Elizabeth Avellán has produced films that have earned more than a billion dollars at the box office, including the Sin City and Spy Kids franchises. But she’s still so tapped into the indie-film ethos that on the latest film she’s produced, Deadland, she cooked for the whole production.
Avellán, whose creative partnership with former husband Robert Rodriguez goes all the way back to his 1992 DIY breakthrough El Mariachi, spoke at the El Paso Film Festival Thursday about the indie sensibilities she has put into practice for years. She helped make Texas the film capital it is today, in part by her co-founding of Austin’s Troublemaker Studios, and said Thursday that she sees some of the same qualities in El Paso that she found in Austin in the ’90s.
“I’ve been in this business 30 years — wow,” she said. “I will tell you what I see here that is common to what happened in Austin back in the late ’80s, early ’90s: You’re investing in yourselves and you’re investing in each other. This community has that ability, and it’s already doing it, and the people are wonderful.”
Avellán spoke at a panel on video games, graphic novels and film as part of the Creative Ways panels led by the El Paso Film & Creative Industries Commission at Visit El Paso and supported by the El Paso Film Festival. Her fellow panelists were Dr. E.C. Dukes of DUKEScomics and Xalavier Nelson Jr. of StrangeScaffold, who just released the new game El Paso, Elsewhere.
Filmmaking in El Paso
Avellán cited Drew Mayer-Oakes, El Paso’s Film & Creative Industries commissioner and El Paso Film Festival creative director Carlos Corral among the people driving El Paso’s film industry — and she advised the filmmakers in attendance to “be generous to a fault with each other” when it comes to sharing knowledge and resources.
“Be generous with what you have, be generous and humble to be whatever you can be in somebody else’s project,” she said, “even if you have to cook the meal.”
She walks the walk: Deadland, a border thriller directed by Lance Larson that is playing the festival, shot in areas so remote that no restaurants were open. So she and another producer did the cooking.
“One of the producers and I cooked for six days while we were shooting. We cooked for 50 people there,” she said. “So nothing is too small. All hands on deck.”
Of course, she also told some pretty glamorous stories. Like the time George Lucas was generous with what he had.
When she and Rodriguez were making 2002’s Spy Kids 2: The Island of Lost Dreams and 2003’s Once Upon a Time in Mexico, they realized they could stretch their budgets by shooting on high-definition digital. Lucas had used the technology on 2002’s Star Wars: Episode Two — Attack of the Clones, and shared everything he had learned, she said.
Later Rodriguez repaid the favor by speaking about his experience at Lucas’ Skywalker Ranch.
Rodriguez and Avellán employed the digital technology again on the groundbreaking 2005 film Sin City — but only after getting permission from Frank Miller, the iconic writer and artists who wrote the graphic novels.
Which led to another fun story.
Avellán recalled that Rodriguez pursued Miller for a long time about the project, but couldn’t get him on the phone. Finally, one day, Miller answered a call Rodriguez, who was in Los Angeles, and asked if he was in New York. Rodriguez, seeing his opportunity, said yes, so Miller asked him to meet him there the next day.
Rodriguez had no idea if he could get across the country in time. So producer Bob Weinstein had him and his whole family take a private jet. It was December 2003, and Avellán had plans to take their kids to see the Will Ferrell movie Elf.
“We went and saw Elf. And then we got on a private jet — the kids had their pajamas on — and we flew into New York. And we landed in New York on December 7, which is when everything’s decorated, and the dusting of the snow — it was like we were the set of Elf,” Avellán recalled.
“You Can Touch the World Through El Paso’
Dukes and Nelson shared their own stories of sharing and collaboration.
Dukes said that when she was working on her first film, A.W.O.L.: Cruz Ochoa, a local business owner, Raymond Palacios, Jr. of Bravo Chevrolet-Cadillac, not only wrote her a check for $5,000, but also gave her the use of several of his vehicles.
She ultimately decided that the story would work better a graphic novel than a film, which led her and her husband, artist Ronnie Dukes, to launch their comics line. Their latest collaboration is the recent Daizee & the Dukes of Chuco.
Nelson, meanwhile, created El Paso, Elsewhere he said, because “having gone all over the world and lived all over the world to do my work, El Paso was the first place that felt like home.” As a child of a military family, and later as a writer, game designer and studio head, he had traveled extensively but realized he could do his best work from El Paso.
“The degree to which El Paso as an environment and as a creators’ hub inspires creativity is massive, because the culture of the border and this set of communities all come together to create this larger environment,” he said.
“You have magic realism, and the surreal and the sacred and the natural all put in the same exact place. To me, El Paso feels like a place like a church made by God. And stepping into it, I knew this was home.”
He also found wonderful collaborators he said, including local hip-hop artists with whom he created an album linked to the game. Though he joked that in retrospect he may have been too ambitious — after releasing the game Tuesday, he found himself sick with exhaustion.
But he was also energized about future creativity in El Paso, and the opportunities for filmmakers, game creators and graphic novelists to create in West Texas.
“You can touch the world through El Paso,” he said. “And increasingly the opportunities that exist around filmmaking comics, making game making, allow you to in previously corporate environments where you had to move to LA if you wanted to move to New York, if you wanted to do anything, “You can live in El Paso be surrounded by family, friends and community and really talented people.”
Main image: (L-R) Drew Mayers-Oakes, Dr. E.C. Dukes Elizabeth Avellán, and and Xalavier Nelson Jr. Photo by Carlos Corral.