Who's the Grown-Up?

updated 08/04/2003 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/04/2003 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Part Neverland, part Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Robert Rodriguez's home outside Austin is the kind of place where kids get to be kids—and so do grown-ups. "I am not someone," says Rodriguez, the director of the Spy Kids films, "who lives in a very realistic world." More like Peter Pan's realm: The 12-room, custom-built stone castle, which boasts a secret passageway leading up to a tower, is the setting for Rodriguez's never-wanna-grow-up lifestyle, which includes daily video games with his three sons. "I can talk to kids at their level," he says, "because I'm at their level."

But don't let the boyishness fool you: Rodriguez, 35, is a driven filmmaker—he helped finance his 1992 breakthrough, the bloody El Mariachi, with $3,000 he earned as a pharmaceutical-company guinea pig—and a savvy, George Lucas-style auteur who crafts his films out of Los Cryptos, the state-of-the-art editing studio he runs next door to his medieval-style home. Among Rodriguez's roles on the new Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over, the latest in his $200 million-grossing series about pint-size James Bonds: director, writer, editor, composer, visual-effects supervisor and cinematographer. "You know the 'film by' credit?" asks Bob Weinstein, co-chairman of Miramax, the distributor of Spy Kids 3-D. "There ought to be another credit just for Robert." Notes Rodriguez: "I have all the creative freedom of someone making a home movie, but I get to do it on a larger scale. It's the best."

Even better is the opportunity to make his movies a family affair. Rodriguez's wife, Elizabeth Avellan, 42, produces his films, and their sons Rocket, 7, Racer, 6, and Rebel, 4, serve as stuntkids and provide inspiration. When Rocket had a nightmare about drowning in lava, "I said, 'Maybe you didn't really drown, maybe the lava was cold and you just had to fall through it,' " he recalls. "It gave me a great scene in the new movie."

Tapping his family for ideas is nothing new for Rodriguez, the third of 10 children raised in San Antonio by parents Cecilio, 67, a retired salesman, and Rebecca, 66, a retired nurse who often shepherded her brood of five girls and five boys to classic movies. As a youngster Rodriguez got his first video camera and began filming everything in sight. "On Christmas mornings, everyone had bed-heads," recalls sister Patricia, 32. "No one wanted to be shot that early, but too bad."

The young director continued to hone his craft at the University of Texas at Austin, where he met Avellan, who encouraged his cinematic ambitions. "I knew he had the talent to make it," she says. The pair married in 1990; three years later the Spanish-language El Mariachi, which Rodriguez made for just $7,000, was a sensation at the Sundance Film Festival and, with Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs, helped jump-start the independent film industry. Desperado, a reworking of Mariachi with future Spy Kids costar Antonio Banderas, followed in '95 (a sequel, Once Upon a Time in Mexico, is set for release this fall), and From Dusk Till Dawn, a gory collaboration with Tarantino, arrived in '96. Although the violence in those films is a long way from his PG fare, he describes those early movies as "very comedic. It's hard for me to take action movies very seriously."

What the Mexican-American director does take seriously is his depiction of the Spy Kids as Latino. "For Latin families, it's a huge thing for them to see positive Latin role models," he says. "That's what's really cool."

Cool, too, has been the opportunity to use his biggie paychecks to allow his parents to retire and to spend his days with his kids. At the castle, "Fridays are pizza night," says Avellan. "Robert makes the dough from scratch."

Next, he'll be cooking up an animated movie, due next year, and maybe a new business. "I told my kids that we should start a video-game company," he says. "That way we could play video games for the rest of our lives." Peter Pan would approve.

Michelle Tauber
Gabrielle Cosgriff in Austin

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