THEY ARE THE POWER COUPLE OF Texas film. He writes, directs, and edits. She produces and takes care of the most-minute details. He’s a shining hope of the do-it-yourself filmmaking ethic, totally fearless and a major player in Hollywood, California, and Hollywood, Texas, as well as the standard-bearer of the new Latino cinematic sensibility. She’s the unsung behind-the-scenes facilitator, making sure he stays focused and acting as a den mother for the cast and crew.
He spent a recent March morning rehearsing lines with the actors in their untitled $15 million horror movie while she was mapping out a publicity campaign, lining up a tutor for a juvenile cast member, and consulting with lawyers from Miramax Films, the company bankrolling the film. But get Robert Rodriguez and Elizabeth Avellán to sit down in an empty conference room in an Austin hotel during a rare break, and instead of schedules and budgets, they can’t help but talk about their biggest joint venture: their kids. “Check it out,” says Rodriguez, beaming with pride as he thrusts forth a CD that bears the name and likeness of two-and-a-half-year-old Rocket Valentino Rodriguez Avellán. The titles of the “songs” listed are Rocket’s first words and phrases, such as “Nene” and “Cahwol.” One-year-old Racer Maximiliano’s CD is still being recorded.
The Rodriguez-Avellán partnership reflects both the team effort essential to modern moviemaking and the couple’s resolve to raise a family in the middle of pursuing fast and furious careers. The division of labor was born of necessity when Rodriguez made the leap from low-budget guerrilla wunderkind to big-time studio dude after El Mariachi, his 1992 paean to the Mexican shoot-’em-up, became a hit. Critics raved, and the $7,000 movie grossed $5 million. Rodriguez, with a little help from his wife, filmed the sequel, Desperado, in 1994 for $7 million.
“I always wanted to clone myself,” Rodriguez says, nodding to his wife sitting across the table. “Since this was always a hobby, and it turned into work—it still doesn’t feel like work—I want to do it all.” Nice sentiment, but the reality is, when you’re dealing with eight-figure budgets and a staff and crew of more than a hundred, you can’t do it all. The next best thing is Elizabeth.
The thirty-year-old Rodriguez’s public image is that of a gregarious, wildman auteur who insists on doing his own editing and camera work—and everything else on the set. But, says Avellán, who is also thirty, “He’s actually the shy, quiet one.” She’s the people person. At first, says Rodriguez, there was some skepticism about her co-producing Desperado. The doubters quieted when it became apparent she could actually do the job without resorting to screaming or intimidation. “Early on, I worked very quietly around the set, making sure everyone was getting what they needed,” she explains. “We know the drill. He’s the hardest working man on the whole set, and he needs to have someone like me by his side. We trust each other. We don’t need to confer all the time. We know.”
Actually, they knew almost from the very start. Both come from large Latin Catholic families. Avellán grew up a child of privilege in Venezuela with six brothers and sisters; her grandfather was a broadcasting pioneer. Rodriguez grew up with nine siblings in a Mexican American family in San Antonio. They met at the University of Texas at Austin in 1988. She worked as an administrative associate for UT executive vice president and provost Gerhard Fonken. He was scratching out a living as a file clerk in the provost’s office while making short films, drawing a cartoon strip for the student newspaper, and trying to raise his grades to get into film school.
It wasn’t love at first sight so much as love of the big screen. “We both loved movies—watching them, reading about them, talking about them,” she says. They spent their first date at his place, where he showed her some short films he’d made. “He was doing all this wonderful work without any of the tools normally associated with moviemaking,” Avellán recalls. “He wasn’t show biz at all. His jeans were ripped, and he had holes in his shoes. But he was such a creative mind, I wanted to do whatever I could to help him realize his dream.”
They married a year and a half later. Shortly afterward, Robert began writing El Mariachi while earning extra money as a professional lab rat at the Pharmaco drug-testing center. Elizabeth carried an even heavier load. By the time he started filming in Ciudad Acuña, Mexico, she was holding down two jobs—hers and his file clerk gig. “After I was done with my work, I’d do his at night, so in the morning his file box was empty. They ended up having to hire two people to replace me. That prepared me for producing.”
After El Mariachi put him on the map, the couple moved to L.A. In 1994 Rodriguez made a ninety-minute TV movie called Roadracers for the Showtime movie cable channel, and he and Avellán began work on Desperado. She took a few extension classes on producing at UCLA to hone her skills. In 1995 Rodriguez, with writer and star Quentin Tarantino, made his comic-book-gore vampire movie, From Dusk Till Dawn. Right after the film wrapped, Rocket was born. Then, following a $1 million difference of opinion between Rodriguez and Tri-Star over the budget for the movie Zorro, the couple moved back to Austin. At home in Texas, Robert reinvented himself as el Mogul, and set about to do low-budget (by Hollywood standards) films like the $15 million horror project he’s directing with writer Kevin Williamson (Scream and Scream 2). “I’m making low-budget movies that look like big-budget movies,” he says. “That gives me the creative freedom to do what I want.”
The couple’s eyes meet across the table. His is a hawk’s gaze, intense and piercing; her eyes are round and warmer, but no less riveting. “We’re going to shoot consecutively till the year 2000, then take time off, have more babies, hang out with the kids,” he says as they get back to work. “This is a real test, this movie. We’re both working; we’re bringing up two kids. If we were shortchanging the kids, we’d have to rethink our strategy.”
The plan seems to be working. He adds, “They don’t even know we have jobs.”