Native Angelenos possess a special kind of pride that transplants will never understand. It’s a way of looking at the world, at our surroundings and who we are, and recognizing that each of these perspectives influence the other because of where we came from. For most of us, being from L.A. isn’t just about our backgrounds or our childhoods, it’s about our identity. Billie Eilish (who grew up near Highland Park) is clearly part of this ardent group, and her new concert film, Happier than Ever: A Love Letter to Los Angeles, highlights not only her new album, but her local-love-minded inspirations.
LA Weekly spoke with one of its directors, Robert Rodriguez via Zoom recently about the project, and the filmmaker (best known for the Machete, Spy Kids and Sin City film franchises) provided a lot of insight into the creative process, and shared how music plays a role in his own dramatic ideas.
“I love working with music artists,” Rodriguez tells us from his home in Texas. “From Ariana Grande to Lady Gaga, who I gave her first acting roles to [in Machete Kills and Sin City- A Dame to Kill For]. More recently, I directed their “Rain On Me” video. These artists are at the top of their game. So creative. So when they do something cinematic, I try to help them achieve their vision. What they do actually informs a lot of what I do.”
Rodriguez says his 15-year old-daughter got him into Eilish’s music, and since she is a budding young animator, she consulted on the project, which features all 16 songs from Eilish’s new release Happier Than Ever performed in album track order onstage at the Hollywood Bowl, interspersed with animated vignettes featuring a blonde Billie avatar driving around the city.
“Billie said she thought anime characters were cool, and she wished she was that cool,” Rodriguez shares. “But I said, ‘I bet they wish they were as cool as you, because you’re real.’ We talked about that and how we all have ideas about ourselves that are so idealized, about who we wish we could be. But that identity probably wishes it was you. So that idea –of the two characters, real and not real, in the same city, on a collision course to the Hollywood Bowl– I thought it would be an interesting way to meld the two together.”
Oscar-winning animator Patrick Osborne created the cartoon parts, evoking a somewhat wistful feel, which is perfect for Eilish’s latest collection of tracks. Many of the new songs are subdued and jazzy, instrumentally and vocally, with the singer’s slinky, introspective vox and lyrics taking the lead. This is a move toward a more sophisticated phase for the pop star, in case the opening number, “Getting Older,” wasn’t a clue. Our favorite song, “Oxytocin” (which is about the love hormone released during sex), is another nod to the singer’s maturation. In the film, its sensuality is heightened, with Eilish bathed in red light as she dances and croons, and Rodriguez’s audacious camera movements and angles attempting to mirror and capture her energy.
Rodriguez was not only present for all of the live Bowl performances for Happier Than Ever, but also during Eilish’s motion capture segments (which she’s been sharing behind the scenes clips from on her socials the past few days). He worked with similar technology (“C.G. reel)” as director of the anime-inspired Alita: Battle Angel and on Sin City, but he says this was the first time he’s done a “Roger Rabbit” style movie, where you have animated and live footage and locations together on screen.
“It was fantastic co-directing with Patrick and Billie herself,” he says. “She’s very involved and has a strong vision. Her family is wonderful too. Just really great people. It was cool for my daughter to see people who can achieve at that level. “
Rodriguez is from and still based in Texas, but he’s worked in L.A. on several projects and his longtime co-conspirator Quentin Tarantino (From Dusk Til Dawn, Grindhouse) is famously, as beguiled by our city as Billie is. We asked if he heard about Tarantino’s purchase of the legendary Vista movie theater in Silver Lake, and if he heard about the Cinerama Dome going up for sale.
“I did. I love what he did with the New Beverly,” he answers. “We need that. We need to keep those landmarks. It’s so sad to drive past your favorite old theater and it’s no longer there.”
Can he nudge QT to do the same with the Dome? “Well Quentin loves the Dome,” he replies. We premiered from From Dusk Til Dawn there. And Danny Trejo said, ‘Man I built the Dome.’ He was one of the guys building the Dome back in the day. One of the workers.”
It’s an interview tangent, but fitting since L.A. landmarks are the focus of his latest work. From PCH and the Sunset Strip to the Roosevelt Hotel, Happier Than Ever shows L.A. in a new light, and lot of it is by car. Our city loves its cars and as Eilish shared in her previous streaming TV project, the doc The World’s A Little Blurry on AppleTV+, she only just got her license last year.
“We made a list of locations that she loved and we thought about how many we could include on the journey and have the time to do animation for each one,” Rodriguez says. “The ones that survived are pretty indicative. So many great places. We shot her in real live action at these locales then brought her anime character in (with her motion capture) so it’s as if this alternate version of her is going thru the city. It was a fun and unique idea.”
Accompanied by her brother and co-writer Finneas O’Connell, the Bowl performances also feature the Los Angeles Philharmonic conducted by Gustavo Dudamel, Brazilian guitarist Romero Lubambo, and the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus (which Billie revealed she was a member of, at the drive-in media preview last week at the Grove).
“It is such a thrill to be able to do this in my hometown, Los Angeles, a place that really informed me of who I am and I think that I took it for granted,” Eilish says in a voiceover in the film. “The older I’ve gotten, the more I’ve come to love Los Angeles so much and be so grateful for my childhood and my growth as a person. L.A. really got me there.”
Eilish will be touring the world as she promotes the album, but it’s nice to know her heart will always be in Los Angeles. As for Rodriguez, he is busier than ever. He shares his upcoming schedule with us and it includes The Book of Boba Fett, a highly-anticipated Star Wars spin-off series for Disney, an upcoming thriller with Ben Affleck called Hypnotic, and a sequel to his hit family series We Can Be Heroes for Netflix. But he says more music-driven projects are definitely welcome. “I tend to shoot my movies really fast for Hollywood speed, but nothing’s faster than the music industry,” he says. “I love that energy and that speed. I like that immediacy and moving at the speed of thought. When I have time and even if I don’t have time, I’ll raise my hand when a project like this comes along.