influenced that style of yours? Was it Johnny Quest and all the shows you grew up watching?

Oh, I loved Johnny Quest growing up. Brad Bird and I talked about that show. The Incredibles is very much inspired by Johnny Quest, those things that we grew up with. I also want it to feel like it kind of came from the mind of a kid. We did that in Spy Kids too. If they had pint-sized gadgets, they would look different than James Bond gadgets. They would look like it was made for a kid, so you would use rounder shapes and simpler shapes.

I took it further in this one because I actually made that part of the storyline, that if you're wondering why it's so colorful and why the shapes are so simple and intuitive, it's because they're designed by children of another planet. It's why things are more purple and pink and round and tentacle-like, it's because that is the aesthetic, by nature, of the story. I really got to push it far. And then my son who's 15, working on his game engine program, designed all the interiors for the alien ships. I wanted it to be like the mind of a child.

I miss that in big action movies. I was watching Thunderball recently.Thunderball!And that underwater fight, it's like something a kid would imagine with action figures.

That's the stuff that is just pure. I can remember showing my kids that movie and they were blown away. They just thought "Thunderball rules." They couldn't believe it. And now, you see why this character was so popular. It's why that actor is so iconic. And, to put it in context, nobody had seen anything like it. It was the biggest movie of all time at that time.

What other movies were exciting to introduce to your kids? 

Oh man, so many. They're older now. They had never seen a James Bond movie, so I was saving it for a big screen, room screen. They were just floored. We watch all kinds of stuff. I make a list, and once they get age-appropriate, where they can really appreciate it, really get it on multiple levels, we watch it on a big screen. It depends, since I have a wide range of ages in my family, from 14 to 24. Sometimes the little kids get the old movies.

For We Can Be Heroes, did the visual storytelling in superhero comics influence you at all?

That's interesting. I was a cartoonist, I started as a cartoonist, so I just have that approach to things. I usually draw out shots and draw out how things are going to look. I have sort of a comic book aesthetic. It's kind of how I trained. And so, that's probably why it feels that way. I draw a lot.

It's hard to tell how much this movie cost. What were some techniques and tricks you used to stretch the budget here?

Oh man, it goes to back El Mariachi. If you watched that movie, you would never guess it's a $7,000 movie. So, the same with this. I would do that even on my bigger budget movies. Netflix, although it seems like they have unlimited cash, I told them just to give me a little. "I'm going to do this for a price because I want you to bring me back to make more." I want to do one that just blows your mind, looks so big, makes you question all your other budgets.

The whole time they were asking, "Are you sure you have enough money? This doesn't seem possible based on our other movies." I go, "No? Watch this." I also had this great relationship with WETA because they did Alita, and they offered to come do it for the budget I had, even though I didn't have nearly the funds to pay for them to do this movie. They really over-delivered.

If you compare it to my Spy Kids films, that I had the same budget for the effects, they just came in, out of love for these movies, and just threw down. I actually can't believe what was on the screen. It's why you see my name so many times in the movie because you really have to be the writer, the director, the editor, the cameraman, the cinematographer, know the visual effects. Because you've only got six hours with the kids. You've got half the amount of time you normally have on a shooting day, with kids, because all 11 of them are in the shot together. So you have to get twice the work done, in half the time. You have to cast correctly, you have to know what you're shooting, you have to shoot like an editor. You have to get only the pieces you need, otherwise, it'll be astronomical.

It's just the methodology I've created over the years, that helps make these feel much bigger than they are. It should look like a really big movie, but it's because it's not budget-wise, it gives me freedom. Because they were spending so little money, that if it didn't do well, it's still successful, and if it did well, it was a huge hit because the budget was lower.

I find that the limitations help you be more creative. My favorite characters are Rewind and Fast Forward, because of the effect. All they're doing is rewinding footage we already filmed. There's nothing being done there. The idea is bigger than anything. It doesn't have to really cost money. When you use those clever ideas that don't cost money, those are the ideas that most people on a big-budget will never use because it's so simple, they probably think it'd get laughed out of the theater. They're kind of charming and interesting and they capture a kid's imagination really well. So, I defaulted to a lot of that thinking.

You've spoken before about how much you learned working with cinematographer Bill Pope and James Cameron on Alita: Battle Angel. What were some lessons from working with them you kept in mind when making We Can Be Heroes?

Oh yeah, right away I was doing We Can Be Heroes after working with Bill Pope on Alita. Seeing how he lit a set, which light fixtures he would use, which diffusion he would use. Bill would light a broad area for special effects. I had my own bag of tricks, but you always can learn from somebody else who's using technology. I know I used some of his techniques in this, for sure.

Bill came over to me during filming Alita and went, "You're editing this in your head, aren't you?" "Yeah." He goes, "Yeah, yeah, that's interesting. We're not shooting shots we normally would have to shoot, that we know we would never use, that we always have to get on other movies. We're not wasting time with those." And I go, "Yeah, we're not." He goes, "Oh, that's interesting. That's really great." [Laughs] So often, he's required to shoot things that he knows that no one will use. Some productions require that to cover all your bases, but I was just always getting the shot I needed.

I learned a lot from Bill. Seeing how he does big productions like this, with a lot of effects and working with WETA, that's what really got me able to do this film. I learned a lot from Jim, too. Everything you do, it's going to be a learning experience and then it'll enhance your own personal project when you go on to that next. I go to school on one movie and then I go do my project. I go to school on the next movie and then I go do my project. Always got to be learning.

alita battle angel early screeningsAlita is now my favorite movie of yours. 

I appreciate that. And why do you think that is? I think it's because of her, she's such a wonderful actress and her life's force comes through in such a big way. Rosa's eyes are so big that she's almost more human than human. You see every emotion she has. There's something about her character that I just love.

Same. I think it's how endearing that character is, how believable the world is, and your sensibility with James Cameron's on an IMAX screen, that was a great experience.

Oh, man, I appreciate it. When Jim loves a movie, he goes right at it. He told me, "It just gets better every time I see it." We really enjoyed making it. He cracked the code early with work he had started on it back in 2005. Can you imagine, he was going to do it back then? He was bold. Without the technology even being there, that was really crucial to making it what it was.

Jim just had the coolest ideas. We were trying to figure out how to show that she's mourning in the end. To figure out a way to shoot that, with a montage of images, it's going to look cheesy. Jim said, "Well, there was an old idea I had where you slice a tear with a blade." Bingo. You'd send him a question like that, and he'll throw out something, like, "Oh, okay, I was thinking about this..." It's gold. I learned so much from him.

Have you all talked to Disney about the odds of a sequel?

No, Jim has just been so busy. I think he's just getting back from New Zealand now, but it's something we wanted to see what would happen. Fox got bought by Disney, so we're not sure what movies they're making. We haven't had official talks yet, but hopefully, we will.

You've been asked before about revisiting old properties of yours, like Spy Kids and Sharkboy. Even El Mariachi, do you want to return to any of your old films or continue with sequels?

Yeah, I would like to. There's a certain amount of time that can pass where it's too late to do a sequel, but then when enough time passes by, you can do a reboot. The guy who inspired me to do that was George Miller. When he came back for Max Max: Fury Road, I realized that some of those ideas could be brought back. Yeah, I'll look at that. I've got a lot of original stuff coming up, but then at some point, that would be really fun to go back and do something from the old days, in a different way, in a way for a new audience, when enough time's passed.

How about another book?

I've been working on it. I hope I can finish it this year. I keep adding to it. New crazy stuff keeps happening. So, it's really crucial. I think it would be helpful for people more than just in films. It's about creativity in general.

That's great. You also got to play in George Lucas' sandbox recently. Did you talk to him about your episode?

Oh my gosh, that was the best. George and I have been friends for a long time. We go way back in history. George once came by and saw that I was my own sound-mixer. He's also the one who showed me how he was going digital. He said, "Wow, come check this out." He showed me new tests for these new digital cameras that he was going to use, and that's when I thought about the future.

I flipped out and got the cameras right away and shot my next three films in a row on those cameras. And he also showed me green-screen stuff that blew my mind. That's what made Spy Kids 3 and Sin City possible. That's why I seemed so ahead of the curve back then. I was the only one shooting digital. It was because he showed me the magic behind the curtain, about what was coming in the future. I knew he was always 10 years ahead of everybody.

I couldn't wait to show him Sin City. I showed it to him, and he just went, "This is going to show what digital can do, finally." People were having a hard time thinking that that was the future back then if you can believe it. Now, of course, nobody uses film very much at all. It always took people a long time to catch on, but he was always 10 years ahead of everybody. We go back a long time.

Digital has come a long way since then. What are your favorite advancements now?

I think the cameras have just gotten better. I can always deal with them being smaller. I like that it got down to the El Mariachi-size, that was the best, to have an old 16-millimeter camera, just enough weight to get a shot smooth, but not have that much stuff hanging on it. Every time they did put out something new, I was always trying it because I'm into technology. It's just a tool, but sometimes the tool is inspiring.