For three decades, Robert Rodriguez has been doing his best to make movies his way, alternating between big studio releases and independent filmmaking with the help of Troublemaker Studios, his fully equipped home base in Austin, Texas. Along the way, he’s built an impressive resume that includes his breakthrough Mariachi trilogy of action films, as well as the family friendly Spy Kids franchise. He’s also directed episodes of The Mandalorian and The Book Of Boba Fett and produced the 2010 Predator reboot, Predators. Rodriguez’s latest film, Hypnotic, feels a bit like the merging of an indie and a blockbuster.
Two decades in the making, it’s the story of a detective, played by Ben Affleck, who runs into a seemingly super-powered human hypnotist (William Fichtner) during a bank heist. It’s a film that combines Hollywood star power with Rodriguez’s shoot-from-the-hip inventiveness, with much of it shot on a tight schedule at Troublemaker using sets left over from Alita: Battle Angel along with more than a few clever visual tricks. Ahead of Hypnotic’s release, we paid a visit to Troublemaker Studios to chat with Rodriguez about the film, working on movies with his family, where the mid-budget thriller fits now in Hollywood, and much more.
The A.V. Club: You’ve been holding on to this story since 2002. What was the original seed of the idea?
Robert Rodriguez: I was making my second Spy Kids film and usually when I’m editing I have a movie playing on the side with the sound off because back then the machine would take so long to render a shot that I would just turn and look at the screen. It had to be something that I had already seen, and Vertigo was just going on a loop.
I said, “I would love to do a Hitchcock-type thriller that’s very sleight of hand, just editing tricks and camera tricks to suspend disbelief. What’s a one-word title he would’ve used in a story?” I started to think by process of elimination, and then it came into my mind… Hypnotic.
And I thought, “It’s a great title, what does it mean?” I thought about it and within 10 minutes it was like, “You can’t catch some guy who has an ability beyond hypnosis. It’s like, you talk, he takes your money, you give him your bank accounts, you give him the keys to your car, he takes off.” That’s it. [I] wrote about 30 pages of scriptment [hybrid script and treatment], and I thought “I’m going to finish this someday and sell it on the spec market because it’s a really cool idea.”
But I kept making my sequels and making my movies and one year turned into 15, and 15 years later I finally picked it up and went, “I’m never going to sell it on spec. I’m going to have to write it and go make it.”
I was determined to make it in 2015 and then I started talking Alita with Jim Cameron. So another three years goes by and We Can Be Heroes pushes it out of the way. At that point, I just sat down and wrote it, and then Covid shut it down three times. Suddenly 20 years goes by. So it’s really strange to be sitting here talking about it because it was always, even for my kids, they just grew up hearing about it. The fact that we’ve now done it and we’re going to Cannes with it just blows our minds.
AVC: It’s interesting that Hitchcock was the inspiration. Other than Vertigo were there any other Hitchcock touchstones you worked into the film?
RR: There weren’t really, even Vertigo. It wasn’t really anything about the story in particular. It was just the idea that his movies had lots of twists, lots of turns. Then by accident, we ended up shooting this like Psycho because Covid shut us down so many times that our 55-day shooting schedule went to 34 which, with French hours, we had to shoot 10-hour days. It was more like a 24-day shooting schedule, which Ben really embraced because I told him, “Man, it’s going to be like the roaring ’90s. We get to shoot this from the hip, like the old days.” And he was like, “God, I stand around on set so much now. I didn’t think anyone shot like that anymore. Let’s go do it.”
AVC: How did the tight schedule and constraints influence the making of the movie?
RR: We had to just shoot so quickly. We ended up having to shoot a lot here [at Troublemaker Studios], and it benefited the movie because it felt more like we had to create this Hypnotic construct out of this place. We used every nook and cranny because we couldn’t go to a location suddenly and we just had to figure it out.
That’s what’s great about shooting with somebody like Ben. He’s been on that side where you’re trying to make it work before time runs out. A lot of magic comes from that because you don’t have a lot of takes. If you had twice as long a schedule it would feel bloated, and you want to just pull an audience by the lapels through the movie, like Psycho did.
AVC: We’ve talked about Hitchcock a lot, but the movie also has the feel of a ’90s thriller that Tony Scott would have made. What were the conversations about regarding what you wanted the film to look like?
RR: There’s a crazy low-budget effect you can do; you take your frame and give it less picture by cutting the tops and the bottom off. It looks bigger. It’s like the budget button. It’s a Tony Scott look, it’s the Ridley Scott look. It’s the 2.35 aspect ratio, which I’ve never shot. But I had just done Mandalorian and I was like, “Wow, those prime lenses, [if] we get something like it, it’ll give our movie a bigger look. For the first time I shot 2:35 and that really helped. Then the color correction and the lighting that gives it the gritty quality of a Tony Scott, Ridley Scott, Michael Mann movie, that was always a touchstone for us.
AVC: You made this movie alongside your kids. How has working with them changed you as a filmmaker?
RR: Making Sharkboy And Lavagirl was taking a time machine asking my eight-year-old self what I would’ve wanted to see. Now, I can go to them in their twenties and say, what is it that people are into right now? I learn so much from them, their point of view, their approach to things, and they [learn] from me.
They’re the age I was when I did El Mariachi and Desperado. I was on fire back then, all these ideas, all kinds of tradition. They have those ideas now. And I’m the older established guy, so I get a real shot of adrenaline having them continue to work with me. Because they can keep the old guy around for his institutional knowledge, but then you use them to go actually surf the wave because they’re agile and sharp and they’re really helpful.
AVC: Speaking of that institutional knowledge, you’ve done big franchise work, but then you come back here and make a mid-budget thriller at a time when people are worried mid-budget movies are dying. Where do films like this fit in the current landscape?
RR: Generally they might be right, but then a certain movie will come out that people want to see that breaks that generality. And you just hope your movie’s one of those movies. I kind of always did what I felt like doing. I didn’t think anybody would’ve wanted to watch Mariachi, so I just made it for myself, and then it goes and wins Sundance.
So I thought, “OK, I’m going to do that from now on. I’m not going to try and guess what an audience wants to see. I’m going to make something that’s true to me, true to my family, that we really believe in.” And some people are actually going to like it because they can tell it has authenticity. Someone actually cared about this thing. They could tell it’s not made from a factory. Some are more successful than others.
It’s really about committing to a body of work. If you just commit to that and make stuff that you really want to do, chances are it’ll sync with somebody. Some segment of the audience is going to feel the love and go, “Somebody really cared about this.”
AVC: Going back to big franchises before we go, there are a lot of reminders of Alita: Battle Angel at this studio, including the original sets that were re-used for Hypnotic. Are you hopeful that you’ll get to do a sequel one day?
RR: Definitely hopeful. [Producers] Jon [Landau] and Jim [Cameron], we talk about that all the time. [Cameron] had outlined a whole three movies. What was tough was, as we’re making the movie and for the release—that’s probably why the release suffered—Fox got bought by Disney and everybody abandoned ship. So we didn’t really have a big marketing team. And they hadn’t even been making any Fox movies for a long time. I think now they’re starting to make Fox movies again, so we didn’t know if it was just stuck there or what. But yeah, definitely more hope now.