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The Sharkboy and Lavagirl universe is personal for Robert Rodriguez

We Can Be Heroes director cracked the perfect kids movie formula by listening to his kids

a young girl riding a shark in we can be heroes Image: Netflix
Petrana Radulovic is an entertainment reporter specializing in animation, fandom culture, theme parks, Disney, and young adult fantasy franchises.

In 2005, From Dusk to Dawn and Sin City director Robert Rodriguez made a film inspired by his young son. Titled The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl in 3-D, the bright, zany film is seared into the minds of many 2000s-kids, despite the fact it was critically panned.

Rodriguez has a legacy as an action director — he just directed a one-off for The Mandalorian and will oversee the upcoming The Book of Boba Fett — but a whole generation knows him as the mastermind behind their favorite kids movies. In addition to Sharkboy and Lavagirl, Rodriguez also created the Spy Kids movies, a series of certifiably good movies that appeal to kid senses and elevates their stories to front and center.

His latest kid-action flick is We Can Be Heroes, a loose Sharkboy and Lavagirl sequel that brings the characters back as members of a superhero team. With the film out now on Netflix, Polygon sat down with the director (and producer, composer, camera operator, director of photography, visual effects supervisor, writer — just some of the many hats he wears on set) to talk Sharkboy and Lavagirl, We Can Be Heroes, and what’s so special about making kid movies.

lavagirl flying to the rescue in we can be heroes Image: Netflix

Polygon: How did the idea of a Sharkboy and Lavagirl sequel come to be?

Robert Rodriguez: I was approached by Netflix to come up with an original film that wasn’t tied to a remake or sequel for their service. Those were the comparables for sure — Spy Kids, Sharkboy and Lavagirl — which I played really well on their service. They wanted something like that: live-action, action adventure comedy like I did these other films, because they were just very successful for them.

I came up with We Can Be Heroes first and the whole time I was writing it, my kids and I were coming up with different superpowers for the kids. I kept thinking wow wish one of them at shark powers! Now we cracked the code 15 years ago, that was the best. Kids love that and it’s so empowering. So once they loved the script and wanted to make it into a film, I approached them about pulling a Marvel-Sony where they would borrow Spider Man from the studio. And so we borrowed the parents for two reasons — one to legitimize my adult family and my adult superhero team so people would have at least heard of two people on the team and then also selfishly, so one of the kids could have a combination of their superpowers and create Guppy. That’s how that came about. It was really an afterthought later just when we realized we’ve done it in some way so long ago. It worked then so why not bring some of that back in the Rodriguez-verse!

The original was inspired by a story your son wrote — was he involved in We Can Be Heroes? What does he think of it?

He’s on this as a producer. At the end of the credits when you see produced by me and and produced by Racer Max, that’s him. He created Sharkboy way back when. He was on set [for We Can Be Heroes]. All my kids were on set every day working in some capacity. [Racer] wrote with me and produced with me. My other son, my 20 year-old, composed the score. The entire orchestral score was my 20 year-old, Rebel. Rogue, my 15 year-old, designed all those incredible alien interior sets — the big one with a pyramid, he did on his game engine program at 15. And my 13 year-old daughter is the one who drew all the artwork for all [Ojo, one of the characters]’s iPads. They were on the set every day and working.

It was very surreal for [Racer] to see not just Sharkboy and Lavagirl back. He created [them] when he was the same age as the girl who played Guppy. That’s how old he was when he came up with them. But also to see that they have offspring. It was very trippy. And for me, it was like she was my cinematic granddaughter. Very strange and very inspiring and just surreal.

Two kids dressed as superheroes. Photo: Dimension Films

Sharkboy and Lavagirl and the Spy Kids trilogy don’t pander — they were movies that took kid interests seriously. Was that part of the ethos, and if so, how did you go about approaching them in that way?

I’m from a family of 10 kids. We used to go to the movies a lot. We loved movies like that. There weren’t very many. When I started making films — my earliest films, when I was in my teens, were in my backyard. I was making sort of action comedies, but my friends weren’t always available to be in them, but my little siblings were. There’s so many of them that I put my little siblings in there instead. And I would win festivals! People seeing little kids do action comedy was a winning formula. I knew someday I would try and figure out an angle to make a film like that. That was Spy Kids.

Then I just loved to continue making them for my own kids, for my siblings, when we had that same kind of relationship together. Now that my kids are older, I really wanted to do this film, as a way to give kids their own mythology. I’ve met a lot of kids over the years that are now in their 20s, who said, Oh, you know, Spy Kids and Sharkboy [and Lavagirl], that was my sister and my favorite movie, we watched that together over and over, that was our childhood. It means a lot to them.

[These movies have] a lot of good food for thought, teaching value, teaching morality to kids using genre — like the spy genre or the fantasy genre, like Sharkboy. This one, we’re taking the superhero myth, and using that to show kids that they’re going to be the future. If the parents have obviously screwed the world up, they’re gonna have to step in later and be prepared. [The film does it] in a way that is entertaining, but yet also educational. That was always, I thought, the legacy of these films, and it’s something that I enjoy doing as a parent and as a sibling of such large families.

One thing that I’ve always loved about Spy Kids, Sharkboy and Lavagirl, and now We Can Be Heroes is just how bright they are visually. What inspired that? Why was it important?

Because that’s what’s so fun about making these movies! When you just think about how many superhero movies and TV series of reboots and spin offs there are, but there aren’t any with children. Surprisingly, they’ve done everything but that. It really opens you up to be able to use the color palette and the shapes, like even the ship. The tech company would send me ideas for a ship and I was like It looks too much like a grownup ship. Just send me some simple shapes first, just send me shapes. And they send me like a circle. And they sent me some tentacle-looking things. I put a couple together and I said this is it. Now let’s make that real. My kid handed you this little model, now make it big and make it real, make it work. So it started with various shapes, you’re not used to seeing colors that you’re not used to seeing, but that you would see in a child’s world because in the film, it turns out, all that stuff is designed by a child and that was part of this storyline. It became part of the look and let you go into a direction you normally wouldn’t go

Besides the subject matter, what is something starkly different about making kids movies versus making adult movies that some people might not consider?

You can’t just direct and write. You have to operate the camera, you have to be the director of photography, you have to be the editor and know visual effects really well because you have so little time. You have half the amount of time to shoot it as a regular film, because a fim like this has 11 children in every shot, you lose them in six hours. You don’t have a 12 hour shoot day. They have to go home, door to door in six hours. You have to be really focused, you have to hire really terrific kids to figure out how to film 11 of them in every shot. It’s a tall order, but yet it’s so fun. They’re so good, so imaginative.

a group of kids ready to kick some butt in we can be heroes Photo: Ryan Green/Netflix

A film like this you can use your entire imagination. Any idea you can kind of put in there because it’s for families it’s not like Oh, this isn’t appropriate for an Avengers film. You can be as silly and as funny as you want. Like you are when you play with your kids. You can’t be like that in the boardroom. You can’t do that in your normal work life. But when you go home, that’s when you have the most fun — on the weekends and with your family. That’s what my work gets to be. We encourage that, on set, on camera, off camera. It’s a very fun set to be on because it needs to spill into the camaraderie, that fun that we’re having. We have drawing contests together in between takes. Just to keep the kids creative and to keep them focused on working together and creating this art for others to enjoy. It’s just a totally different environment than a regular movie. Everyone, even the adults, walked away saying it was probably the most fun they’d had shooting.

What’s something you hope adults will take away from We Can Be Heroes?

It’s something that I kind of learned through parenting my kids. I never wanted to push them into the industry. But I started finding that as I included them, they really took to it and it wasn’t about that they were going to go and do that in their future. Projects are a way to show the process of life really. It’s more life lessons, specifically film lessons: how to take on a project, how to attack a big project, idea, business, whatever it is that you want to take on in your future, how you have to make a plan, how that plan always falls apart, how you save it, how you make it better. That process of life is wash, rinse, repeat, it comes in a microcosm of a project like a movie.

I hope what parents take away by seeing the kids and the parents working together and learning from each other in [We Can Be Heroes] is that parenting can be more about partnership, rather than parents telling you what to do as a kid. You can learn more from the child, and they can learn from you. And if you think of them as partners, rather than you having the responsibility of a parent, you have a relationship that can last much longer. Like you see, by the end of the movie that Missy has with her dad, they’re gonna go work together now. They’re gonna have a partnership. It’s not going to be [Pedro Pascal’s character] worried about his daughter, and then he becomes obsolete in her life at 13. He’s gonna be very much a crucial part of her development and his development. So I think that is something I tried to hit home in the movie, people take away from it. The excitement of being in a family is partnering with your kids.

What was it like to see the strong fan reaction when the first images of grownup Sharkboy and Lavagirl came out? Did you expect it?

Oh, that was so great. I don’t think they realized at first when I first suggested bringing Sharkboy and Lavagirl. Because if you just looked at the box office ... That’s why I kind of stopped making those films. Kids would see them again and again, at home on video. But parents would only take them to see it at the theater maybe once or twice, and say ah, you’ll see it later. Kids want to see it over and over. But they couldn’t drive themselves. So the box office never really reflected how much people were actually watching these movies. I would hear about it because people would say, every time that comes on, my kid watches it. It’s crazy. I thought it built up a fan base, but I wasn’t sure. [Netflix] knew they wanted to hold back showing them because they’d heard a lot of excitement about Sharkboy and Lavagirl, but I don’t think they even knew it was gonna get that much response. It was very exciting. Now just about every trailer says, Sharkboy and Lavagirl ... and the rest of the team! But they’re just characters I borrowed from the other movie. People just really love the characters and they stood out. Even if people have never seen the film, they’ve heard of it. It’s been 15 years. After a while, you just hear about things like that. I was very excited to see that, my son was very excited to see that. When people see what we did with the characters and their offspring, they’ll be really pleased that it’s in line with that original film. And if they never saw the original film, maybe they’ll watch it.

Do you think that Netflix opens doors for these weirder movies to be made?

That’s why I actually wanted to do it. Because I love making those films. They just weren’t box office feasible, because it feels like it’s a very targeted audience. But when you can do it for a service like Netflix ... my daughter wants to watch Glitter Force. I don’t have to drive her to the theater. She can just sit there and click and watch it as many times as she wants. I thought that’s the best place for people to see because then they actually keep track of how many times people watch. And now for once, we’ll know exactly how many times people watch the movie. And that will really give it a much better guide as to the success of the film than you could have if you put this out theatrically. Because it’s disproportionate because a kid can’t drive themselves to a theater. I was really excited just to find that out. I’m really eager to see. I think it will have a lot of repeat viewing. And finally, for once to be able to keep track of it. The box doesn’t tell the whole story. These are very rare, rare films to play to and not to that audience again and again and again.