07/01/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Tribeca Film Festival Interview: Omar Rodriguez-Lopez. The Sentimental Engine Slayer

Omar Rodriguez-Lopez. Photo by Leslie Hassler.

Omar Rodriguez-Lopez hits the Festival with his third feature, The Sentimental Engine Slayer. He wrote, produced, directed, and starred in the film. With all of his gifts, his primary career is in music. Lopez is respected by musicians all over the world. He is the producer and guitarist for the progressive rock group, The Mars Volta, and has had an incredibly prolific solo career. The number of records he has made for someone his age (35) is staggering. After his band-mate and close friend Jeremy Ward was found dead of a heroin overdose, Lopez was persuaded to pursue a clean life style.

Lopez speaks quickly, in a stream of ideas and thoughts. The Sentimental Engine Slayer director talks to us about his creativity, the very nature of identity, and why the collaborative nature of film has changed who he is as a filmmaker, and as a man.

You're listed as an actor, musician, producer, director... is there anything you don't do?

I'm most known for being a musician. That's what makes me a living, if that's how you want to put it. The Senitmental Engine Slayer is my third film, but it's the first one that I've released. What I love is the creative process. I don't consider myself a musician. I don't consider myself a director. I love to cook, but I don't consider myself a chef, do you know what I'm saying? I have no background training in music or film or in anything else that I do. It's the process itself that calls to me.

What about the creative process inspires you?

Lopez: Any form of expression that lacks therapeutic value or doesn't teach you something about yourself, or doesn't help you to rid yourself of some kind of neuroses, is completely useless to me. Then, it's just entertainment.

Is music a kind of therapy?

Lopez: Yes, everything. This conversation, if I make love to my woman, cook dinner for my friends. Every relationship becomes a mirror for ourselves. It's why we get into a relationship with a person. They challenge us, if you're in a healthy relationship, no? (smiles) You start to see things about yourself that maybe you don't like. You see things about yourself that could be better. I think this is the only true point of anything we do in life. To evolve.

You say that each creative project teaches us something. What did this film teach you?

Lopez: One of my neuroses, is the need to control everything. This movie taught me about letting go. When you make a record, you can control everything. If you're in a studio, and if you're an engineer [he is] and you can play every instrument [he can] you can then do everything by yourself and you don't need anyone else. Film isn't like this. You have to collaborate, you have to let go.

Did you learn to play well with others?

Lopez: In a deeper sense, my relationship with my brothers changed. My brothers are in this film. When I got to El Paso, I didn't have a house. I saw his house where he was living with his partner and my other brother and his partner and their cats and animal friends. I got there, and I said, "You need to move out. I need this house for my film." They didn't talk to me for two months after making this film. And so I learned a huge valuable lesson, which is, I can no longer treat them as I have been treating them. I left home at seventeen years of age, so my relationship psychologically was stuck at that age. In my mind, I was sixteen and they were nine years old. I must realize now that they are adults. So much has happened since then. We have all grown up. I have learned that in my life of creating and searching, I have walked over other people. I must not do this. We have to do this process together. We have to find it together. Because he who finds it alone can share it with no one.

That's really something. What do you think this film is about?

Lopez: The search for identity. Who am I? The questions we all ask, no? The film takes place in El Paso, Texas. Which is a border town of Juarez, Mexico. But if you go there, anyone will tell you that El Paso is not Texas. And that Juarez is not Mexico. And it's a no man's land that has a whole surreal feeling to it. It has no identity because it has some other identity, that doesn't pertain to either country.

Surely you have fought with feelings of confused identity after being born in Puerto Rico and then moving to Texas as a young boy. Did you choose El Paso for this very reason?

Lopez: Yes. This location was so personal to me and so rich in culture. This particular film had to be made there because the city itself is a metaphor for my film. Am I my culture? Am I my roots? Am I my family who surrounds me? Am I nothing? And how can I be closer to God? How can I get back to who I was in my mother's womb before any of this affected me?

Your creativity is so ferocious, it seems like nothing can contain it. I heard you switched from the bass to the guitar because you simply 'needed more strings.' What does it feel like when you play?

Lopez: It's a form of meditation. In the same way we experience a high through watching a sunset or through sex, or through any of these ways where the world seems to disappear. To play when you truly play through the heart and through the spirit, instead of to impress or say, "Look how good I am". Then it's something that takes you to another place. It's something incredible.

Musicians are renown for succumbing to the temptations of the road. You have lost true friends to drugs and you yourself have fought a serious struggle. What does your life look like now in this respect?

Lopez: I think life is a gigantic miracle. Life is so beautiful. Once you get past the great lie of drugs.

What is the lie of drugs?

Lopez: The great lie is that you need this. It's the lie we're told in school, in society, and unfortunately for creative people, the one they latch on to is, "This makes you interesting. This gives you stories." And they completely overlook that the story comes from you. You put a pile of heroin or cocaine or pot there, and it just sits there! It cannot tell a story. It takes the individual to tell a story. We are born perfect before society comes along and tells us we're not and that we need something else to be better and perfect. Some of us are lucky enough to be told by our families that we can do anything.

What did your family tell you?

Lopez: If you imagine it, it is real.

You have released so many albums, by such a young age. It is staggering. What would you like listeners to hear first?

Lopez: I would say, a record called Ciencia de Los Inutiles (The Science of the Useless). I've been making records for 17 years and it's taken me all this time to make a record like this. In the end, it's the simplest record I've ever made. A guitar, a stand-up base and a voice. All this time to go back to the beginning!

You've paired down to the basics!

Lopez: Yes definitely! Most people start there, no? But I went off into space, and I came back into my body. This is beautiful. It is essential and raw. Done in one take. This is what I love about that record.

The Sentimental Engine Slayer