They call him “little Hitler.” That’s because Omar Rodríguez-López – half of the brain trust behind the Mars Volta – likes to play dictator in the studio, obsessively controlling his fellow musicians’ every move, every note. Or at least, he used to. Now that he’s premiering his directorial debut The Sentimental Engine Slayer at New York’s Tribeca Film Festival this week, Rodríguez-López says that the experience has taught him a valuable lesson – “how to play well with others” – which he hopes to bring back to his music. “It’s one small step for me, one large step for my ego,” he says.
Rodríguez-López embarked on The Sentimental Engine Slayer — the third film he’s made, but the first to see release — like all the others, as a fun side project, “for the sheer love of the process.” He didn’t bother to get permits or permission from his local film commissioners in El Paso, Texas, because it wasn’t officially a film in his mind. His cast and crew disagreed. First, his lead actor bailed because he wasn’t getting paid for his time, forcing Rodríguez-López to take the part of the confused youth Barlam. But even though he was now the writer, director, composer and star of the film, his colleagues had an intervention to remind him that the project didn’t revolve solely around him — and to encourage him to ditch his wish to lock it away when it was done.
“They had a mutiny,” he says. “They quit working. They gave me an ultimatum. They said, ‘We completely get it, the doing it-for-doing its sake, but this isn’t about just you. We put in a lot of time and effort on this.’ They wanted it to be submitted to film festivals. They wanted me to release the film. I was angry, but now I understand. Making a film is so enormous, it cannot be done alone, and I want to share experiences, instead of controlling and owning them. I want to move beyond that.”
So instead of keeping the film hostage, Rodríguez-López agreed to submit it to festivals, doubting it would ever get accepted. He wasn’t concerned that the plot is too strange — it’s a Lynchian tale about a young man who may or may not have an incestuous relationship with his sister, who may or may not try to choke and kill the prostitutes he enlists to help him lose his virginity. But he just didn’t think the story would resonate with anyone beyond himself, since it’s such a personal tale, and he’s actually surprised that it’s had an effect on audiences.
“People tell me they think it’s beautiful despite the dark elements,” he says, “that they relate to the males’ interpretation of sexuality, the way males give advice and how misguided it is, and if these are the things that people take [from this], then I’m happy, because it means I’m not alone.”
Now that he’s returned his attention to music — he’s not working on three side projects in addition to the Mars Volta — Rodríguez-López is trying to learn to loosen his grip in the studio. Usually, when he’s done with the music, he gives it to singer Cedric Bixler-Zavala with a story and a concept and then oversees the writing of the lyrics. This time, for the band’s sixth album, he’s just passed the tracks along — no story, no notes — and is trying to be patient while Bixler-Zavala writes, without pressure, for the first time.
“This is very hard for me,” Rodríguez-López tells Rolling Stone, “and there’s not a day where I look at the phone and don’t want to call him, asking, ‘You got something? Come on!’ This is my first challenge, to let him do it at his own pace. He’s always painted by what I told him, and I didn’t say anything. I want his stories.”
Though he admits it’s been hard to break the habit (“I’ve had 10 years of being a dictator”), Rodríguez-López says he’s seeing the benefits of loosening his grip already. “From 2002 to 2007, I cannot tell you how unfun it must have been to be around me,” he says. “I worked from 11 in the morning until 2 in the morning, no breaks, no going out for lunch, no days off. I drove an engineer mad. Another renounced me. I understand it now. And now, I stop, I eat lunch, I play with the dog, and I get four times as much done now than when I was choking it to death. Now I come back invigorated. I’m definitely happier.”