Arts Extra: The Evolution Of A Director

In Robert Rodriguez's last movie, the R-rated horror story "The Faculty," teachers were mutilated with scissors, students were attacked by dismembered fingers and a tranquil school campus was transformed into Killer Alien High. The biggest shock in the director's new film is that there's no shock at all. "Spy Kids" is a kid's fantasy with not much more violence than a "Where's Waldo?" cartoon.

And it's the nation's no. 1 film-making more money in its opening weekend last week than the next three movies combined. Even before it debuted, Miramax's Dimension Films, which produced "Spy Kids," decided to make a sequel. It's the first Miramax movie to have a tie-in with McDonald's, and if it keeps doing steady business, "Spy Kids" will end up making a much bigger profit than Miramax's Best Picture nominee, "Chocolat."

So how did Rodriguez, whose other films include the vampire tale "From Dusk Till Dawn," the action drama "Desperado" and the low-budget gangster tale "El Mariachi," switch genres from R-rated gore to a PG-rated kid flick?

For one thing, Rodriguez says, the violent movies were the departure, not the other way around. And despite his success in gruesomeness, he ran out of new ways of turning people's stomachs. "On those other films, you have to ask yourself, 'What new atrocity can I come with that horror fans haven't seen? Can I stick an arrow through someone's eyeball?'" says Rodriguez. "On this movie, I didn't have to worry about that at all. It's very easy to do action that's not violent."

His first film, a 1991 short entitled "Bedhead," was actually a children's story. So in a way, the father of three is really returning to his roots. His core audience might be taken aback, but Rodriguez says "Spy Kids" is the movie he's wanted to make since 1994. "Still, I was sure the ratings board was surprised when they saw it," he says. The film stars Antonio Banderas and Carla Gugino as former secret agents Gregorio and Ingrid Cortez, who gave up the spy game to marry and have kids. When they are kidnapped by crazed kids-TV personality Fegan Floop (Alan Cumming), the young Cortez children (Alex Vega and Daryl Sabara) set out with a bunch of high-tech gizmos to rescue mom and dad. What kid could resist being that kind of hero?

The true heroics, though, were in making a movie so cheap look so good. Despite an array of action scenes, a couple of exotic locations and a splashy, Gaudi-influenced production design, Rodriguez brought the movie to the screen for a mere $36 million. He not only wrote and directed "Spy Kids," but also served as the co-producer, editor, camera operator, co-visual effects supervisor, recording mixer and music composer. "I wanted to make an event movie that wasn't made by a big corporate machine but that was made by one person," Rodriguez says. "I used to be a magician, so I know sleight of hand."

At every step, he used tricks picked up by directing slasher flicks to make his family film look more expensive than it really was. Where other filmmakers might have spent weeks on a lake staging a boat chase, Rodriguez shot it in a matter of days. "And I found I had a much richer imagination from being around my kids," he says of his children, who are 2, 3 and 5. "Because they don't know what's possible and what's impossible." For one scene, Rodriguez hung out of a plane window, camera in hand, for unauthorized filming of a sequence over a Chilean government building. "We had to make it look like a James Bond movie," he says. "But when we flew over the government building, I said [to the pilot], 'We have to shoot this, but we better shoot it in one take before they come after us'."

The director's children have seen very little of their father's pre-"Spy Kids" films-"all they were allowed to see were the end credits," Rodriguez says. "I made this movie from a parent's point-of-view. Because I've suffered through a lot of these children's movies, and they are made by people who don't even have kids. And yet the kids still like them. Even my kids like them. And I say to my own children, 'What's wrong with you?'" Now, of course, they'll know better.