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A Conversation with Alvaro Rodriguez

Mix a love for Jim Thompson and Donald Westlake with a deep appreciation for the back alleys of genre film-making and you get Alvaro Rodriguez, an author/film-maker who spends most of his time envisioning the kind of pulp mayhem rarely seen this side of the drive-in era. Today, on Mulholland Books, Alvaro discusses his wide range of influences and weighs in on one of action cinema’s most heated debates.

Your scripts often reinvent classic or obscure genre films. What’s the most unexpected source of inspiration that you’ve found, film or otherwise?

The idea for From Dusk Till Dawn 3: The Hangman’s Daughter came from reading Ambrose Bierce’s “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” as a high school freshman and later the accounts of Bierce’s real-life disappearance at the time of the Mexican Revolution. So the prospect of creating a genesis story for Quentin Tarantino’s genre-bending vampire film, From Dusk Till Dawn, out of America’s most acerbic man of letters since Mark Twain seemed like an unexpected, and hopefully good, idea. Reading helps. One script idea came from seeing a nun’s obituary in the newspaper and wondering who goes to a nun’s funeral, then imagining she had a daughter she’d had to give up. I think a lot of my ideas are rooted in feelings and images, or memories, even cinematic ones. You can kindle something of the feeling you had as a kid going to the movies when it was a wholly immersive experience.

You started out writing short stories, then you wrote scripts such as From Dusk Till Dawn 3 and Machete, and now you’re back again. Was it difficult to make the transition between the pulp mayhem of your films and the bittersweet literary slant of “El Niño Actór“?

Not at all. They’re very compatible styles of writing, at least the way I write, because they’re both obsessed with the essential. Certainly there are writers who craft whole tapestries on the page in painstaking detail, but screenwriters aren’t really allowed to do that. In the short story format, I also aim for that economy of language. Jonathan Richman has a nice lyric about the Velvet Underground: “They played less notes and left more space.” It feels like a natural style of writing for me, and one that draws the readers to fill in the blanks with pieces of their own experience. Machete is liberating on another level because there are no rules in that world, not really, and you’re free to make things as brash and absurd as you can. That’s not to say that there aren’t bittersweet quieter moments that, I think, play well amid the mayhem.

You grew up around filmmaking; is any aspect of “El Niño Actór inspired by something you saw or experienced yourself?

The story was written as part of a series of connected tales set along the Texas-Mexico border, and like any frontier, the lines between A and B often blur and you’re left with myths and mirages. Throwing Hollywood into the mix was something I’d wanted to explore because it is a dream country as well. This story in particular was inspired by the making of Elia Kazan’s Viva Zapata! which was shot in the early 1950s in Roma, Texas, where my mother went to high school. As I was growing up, I heard the stories of how Marlon Brando and Anthony Quinn had come to the border to make their film, and I knew I wanted to draw on that fabled experience to create a story of loss and missed opportunities. It’s the myths and mirages that stay with me, just as they do for the character in the story who recounts his childhood experience as if he were recounting a folktale.

Peckinpah or Leone?
Damn, that’s a tough one. Still, I’m going to have to go with Sam Peckinpah. The Leone films are fantastic and of a piece, but I think Peckinpah explored more of the brute human condition and didn’t shy away from elegy, either. That the same director made Ride the High Country, The Getaway, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, Straw Dogs, and The Wild Bunch — he obviously understood this shadow world of broken men, again, these near-mythological heroes of an all-too-human kind. Peckinpah understood the urges of his characters at a gut level. It’s no mistake he adapted Jim Thompson.

You and your cousin are a force to be reckoned with in Hollywood. Are there any more Rodriguez family members that we need to worry about?
Nope. Just me.

Photo credit: Joaquin Avellán. Screenwriter Alvaro Rodriguez and actor Robert De Niro as Senator John McLaughlin on the set of Robert Rodriguez’s MACHETE.

Alvaro Rodriguez has been writing since childhood and, in fact, did his best work when he was 11. His Texas-border series of short stories, including a Pushcart Prize nominee, have appeared in The Mesquite Review, Bordersenses and flashquake, among others. Despite holding a masters degree in literature, he is the co-writer of Machete(2010) starring Danny Trejo, Lindsay Lohan and Robert De Niro.