Alvaro Rodriguez began collaborating with cousin director Robert Rodriguez on various screenplays before scoring his own pitch for a vampire western prequel to Quentin Tarantino’s genre-bending screenplay From Dusk Till Dawn: The Hangman’s Daughter (Dimension Films, 2000).
His most recent collaborations include Warner Brothers’ Shorts (2009) with James Spader and Fox’s Machete (2010) with Robert De Niro. His Texas-border short story, “El Niño Actór,” launched a new partnership this month between hip genre fiction site Popcorn Fiction and Little, Brown imprint Mulholland Books.
What inspired you to first start writing?
I know it goes back a long way—at least to the age of 7, if not before—that I wanted to write stories. If there was one thing I coveted above all others, it was a typewriter. My parents got me a toy typewriter around that time that I used to write sort of SNL “Weekend Update” news story parodies, but I wanted the real thing. In childhood, I think, there’s an identification with desire and potentiality—”I might be a writer, if I tried.” The temptation was too great. To this day, I still have a few manual typewriters to work on. There’s something ritualistic and tangible in the act of writing on them that I like.
How do you approach the blank page?
Nervously, sometimes, and almost distractedly. But once I get going, I start a rhythm, I build momentum and I can get beyond a blank page. It’s almost a thing of the past, since most of us now have scrolling feeds of screenspace to be filled with words and punctuation, but the challenges are still there, even if the editing is easier.
How are your processes different when writing a screenplay as opposed to a short story? Are there any similarities?
One common element is that I’ve lived with the story for a good while before I start to write it down. I have a sense of the characters, the plot, the dialogue, before I type FADE IN or the title of the story at the top of the page. Stylistically they’re similar in that I tend to write in a compact manner anyway, influenced by screenwriting but also by news reporting, and even poetry. When you’re trying to get to the essence of an image or a feeling or a scene, you begin writing with a certain economy, “playing less notes and leaving more space,” as Jonathan Richman says. This approach works doubly for me, I think, because it seems a very natural style and it lets the reader bring more of himself to the material.
What are the benefits and challenges to working with someone else on a screenplay? How does your process change?
There are always challenges when you put yourself in a situation where you will have to compromise or, conversely, be made to prove your worth and stand your ground. But those are also the benefits to collaboration. Finding someone you can develop a particularly good dynamic with is essential, and that relationship can’t be a sort of tuned-out, mutual appreciation society. You’ve got to have conflict, you’ve got to see things differently, you’ve got to know your strengths and weaknesses and be vigilant for ways to make the material better. I’ve been lucky to have had that experience right from the beginning, I think. The process changes, I suppose, in that you really have no excuses to get stuck. Someone’s there to give insight, and vice-versa. As far as who does what, working with Robert has been cool in that I’ve gotten to play to my strengths while he plays to his. He’s an extremely visual writer and director—he understands a scene at its most dynamic, visually, and how to distill those images into action words that will pull the reader (and eventually the audience) right into the scene. I get to string those moments together with character definition and story and build on themes.
How important is it for writers to experiment in more than one type of writing, genre, etc?
It’s always good to challenge yourself. If you’re playing it safe, you’re not going to get the chance to fail, which is an experience we too often deny ourselves. Sometimes you’ve got to drive into the ditch to find a new approach, or find something out about yourself and abilities you might not have realized you have.
Advice for screenwriters?
Find a system that works for you but don’t be afraid to experiment. Read good scripts. Find the scripts for the films you like and read them. Discover what makes them work. Watch movies. And above all, tell stories that connect to you at some level.
Advice for short story writers?
Pretty much the same. Read short stories. Find your voice. Listen. Connect with the story so the reader can, too.
What do you know now that you wish you knew when you first started writing?
It’s okay to screw up. It’s okay to put it all on the line and miss the mark. Writing like life is an evolutionary process. Perfection doesn’t spring from the mind of Athena. Fitzgerald really worked on those pages. I think the pressure to always be good can cripple a writer into taking less risks and not looking to challenge himself. I certainly fell into that trap early on, where I slumped into stasis for fear of falling on my face.
What is your favorite part of being a writer? The greatest challenge?
It’s the small victories, at least so far, of hitting a certain lyrical passage, and falling in love with language at the basic levels of sound and meaning. Some of that is construction, but when it sings, it feels inspired and you’ve suddenly become the conduit for something that draws together disparate elements into a moment, an image or a scene. The greatest challenge is focus—finding the right story at the right time and the right way to tell it without getting caught up in a million other things. Write on.
Tags: Alvaro Rodriguez Author Q&A Debra Eckerling El Nino Actor Fiction From Dusk Till Dawn The Hangman’s Daughter Little Brown Machete Mullholand Books Popcorn Fiction Quentin Tarantino Robert Rodriguez Screenwriting Short Stories Shorts Write On! Online