Interview: The Mars Volta’s Omar Rodriguez Lopez on His New Film, The Sentimental Engine Slayer, Which Has Its New York Debut At The Tribeca Film Festival


Omar Rodriguez Lopez, the poofy-haired, three-piece-suit wearing, multi-instrumentalist of the Mars Volta, can now add actor, writer, and director to his extensive inventory of careers. His debut film, The Sentimental Engine Slayer, which premiered at the Rotterdam Film Festival back in February, is a coming-of-age story that follows Barlam (Lopez), an awkward twentysomething El Paso grocery-bagger virgin who haphazardly has a semi-incestuous relationship with his sister (Tatian Velazquez). Engine Slayer, which lists John Frusciante as executive producer, has its New York debut at the Tribeca Film Festival this week. Recently, we called up Lopez to ask about his new career.

When did you first decide you wanted to do a film?

I’ve always been making films. It’s what I’ve always wanted to do since I was little. You know, I was never conscious of wanting to play music, because I come from a very musical culture and a very musical family. So everyone plays music–my dad plays music, and all the family gatherings center around music. So when I’m asked about my music, I try to make it clear that it was never a conscious decision, it was always something that happened. But I remember when my dad got our first VHS–I would write stories and have my brothers act out the stories and stuff and have my dad be the camera man. So yeah: it was always what I wanted to do.

When did you get the idea for The Sentimental Engine Slayer?

I guess early on. It was all done very quickly. In actuality, it’s my third film. It’s the first one that has actually left the nest and gone and had a life of its own, but it’s the third film that I’ve made.

Were your other films prior to this made for public release?

No, no, no. None of them were intended to have a public release. What happened was– it was like a mutiny of my crew. Because I’ve made three films to date, but it was hard for them at first to understand that I don’t make films for any other reason than besides going through the process. So we would make these pictures, and it would be great, and then I would edit it, and then I would show it to them, and they’d be like ‘great, now what are we going to do?’ And I’d say ‘Now we make the next one!’ And they’d say, ‘Yeah but what are we going to do about this first one?’ And I’d say ‘No, we made the film, that’s the most important part.’ So all these films ended up in my closet, just like a lot of other records and a lot of other projects that I make.

And finally on the third one they had this idea, they said, ‘No, we work too hard on these films. We understand and we respect that you have this philosophy of doing things for the sake of doing them, but you know you have to respect us and at least, at least allow us to have this last one that we made. Let us take this last one and let us–you don’t have to do anything. We’ll send it out, but if something happens, will you go to the festival?’ And I said, ‘Fine, do it,’ thinking that it would never be in a festival or anything. And then so little by little they’d say, ‘Oh, you have to sign this paper because we’re turning it in.” Okay, I’d sign the paper. And then they’d say ‘Are you available?’ and I’d say ‘Yes, yes,’ and before I knew it we were at Rotterdam and all these other incredible places.

Is there a reason why you wanted to keep the work to yourself?

When you make something for yourself, you’re creating therapy, you create art, you create whatever word you want to attach to it–you create an outlet. When you make something with the intention of releasing it, you make a product, and so there’s a big difference there. And art is constantly–it sort of rides this line between the outlet, therapy, art, or product. I never intended to do anything with the records I was making, and eventually someone said, ‘You should really let me put this out.’ And I said, ‘Okay, put this out’ and then it changes it all.

Like this interview, now I have to speak about the film. It just changes the intention behind it. And so now as I make films–now we’re working on a production that will be the sixth one that will hopefully get shot in October–my point of view is changed. Now I think, ‘Oh yes, we will send this to the festival.’ I think ‘Oh, we have to make back the money.’ So there are a different set of priorities that are being mixed in with the original intention, which was just to love and to learn about myself. That time it was mine; from this time on, it becomes ours.

What is it like to finally have the film out in public?

I don’t know you, and you live in New York, and you’ve seen the film, you know? And we might have two completely different backgrounds, but you connected to the film, you know there’s something really exciting about knowing that at our core we’re all the same, and we all have the same worries, we all have the same anxiety. And that’s so exciting.

The thing that was most striking to me was that I was able to feel nervous again. I don’t feel nervous playing music. I go and I play music, and I can play music in front of thirty thousand people, and I can play in front of ten people, and it’s the same. I had this awakening of nervousness and it was so beautiful to feel it. It was beautiful to feel butterflies in my stomach and to feel sick–I’d go to the bathroom three times before the first screening. And so it’s still part of my therapy, because here I am and now I get to another part of it where the film keeps teaching me things. And I think I said to the director of the Rotterdam festival, I said, ‘I haven’t been this nervous since the first time I played music in front of people and that was in 1988.’ I would have paid any amount of money for that feeling!

Will you be attending the Tribeca Film Festival?

Yes, of course. Now I am addicted to this feeling of being nervous because I haven’t had it in so long. Now I want it all the time. You know it’s like if you were raised without sugar, and then somebody gives you a treat or a soda pop, you want it again.

This was your first time acting, right?

I was not supposed to be in this film. The lead actor leaves a week before we start filming–and since, of course, I can’t pay most of these people he tells me ‘I got offered this paying gig and I have to take it,’ and of course I have to understand. So at that point either the film doesn’t happen or the person who wrote the film plays a character that he knows well.

This is a semi-autobiographical film. Was it strange to play yourself–in the town you grew up in, no less?

Oh it was incredible! It was everything it used to be and completely therapeutic. Everything has to be personal to me; if it’s not personal, it’s not worth doing. Whether it’s music, poetry, painting, loving someone, or cooking. It all has to be personal.

The house that’s in the movie, it belongs to my brother. Two weeks before we start filming, I said to him ‘we need your house–your house is a perfect house because you’re my brother and I love you and you live here and this must be the house.’

What films inspired your style of filmmaking?

I love anything from Airplane and these silly comedies to Luis Buñuel to documentary films. My parents were big, big Hitchcock fans. I grew up on a steady diet of Hitchcock and Perry Mason.

Your film is called The Sentimental Engine Slayer. Are you worried people might mistake your art movie for a slasher flick?

Wow, I never even thought of it that way. I don’t know, I guess that’s always been an attractive part for younger people, and why there’s always been such a market for horror movies. I never thought of the film as a horror movie, and didn’t realize how much of a slant or a perspective it would give someone to have ‘slayer’ in the title. I mean the title, it sounded interesting, you know, “engine”– the very fiber of what makes us tick. For me it was coming from a much more psychological level.