LOS ANGELES -- His family-friendly "Spy Kids" trilogy safely tucked in bed, Robert Rodriguez turns bloody and brawling, topping off another film trifecta with "Once Upon a Time in Mexico," the final chapter in his gunslinging "El Mariachi-Desperado" saga.
From warm and fuzzy to fiercely violent. Will the real Robert Rodriguez please stand up from his director's chair?
Not that Rodriguez is the sort of filmmaker who would be caught sitting down. Along with writing, producing and directing, Rodriguez operates his own cameras, edits, handles production design and writes the music.
And, he says, the cuddly junior agents of "Spy Kids" have more in common than it might seem with Antonio Banderas' musician-turned-gunman and the hardhearted butchers of "El Mariachi," "Desperado" and Rodriguez's "From Dusk Till Dawn."
The gadgets - Banderas' guitar case that shoots missiles in "Desperado," a gun that fires from a man's crotch in "From Dusk Till Dawn" - are adult variations of his "Spy Kids" gizmos, Rodriguez said. And no matter how bloody, his adult-oriented action aims for laughs the same as the "Spy Kids" stunts, he said.
"There's a lot of real flights of fancy in all those movies. There's a comedic approach to the action in the adult movies that is more in line in an adult way with the sensibility of 'Spy Kids,"' Rodriguez, 35, said in an interview at his home and production complex near Austin, Texas.
"And they're not as hardcore as people might remember. You watch 'Desperado' or 'Dusk Till Dawn,' you see this guy is the same goofball who's making the kids movies."
Rodriguez scored a third consecutive hit with this summer's "Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over," closing out a franchise that racked up a total domestic gross of $300 million.
Shot between the second and third "Spy Kids" movies, "Once Upon a Time in Mexico" features mariachi gunman Banderas reluctantly recruited by a sleazy CIA agent (Johnny Depp) for an assassination masterminded by a crime boss (Willem Dafoe). "Desperado" co-star Salma Hayek returns in flashbacks that bridge the gap between that film and the new one.
The new film was shot in Mexico, but Rodriguez sticks as close to home as possible. He shot "Spy Kids 3-D" in Austin, and he has an elaborate editing, visual-effects and scoring set-up at his 60-acre homestead, whose main house is marked by fanciful castle turrets and secret passages and stairways.
"I never run out of gas because I never leave my house," Rodriguez said.
Born in San Antonio, the third oldest in a family of 10 children, Rodriguez became a movie fanatic early on and made dozens of short films in school and college days. Many of those short films featured his siblings in action comedies, early forerunners of the "Spy Kids" tales.
After studying filmmaking at the University of Texas at Austin and winning short-subject awards at festivals, Rodriguez set out in the early 1990s to make a feature-length movie. He wanted a low-profile practice run to gain experience in case someone hired him to make a "real" feature film.
A businessman specializing in low-budget flicks for the Mexican video market suggested Rodriguez make movies for his outfit. Rodriguez raised $7,000 - much of it from submitting himself to medical experiments - and shot "El Mariachi," figuring it would be a calling card to show he could handle bigger-budgeted independent features.
"El Mariachi" wound up winning the audience award at the 1993 Sundance Film Festival and went on to gross $2 million domestically.
Rodriguez then directed one of the quartet of stories in the 1995 bomb "Four Rooms" (another segment was made by buddy Quentin Tarantino, a co-star in Rodriguez's next two films, "Desperado" and "From Dusk Till Dawn").
After making the high-school alien thriller "The Faculty," Rodriguez created his "Spy Kids" franchise, an idea he hit on while directing Banderas in "Four Rooms." Rodriguez had been hunting for a good family tale that embodied the spirit of his short films.
It struck one day as Rodriguez was watching Banderas and his make-believe "Four Rooms" family on the set.
"Antonio was in a tuxedo, and he has an Asian wife, and he has his two little kids dressed in tuxes, and I thought, that looks like a Latin James Bond family," Rodriguez said. "That's the angle I've been looking for for my family-adventure film. I'll just make them spies."
Rodriguez has graduated to hefty film budgets, though still small by Hollywood standards - $29 million for "Once Upon a Time in Mexico" and $37 million for "Spy Kids 3-D."
He holds the line by collaborating with a tight-knit crew willing to take on multiple jobs. His wife, Elizabeth Avellan, co-produces Rodriguez's movies, and they have used their three sons as stunt stand-ins. Actors love working for him because of his hands-on approach and boyish enthusiasm.
"Robert is a little boy. He's an amazing little boy. That's kind of the incredible thing about him, the energy he has," said "Once Upon a Time in Mexico" co-star Depp. "The ability to juggle so many different things, heavy-duty things, at the same time. He does the music, he does the production design, he shoots it, he writes, he directs it, produces it. It's beyond hands-on, he's so involved."
Some might call him a control freak, but Rodriguez calls himself a "fun freak," taking on so many jobs simply because he loves the work. He plans to stick to that approach on future films, including a computer-animated family flick he has in the works.
"I would just die if I had to make a movie where I'm just the guy behind the monitor, who wants to just direct," Rodriguez said. "You want to lead by example. You can't yell at people and tell them to move faster until they see that you're already down the street, and they better catch up."
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