[From Mar. 9th to 17th, Flixist will bring you live coverage from deep in the heart of Texas at South by Southwest Film 2012. Keep an eye out for news, features, interviews, videos, and reviews of some of the most anticipated films to hit the festival circuit in 2012.]
Omar Rodriguez-Lopez is a very passionate man. As a huge fan of At the Drive-In, I was never truly aware of just how passionate he is. Most may know him as a guitarist for At the Drive-In and The Mars Volta, but he’s also an aspiring filmmaker, having written, directed, and produced a few films under the Rodriguez-Lopez Productions name. Read on as we discuss what drives him as a person and his thoughts on gender roles in society and how that translated into the dialogue being created in Los Chidos.
Could you tell me a bit about Los Chidos and why you wanted to make the film?
Omar Rodriguez-Lopez: Just to open a dialogue, to get a dialogue open about things that aren’t really discussed, but are there in plain sight. I thought that satire was the best way to do it, because otherwise, it would be a mean film. If you use humor and satire, and the over-dub, you know, to keep an arm’s distance from the thing, then you remember you’re actually looking at something that’s actually supposed to provoke questions more than anything else.
The over-dub was a huge thing. Why did you choose to do that instead of just recording live?
ORL: Again, to keep an arm’s length from the whole story in and of itself, and to remind the viewer constantly that it’s a fantasy, that it’s a farce, that it’s a fable, that’s it allegory. It’s not about, like normally, films are about being emotionally invested in the characters and all that sort of thing. I did an interview earlier with a man who said, “Well, there’s too much crazy stuff and I couldn’t be emotionally invested in it.” That’s not the point of the film. That’s not the film I made. The film is to, again, get a dialogue going about a very real problem, not only in our culture, in Latin culture, but every culture in the world. For women who see the film, for the majority of them, they say, “Thank you. Finally someone who did this.” And there’s people who really like the film, and then there’s men who say, “Why?” They’re sort of off-put by it because it’s a critique on male culture, that’s the culture I’m talking about when I’m saying I’m critiquing my own culture. Yes, I’m a male Latino, but you have to see it in a broader perspective and not, you know… I’m talking about male culture, I’m talking about domination, oppression, exploitation, and the relationship between The Exploiter and The Exploited.
You do keep the film at an arm’s distance, but do you feel that distance could possibly undercut what you’re trying to say?
ORL: No, because there’s other films that can do it as a drama. That’s not the path I chose. Again, my intent is to have a dialogue going, like how one speaks is up to the individual. I chose to speak in a very particular way here during this dialogue. And I understand that it’s not for everybody, some people will be put off by it and not want to have the dialogue… It could because they don’t want to talk about the issues, it could be because, quite frankly, they didn’t like the film, and it wasn’t their cup of tea. All things being equal, that’s completely valid and just as important as the people who like my film.
For the over-dub, you did everything in post-production, I remember you saying that at the Q&A [following the premiere of Los Chidos]. You mentioned that your own Father did the voice of the Father. Did all the other [actors] do their own voices?
ORL: A couple of them, but I liked switching men for women, women for men, older people for younger people, younger people for older people, that kind of thing. It was just another part of the process that was really fun and really expressive, and it was an interesting tool to be able to use, and that’s a lot of the freedom that comes with choosing satire, also.
I’m sure you’ve seen these roles, you’ve seen these kinds of characters in your own life. Were there any specific people you had in mind as you were creating the characters?
ORL: Sure, a lot of it is family members, people I grew up around, people that I met through school. Just like you said, just fractions of conversations I’ve heard from people. I didn’t grow up in a misogynistic household. I grew up in the very much opposite [household], especially for the time, for it being the 70s, I had very, very progressive thinking parents. When I finally did get into a public school system, the way that men talk about women and sort of the roles that are so obvious there, it really stuck out to me, because I was brought up… I never heard my Father say a degrading thing about women, quite the opposite: He would never refer to women in a derogatory way, or [to] homosexuals. I was very fortunate to grow up in a really amazing household. A lot of this, if not all of it, is taken from personal experience. I heard people cringe when I say that at one of my Q&As, but that’s part of the world we live in, you know? Statistics say that eight out of 10 women that we know are raped, and usually by someone they know. That’s a fact we have to deal with as a culture and ask ourselves why it’s that way, especially the “usually someone they know” part. That’s really deep, and it cuts deep. For example, that scene where he [The Exploiter] puts the broken glass on the floor and she [The Exploited] steps on it: that seems crazy to someone. I met someone in the early 90s when I was really involved with the feminist movement and feminist groups who her own father would make her walk around in the house barefooted so she couldn’t leave, and he would cut the bottoms of her feet with glass from his bottle. That image obviously stayed super ingrained in my mind. Like any filmmaker, I’m pulling from reality and obviously making it far more absurd here and far more striking, but with a point in mind.
What I really liked was the… What was the cross dresser’s name? Did you give them defined names?
ORL: Rulo. But really, I tried to treat everything, again, as caricature, as just them representing something. You know, Mother, Father, Son, Cousin, and for them throughout the script and throughout our production, it was The Abused and The Abuser, The Exploiter and The Exploited. She is The Exploited, because again, we have to examine the relationship between those two archetypes throughout history. Generally speaking, the thing that happens psychologically, for example, [in] a kidnapping is referred to as Stockholm Syndrome, where the kidnapped person starts to fall in love, but that’s not a true love. [They’ve] been exploited, [they’ve] been broken down to the point that [they] thank [their] exploiter. I’ve seen this in relationships with my Aunts, with all sorts of women I’ve known where they just stick around like, “Yeah, he beats me, but he loves me.” This kind of thing, so to a certain degree, it’s also… It’s definitely the relationship, that’s one of the deepest things, the relationship between those two elements.
What I liked with Rulo’s character is that he’s so dominating, he’s so full of hate towards his girlfriend, but at the same time, he’s trying to express that love, but then the roles are switched when he’s with his lover. I thought that was really interesting. Do you think, if you had to define his character, would you say that he’s possibly the vital character, the anchor of the film?
ORL: I could see how it could be perceived that way. I mean, he’s definitely the most obvious character, again, for the point of The Exploiter and The Exploited, you know what I mean, because he in turn… He cuts off his own penis. In Spanish, we have this old joke where your Grandparents tell you where it’s like, where Jesus is about to be nailed to the cross the next day and he knows it, and so the night before, he’s partying with the apostles and they say like, “Master, you’ve never slept with a woman. You should sleep Mary Magdalene.” They push him into a room with Mary Magdalene, and the next thing they know, she comes out screaming, saying, “He’s crazy! He’s crazy!” with her robe covering herself, and he comes out and they say, “Master, what happened?” and he says, “Well, nothing. I helped her. She started to get undressed, and then I saw she was missing something, so I cured her.” It shows us just how sexist our culture is, and the psyche of man seeing woman as someone who is missing something instead of somebody who has something over man. So again, he cuts off his penis, thinking that makes him a woman, and obviously he’s completely misguided. He has to be dominated because he can not create, so he chooses to destroy. And then when he finally does get into a relationship with the bar owner, with the guy there, then he’s in that role all of a sudden because that’s what he thinks the woman’s role is, to be submissive, because that’s what he does. So the chain continues so on and so forth.
I can’t believe I missed on that completely. I didn’t even… That’s a very good point. That’s a really good point.
ORL: It’s the same as the scene where he’s eating the excrement. You can see it just as that, as outrageous or whatever. But really what I was trying to say in a very outward way was sick ideas being passed down from one generation to another, you know, bullshit ideas being passed down and being consumed, and shit back out, and consumed again. Society as a whole is happy to do it. You know as well as I do, like all of industry thrives on the exploitation of women. There’s not one. If you look at a guitar magazine, if you look at a car magazine, if people are selling bread, whatever they’re selling, they put a woman in a bikini. They’d just degrade a woman, they say they treat her like an object, and that’s it, like a piece of meat. Obviously, those things are all throughout the film: the meat, the shit, the urine, the obvious analogy of man as dog and urinating on a woman to claim ownership.
The girl that falls in love with Kim, she’s the younger sister, right?
ORL: Yes, exactly.
What kind of role does she represent? She’s very innocent, she’s very naïve…
ORL: Here’s the thing, here’s what I think a lot of people are missing: She chooses to be that way. The Sister is the one that is my favorite character. For me, her and the Mother are the ones I relate to the most. She chooses to believe in true love. She chooses, no matter how the world is around her. She chooses to say, “Hey, you’re going to do what you’re going to do, but that doesn’t mean I have to live that way.” So like, I can go through all through life thinking that people are trying to rip me off or whatever, or when I’m in the studio, I’ll give the runner, the intern, I’ll give him my card to get food for everybody. I give him the passcode, because if he steals from me, that’s on him, not on me. I don’t want to go through life, living and thinking that everybody’s trying to steal from me. That’s not how I want to live.
It’s a bad way to live.
ORL: It’s a bad way to live. So The Sister, at the beginning, remember when they first introduce her and The Brother and The Cousin, they play Rock Paper Scissors, remember? She chooses paper; she always chooses paper, even though she knows… And they think they have a one up on her, because they’re like, “She’s so dumb,” and they choose scissors. They choose something that cuts, they choose something that destroys. She chooses something that’s flexible, that’s the color white that obviously represents pure thought. And she chooses it over and over and over. It’s her choice to live that way. No matter how ugly the world is around her, she knows that love exists out there and that she can participate in it, and it’s not her prerogative to buy into it. And she gets beaten down for a minute in the film when she says, “I don’t care if he ever comes back.” But then, there’s a shot of her turning where you realize she obviously doesn’t mean it because that representing we all get beat down. I get beat down. There’s days where I think, “Gah, the world is awful.” But that’s not my purveying philosophy. It’s not… no matter how many awful wars I read about, I still have deep faith in humanity and people.
So she’s the wholly-good person, she’s the only person in this film that’s just untouched by society’s whims, right?
ORL: Yeah. And you know, The Brother has a big extent… he’s a little more cynical, but he has a large… He’s a homosexual, you know, there’s pure love there, as well, between him and Haji, you know what I mean? They’re having a good time in the face of sort of that Romeo and Juliet thing of not being allowed to love. But short of the rooftop scene where he tells Kim that he sucked him off while he was sleeping, he doesn’t… He’s just doing his thing, you know. He wants what’s best for everybody, even though people are constantly berating him. He stands up for himself. When they give him the clown, the clown gives him the rose and the doll…
He thinks it’s the greatest present.
ORL: Yeah, and they’re all making fun of him. He’s like, “This is the nicest thing anyone’s ever done for me. You guys don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Because they don’t have that experience, that honest representation [of love]. It’s pure.
ORL: It’s pure, it’s completely pure. In that relationship, there’s no domination, there’s just that great innocence that comes with love, and that great optimism that comes with love, that love will get us through anything.
And then we have Kim, who you said at the Q&A, he goes through the whole film and he returns back to his old life, and he just did not learn anything.
ORL: He didn’t learn anything. I was blown away that was that young man’s take on it. [At the Q&A, a commenter mentioned the character growth of Kim, which Rodriguez-Lopez instantly shot down.] But at the same time, it says a lot about his own psyche, and what we were talking about at the beginning of the conversation, which is Stockholm Syndrome. I wanted to say that, but I didn’t want to get too far into it. This is the world at large, this is exactly it. America, American culture, American politics, American government, American money, whatever you want to call it, dominates the world globally, exploits the world globally, and yet, almost every country in the world says, “America’s my friend.” It says a lot about his own psyche. [Rodriguez-Lopez imitating the Q&A commenter:] “How come that white guy’s the only good [guy]?” I was like, “You saw him as a good guy?!” So this is very normal. In Mexico, the biggest festival, Vive Latino Festival, about half of the bands are American. 80% of the films in the theaters are American films, not Mexican films, and that’s not a trend that’s unique to Mexico. Everywhere in the world, every country is being handed over dictators, handed over corruption, handed over mass consumption without consciousness, handed over exploitation by America, and at the same time, “Give us more. Oh, that’s popular? Yeah, we’re going to make that popular here, too.” That’s why you have to respect… Regardless of how you feel about people like [Venezuelan President Hugo] Chavez, or certain people in the Middle East who stand up to America, at least someone’s saying, “No, we don’t want that in our culture.” At least someone’s rejecting these Americanisms. Again, it was very telling of his own psyche, that he thought that that was… Kim’s character obviously didn’t care about anyone in the whole film. He just wanted to get laid, he liked the girl, he wanted to see what he could get out of it. He says, “Fuck it. This is cool,” then he’s like, “I’ll solve all of your problems. I’ll buy the tire shop” not understanding that that’s theirs, that’s what they do, that’s their life. Again, this is American consumerism, “Oh, I’ll just buy it. What do you mean you don’t want to sell it to me?” He can’t even conceive it. That’s very telling of that young man’s psychology. Even at the end, when he gets the tacos at the end, he’s like, “I’ll never forget you guys. Cool, I got to go!” And he goes to his wife and he starts talking about himself. Here’s a woman who’s waited three days for him, and he’s been through all this crazy stuff, and he’s like, “Oh, I met these amazing…” and he’s talking about himself. He’s not listening. That’s another thing, constantly it’s like nobody’s listening to each other. Everybody’s sort of talking at each other, saying things and doing something else, and never truly listening. It’s all about him at the end, and that arrogance is what causes him to not even to go, “Oh, you’re probably hungry. Here, let’s eat.” His own arrogance, which is what will catch up with this society one day.
So do you think that that nobody’s listening theme that you just mentioned, that also plays into your decision to over-dub then.
ORL: Definitely. You can’t avoid it because it’s so blatant. Listen, there’s something being said here.
Moving from Los Chidos, I read that you’ve also made a couple other films. Do you have plans to release those?
ORL: Yeah, the film before this was The Sentimental Engine Slayer. [It] played at Tribeca, and at Rotterdam, and a lot of film festivals, and [we’ll] probably put that out in the fall some point.
What is that about?
ORL: That’s just about a young man’s search for identity after his parents’ divorce.
And how long ago did you make it?
ORL: That one came out in 2010, made in 2009.
When did you start filming Los Chidos?
ORL: Los Chidos… I think it was last year.
I haven’t seen your earlier films, but do you think Los Chidos captures the themes that you wanted to discuss?
ORL: It makes blatant the themes that I’ve discussed all throughout all my work, music included: the feminist theme, the exploiter theme, the cultural themes, the religious themes, those are in any of my records from whenever anyone was made aware of what I was doing to now. It’s the same themes, you just find different ways to say it. Like again, I want to make clear, Los Chidos was just… it was a choice, it was a specific color. I used a specific color or tone. I’ve made a drama, I’ve made… The Sentimental Engine Slayer is completely different from Los Chidos, you know. It was a choice, that’s something that people… versatility, you know?
Do you have plans on doing another film?
ORL: Yeah yeah, we’re working on one right now called Nino y Esperanza. That’s the title right now, it might change, but that’s the working title, and we’re hoping to get that made in the fall.
Do you know what kind of film you’d make that into?
ORL: I’ve always wanted to do a typical body of film, so I’m going to take a body of film, but try and do it my way.
Is Los Chidos getting distribution?
ORL: I hope so.
You haven’t heard anything yet so far?
ORL: We’ve had distributors who are interested and they want to get back to us also after SXSW, which is really crazy. We only had one distributor pass. To me, that’s crazy, given the type of film it is, so that’s cool. But that’s more the department of my editor, Adam Thompson.
The business side of it.
ORL: Yeah. I tend to focus more on whatever’s current. This is a film I made already.
You want to move to what’s next.
ORL: Yeah, exactly.
If/when Los Chidos gets a wider release, how do you expect people to take it? What do you want to take out of it, and do you think that the general population will understand what you’re trying to do and trying to say?
ORL: I don’t know. I get asked that a lot, and my response is that it’s too abstract of a question in a way, simply because it’s a great, big world. A certain group of people, like the theater people, when I took them to the script, they said, “We love this. We want to be involved.” They got it right away. Another person maybe says, “I don’t buy it.” There’s all sorts of attitudes in the world, and that’s what makes the world interesting. That’s why we have to have tolerance. If we don’t have tolerance, we’ve been down that road. That’s the basis for religious wars, for war in general. Other filmmakers are saying the same things as me in a more subtle way, in a more delicate way, and a much more beautiful way. I just chose a particular way of speaking, and I understand that it’s not for everybody, but all things being equal, everything equals everything, and therefore, someone not liking my film, not seeing my film, not caring about it, hating it, is just as important as somebody supporting it, writing about it, getting it. All things are equal. The Chinese have taught us this through what us Westerners called their symbol. of the Ying Yang. There is no black without white, there is no hot without cold, there’s no god without the devil. All things are equal. It’s cool. I’m not invested in… again, I just want to get a dialogue going. I seem to have done it, so therefore, it’s good.
Last question: I’m sure you don’t want to limit yourself because you’re an artist in many senses of the word, but if it ever came to a point where you had to choose between your music and your film career…
Film? Definitely film?
ORL: Without a doubt, because it’s the biggest medium, it’s completely collaborative. You can’t dominate it in the way that you can music, and because it’s a medium that includes everything. The medium itself includes music. I would still be able to make music for the films. I get to work with people, with bodies as instruments. I get to work with them and see the actors’ choices to the texts I’ve written. I get to work with a cinematographer, I get to use the image, I get… the food in the film, the food not in the film, the set dressing, the colors of the wall, the locations, the weather. All of those are things that are not in music, and music is very contained. You make it in a studio. If you know how to play a lot of instruments like I do, and if you know how to engineer like I do, then you can pretty much do it on your own and you don’t have to be collaborative. So film, without a doubt. It’s gigantic.