If you wanted to give Robert Rodriguez a nickname based on one of the characters in Machete Kills, the sequel to his 2010 exploitation throwback film Machete, which starred Danny Trejo as the titular hero, you might call him "El Cameleón." He’s capable of making family-friendly fare like the Spy Kids series, Shorts, and The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl; he’s great when it comes to stylish, mainstream Hollywood thrillers like Sin City, Once Upon A Time In Mexico, and The Faculty; and if you spend more than five minutes listening to him speak, it’s utterly clear that his passion is for gritty, over-the-top action/adventure movies.
Machete Kills is the exclamation point on a series that started with his Quentin Tarantino collaboration Grindhouse and continued with the original Machete. While it may not be the final punctuation mark—the film is built to set up its sequel right from the outset—it’s hard not to feel like Machete Kills is Rodriguez’s masterclass on how to do over-the-top action in the most satisfying way possible. In order to make sure we were getting those lessons down just right, Co.Create caught up with Rodriguez during the film’s world premiere at Austin’s Fantastic Fest so the director could walk us through how to make a Machete-like statement.
Casting is everything in a movie like this. The tone has to walk the line. You look at everyone in the movie—they're playing it very straight and the circumstances are over the top. Like Sofia Vergara plays very straight, but she's just an unhappy character. She's an enforcer, and she's got a brassiere that fires bullets, but she's avenging her daughter. She comes from a real place. It's like some fever dream. I want people to feel like they just dreamt this movie: "Did I go to the movies last night or did I just drink too much tequila? I don't remember."
So you want to cast people who are larger than life, but playing it straight. Mel Gibson's playing it very straight. Michelle Rodriguez plays it super-straight. Charlie Sheen is playing it straight as the president. He's not up there goofing around, he’s saying, "I'm the president of the United States." That's what makes it fun. It's like you keep waiting for the other shoe to drop. So you want to cast people that are going to bring that quality, and yet they're reined in and at the same time they're let loose.
I remember looking at a list of people to play the villain, and I just wasn't interested in anybody but Mel Gibson. I thought he would be so good. Like Charlie Sheen as the president. Of course him, because it's that type of a movie. You've got to cast everybody else accordingly. Lady Gaga has to play a hitwoman. She's playing it straight. She's not goofing around, so there's something about that it makes it more over the top. If you're not trying to be over the top, it just becomes over the top. I think if you try too hard, it feels like it’s not genuine. You've got to be genuine about it, and kind of ground a lot of it so that people believe it. You believe it because they're playing it real.
This was my fastest shoot since [El] Mariachi. Charlie Sheen, he brought his A-game and kicked ass. He shot all that in one day. We just couldn't believe it. He left with a poster and a lobby card. "How long have I been here? We did all that in one day?" It's like "Wow, this is fun."
After Machete came out, I read in the press Lady Gaga had this song called "Americano" around and she said, "Oh, I should have had my music in Machete.'
So I thought, "Maybe she's a fan. I'll call her up." So I called her up. "Do you like Machete? If I do a sequel would you be in it?" (She said,) "I would love to act. I've never gotten the opportunity. I started as an actress, but music took off. I would love to be in one of your movies. It's one of my dreams to be in one of yours or Quentin's movies." So I said, "Well, I'll write you a role."
I wrote her a role and she came in and I just kept giving her more lines. She was just awesome. She was serious. She's a serious artist. She can do anything, and I was just so impressed. It was not like, "Here comes the music star," and she just phoned it in. No, she came in and she knew what she was doing, so I was really excited about that. It's a real validation on the idea of what being a creative person is to see that happen, and they appreciate it because you're giving them a shot, not as a gimmick, but because of who they are as an artist. And I think that helps too. Just be honest in your work, even if you're doing an over-the-top movie—it helps to have an honesty to it or it'll ring false. It'll really ring like a joke, and a joke will fall flat.
I had just met the president, and I was like, "This is so strange. I've got to have Machete meet the president." It's like that. You just walk into a room and there he is. I was inspired by that, and I thought, "He's got to work for the president right away, and go on an assignment where he's the only one who can fix it, because he's the ultimate bad-ass and the most expendable." I think that's kind of why I wanted to go into it.
The first movie was Danny Trejo’s Charles Bronson movie, and then this one, I thought, "We could take this character and go into the James Bond realm. That's really what I would love to do." The first movie was First Blood. This is his Rambo: First Blood, Part Two. That movie that Jim Cameron [wrote], where he was now saving all the hostages and he was like a superhero and he had all the gadgets. I was really inspired by that series of films to do something like that with Danny.
The theme of the movie is kind of an exploitation movie, especially in the '70s. Sometimes the filmmakers had something they wanted to say, like a Roger Corman movie. [But the producers would say] "I'm only giving you $50,000, and you've got to have boobs, and you've got to have blood and guts, and you've got to get asses in the seats."
You have this odd thing of trying to do social commentary and having to deliver the thrills, so you'd have these juxtapositions of styles and ideologies. I wanted that to be imposed on myself in this. You've got to deliver that and if you want to tell your story, you can tell it somewhere. You want to talk about cartels, but you've got to disguise it in a fun movie. But I think that when you have those layers, that that could work.
Set-ups and payoffs are just so great when you can do it without the audience being aware. People know so much now that, as soon as they see somebody in a movie pick up an object, "Okay, he's going to use that later." [Rodriguez explains misdirection by dropping a major spoiler here.] That way, they wouldn't see all the set-ups, and then when you watched it and watched it again you would go, "Oh my god, it's all a total hat trick of set-up and payouts." Over time, the movie just tries to be as clever as possible and really give the audience something to think about because they have seen it all. In an over-the-top movie you can get away with doing something wacky, just really breaking the mold and trying something that no one's ever tried before. And then if you fail it's an honorable fail. If you succeed, though, people will think about it and talk about it for a long time. People still talk about stuff from Machete. Like they can't believe they even saw it.