Austinite film producer Elizabeth Avellán produces films that have fans globally. Here, Austin-tied author Elise Ballard, author of Epiphany: True Stories of Sudden Insight to Inspire, Encourage and Transform gets up close and personal with Avellán to learn about her own epiphanies in the entertainment industry and beyond.
Develop your talents and they will make a way for you.
— Elizabeth Avellán
Elizabeth Avellán and I were acquaintances before our interview, but I had never really had the opportunity to sit and talk with her. She is the co-owner of Troublemaker Studios, the Austin-based production company that she and her former husband, Robert Rodriguez, founded in 2000, and is the producer of over twenty-five films, including El Mariachi, Desperado, From Dusk Til Dawn, The Faculty, Once Upon A Time in Mexico, The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl 3-D, Grindhouse, Sin City, the Spy Kids trilogy, Shorts, Predators, and Machete. Elizabeth is also the mother of six children and serves as a mentor and on numerous non-profit boards.
She is a woman of tiny stature with a great sense of humor, tremendous energy, presence and grace. As in most cases, I had no idea what her epiphany would be and was mesmerized as we discussed her journey of epiphanies. This account is only a fraction of the conversation we had in her office while her employees, who are like family to her, worked around us and her children quietly played.
Here is Elizabeth Avellán’s story in her own words…
I was one of those kids who was very together, very serious, a bookworm who read a lot and was very spiritually aware. I knew I was different, odd. When I was four, I started asking my parents if I could make my first Communion. My family was Catholic, like 98% of the people in Venezuela where I grew up. The Church usually doesn’t let you take your first Communion until you’re eight without special permission. I had an older sister, so it was decided that when she took hers, they would give me special permission to take mine. I was excited about the fact that I was going to receive something really deep and special. But three days before the ceremony, I got this fever. It was incredibly high and it came out of nowhere. There was no cold, no illness, it just came over me. Maybe it was the excitement—we never knew. But it was so high, it was dangerous. And as I was laying in bed really sick with this strange fever, I thought, “I’m going to die before I get to do this.” Then I said or prayed, “I don’t want to die. Let me make my first Communion and you can take me. After that, my life will be fulfilled.” I still remember this, it was so powerful. It marked me in a way that few things could. I can remember that day completely. Later that day, the priest came to my house to offer Confession and gave me my first Communion. I got better.
And I wanted more. This moment was the first that set me on the path that my life is about, a quest for spiritual knowledge and an unshakable faith. The faith I’m talking about lets you know, in your heart of hearts, that when a problem comes and you don’t know how to solve it, wisdom from above will come and guide you. You will do anything in life because you’re never afraid. You know you will always be guided and given the tools for any situation and that it’s all about developing yourself.
I’m always telling young people: Develop your talents and they will make a way for you. You’re only as good as what you can do with those talents. Only they will make your way—not some networking person that you schmoozed. So if God is moving you into an arena that you know nothing about, but He has given you the talents to be able to do it, you will not be alone. You will never be alone. The guidance is always there. We just have to be willing, and be willing to listen and see—which has always been the hardest thing to do for me, because I always want to do everything on my own and do what I want to do and what I think is best!
Here is one talented man and a very driven woman who understands him, and together we can do something. And we did.
When I was 33 years old, I was married to Robert (Rodriguez) and his film El Mariachi had been a huge success, so we went to film festivals all over the world. I’d met Robert while working at the University of Texas and before we got married, I had wanted to be a vice president at the university, which is completely unrelated to filmmaking. But what I love and am good at are budgets and people—which is perfect for that position in academia but also, now I know, film production. In fact, right before I met Robert, I saw the movie, Broadcast News. When I saw Holly Hunter as a news producer juggling all those balls, I thought, “Huh, that’s a job I’d be really good at.” Robert was a student and my file clerk at the University. Neither of us had any professional experience but Robert had made about 30 short films. That’s the thing that blew me away about him. He’d been developing those talents since he was a little boy. And when you do that, it will take you where you’re supposed to go. It just will, even if you’re not spiritual in the least. I realized: here is one talented man and a very driven woman who understands him, and together we can do something. And we did. [E1]
I prepared myself. I took extension courses in production at UCLA and learned as much as I could about production. When El Mariachi was this huge success, and we got back from the festival circuit, I realized that if I were to be a producer in this business with these people I wasn’t really comfortable with, my life would change drastically. So I did a 30 day fast. I wanted to focus on the question I was asking God: “What is it you want me to do about this? Do you want me to do this business?” Finally I felt it, about halfway through the fast. I felt it in my heart and I heard it in my head. A voice said, “Yes.” It was a very weird, audible thing. And very clear. The truth is, a part of me didn’t want it to be yes. I knew it would take me on a very different path. But the voice was so clear, that I went ahead with what I heard even though I couldn’t figure out why. I became a producer (for no pay) on Robert’s next film, Desperado.
On the production, there was this guy working who had just been through a horrible experience on another film set. One day we were talking and he ended up telling me about it. The stories were so bad, I honestly wanted to cry for him. Towards the end of our conversation, all of sudden he looked at me intently and said, “What is it about your production – everyone seems so happy. Something’s really different about you. What is it?” I answered, “You really want to know?” and I began to share my story with him.
And then it overcame me, it was literally like I heard, “That’s why I want you in the business. You’re to be a light. You are to be a light when many times there is so much darkness.” I never really knew why I was supposed to be doing it before that moment.
Always with anything that you go through—anything—there is always someone going through something much worse, and good and light can always come out of the darkness.
Years later, on the movie Grindhouse, I experienced some of my very darkest hours. It was the hardest shoot I’ve ever done. I’d had to shut down the production for six weeks, and my marriage was unraveling. On that film, I met the actor Jeff Fahey, and we had become good friends. Jeff is very involved in helping Afghanistan with various charities, and I had joined in his efforts to set up a factory to employ 250 Afghani widows. One day I was lamenting about the nightmare I felt I was in. Jeff responded, “Well, you know, you’ve been through a lot. But if you hadn’t shut down that movie, if all this hadn’t happened, you wouldn’t be helping 250 women in the world right now.” And he was so right. That was another defining moment for me. Always with anything that you go through—anything—there is always someone going through something much worse, and good and light can always come out of the darkness.
I have faith that I will always be guided. I believe that if we develop our talents, we will be led to what we are supposed to be doing. I compare the hard times in life to like being in a fog—sometimes a tunnel of fog—where we can only see a few feet in front of us. But if you keep going, a few feet at a time, and take the high road, the fog always lifts and there is light at the end of every tunnel.