EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Alvaro Rodriguez, co-writer of Machete

Birdemic writer/director James Nguyen

'It's Mexican Coke in the bottle – no artificial sweeteners'

By Adam Stephen Kelly

Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino may not have had the success they had hoped for upon the release of their passion project Grindhouse at the US box office back in 2007, but that is totally irrelevant when you take into account just how brilliant and refreshing the Grindhouse experience was. And that's exactly what seeing Rodriguez's Planet Terror and Tarantino's Death Proof back-to-back was: an ingenious movie experience from two of my all-time favourite film-makers, something that's rare these days when you pop into your local multiplex.

One of the most celebrated parts of the double dose of throwback thrills and spills was the inclusion of "fake trailers" from some of the industry's top directors that separated the two feature films, and added a whole new dimension and atmosphere to the experience. Edgar Wright gave us Don't, Rob Zombie helmed Werewolf Women of the SS, Eli Roth brought the gore with Thanksgiving and Robert Rodriguez himself made a trailer for Machete that was shown right before Planet Terror, a bloody revenge movie about a no-nonsense Mexican (the title character) played by the marvelous Danny Trejo. It received such fanfare that Robert announced he would take the fake trailer and bring it to life as a feature film. Now, a few years later, we're less than a month away from Machete hitting our screens, and with an all-star cast that includes (in addition to Trejo of course) Robert De Niro, Lindsay Lohan, Steven Seagal, Tom Savini, Cheech Marin, Michelle Rodriguez, Don Johnson, Jeff Fahey, and (gasp) Jessica Alba.

Grindhouse was my absolute favourite work of cinema from 2007 by a long shot, and you can bet your bottom peso that I was one of those aforementioned fans who was blown away by Machete's fake trailer. Now with the feature-length movie one of my most highly-anticipated of 2010, I was bowled over when Alvaro Rodriguez, cousin of Robert Rodriguez and co-writer of Machete, accepted my invitation for his very first interview regarding the film. Alvaro also worked on the script for his cousin's 2009 family flick Shorts, and also wrote From Dusk Till Dawn 3: The Hangman's Daughter.

When did you and Robert know that a feature-length film of Machete had to be made?
Robert has long wanted to write and direct a starring vehicle for Danny [Trejo], with whom he’s worked since Desperado. Danny’s such an iconic figure in that film, playing a character called Knives, that Robert kept casting him in his films. He was the only actor, as far as I know, in all three From Dusk Till Dawn movies. In the Spy Kids series, he plays a character nicknamed Machete, but it’s not the same character he plays in this film. So there’s that “origin story,” so to speak, in that a plan to create a title character/starring role for Danny has long been in the works.

The fake trailer that played with Grindhouse, the Planet Terror/Death Proof combo meal, was honestly a way to do it without “doing it,” you know? But even before Grindhouse was released, there was a buzz building about the trailer. Robert was getting word from a lot of different people, “Damn! You need to make Machete!” That buzz continued to grow online, YouTube, etc, and now it’s done. So this is definitely one for the fans, and one that wouldn’t have come together without the fan support.

Did the fake trailer assist you in the writing process as a kind of "visual treatment"?
Well, the fake trailer was the blueprint of the outline of the story. Obviously the original trailer wasn’t the entirety of the story, much less the entirety of the movie. But it definitely provided a sense of tone, scope and characterisation. You could see the antecedents and you could grasp the style. And we went from there. “Visual treatment” is a good way to put it. It was the signposts of the journey, and I just had to invent the road.

Do you have any aspirations to follow in your auteur cousin's directorial footsteps?
Ha. Not really. I have always said I just want to write. “Let me write!”. Working with Robert has been like being in an incubator – I’ve worked on several scripts with him at this stage or that, and it’s great to finally get something out that I was really a big part of. That’s enough at this point. I will say this, though, it’s amazing to see the story come to life on the set, and get that entirely different perspective from being in a room somewhere with a laptop when these are just voices in your head.

Machete has an impressive cast to say the least. How do you feel the star-studded assembly added to the film?
Could you dream up a cooler cast? Seriously. That’s what I mean about that shift of perspective from this thing on paper that you typed up somewhere and then being there when Robert De Niro is saying your lines. It’s absolutely amazing. Everything came together really quickly in terms of the cast. I would get emails or calls from Robert: “What do you think about Don Johnson?” or “We think Lindsay Lohan might do it.” I was just stunned. Suddenly this little B picture was evolving into something extraordinary. Jessica Alba. Steven Seagal. Michelle Rodriguez. Jeff Fahey and Cheech Marin had appeared in the fake trailer, so it was great to get them back for the real McCoy. Tom Savini, who has also worked with Robert many times including From Dusk Till Dawn, also came on board. I could spend hours just talking to him on set, and did. Just an insane, incredible cast.

How do you think fans will react to seeing Danny Trejo finally get his leading role on the big screen?
I hope they’ll really dig it. He has an incredibly loyal fanbase, and they’ve been waiting for this one. I think he got the biggest cheers of the night at the Predators Austin premiere earlier this summer when his character first appeared on screen. There’s a documentary about his life, Champion, and I can’t think of a better word for him. He continues to have an amazing ride as an actor, and I’m really proud to be a small part of that runaway train.

What can audiences expect from Machete?
They can expect a good time at the movies. It’s pure-cane-sugar, throwback moviemaking, meant to evoke a certain style and era, to be sure, but it’s also strangely relevant and current at the same time. I don’t think it’s a message film at all, but it’s got something to say … in a very violent and hopefully entertaining way. It’s Mexican Coke in the bottle. No artificial sweeteners.

What cult classic films from the grindhouse era would you say Machete is the blood-spattered love child of?
Man, I watched a lot of them preparing for the earliest drafts of the script. I think Danny’s the closest thing we have to a Charles Bronson, and Death Wish was a big influence, the whole revenge quest. Danny was in one of the later Death Wish sequels with Bronson, by the way. So somewhere between Death Wish and Dirty Harry, but with a Latino anti-hero.

What's it like having a close working relationship with Robert?
He’s an extremely visual storyteller and really does see the movie in his head before he shoots a frame, so he has definite ideas about the direction of the script in terms of everything from character to dialogue to story. I had written a draft of a scene for the character Don Johnson plays and sent it to him, and he sent it back almost immediately saying, “Read this out loud. Imagine Don Johnson saying it. It’s not working. Try again.” And I rewrote the scene and hit the right tone, the right cadence, and that’s the scene in the movie. He was absolutely right.

We’re first cousins – our dads are brothers – so I’ve known him since we were kids, which is a very different dynamic than other writers and directors have. But the very first memory I have of him is from around thirty years ago, sitting in the back of a truck outside our grandparents’ house, and he’s wide-eyed and raving about this new movie called Escape from New York and how John Carpenter shot this scene or that scene. I was ten, so he was thirteen or fourteen. And it was a real eye-opener for me, because I’d never met anyone so in love with movies. That hasn’t changed. He impresses me more and more.

What's next for you, Alvaro?
I hope to strike while the machete is hot and get some other projects out of the gate. I’ve co-written a comedy that will make the rounds soon and I’m writing a couple of other action scripts in the same universe as Machete. I have another script I wrote with Robert – a family film – that may be a future project for him. So keep your fingers crossed.

A huge thanks to Alvaro for speaking with me. His words have increased my excitement for the film – which I didn't quite believe was possible – and now I anticipate Machete to slice its way into my nearest cinema more than ever before.

Co-written by Robert and Alvaro Rodriguez and co-directed by Ethan Maniquis and Robert Rodriguez, Machete premieres at the 2010 Venice Film Festival on September 1, before hitting US cinemas on September 3 and the UK on November 26.

Stuart O'Connor is the Managing Editor of Screenjabber, the movie review website he co-founded with Neil Davey far too many years ago. He likes all genres, as long as the film is good (although he does enjoy the occasional bad "guilty pleasure"), and drinks way too much coffee.

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