Film: 2009: August: Shorts

Shorts- Movie Production Notes


Filmmaker Robert Rodriguez has earned acclaim for a wide range of films, including such family hits as the "Spy Kids" trilogy and "The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl in 3-D." His new family film, "Shorts," unleashes the imagination around the central premise of a rock that can grant any wish. "That's the ultimate playground," he says. "With a story like this, you are challenging yourself to come up with the most amazing things you can possibly imagine. The Rainbow Rock is the ultimate in wish-fulfillment. I mean, you tell kids that concept and they immediately start dreaming about all the things they could wish for if they had that rock."

Rodriguez is not only a do-it-all filmmaker but the father of five children. His action-packed family adventures are, at their core, contemporary fables, which are both inspired and informed by his own kids. Just as his son Racer had come up with ideas for "The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl in 3-D," another of Rodriguez's sons, Rebel, helped dream up "Shorts."

Rebel suggested making a film with the kind of episodes his family loved watching on "The Little Rascals." The director offers, "'The Little Rascals' felt like real kids, but not exactly like real life. It was an idealized state, where they all mixed and matched through different adventures. I wanted to take that magical kids' world a hundred times further and set it in suburbia."

The original idea was to structure the film like a series of "Little Rascals" episodes. "They'd be completely separate stories but utilizing the same kids in the neighborhood," Rodriguez explains. "Then, as the script evolved, I took one of the ideas Rebel had about a wishing Rainbow Rock and used that as the unifying element."

The film's episodic structure also mirrors the director's experience with his kids when they want to share a story they've seen. "When my kids want to show me something funny they saw on TV, they'll use the DVR to speed up to the good parts, so I see the story zipping by," he notes. "Once they have me hooked, they'll circle back and show me the middle and, if I'm a good audience, they will rewind to the start. It's a lot of fun to tell the story by rewinding and fast-forwarding and juxtaposing scenes."

Rebel, who plays one of the neighborhood kids, also provided the title: "Rebel said, 'It's called "Shorts," because the stories are short, the kids are short, and they wear shorts,'" Rodriguez recalls with a laugh. "So for him to play one of the leads is a fair thing since it was his idea."


The tale unfolds through the eyes of friendless outcast Toe Thompson, played by Jimmy Bennett. "Toe is a nerdy kid who is always getting picked on," Bennett comments. "Every day he goes to school and they just keep picking on him and even dumping him in the trash can. But he was still a lot of fun to play."

Toe isn't the first to find the Rainbow Rock, but since the tale is told out of order at the whim of his own memory, Toe's episode marks the Rainbow Rock's entrance into the film when it gets lobbed at his head by a pack of bullies who are chasing him. Bennett continues, "They are throwing rocks at him and don't even think twice when they see the Rainbow Rock; they just throw it at him. When Toe picks it up, the rock tells him to make a wish, so he wishes for friends that are just as cool and interesting as he is. What he gets are these little alien friends who try to help him, although it doesn't always work out. They cause a real ruckus, but, just as he wished, they are really cool."

The 12-year-old Bennett already had numerous acting credits under his belt when he captivated the filmmakers with his audition for "Shorts." Rodriguez recalls, "Jimmy walked in and just floored me. He may be young, but he brings a lot to the table. He can already carry a film and that's no easy task in a big ensemble like this."

Making matters worse for Toe, his main nemesis is a girl. "Helvetica Black is the leader of the town bullies and Toe is her favorite target," Bennett allows. "But secretly Helvetica likes Toe, and he secretly likes her, even though they would never admit it, especially to each other. They each think the other one doesn't like them...sort of like real life."

Played by Jolie Vanier, Helvetica Black is the daughter of Mr. Black, who rules the town, so she naturally assumes she should rule the school. "Helvetica is an alpha female," affirms Vanier, who calls her character "the scariest girl on the planet. She's really not afraid of anything...except maybe anyone finding out about her crush on Toe."

Producer Elizabeth Avellan adds, "Helvetica is so sassy and kind of mean. But Toe has her number. He knows that there's some reason why she keeps calling him on the phone and hanging up on him, and things like that."

Vanier, who makes her feature film debut in "Shorts," won the role by remaining in character through her entire audition. As Rodriguez details, "The character has to come off as a really spoiled, bad little girl. That's where Jolie trumped everyone. She was acting from the moment she walked in until she left the room. I thought, 'Wow, she's perfect!' This is Jolie's first movie and she really does a terrific job."

Helvetica's bullying partner-in-crime is her brother, Cole Black, who shares his sister's sense of entitlement because of their father's wealth and power.

As Toe narrates the adventures unleashed by the Rainbow Rock, he rewinds to show how it first crashed to Earth--and into their lives--when it's found not at the end but the beginning of a rainbow by the aptly named Lug, Loogie and Laser Shorts. In an story directly inspired by Rodriguez's own sons, the Shorts brothers discover the Rainbow Rock during a treasure hunt. "The three characters who are actually based on my children are the Shorts brothers," the director offers. "My children's names are Rocket, Racer and Rebel so, in the spirit of alliteration, these three characters' names are Loogie, Lug and Laser."

Despite the fact that his father calls Lug Shorts "the complete opposite of Rebel," Rebel Rodriguez was determined to play the videogame-obsessed Shorts brother. "I was very excited when I found out 'Shorts' was going to be an actual movie because our family had been working on the idea for a long time. And when my dad told me I had the part of Lug, it was really great!" says Rebel.

Robert Rodriguez reveals, "Loogie, who wants to go on an outdoor adventure, is actually based on Rebel, but we cast a young actor named Trevor Gagnon as Loogie. Leo Howard plays Laser. They are both great kids and, together with Rebel, they were a terrific trio."

During a massive rainstorm, Loogie drags his brothers out of the house. Avellan remarks, "Where Toe is the conscience of the story, Loogie is the creative force. His message is 'Let's put away the videogames and go outside.'"

"Loogie is an adventurous kind of kid," Gagnon agrees. "He always wants to get outside, while his two other brothers play videogames all day. But he gets them to go on this adventure and they end up finding the rock that creates all the havoc in the movie."

"They see a rainbow, and they think they're going to the end, but it's really the beginning. And there's this rock," Rebel Rodriguez says. "Loogie picks it up and finds out it's a wishing rock. He wishes for a castle and a moat, and this huge castle starts rising from the ground with a big canyon around it filled with crocodiles and snakes."

Only Laser sees the potential for disaster. Leo Howard plays the smart and cautious older brother, who is the first one to realize that it's very easy to misuse the rock's powers for greed. "Every time Laser gets the rock, he tries to make the right wishes," says Howard. "Laser is trying to keep the rock from others, so he ends up wishing for really long arms to keep it out of their reach, and his arms stretch to the ceiling, which is like ten feet."

As it ricochets among the kids of Black Falls, the Rainbow Rock finds its way into the intensely germophobic household of Nose Noseworthy, played by Jake Short. "Nose is totally afraid of germs," Short attests. "His dad has convinced him they need to live in a germ-free environment. Their house is wrapped in plastic; anyone coming to visit has to go through the Decontaminator. And Nose and his dad have to wear these crazy yellow suits to protect them if they go outside."

Rodriguez remembers, "When Jake auditioned for Nose, he came in with these big glasses that he bought for himself, with his hair slicked back, and I said, 'Oh, perfect, you can be the nerd,' though in real life, he's actually the cool kid in the group."

Played by William H. Macy, Nose's dad, Dr. Noseworthy, is the top scientist working for Black Box Industries and is busy trying to develop a new battery for the Black Box based on bacteria, but, as a result of his work, he has overreacted to the ubiquity of germs. "Dr. Noseworthy shows his love for his child by trying to protect him from everything in the world," Avellan relates. "So Nose is basically a child in a bubble, and all the other kids don't understand how that happened. He used to be part of their group, and now he's completely isolated."

One of Nose's most egregious habits--one his Dad is constantly trying to break him of--is that he's a nose-picker, and this proclivity leads to one of the most out-of-control wishes in the entire adventure: the Booger Monster. "Nose picks his nose and throws it into one of his dad's inventions by accident, and basically, the Booger Monster comes to life and tries to eat them, because it needs to keep feeding to stay intact," Jimmy Bennett describes. "For Nose and his dad, that's like their worst nightmare--a big, giant booger coming after them, full of germs and all this nasty stuff."

The kids aren't the only ones to have to contend with the Booger Monster. Nose's tutor, Stacey, is also confronted with the slimy menace. "It's just huge and creepy and slimy," says Kat Dennings, who plays Stacey. "Kids will love it."

The sarcastic Stacey Thompson also happens to be Toe's overbearing sister. Though she does so innocently, Stacey also manages to do some strange damage in the brief moments in which she holds the Rainbow Rock. "My character has time to make one wish, but it's kind of a whopper," says Dennings. "Stacey is holding the rock when she tells her ex-boyfriend that she wishes he would grow up. He does, but not quite in the way she had in mind."

To fill some of the other roles, Rodriguez again didn't look any further than his own family. "These movies are such family affairs for me. It doesn't feel right to me unless my family is there as support and inspiration. It's the way I've always done it."

His eldest sons, Rocket and Racer, play members of Cole Black's Bully Gang. Rodriguez's then-three-year-old daughter Rhiannon appears in the Black Box infomercial, as does his dog. Two of Rodriguez's sisters also make appearances: Angela Lanza plays the science teacher and Tina Rodriguez appears as a Black Box Industries employee. His niece Bianca Rodriguez, is seen as the baby sister.

There are two young characters in the film, called the Blinkers, who fail to notice the chaos unfolding around them because they're too busy staring at each other. Cambell Westmoreland and Zoe Webb play Blinker #1 and Blinker #2, respectively. Rodriguez says, "It's a game I always played with my brothers and sisters growing up, and now with my own kids. I've become a champion non-blinker myself."

Avellan pinpoints the individual aesthetic Rodriguez brings to his films that make them so engaging for kids of all ages. "Robert has such a unique point of view about life, about children, and about what's fun. He also knows exactly how to behave with kids of all different ages. It's really fascinating to watch."

Devon Gearhart confirms, "We all thought of him as a little kid in an adult's body, because he has the imagination of a little kid, and he can communicate with kids really well."

His sentiment was shared among the adult cast members. Leslie Mann, who plays Mom Thompson, notes, "It's great to have a kids' movie that is fun for adults, too, because as parents we spend a lot of time at kids' movies. When I met with Robert, he just blew my mind with his ideas for the film and I knew working with him would be wonderful."

"He's got an amazing mind," adds Macy. "Anyone who has ever seen one of Robert's movies knows he's got a brilliant imagination. I mean, who else would put a nine-foot-two booger in a movie?"

The Rainbow Rock brings Nose and the Shorts brothers, and even Helvetica, together with Toe to help solve the insanity their own wishes bring into the world. Jimmy Bennett says, "Everybody thinks it's going to be the most wonderful thing in the world, but when it gets in the wrong hands it doesn't turn out so well."


When it comes to wishes-come-true, wisdom doesn't necessarily follow age. In fact, the trouble really starts when the adults get their hands on the Rainbow Rock. "It gets passed from family to family, from kids to parents, and it wreaks complete havoc on the entire neighborhood because everyone wishes for the wrong things, for the wrong reasons, sometimes without even realizing they made a wish," adds Rodriguez.

All of the kids' parents in the neighborhood of Black Falls work for Black Box Industries, a monolithic corporation dedicated to creating and upgrading the newest do-it-all gadget that's sweeping the nation, called, of course, the Black Box. Rodriguez sparked on the idea out of his own obsession with handheld devices. "For years I had to suffer as my boys got lost in their handheld videogames. But once I had mine, I could say, 'This is dad's version!' On the flip side, the more 'stuff' we have, the greater the isolation or distraction that exists if you allow it to take over your life."

Toe's parents, Mom and Dad Thompson, played by Leslie Mann and Jon Cryer, are so busy creating a better Black Box that they barely acknowledge each other, preferring to communicate through texts and email. "I know I'm not alone here in saying we've become a little too in love with the gadgets that are supposed to help us in life," says Jon Cryer. "We're so busy trying to communicate that we aren't listening to each other."

In the film, "everyone is distracted with their Black Boxes," adds Leslie Mann. "It's an extreme version of reality because they aren't even pretending to pay attention to one another anymore."

To compound matters, their boss has made them an offer they can't refuse: come up with the next innovation for the Black Box...or be fired. Cryer offers, "It's a lose-lose situation for both of us, because if I win, she gets fired. If she wins, I get fired. I think it's a metaphor for the Catch-22 that a lot of working parents are caught in nowadays."

The Thompsons' relationship is truly tested during Mr. Black's costume party when Mom Thompson--dressed as a beauty pageant contestant, appropriately named "Miss Communication"--uses an unfortunate choice of words while in possession of the Rainbow Rock. She wishes that she and her husband were "closer," resulting in the two becoming conjoined. "Thankfully, we like each other," says Cryer. "Leslie is a terrific comedic actress and was lovely to work with. She has incredible patience."

Together, Mann and Cryer created exactly the kinds of parents Rodriguez envisioned for Toe. "I needed them to have warmth and also be good with physical comedy," he notes. "It's a physically demanding role because they spend part of the film strapped together in the most uncomfortable position. Leslie and Jon were just perfect. They effortlessly have the kind of timing of those old screwball comedies."

Mom and Dad Thompson both work for the powerful Mr. Carbon Black, played by James Spader. "Carbon Black owns a company called Black Box Industries in a town called Black Falls," says Spader. "Virtually everybody who lives in the community works for Mr. Black. He owns the business and, therefore, owns the town. When I read the script, I thought it was tremendously imaginative so I thought it would be great fun to do, and it was really a romp."

Rodriguez, who has long admired Spader, comments, "James plays Mr. Black in a great way. He's not your typical villain. He's just misguided, but he's in a position of power so he can do a lot of damage."

Avellan notes, "Mr. Black is always trying to improve on the Black Box for the convenience of mankind. But at the same time, he's getting very wealthy off of it so there's this duality about him. He also wants his kids to behave a certain way, but he doesn't necessarily behave that way. It's 'Do as I say, not as I do.' And the kids pick up on that."

The final parent to get caught up in the mayhem unleashed by the Rainbow Rock is Nose's dad and Mr. Black's chief inventor, Dr. Noseworthy. "Noseworthy is a scientist who is trying to come up with a new-and-improved battery by using bacteria, but the job has also made him a germophobe because he realizes how dirty the world is," says William H. Macy. "It was bizarre acting out of a Hazmat suit, but it was also freeing because I was able to make a lot of funny faces and do battle with a nine-foot tall booger. It was a blast!"

Rodriguez was thrilled to enlist an actor of Macy's caliber to let loose in the film's heightened reality. "Bill is such a talent, not just as an actor but as a writer and director himself," the director notes. "I really enjoyed working with him because he has such a well-rounded view of the moviemaking process."

"When I read the script, I thought it was adorable and loved the idea of working with Robert," Macy remarks. "I have two little girls--a six-year-old and a seven-year old--so it's grand to do something that you can take your kids to."


"Shorts" was shot in and around Rodriguez's home town of Austin, Texas, and within his Austin-based full-service production facility, Troublemaker Studios. Despite working on a tight shooting schedule, with a large cast featuring many child actors, the film was completed in just 42 shooting days, made possible by Rodriguez's style of filmmaking, his facilities at Troublemaker, and his team of longtime collaborators.

"Robert has the good fortune to work largely on his own turf and with the same people over and over again," says Macy, adding that a lot of those people are Robert himself. "He writes, he directs, he produces, he operates the camera, he cuts, he composes music... I think he also does craft services and paved the road to the set before the trucks arrived," he jokes. "And he gets to sleep in his own bed."

Cryer was equally impressed, noting, "Robert has built for himself the world's biggest sandbox. It's the dream of every guy who has ever wanted to direct to have this kind of setup. He gets to make the movies he wants how he wants them. Everything he does looks like fun."

As a filmmaker who wears many hats, Rodriguez had the film mapped out in his head long before production began, which was especially important on a film told in such a non-linear way. Together with his team, the filmmaker designed the entire picture, using methods including traditional storyboards and cartoon-like previsualizations created by Troublemaker's in-house visual effects department, led by visual effects producer Amber Kirsch.

The film is brimming with all manner of creatures, robots, aliens, monsters and augmented humans. Rodriguez accomplished the considerable visual effects load on the film using a combination of shots created by Troublemaker Digital, along with the Canadian effects company Hybrid.

The film's predominant location is the neighborhood of Black Falls itself, which Rodriguez envisioned as a universal suburbia. "I wanted to have a very realistic world where all of this crazy stuff could happen," he notes. "The wild ideas come from the Rainbow Rock. So, really, none of that color really hits until the rock hits."

Production designer Steve Joyner and art director Caylah Eddleblute were able to help scout the ideal location within Austin. "We were lucky to find an Austin neighborhood that was spot-on based on the script description," Joyner states. "And, even better, the interiors of these homes are all laid out the same."

The uniformity of design within all the homes gave the designers a tremendous boost in efficiency. Eddleblute says, "One house plays for three families' houses--the Thompsons, the Shorts and the Blinkers. We maximized our resources and really didn't have to move locations."

The complex sets for Black Industries and Noseworthy's laboratory were created within Troublemaker's own soundstages. Though Rodriguez had soundstages and a variety of local spots at his disposal, some of the best locations for the film turned out to be in his own backyard. "I built my house ten years ago knowing that some day I was going to make a movie there, so it's kind of built like a set," the director remarks. "And we finally got to do that on this movie, while going on this adventure."

The costumes provided a fun collaboration between the director, the design team and the cast themselves. Rodriguez's longtime costume designer, Nina Proctor, notes, "Robert has a very strong vision in mind when he starts a project and he has a great understanding of color and how to use it."

For the adults' work attire, Proctor incorporated mostly beige, black and gray. She explains, "With Black Box Industries, everything is black and grey. Mr. Black's employees wear grey while he wears black suits. It's about power."

Eddleblute adds, "For the overall color palette, we went with the concept that grown-ups are in muted colors, with the idea in mind that when you grow up your life loses some of its vibrancy, but when you're a kid everything is still colorful."

Proctor had a lot of fun creating the more colorful costumes for the kids, including the Shorts brothers, who, as predetermined by Rebel Rodriguez, all wear shorts. Helvetica Black's wardrobe proves she is definitely her father's daughter. Jolie Vanier enjoyed the character's look, noting, "Most of the outfits that Helvetica wears are pink and black. Her outfits are a little more snazzy than everybody else's. Mostly she wears black, because her last name is Black."

For the germ-obsessed Dr. Noseworthy and his son, Nose, Proctor created playful father and son costumes. In addition to their matching lab coats and sweater vests, the duo ventures outside their germ-free environment in specially designed Hazmat-like suits, which can function indoors and outdoors. This meant both that the actors would need to wear them in the Texas summer heat, and that the camera would need to be able to see and hear the actors when they were inside the suits.

Proctor and the special effects team worked together to design lights inside the suits so the actors would be fully lit at all times. They also created a cooling system within the costumes, which allowed William H. Macy and Jake Short to flip a switch and get cool air.

The conjoined suit worn by Leslie Mann and Jon Cryer during Mr. Black's costume party proved to have a much more central role in the film than originally thought. Proctor says, "Robert is always full of surprises. This time it was that the merging of these two characters was going to be a costume, not CGI."

Proctor originally built the costume as a woman's pageant dress that had a male figure built onto it. Suddenly, Proctor says, "We had to consider everything that would happen while wearing it--yoga, flying into a fountain while riding a bike, waltzing--all while still making it look like a pageant dress."

Proctor's team created a number of different versions of the dress, including one in which Mann and Cryer were actually rigged in together. Another version had a fake head that looked like Cryer, which was interchangeable with a green tracking marker rig that would later be replaced with CGI.

Rodriguez relied on the mechanical effects team to create a plethora of outrageous gags for the film. Steve Joyner notes, "This movie is heavy on old-school mechanical effects. We were very lucky to have a really experienced mechanical effects crew headed by John McLeod."

One of the biggest pieces created was the "Decontaminator Booth" in the Noseworthy home. Joyner describes, "The Decontaminator is based on an experience Robert had at the airport when he went through one. He told us a story of going through it, his hair going up, and the sound. He thought it would be fun to incorporate it."

Kat Dennings, as Stacey Thompson, has to enter the Noseworthy house through a Decontaminator every time she tutors Nose. Dennings says it gave her quite a shock when she was hit from all sides by wind machines. "Robert thought it would be hilarious for me not to know what was going to happen when I got in there," she says, admitting, "I had to dig my nails into my palm so I wouldn't laugh."

Two central props that would drive the story--the Black Box and the Rainbow Rock--were conceived and created at Troublemaker, with Rodriguez collaborating with 3D visual effects artist Alex Toader on the concepts. For the multi-purpose Black Box, a language of cubes and squares was established. Several incarnations of the Black Box were created based on what they needed it to function as, be it phones, calculators, a dog grooming tool, or a toaster. There were also several versions of the Rainbow Rock, including a spongy one that could land harmlessly on Toe's head.

The towering Booger Monster emerged from an idea hatched by Rodriguez over 20 years ago as part of a sequel to his award-winning short "Bedhead." "I had no idea how to make a giant Booger Monster, other than a lot of slime slathered over someone wearing a series of trash bags, so it's nice to know that 20 years later I could finally make the booger of my dreams. And yes, I know that's disgusting," he laughs.

Troublemaker's facilities streamlined the creation of mechanical effects and props on-site so that the production did not need to waste any time. "Troublemaker has everything Hollywood has," Joyner asserts. "For us, it's basically Santa's Workshop, which gives us a chance to develop things that are unique to Robert's stories."

Working in this environment was a refreshing change for the actors. "It's not a typical film studio," James Spader attests. "Robert has a wonderful imagination and loves to play, and that's abundantly clear just walking around. It's a wonderful environment to work in."

That sentiment was shared by the younger cast. "Robert has almost too much fun working with the kids," says Avellan. "There were days the kids were having such a terrific time, they didn't want to leave the set, which tells you that something good was going on."

Rodriguez hopes the fun shared by his cast and crew is also shared by the audience. He affirms, "I hope families walk away with a real sense of fun, not just in the idea of wish-fulfillment, but also in the way a story can be told--with the narrator zipping around as he remembers what parts of the story he wants to tell first, regardless of proper order," Rodriguez concludes. "It's very different, and that's what I like doing."

"Shorts" Movie Index | 2009 Films | August 2009 Films

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