Latinx Ciné Storyworld Builder, Smuggler, Innovator: A Conversation with Alvaro Rodriguez

Image courtesy of Viz Media

Image courtesy of Viz Media

By Frederick Luis Aldama

Alvaro Rodriguez is through and through a creator hailing from those worldly borderland spaces that yield new admixtures of language, sounds, tastes, touch, ideas, and culture. Born and raised in South Texas along the US/Mexico border, he discovered writing could help him make sense of his world, and create new worlds. While cinema was already a first love, without a movie camera on hand, he turned to pen, paper, and a Polaroid camera to storyboard films that were log-jamming his imagination. He began honing his craft as an undergrad at UT Austin writing and editing for the student newspaper as well as enrolling in entertainment and creative writing courses. He continued to develop his toolbox of writing techniques at the University of Houston. 

Alvaro would later cut his screenwriting teeth with writing scripts for P.J. Pesce’s From Dusk Till Dawn 3: The Hangman’s Daughter (1999), Robert Rodriguez’s Shorts (2009) and Machete (2010), and Dwight H. Little’s Last Rampage (2017) as for serialized cable and network shows like El Rey Network’s From Dusk Till Dawn (2014-2015), NBC’s Chicago Fire (2012- ). An accomplished musician (you can hear him perform in his cousin’s 1992 El Mariachi), curator of Mexican film series, award-winning poet and fiction author, and an accomplished screenplay writer of TV and film Alvaro is the whole proverbial tamale.  

I had the great pleasure of catching up with Alvaro to talk about his life, work, and his latest project, the animated feature Seis Manos with Netflix.

Frederick Luis Aldama: South Tejano borderlands born and raised, how might your early life inform your creativity today?  

Alvaro Rodriguez: Growing up, adolescence—these are the formative, essential experiences that inform everything. So, growing up on the border in South Texas in a place where I felt both a part of a community and yearning to be part of something larger has had a deep influence on creativity—on all of my writing and projects that I’ve worked on and that I’m currently working on.  

I should add, that while growing up in a border community develops a deep connection to history and strong sense of family, it encouraged me to look beyond. To go to the library, read books, see films, and listen to music that would open doors to a great big outside world.

FLA: You were a journalist and author of award-winning fiction. Why a career in TV, film, animation? 

AR: Writing fiction, working as a journalist, taking courses in creative writing as an undergrad and graduate student, they all inform one another—and, inform my screenwriting for TV, live-action film, and animation today. It’s a natural evolution. I see my work as writing screenplays as a space where I can be all of these kinds of writers: a poet, journalist, and narrative storyteller all at once.

FLA: How might you see your work intervening creatively and politically in the world today?

AR: Certainly, during the writing of the screenplay for Machete I thought of myself as a smuggler. I wanted to entertain audiences, as well as smuggle themes of identity and politics  into the narrative. For me, this is the pleasure of screenplay writing. This possibility of embedding all of my interests into whatever story I’m telling in ways that are engaging, surprising, and unexpected. 

FLA: We live in a topsy-turvy world with families ripped apart, children in cages—so much tragedy. Where do you find your sources of creativity?

AR: Even in these dire times there is a demand for more stories that haven’t been told—and in new ways. There’s more demand for seeing our community’s experiences on a screen, big or small. So, my inspiration comes from everything around me. There’s no shortage of touchstones and catalysts for story writing and engaging in material that excites me and captures my imagination. There’s so much that I find myself engaged in and by in today’s world. And, never before has there been such an opportunities as we see today to tell these stories.

So, yes, we are living a time of great struggle. But, we are also living a time of great creative possibility. We can shine a bright light on where we are and where we are going.

FLA: Why the turn to animation with the co-creating of Seis Manos and, coming from live-action filmmaking, was this a sharp learning curve?

AR: I’m excited. This is a new door that’s opening for me where I could draw on my other creative experiences in the shaping of an adult-oriented animated space. It’s also a space where  I can bring cultural specificity as I would in other adult live-action storyworld spaces. There’s something freeing and liberating in the animation process. 

Certainly, there was a learning curve. It has its own set of storytelling technologies and devices. It has its own history and expectations. Matching these expectations and finding ways to subvert these expectations has been the big challenge with Seis Manos. It’s been an exciting process of addressing these challenges in this new space, all while carefully attending to and recognizing that animation storytelling is a time-consuming, laborious process. It’s an art that takes time. At the end of the day, working with such a dedicated team of cocreators makes me very proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish.

FLA: Today’s means for producing and distributing film narratives seems limitless. Have  streaming platforms opened doors for you?  

AR: Seis Manos was born a few years back, but it took a while to get into right hands. We pitched it to different buyers, some more interested than others. Some flat out didn’t see its potential at all, doubting if it would ever find an audience. Fortunately, with streaming platforms such as streaming Hulu, Amazon—and of course Netflix, who picked up the show, there’s more opportunity. There’s more places to go with our innovative, interesting projects. And, these platforms will get the projects to a wider audience. So, yes, Seis Manos has benefited from explosion of these new production and distribution platforms. 

FLA:  How did you get foot in door here? 

AR: Because we partnered with Powerhouse Animation Studios—they produced the adult animation series Castlevania (2017- ) for Netflixthere was an existing relationship with Netflix. And, we partnered with Viz Media (the largest distributor of anime and manga in the US). Netflix immediately saw potential in Seis Manos. They were super supportive and welcoming at this early stage, so it was pretty simple to find a way forward. Netflix proved to be a boon to us with getting Seis Manos off the ground. I should, add, too that I really like the direction they are going. At the LA anime Expo recently they announced Seis Manos as part of a new slate of “Global Stories.” I feel pretty privileged to be part of this global endeavor. 

 FLA: How might Jorge Gutierrez’s Latinx-anchored animated stories,  El Tigre and Book of Life informed your vision of Seis Manos

AR: I drew inspiration from everywhere, especially Gutierrez’s work that broke ground by delivering Latinx stories to mass audiences without any compromise. It was a huge creative direction that we wanted to follow in the footsteps of. But I also drew from Classic Mexican cinema, ‘70s grindhouse, Kung Fu flicks, you name it. These all proved to be sources of inspiration in the making of Seis Manos. 

But, yes, there’s no way to overstate the influence Gutierrez and his work has had on me. They are touchstones that I look to for telling absolutely uncompromising stories. And, this is also why Netflix has worked so well. As a creative team working on Seis Manos we could be as authentic to our stories as we wanted. We didn’t have to appease this demographic or that one. We could be absolutely true to the story we wanted to tell.

FLA: There’s been such a long history of non-Latinxs voice acting Latinx characters in animation: from Mel Blanc Speedy Gonzales to Robyn Williams as Ramon in Happy Feet 2. Remarkably, for Seis Manos you have Latinx voice actors playing Latinx characters: Aislinn Derbez, Carlos Luna, Danny Trejo,  Angélica Vale.

AR: Again, it’s about authenticity. The story is almost entirely set in northern Mexico. We worked with Meredith Layne—an incredible voice casting director in LA who found so many great candidates for our voice cast. So, we were able to cast a largely Latinx—along with African American Mike Colter and Asian American Vic Chao. 

We weren’t doing this as part of an agenda or to take a political stand. We wanted strong, unique voices that were anchored in the DNA of the characters. So, by design and necessity this led to Trejo, Derbez, Vale, and a host of other Latinx actors playing these roles. This was essential given the story we were telling. And, some of the Latinx actors will also do their character in Spanish; this was an added bonus and further solidifies our adherence to being as authentic as possible. 

FLA: Why might awards and institutional recognition be important for a Latinx creator like yourself? 

AR: Awards and some sort of recognition call attention to an artist or work of art as an achievement. This has a strong ripple effect in the community and beyond. This ripple effect is incredibly positive and immeasurable. 

It’s important in other ways, too. Not only can it draw attention to a project, it can inspire a person, another creator other to tell their own stories. It can show other Latinx that there’s value in telling their stories. This can have a huge, lasting impact on the lives of others. It can open for other artists and creators in ways that those who came before us have opened doors. In this sense, accolades and awards are less important to me on professional level and more significant in terms of how the recognitions can inspire others to create their own art.

FLA: What’s the most surprising response you’ve received to a work of yours? 

AV: It comes out in conversations I have with other creatives or others in the development and production side of the industry. The surprise comes from those who can’t reconcile the fact that the same person who wrote Machete also wrote Last Rampage. They can’t figure out that I’m the same person writing entirely new stories within new genres and with new tones. That I can have multiple interests and a larger wheelhouse than instantly evident has always surprised people.

FLA: Can you identify a film that’s had a lasting impact on you as a creator?

AR: I recently attended a screening of 35mm screening of Poltergiest (1982). It was a full house. I recognized several references that I’d made to Poltergeist in Seis Manos. But, I hadn’t seen it since I was a teen; I first saw it when I was eleven. So something from the film must have lodged itself deep into my subconscious. It’s disarming, smart, and layered. It has this the matrilineal quality to the storytelling that’s striking: there’s a strong mother character, the parapsychologist character, and a curandera-like grandmother. It’s a story about women being closer more open to the unexplained, the natural world and its hidden parts in an empowered and empowering way.  

Genre films are seen as fodder of the masses; you know, as something that you chew and swallow like popcorn then forget. But the high caliber of writing, performance, directing in a movie like Poltergiest stands the test of time. While I may not watch every week or every year, it’s endlessly revelatory with each revisit. It continues to be inspirational.  

FLA: If you were to step back from your life time of work, how would you characterize it? 

AR: I’d say, I’ve only just begun. I’m a late bloomer. I’m just beginning to find my voice. I’m very excited about the prospects of the future in animated and live action narrative spaces. This coming Halloween will mark the 20th anniversary of my writing the screenplay for From Dusk Till Dawn 3: The Hangman’s Daughter. As I look back, so much has happened in these 20 years. At the same time, so much more is just beginning to happen. 

I’ve always kept an always-be-learning attitude when it comes to film writing and writing generally. I’m doing it in ways that I never anticipated in the past. I’m excited to continue growing in new and different directions in the future. 

FLA: What’s next?

AR: I have a lot of projects in development that I’ll be able to talk about once they are formally announced. I can mention You, Mine—a kind of a teen Summer of 42 meets Cinema Paradiso with some Ghost thrown in. I stumbled across this and wanted to adapt it. It’s a passion project that I’d like to get off the ground hopefully in Italy early next year.

Seis Manos premiers October 3rd on Netflix.