We hear from Robert Rodriguez about shoot-from-the-hip sci-fi thriller Hypnotic

Three decades after becoming an indie icon with the micro-budget actioner El Mariachi, the DIY auteur brings the same sensibilities to the high concept sci-fi thriller Hypnotic. Travis Johnson chatted with the Desperado director.

Texan filmmaker Robert Rodriguez famously raised $7000 to make his first feature, 1992’s El Mariachi, by becoming a pharmaceutical test subject, a roll of the dice that paid dividends, launched his career, and made him a role model for film students everywhere (his how-I-did-it book, Rebel Without a Crew, is required reading).

Since then, the budgets have gotten much bigger, topping out with Alita: Battle Angel’s $200M war chest, but Rodriguez’s approach remains the same, emphasising self-reliance and imagination over financial solutions. “I’d much rather you used more creativity than more money,” he notes.

It’s certainly true of his latest offering, the high concept thriller Hypnotic. It may boast an A-list star in Ben Affleck, and deep production pockets to the tune of $65M, but the same maverick, shoot-from-the-hip attitude that made Desperado and From Dusk Till Dawn video store faves back in the ‘90s is evident here.

Affleck plays a Texan cop, Danny Rourke, who is distracted from his grief and guilt over his kidnapped daughter when he’s caught up in a clandestine war between “hypnotics”—escapees from a government program who have the psychic ability to implant irresistible hypnotic suggestions in their victims. His guide into this world is local fortune teller Diana Cruz (Alice Braga), herself a hypnotic. The villain is the ruthless and mysterious Dellrayne (William Fichtner). But the rabbit hole our hero is venturing into is deeper than most, and it all gets much, much weirder before the credits roll as the question of what is and isn’t real becomes paramount.

Famed for his love of grindhouse cinema, for Hypnotic Rodriguez drew on a more highbrow source of inspiration: Alfred Hitchcock.

“I was watching the Hitchcock movie Vertigo,” he recalls. “And I was like, damn, this is another one with a major star in the role, a one-word title that’s very enticing, and a lot of twists. He was so good at that: Vertigo, Psycho, Spellbound, Frenzy. If he had kept making movies for another 10 years, what’s another title that he would have? Hypnotic!”

“Then I thought, what does that mean? I don’t want to make a movie about hypnosis. Maybe a ‘hypnotic’ is somebody who’s got an ability far beyond that, and you don’t even realize what their ability is ’til the end of the movie because keeps growing and growing and growing.”

That was way back in 2002, and Rodriguez chipped away at the script over the years in between other films, his efforts eventually culminating in a film that’s more polished and twisty than his earlier works but is still indelibly a Rodriguez joint. He’s once again directing, writing (with Max Borenstein), editing, and shooting (with Pablo Berron), and filming in Austin, Texas, his base of operations since day one—canny fans will spot familiar locations as Affleck and Braga hare around its dusty streets.

But Rodriguez’s approach was mandated by practical considerations as well as creative verve. “This movie was supposed to be a certain budget,” he says. “But then every time we got shut down by COVID, our 55-day shooting schedule turned into 34 days, and it wasn’t a full shooting day—we had to do COVID hours, which are 10-hour days, not 14. By that time, it’s more like a 25-day schedule.”

Luckily, he found a willing accomplice in star Affleck, a fellow veteran of the indie trenches. “I was glad I had Ben—any other actor would just hate to hear that means they’d have to learn so many lines per day. So, I told him, ‘This is going to be like the roaring ’90s, man! Remember how we started out in the indie days? We’re gonna shoot fast and loose, and this thing will be done in 34 days!’ And he was like, ‘Yeah, I stand around on sets a lot now. I didn’t think anyone shot like that anymore.’ and I said, ‘Well, we have to on this one!’”

Appropriately enough, Hypnotic is, on a metatextual level, about filmmaking as a process, the movie’s shifting realities mirroring the way we engage with film. “It’s about what we do as filmmakers and as storytellers. We create a hypnotic construct for an audience who’s bought a ticket, they know they’re watching actors, they know it’s a script. But if you do it right, they believe it long enough to laugh or cry or get scared or cheer or tell their friends to go see it.

“And if you really do it good, they invest in a character so much sometimes they feel those characters are more real than people that are their actual friends. So, let’s do that in the movie, where we start peeling back the layers and showing that this construct has fooled them into thinking oh, we’re watching a Ben Affleck movie and we’re being hypnotised along with the characters.”