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Robert Rodriguez (Writer/Director) - Planet Terror

Interview image

Texas-born Robert Rodriguez made his name with the low-budget movie El Mariachi (1992). In the years since, Rodriguez has worked across a variety of genres, inventing the Mex-Western with the loose El Mariachi remake Desperado (1995), fusing horror, teen comedy and sci-fi in The Faculty (1998) and creating the Spy Kids trilogy. During promotional activity for El Mariachi, Rodriguez encountered fellow filmmaker Quentin Tarantino. The two struck up a friendship that has resulted in several big-screen collaborations, most recently with the US-only release B-movie double bill Grindhouse. Conceived as a homage to the trashy drive-in movies of the 1970s and early 1980s Grindhouse comprised two films for the price of one: Tarantino’s Death Proof and Rodriguez’s Planet Terror. We caught up with Rodriguez as Planet Terror was due for release on DVD...

ReviewGraveyard: When did you first get the idea for Planet Terror?

Interview imageRobert Rodriguez: It was ten years ago, it was, like, 1997 or 1998. I was talking to the cast of The Faculty. I said: "I’m writing a zombie movie." They went: "Oh wow!" Cos I knew zombie movies were gonna come back in a big way - there hadn’t been one in about 15 years or more, and slasher films had run their course, so I figured Hollywood would be looking for something new.

I said: "Betcha it’s gonna be zombies. Not for a few years at least, but we should do it now. Let’s do the first one." They were like: "Zombie movies!!!"

Everyone was so excited about doing a zombie movie.

I wrote the first 30 pages and I loved it. Loved it. Cos it was all the tease, leading up to the zombies - there’s something wrong in this city, people are dying but nobody knows what it is. People are showing up with weird bites, and then a girl loses her leg...

Interview imageBut once the characters got to the hospital I didn’t know what to do next! I was like:" Now I’ve got to start explaining why there are zombies..."

I always hated that part of the movie and I always blew it, cos there was never a good explanation as to why people would suddenly come back from the dead and start eating people.

So I put it away and got into other things, like Spy Kids and other stuff, instead. And then, sure enough, about four or five years later, zombie movies came back in a big way, there were a bunch of those, so the idea was pretty dead.

RG: Why did you revive it?

RR: I’d gotten this idea, just before Sin City, to do two short features, like, 60 minutes in length, as a double feature, which I was gonna direct myself. I said to Quentin: "You should direct one, I’ll direct the other," and he said: "Oh, let’s call it Grindhouse and make them like those old movies from the '70s and early '80s. But if we do it, we could do Kung Fu or action, but I think horror would be the best way to go."

Interview imageSo I thought: "Well, hey, the best thing I’ve got is this zombie movie script, if you wanna just get started right away you can finish writing it, I never finished it." And Quentin goes: "Oh, I love zombie movies - yeah, yeah, send it to me, I’ll read it."

But before I could even give it to him, the next day he already had Death Proof in mind. So I went back to the zombie script, and as I wrote it, I started really getting back into it.

RG: So Grindhouse was the motivation you needed?

RR: It helped a lot that we came up with Grindhouse and the idea to make a film based on these exploitation movies. Because a lot of what they would do is take something very topical and exploit it.

So if Roger Corman had been making movies when the Iraqi war was on then, he’d be using that in a second. Like: "Oh, some biochemical weapon has been brought back to the States..."

So then they turn into zombies, or these infected people with multiple viral infections, all happening very quickly, that turn into these lesions that are just protruding off their bodies. I tried to find real medical reasons for everything and authenticate it. That’s how I was going to explain it.

RG: Did that solve everything?

RR: No, I still needed to figure out what my central marketing was. Because these movies all had great posters and great trailers. I’d just written the Machete trailer, which was great: I had Danny Trejo opening his jacket, full of machetes, and with a machine gun on his motorcycle, jumping, then in some water with two girls. Every shot was a money shot and possible poster image.

Interview imageI thought: "What would my poster for Planet Terror be? It can’t just be zombies, everybody’s seen that. We have some cool tough guys in the movie but everyone’s seen that too..."

I thought: "The only person I really have that I can capitalise on Cherry, the girl with the stump."

I think at that time I had a scene where El Wray puts a stick in her leg, and I thought: "Man, that’s gonna just look pathetic on a poster." So I kept thinking: "There’s gotta be something, I need something. I’ve gotta start thinking less about the movie and more about the trailer, and then I’ll be able to finish the movie."

I was stuck in traffic and then it popped into my head: "My God, she has a machine gun for a leg!!!" Awesome! She’d be like, Brrrrr!!! Brrrr!!! Brrrr!!! Roundhouse! One gun pointed at one guy, another gun pointed at another guy, and her leg twisted back, pointed at another guy’s face. She could be the most badass person.

And because it’s Grindhouse, it’s gonna be even weirder, because it’ll be a real high-tech process - we’ll have to remove Rose’s leg and add it with a computer - but it’ll look very, very low-tech, like it was done back in the day.

RG: Were you ever worried that someone might steal the idea?

Interview imageRR: No. I thought that even if somebody did hear about the idea and made their own machine gun leg movie, it would be more sleek. Ours was gonna be really raw. That’s why I designed Cherry’s costume to be a go-go dancer’s. You can see flesh and a bandage and a gun. It looks so low budget it’s even more disturbing to see it on a beautiful girl. It’s so inelegant, like it was fitted right there, on the spot.

So that made me suddenly know that the main character - cos I had a lot of characters - was gonna be her. I made her a go-go dancer, figuring that it’d be more tragic if she lost her leg. But then all those moves, her physicality, those things she thought were just useless talents, suddenly make sense.

RG: Planet Terror features characters with apparently useless talents that they can put to good use in times of crisis...

RR: Right. Y’know, there was a movie that we were inspired by, that we kept referencing. I don’t think that was the connection at all, but the movie we liked, which Dick Miller is in and Roger Corman directed, is called Rock All Night. It’s hard to find. It’s about 65 minutes.

Interview imageI thought: "That’s the model - we should make our movies that short." It feels like you saw a full feature, it’s tight. I thought we could do a double feature like that easy, but our scripts got in the way.

But in Rock All Night Dick Miller plays a real asshole. He’s a total jerk, always getting picked on, kicks back at people, insulting them. Everybody’s like: "God, this guy’s got a chip on his shoulder." Until there’s a hostage situation. Some robbers come in, and suddenly him being an asshole is the only thing that saves the day! Because he unnerves these guys so much, he’s the guy they need at the time like that! That’s the one time you’d need somebody like that, this little, bullying, smart mouth dick head, is in that situation!

RG: So was that the inspiration?

RR: Not really. I got the useless talent idea from Rose. Ever since I met her she’s always been talking about things she can do, like: "Useless talent number 31..." I thought that was fascinating. I said: "I’m gonna put that idea in the script, but I’m gonna make sure
Cherry’s talents aren’t useless; it’s just that she hasn’t figured out how to use them yet." She hasn’t got to that point yet where you connect the dots and suddenly all those stupid things you learned actually turn out to be for a purpose. There is a plan - a grand plan. A destiny and a fate.

RG: Did you go back and re-watch a lot of old movies to get into the grindhouse spirit?

Interview imageRR: Nah, I didn’t really put in direct references. I think in the new version you do see Freddy Rodriguez step out of a car with handcuffs on his wrists and feet. It was very much like Snake Plissken in Escape From New York. It’s a hint that they know he’s a badass. That’s about it.

I didn’t have to really go look at Dawn of the Dead or any of the Carpenter movies, cos I’d seen them so many times, I knew them like the back of my hand. But I was going for that sort of vibe. I really thought that this was the kind of movie John Carpenter would have made if he did a zombie movie. If he was a good friend of George Romero and they’d teamed up, or something.

In that year between Escape From New York and The Thing - y’know, that year he had off - what if he did this movie? Planet Terror would be that movie. It has a lot of staples of his movies. It’s all set at night; it’s got very brooding music and really cool, soft-spoken, hard-ass characters. A lot of diverse characters...

RG: Your score is very reminiscent of Carpenter’s…

Interview imageRR: I wrote the theme song before I started writing the script, so it really didn’t sound at all like Carpenter. That’s just the music that Cherry dances to, and it becomes her action theme by the end. But I knew I wanted to have a Carpenter-type vibe, so I had to bridge the gap. It ended up being a mix of things.

There’s a real simplicity to Carpenter’s music that makes it really effective. He doesn’t overwrite. He keeps it very tonal, with very simple melodies that stick in your head. So I used that approach, with similar sounds that he used, based on old analogue equipment - except nowadays it’s on a computer programme. I went and looked up all the equipment he used, I was gonna go and buy it all off e-Bay, and then I found a computer programme that emulates completely all those sounds. So I wrote the music on my laptop.

RG: What’s the difference between the Grindhouse version of Planet Terror and the standalone release?

RR: It's small things. I had edited the movie pretty tight because I knew I had to get it down to 84 minutes. I needed to make mine even shorter than Quentin’s, no matter what. It's kinda why my movie went first. I had so many characters, I could really chop the hell out of it, so people didn’t feel so tired that they couldn’t wait for another movie.

Interview imageI had to make it like an appetiser. So I cut it down as tight as I could - and it was 98 minutes! I was like: "F*ck!!! Now what am I gonna cut - there’s nothing left!!!"

So I did some gymnastics to get it to work, but I was amazed that it did work and I really like the short version now because it just moves. I love how fast it moves.

RG: So there isn’t a reveal scene, where El Wray’s background is explained?

RR: No, there never has been. I didn’t know what his background was either, so I put that in the missing reel. I thought: "I have to take real advantage of the missing reel because all the questions that need answering get answered in that reel."

So the movie doesn’t have to make perfect sense. Exactly what is Bruce Willis’s character up to? I don’t know, it was all explained in that reel. And it explained El Wray’s background. But all you really need to know is that he must be someone really badass, because he’s good at everything. Even the sheriff, who didn’t want him to have a gun, says: "Give him that gun. Give him ALL the guns!" [Laughs] Like he’s Rambo times ten.

RG: What are your thoughts on what happened with Grindhouse?

Interview imageRR: The Weinstein’s said, before we’d even started shooting, "All our foreign distributors don’t want them together. They want them separate. They don’t understand that whole American grindhouse experience."

A lot of Americans didn’t understand it either, as it turns out! You almost had to educate them so much; it was almost like you had to go to school before you could even go see the movie!

RG: Why do you think they stayed away?

RR: I think people just didn’t know how long it was gonna be, because movies are just so long now. Like Zodiac is two hours 50, The Good Shepherd’s two hours 50... All these things are just way overlong. It’s like: "God, give those guys some scissors!" Save it for the DVD!

Interview imageIt makes audiences tired, so when they see a trailer that says: "Two full-length feature films for the price of one!!!" people start thinking: "Man, how much of my day is gonna go? Have I got to sneak food in? I might be there for six or seven hours! I mean, Quentin’s movies are always as f*cking long as sh*t! Jesus Christ..." They kinda did their own math, I guess!

RG: Will you making Machete into a movie? Danny Trejo can’t wait for you to make it.

RR: Oh, he says that all the time. He calls me up every day and says: "I’m the best shape I’ve ever been in in my life. People keep saying, 'Where is the movie?' They want it. They want it, bro!"

RG: Are you actually going to do it?

RR: Oh yeah. We have a script. It’s not gonna be hard to make. There’s so many scenes that I wanna actually direct. It’ll be a hoot...

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With thanks to Matt Littlewood at Gas Agency

Planet Terror is released on DVD from 10 March 2008.

Click here to buy Planet Terror on DVD for £10.98 (RRP: £17.99)

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