EL PASO, Texas - For not wanting to do music as a living, Omar Rodriguez Lopez has done pretty well.
He's won a Grammy and toured the world with his band The Mars Volta among his many musical collaborations. He's also been named one of the 100 best guitarists by Rolling Stone.
"Music was never any kind of ambition of mine," Rodriguez told KVIA during a recent interview. " I come from a very musical culture. They say when you're Puerto Rican you're either going to play baseball or play music."
But when he saw, oddly enough, "Footloose," as a kid, that's when he got hooked on films.
"When my dad finally could afford a VCR, it's the one VHS (tapes) that came free with it," Rodriguez said. "So I watched ‘Footloose' over and over and over and so it started to dawn on me this is something I wanted to do. And those are my biggest influences. It's why I think my music is so long winded, actually. In a film you have an hour-and-a-half to make it happen in terms of storytelling and whatnot. And so I've always looked at it from that point of view."
He's been directing the film "Nino y La Esperanza" this month in El Paso with production expected to wrap in early February. It is the story of a family torn between following their dreams and the strange circumstances that befall them. Nino y Esperanza must learn how to take care of each other after their parents are infected with a man-made disease, according to a synopsis of the film.
Rodriguez summarizes it another way.
"In simplistic forms, I just always wanted to do sort of a barrio film. And the guy needs to get the money cause blah blah blah and he meets the girl," Rodriguez said of the new film. "There's only about eight stories in the world anyways as Joseph Campbell says. So ... what can I tell you about the film? I can tell you we're having an absolutely incredible time making it. We're all discovering things about each other as we make it, which is again, the point."
Although he directed and starred in 2010's "The Sentimental Engine Slayer," Rodriguez said this time he is staying behind the camera. He said the only reason he starred in Sentimental was because the lead actor backed out at the last minute for a paying gig and Rodriguez had to step in and play the part or the film would not have been made.
"Cinema's probably one of the biggest influences besides painting ," Rodriguez said. "I mean, it's what I've wanted to do since I was small. And I've been making films since I was small and by way of how most people who make cinema do - with a VHS recorder and the tape to tape editing."
The process of making a film is more important to Rodriguez than the finished product.
"It's the most important part and the end result is a byproduct. It's nice, but it really only serves for the ego, which means you go to a film festival, people tell you they liked your film or they didn't like it. People write about you but that really only serves the ego. What really serves you as a person is the actual process of making a film. It's what we have here right now. It's coming together with people, having to express yourself, having to work on communication. And at the core of that communication we have communication that happens within the family structure. And everything generates out from the family structure which means like your family, your closest friends, the little bit distant friends – it goes out from the nucleus. And this is where you actually learn something. This is what teaches you something."
The process also makes you look inward.
"A tangible example is during ‘Sentimental Engine Slayer,' both of my brothers were living in this house, and I said ‘great, we're going to use this house.' I kicked them out, moved all their stuff out. I painted it. They had to move back in with my parents."
It caused an understandable strain between the brothers.
"My brothers probably didn't talk to me for about a month after that. And so during the process I learned something very crucial for my relationship with them which was that I still in my mind psychologically thought of them as still being 8 years old. I came in and just ejected them from their house. And somehow, psychologically, they still saw me as some authority figure instead of us being like what we are now, which is adults that need to treat each other with respects. So from that point on my relationship with my brothers changed completely. And it was because of that film, because I'm such a bad communicator in my personal life.
"The film helps me to work out those muscles of communication. Even from the onset, you have to go out of your house to make a film. I'm a person who stays in home. And with music it's easier for me to be like that. You make music in one room in a studio. And if you can engineer which I can. If you can play most instruments, which, I can then you can do it on your own. With film you have to collaborate with everybody. With film you have to go out of your house. You have to talk to people, you have to draw them into the project. This is a perfect example of the medicinal properties of a project of such a large scale."
Films end up being more about the filmmakers than about the audience who watch them.
"But not anyone, most of the time within the society that we've been placed in, can look inside of yourself and try to constantly be correcting things about yourself," Rodriguez said. "In fact, in modern society we're given all the tools to not look inside. We think we're looking inside so everybody with social media and everything else and taking pictures and blah blah blah but it's all surface level to keep us away from the main issues at heart which are all emotionally based.
"So you put those into the film under the guise of it's a story about this, a story about whatever, this guy during slavery, whatever modern films are talking about. The real issues are what's happening to the people emotionally. The people who are writing it, the people involved in making it come together. That's the real thing. We're constantly putting ourselves in communication and putting ourselves in conflict, which is another amazing tool for learning," Rodriguez said.