Robert Rodriguez Interview: Innovation at Troublemaker Studios

Last Friday we traveled to Troublemaker Studios in Austin, Texas to celebrate Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead) with Estrella Jalisco, the relatively new Mexican beer. Troublemaker is the studio of director and visionary Robert Rodriguez who was using the Mexican holiday as the perfect event to start a brand partnership with the Anheuser-Busch InBev brand which launched in the U.S. in 2016.

This Night of the Stars party, taking place on the dressed up set of Alita: Battle Angel, also celebrated the launch of La Reyna - a new company Robert Rodriguez is launching with the Virtue agency to help brands expand in the U.S. Hispanic market, which is what makes Rodriguez, La Reyna, and Troublemaker Studios the perfect focal point and venue for Estrella Jalisco.

Related: Alita: Battle Angel's Second Trailer Features More Plot & Villains

We came early and entered Troublemaker Studios as Robert Rodriguez and his band were practicing before the event began. Robert was emceeing the event and planning to play all evening, but before things kicked of we had the chance to catch up. Entering the production offices of Troublemaker, super high ceilings covered in posters highlight Robert’s filmography. He sits at the far end of a long conference table with staff and his band mates, a guitar in hand, strumming away. He plays throughout our entire interview, the same way he plays on set while directing Alita, and the same way just days earlier he played for me in New Zealand at Weta Digital as he directed motion capture action sequence I participated in. (Stay tuned for more on that in January and all week as we post our interviews.)

How do you have time to practice with the band, while doing post on Alita: Battle Angel and have The Limit coming up?

Yeah! I did that score with my son so that was fun. What you try to do is work it into your flow so we just did a song for Alita and the music for The Limit. It’s the worst thing to have guitars around and be like “I don’t have time to play!” because you don’t have time. So you work it into the flow of your work so THAT WAY (laughs) you can practice with the band. (Laughs).

I’m going to go all over the place with this. I have so many questions.


AUSTIN, TX - NOVEMBER 02: Robert Rodriguez performs with his band Chingon at Estrella Jalisco's Day of the Dead celebration at Rodriguez's Troublemaker Studios on November 2, 2018 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Rick Kern/Getty Images for Estrella Jalisco)

Eric Saindon (Visual Effects Supervisor, Weta Digital) told me that at your house here in Austin, it’s a castle and there’s a spire just full of guitars…

I do, yeah! I didn’t buy ‘em all. They are just gifts sometimes from over the years. Like I work with a company, someone at Weta or something, would be like “Oh I’m going to get Robert a gift, what do I get him? Oh I’ll get him a guitar.” So I have a bunch of guitars and my guitar player, my real guitar player for my band goes "why do you have so many guitars?!" [Laughs]. "Look, I can play all the time. That's like me having a lot of cameras!" he says.

But it’s cool. It’s a cool display. I do get to play every once in a while.

At New York Comic Con you came to our media room to talk about The Limit and Alita: Battle Angel and one of the things Jon Landau (producer, Alita: Battle Angel) joked about is that Alita is finally one of those movies where you wouldn’t be doing every aspect of it, like editing it all and doing the score like you have for your other movies.

Oh, ya, ya, ya.

But you just said you’re doing a song for Alita…

There’s a whole bar scene. A bar fight. You know, like I did music for From Dusk Till Dawn and Desperado. What's cool about doing original music and getting a little needle drop is that you can put the theme in there so I put Junkie XL's theme in there in a hidden kind of way so it sounds familiar but it doesn't scream the theme. At least it ties it in to the rest of the movie. It's not just a song from out of nowhere.

Had you ever met Junkie XL before this?

I was always a big fan and I loved his music, especially on Mad Max: Fury Road.

Oh my god, yes.

I just thought it was very propulsive and very heartfelt music and we needed that combination for Alita.

How Robert Rodriguez, La Reyna, and Estrella Jalisco Connected

Tell me about tonight, this event. How did Estrella Jalisco get to come to Troublemaker Studios and party on the set of Alita: Battle Angel?

Well, it started with [us] teaming with Virtue [The Creative Agency by Vice] and we started this new agency called La Reyna and working with brands to dig deeper into a Latin audience they already have or if they're trying to attract that audience. I've been in the business 25 years doing Hispanic programming that is for everyone, like Desperados and stuff like that where you just go "Oh this is cool," first but for Hispanics it really speaks to them.

You know, Wilbur was just saying "People didn't really understand my accent until that movie came out then suddenly all the girls wanted to date me!" [Laughs] Now you're cool! So that's changing the brand of the Latin as well. Working with brands, so much of what we do is working with studios and you know, content creators, and well, brands also want to create content so partnering with them is also like partnering with a studio. So, going directly to them, and I would go directly to them, bypass agencies. I was already kind of working like an agency producer and I'm like "look, I can actually make this stuff too, because I have my own production facility."

So before we started La Reyna we were kind of doing that through El Rey [Network] and found that they found that very attractive. Usually a brand goes to an agency, the agency then has to hire guys like me and then they mark everything up and everything is really expensive and takes a long time, or they go straight to me. And you know, we can make it like that! *snaps fingers*

And Virtue was doing that so we teamed up with Virtue, and Estrella [Jalisco] was one of the first brands to go "that makes sense for us! Shit, we're trying to get bigger in Texas and expand." I don't remember who came up with the idea but it was a great idea. "How about for our first thing, let's do an activation," and I said "well shit, let's do it at my studio. I have a whole Mexican set back here! It's from Alita, it's amazing!" We can dress it up and put streamers all over it so you don't recognize but make it Day of the Dead and we can announce La Reyna at the same time to show how we can bring an authenticity to brand work and to connecting people to, you know, I love Estrella Jalisco. I had a song I'd written before I branded up with them.

View this post on Instagram

Robert @rodriguez.

A post shared by Rob Keyes (@failcube) on

Someone told me that as I was walking in. Are you playing it tonight?

Yeah we're playing it. It's like an anthem! [Laughs]. It's so perfect! It's like "hey, it's meant to be." I wrote it like three or four years ago.

The branding part of it is interesting because now you have a set which you've done principal [photography] on, and you've used it not only here but at SXSW too, right?


Do you just keep it up forever, now? What happens with this?

Well, I built it so it lasts! I'm like Roger Corman. I just interviewed Roger Corman last week. I was showing him my sets and stuff, telling him about it. I have a set here that I built for From Dusk Till Dawn that we reused on Alita! And we redressed it. It's the whole bar scene. The whole big bar fight is the bar from From Dusk Till Dawn so I had that up. I reuse sets and dress them differently but that's like me, that's an asset. That's a multi-million dollar set that we just get mowed down normally at any studio because they need to make room for the next movie. Well, I put it in my parking lot so keep it there [Laughs]. And we built it in a way that'll last 10-15 years.

That's cool. Use it for sequels, ya? [Laughs]

Sequels or another town or dream sequences.

I have questions for Alita that we never got to talk about in New Zealand last week at Weta, which is amazing place by the way - everything about it, from the Workshop and Weta Digital and all their teams. And they let us customize our own Grewishka [the large Cyborg in Alita: Battle Angel] - who's partly based on Makaku from the Alita manga. Does anyone in this movie eat brains like Makaku does?

Not in the movie but I do know what you're talking about. There's some stuff in the graphic novel that goes further...

Makaku eats brains for endorphins.

Yeah, because it's a graphic novel they can go really out there and part of what Jim [Cameron] did on Avatar originally, he wrote that to be an R-rated movie. He knew he needed to pull some stuff back so it could be for all audiences, PG-13. And so we certainly keep a good balance I think, especially because with cyborg action you can do a lot more, but I think we keep the right tone. And people who enjoy the graphic novel, we don't go as far as the graphical stuff but it still really is hard-hitting and they still collect heads and all that stuff.

Jon [Landau] told me twice that when you first looked at Jim's Alita script it was massive, like 186 pages specifically -

Yeah [Laughs]

And you had to cut it down but keep the themes in place. When you cut out a lot of scenes from something like that are there any pieces where you're like "oh man, I wish I could have done that but it just doesn't work"?

Yeah, when I gave him the script he was like "I was playing a little game with myself. Every time I turn the page I thought 'oh, he's about to cut my favorite scene,'" because you had to cut something. You've cut 60 pages out. And he's like "Nope, that's still there! Oh here comes another scene, he's going to cut this one. Nope! That one was still there! I managed to get all the way to the end and you didn't cut any of my favorite scenes. I don't know how you did that! I don't know how you sweated 60 pages out."

I'd combine some stuff. I just know him well enough, I've known him 25 years. What would be important to him, all the character stuff and story, and the other things you kinda combine action or people, other periphery characters I could do a combo thing. And then his notes were very helpful - 600 pages of notes to fill the holes so he wouldn't notice all his material. If someone takes 60 pages out of your manuscript but patches it with stuff from your other diaries, you're not going to know what's not yours! It's all there.

With a script that big, plus 600 pages or whatever -


- I was told near 1000 pages  - is that just for one movie or is he blueprinting the whole manga?

A little bit of blueprint for future so you know where it's going but mostly it was all for ideas... he would say like "badass, badass, cool stuff, cool stuff" and then he'd go "maybe this could happen... nah" and then he'd keep going [Laughs]. It'd be stuff like that. Like he'd talk himself out of cool ideas.

The Weta thing really was eye-opening.

Yeah it's wild. I could see everybody getting it like "oh! that's what this is about!"

And the processes behind every little detail, and of course Alita herself. There's been no character ever like that on screen, but now that you've done all the work, years of work, and it's there, I asked the SFX crew whether that makes it easier to make another one? And Eric Saindon and them said "no."

No it doesn't....

You've gotta make new tech.

New tech.

But for you, you have the character, the cast, the world in your head now.

It's easier once you've broken it out, and I've made three or four franchises so that's always the case. Once you've done the first one now you've at least got some form of template but the next movie just as hard as the first. Harder because you have to surpass it and live up to it and also have a new story.

The Limit I'm very excited for.

It's really cool! I wish I could show it to you. It's only 20 minutes.

I know, I know, STX is dropping it on November 20th or something.

Yeah, you've gotta put on the headset and everything.

We have some stuff with you from New York Comic Con we're going to run in conjunction with that, but are and your son planning anything else like that?

Yeah, I mean they're gonna see how this goes out and proceed.

Is he locked into the VR side of it though?

He loves it. That's what got me into it. He was into it so I thought "I don't want to be left in the dust. Hey, let's start a company together. That's the future!" I was always on the cusp of the future, shooting digital first. The first digital 3D movie was Spy Kids 3-D. Shooting all green screen first.

The Groundhouse format return.

Yeah, so when he said "I want to do it in VR" I was like "shit" and I suddenly felt behind. [Laughs] So I said "well, let's go jump into it. That's the only way to figure it out." And we figured out some really cool stuff no one else is doing with that story and it gave us ideas for new stories that you can't tell in TV or movies and it works best in VR.

Is he loving it?

He loves it! I love it too!

That's awesome.

Yeah, he loves it. And we're doing a game for Oculus. A VR game.

Oh we have to talk again. I have questions about game stuff for you too.

Oh yeah it's pretty cool. We came up with a cool game and he's into that world so he came up with it. I love working with him because it puts my foot back in my 20s again which is the audience that consumes this stuff the most.

I read an interview with you from years ago where you were talking about one of your kids playing Halo, and Battlefield versus Call of Duty.

Oh yeahhh! [Laughs]

Can you make a video game movie because no one else seems to be able to?

Oh yea, that's right. They haven't done well. That doesn't mean they don't work. It just they haven't been done correctly yet.

I don't want to take more of your time. I know you have to host a party shortly. Thanks and I can't wait to see your performance!

Thanks for coming by and it was fun doing the mocap stuff together in New Zealand!

Robert had another interview before heading out to a stage setup in a street corner and open area of the Alita: Battle Angel set, now decorated with Day of the Dead themed dressing, with drinks and food being served in several locations. After an intro about the new partnership with Estrella Jalisco, Rodriguez and the band (Chingon) played throughout the evening, with a screen behind them playing scenes from all of his movies that match the music.

It was an event to celebrate innovation, in movies and business, to celebrate the beginning of a relationship with Estrella Jalisco and the launch of La Reyna, Rodriguez's company that aims to help brands like Estrella better reach and grow within the U.S. Hispanic market.

More: Junkie XL Working On Alita: Battle Angel Soundtrack

The Limit releases November 20, 2018 from STX on all VR platforms.

Alita: Battle Angel releases from Fox February 14, 2019 worldwide.

Estrella Jalisco hosted the event, their first partnership with Robert Rodriguez, and invited us to attend.

Key Release Dates
  • Alita Battle Angel (2019) release date: Feb 14, 2019
Star Trek Discovery Deep Space Nine Aliens
Star Trek: Discovery Is Bringing Back Three Of Deep Space Nine's Alien Races

More in Interviews