Robert Rodriguez has accomplished a lot in Hollywood — build his own movie studio, launch three franchises (El Mariachi, Spy Kids and Sin City), and start his own TV network, El Rey — without every having to leave his native Texas. These days, Rodriguez is splitting his time between running El Rey, directing episodes of his TV shows like Matador and From Dusk Till Dawn (the second season of which premieres Aug. 25) and prepping to direct the live-action feature version of the ‘60s cartoon classic Jonny Quest. We caught up with Rodriguez to talk about resurrecting one of his favorite films; and he was kind enough to live through Playboy’s Lucky 7 Questions in this exclusive interview.
How have you seen television evolve as a medium in recent years as a go-to destination for storytelling?
I’ve always loved longer storytelling. I’m probably one of the few filmmakers who has made at least three franchises out of these characters’ stories because I don’t like to see them go away after just a film. It seems like you always want to know more about the characters — their stories, where they go — and television is a way to explore it more efficiently and on a much bigger canvas. Whenever I would come back every couple of years to do a sequel, everyone’s older and there’s been a big gap. When you do a series you can just keep everybody there while the magic is still there and keep shooting. You can tell more complete stories, ones that have longer arcs; and have time to fall in love with characters over a longer period of time.
What do you look for when greenlighting shows for El Rey?
We wanted to start off with a very strong brand identity of having very visceral content, like action-oriented adventure and horror, with an eye towards diversity — and just being balls-to-the-wall entertaining. From Dusk Till Dawn was one of the cult favorites. Quentin [Tarantino] and I would always get people coming up to us saying how much they loved the movie and they watched it over and over. I was actually surprised his characters had never been on television before. It seemed like the perfect medium. And we controlled the rights to Dusk, so we never let any people that had interest over the years to make it as a show. It just felt like something that was a recognizable property, so it would be able to break through the noise and we could get it financed pretty easily.
What did you learn from developing the first season of From Dusk Till Dawn that will impact what people see in the second?
I wanted to keep Quentin’s characters. I thought that was the most important thing in doing the film. But if we just did a direct sequel to the film, a lot of those characters got killed. So we needed to start the story again. The film was the short story. This is the novel. We built the whole structure for this and laid out the mythology and the foundation for future seasons. The first half of the first season was about retelling the movie in a new way. By the time we got to the second half of last season we were branching the characters out and setting up our mythology. This season it’s all new. It’s different from the movie, but the same characters. We branch off into a whole new world, and the mythology is deep with new alliances, new threats, betrayals, and backstabbing action and horror all mixed together. It’s really fun to get to this point because this was the whole reason I wanted to do the series — to finally get to this point where we’re telling an original story with established characters.
Did the success of the first season open up the size and scope of the storytelling?
Yeah, they’ll see an expansion of our vampire culture with the culebra. It’s a snake cult they found in Mayan and Aztec lore, so it’s something that’s hasn’t been seen before. We get more into how the hierarchy works. The scope of it is much larger than the temple and the bar and the characters that were presented in the original film. Even Quentin was surprised how much story we got in the first season out of his screenplay. You’re going to be even more blown away by Season 2 to see how far those guys can keep going.
What is it do you feel about vampires that has allowed Hollywood to tell so many different stories?
My son is reading Bram Stoker’s Dracula and it was funny to see how that started it all. The guy who goes to the castle doesn’t know somebody is there who’s going to consume you. It had never been done before. You would never go into a dark scary house today. There were so many firsts that were created with that book. And it really set up so many different stories and adventures after that because of how it got people’s imagination. Even when the creatures of the night come out, they’re still human in some ways and still relatable. There’s something about that lore that people in any culture can relate to and enjoy. And it’s ripe for storytelling and reinventing. I remember Quentin being so excited at different things that he was adding to the lore. They were different in Dusk than anything else. Filmmakers and storytellers are taking that template and trying to put a new spin on it.
Vampires have always been very sexual beings. What do you feel you’ve been able to explore from that perspective?
Quentin sent me this script set in Mexico and I wanted to do something heavy with the main characters. I had this actress I liked from Desperado, Selma Hayek. And I wanted her to not just be this monster. She should come out and seduce them with a snake because that’s part of this cult that I read about in Mayan times; how they worshiped snakes for part of the ritual. Then we thought about how they’d attract victims, so we set it in a strip bar. There’s a sexy element of having people lured in by these beautiful sirens and then they’re consumed. To see the temple is the thing that I actually laid in there and that is explored more in this series, where it’s part of the luring in for the need to fill the thirst that exists when you’re a Culebra, which is just a mean snake. They’re different from a vampire, but similar. The sexiness is always a part of it.
What was your first encounter with Playboy magazine?
Gosh, it’s one of those things you always knew of; and the symbol for branding and logos is one of the best. I must have heard of it when I was just a kid; older kids in school talking about it and hiding it behind bushes and having their own copy that they would show. I don’t remember when I saw my first Playboy. I must have been about 13 or 14. I’m sure I saw it before high school.
What do you consider your pop culture blind spot?
Gosh, I don’t know. I guess that’s my blind spot. I don’t know what I don’t know.
A lot of people say reality TV.
I can’t possibly see all of it, but I know some of what goes on. You kind of have to watch TV when have your own network. You have to see what everybody else is doing, but I don’t consume it on a regular basis. It’s become more educational than anything else for different reasons. It’s not for entertainment and more about the job.
What would you consider yourself your favorite mistake in life?
Probably my first film. I made El Mariachi for the Spanish straight-to-home video market and it was never to be seen by anyone. It was only a practice film, so I didn’t take a crew. I did it all by myself so I could learn camera and sound and practice. I was going to hide it in the Spanish video market, thinking there’s a lot of Rodriquez’s out there; who’s going to look in the foreign section? But I couldn’t sell it to the video market because I didn’t have a soap star in it. So I gave it to an agent in LA and he took it to Columbia Pictures. We made Desperado and then my film career began.
What would your last meal be if you were ever on death row?
Well, since I’m making my famous homemade pizza right now, that’s what I’d want. I’ve made it for everyone from Francis Coppola to the president. But I’d want to have my pizza recipe. I wouldn’t want them making it. You have to have a wood-burning oven and then somehow let me come make it near my house.
What makes your pizza special?
The way I make it, the ingredients I use for making it. I’ve been making this for about six years now and I’ve been chopping up some new Franklin Barbeque brisket and I put it on top — they’re the biggest barbecue joint here in Austin — so that always takes it over the top.
What was the first thing you bought with your first big Hollywood check?
A car. I didn’t have a car. I was 21. It was a used Isuzu or something, but I didn’t care because I was so broke. It was really strange to be wined and dined in Hollywood for this film and I’d come right back home rubbing two pennies together to buy lettuce. I didn’t have any money. When I was going to get my first check, it took so long for the contract to go through that I asked for an advance. And then that took so long to negotiate that I had to get an advance on the advance. And they sent me an advance on the advance while the paperwork was going through. That’s how long the paperwork took. You’re just dying going, “Oh my god, I just need a few dollars.”
What pisses you off?
Oh my gosh. I don’t think I get angry at all at anything. Life is so good. I’m a very content person.
If you could commit one consequence-free crime what would it be?
Well, I like to drive fast…
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