David Rodriguez, acclaimed film and TV director of 'Animal Kingdom,' 'Power,' 'Chicago Med' speaks out [EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW]

David Rodriguez loves his work in film and TV and wants more Latinos, minorities and women to follow their passion for filmmaking

David Rodriguez loves being busy.  Even before he finishes one directing project, he is is already lining up another exciting adventure in filmmaking. While he mostly works directing and co-executive producing acclaimed TV series Animal Kingdom and The Chi, he always makes time for other directing projects.

In the last few years he has also left his directing mark on The Resident, Chicago Med, Chicago P.D., Queen of the South, Outsiders, Chicago FireRosewood, Game of SilenceScandal, Stalker and NCIS: Los Angeles.

David Rodriguez who is of Puerto Rican descent, grew up as the youngest of four in the mean streets of the Bronx, New York.  After a brief career in law enforcement, he followed his passion for filmmaking.  In 2006, his first feature film Push was released, then he was credited as Dave Rodriguez.  That was followed up with American Bully in 2009 and Once Upon a Time in Queens in 2013.  It was at about this time when he migrated into TV directing.

He recently directed episode one of season six of Power that is set to return to Starz in 2019.  He is currently directing SWAT and is signed on to direct an episode of What/If staring Renee Zelwegger for Netflix in the near future.

David splits his time between Los Angeles and Austin, Texas.  On the rare times when he isn't working writing, directing, producing and working on music, he loves to spend time with his wife, Renee Props-Rodriguez, kids and dog.  He also enjoys riding around in his Harley.

David Rodriguez spoke with Michelle Tompkins for Stars and Celebs, the new home of The Celebrity Cafe about his early life, how his sisters inspire him, what he likes about directing film and TV, his involvement with the DGA Latino Steering Committee, what he does for fun, his advice to aspiring filmmakers and more.

Special thanks to the lovely and talented Marlyne Barrett from Chicago Med for helping to set up this fun conversation.

Michelle Tompkins:  Tell me a little bit about your childhood, please.

David Rodriguez:  My childhood? Wow. Born in Manhattan, grew up in the south Bronx, and so well into elementary school and moved to Long Island. I'm the youngest of four. I have two sisters and a brother, but my brother passed away in 2013...

Michelle Tompkins:  I'm sorry to hear about that.

David Rodriguez:  No, he lived by the sword and died by the sword. So it was a tough love. It was just him and me and my sisters, but it was one of those things where we really didn't have a great connection because he had an addiction problem. Since I was young, I was the youngest of four, I was isolated from that. I really only ever saw the villainous part of addiction because my parents are old-school and they really didn't know how to deal with that kind of stuff. I never really had the opportunity to really connect with him on a real emotional level. It kind of sucked when he passed, but I've kind of reconciled that in my head because I knew that there was nothing I can do to make that any better.

David Rodriguez on his path to becoming a filmmaker, with a little help from his sisters

Michelle Tompkins:  It seems like you're close to your sisters.

David Rodriguez:  I'm super close with my sisters. My oldest older sister who's 10 years older, Janet, she's kind of the one responsible for me being obsessed with filmmaking. She was my babysitter for a long time, so summertimes were just filled with big movies and she took me to see everything from Jaws to the first Rocky to Star Wars. We saw all the summer blockbusters of the '70s at a theater off Fordham road in the Bronx. She kind of nurtured that as an interest. My sister Jackie— her personality's so big and she's such a great entertainer and she's actually an up-and-coming chef now in South Florida. So I guess you could say that the three of us are sort of responsible for pushing each other to do things that you love. But they certainly have been a part of, both Janet and Jackie, a part of keeping me going in this industry.

Michelle Tompkins:  When did you know that you wanted to be a filmmaker?

David Rodriguez:  It's funny that you say that, because I didn't know what the meant until way, way later in my life. I grew up in front of a TV. Not that my parents were those parents. We had to do our homework. We ate dinner together. We did all of that stuff. But TV was such an integral part of my life watching the old school shows, from Happy Days to Sandford and Son and The Jefferson's, and Laverne and Shirley and variety shows and all of that stuff. That's kind of what I grew up with so I always sort of fantasized about being inside that box.

I didn't know to what to level because the only thing I guess you see is the actors, so that's what I thought it could be, that I wanted to be an actor. But as I got older I started to realize that there are so many other moving parts behind this production that you see on the tube and it wasn't until I was in mid-to-late 20s where I started to understand the idea of filmmaking and producing and writing and all of these crew positions and what that all meant.

It was a very sort of slow progression, only because there was no one in my family that had any connection to the business with anyone.  If there was a six degrees of separation, that didn't even exist from somebody that was in the business. We just didn't know it, didn't have it. The only minor connection we had was with music but that really wasn't the film business or TV, it wasn't anything that was even remotely close to being a possibility in my life.

Michelle Tompkins:  But your path is a little bit different. From a law enforcement officer to becoming a filmmaker. How did that transition take place?

David Rodriguez:  Well, it's funny that you should ask because for a long time I had a lot of insecurities about that transition. Because I wasn't a police officer for 20 years or 10 years, I was a police officer for just a few years.

Michelle Tompkins:  No pension for you.

David Rodriguez:  No, no pension for me. But prior to that, I was writing. I started writing in my mid-20s and then I became a police officer when I was 30 and I had four kids, two kids with my wife and I just needed a job. I felt like in my neighborhood in New York, the thing that you go do is either get in a union or you become a firefighter or you become a police officer. So that was sort of the natural progression into a job that will give you a pension and retirement. I worked in a really aggressive area and I was just a product of that. What some of the cops are doing right here nowadays is kind of crazy, I wasn't that guy who abused my power but I got in trouble and as a result, I got fired. I didn't have a lot of options. I had no degree, I had nothing really except for this desire to want to create and to write and I did. Once I started working it, and once I realized that I had no other choice because I guess God said, ""Hey, this is it. This is your karma. You're put on this earth to do this one thing,"" I really felt like that because 13 months after I was fired, I was prepping my first feature film in South Florida.

Somehow I found the money through a series of amazing people and I did that, and then I did a short called She Kills He, and then I did some commercials for a startup dot com, and then I moved to LA in 2005. I just kept going and made two more movies and continued to write. Every step of the way, although it was incredibly difficult, I always somehow, some way found some remnants of success in what I was doing, and I just maintained that attitude going into PD four years ago.

Michelle Tompkins:  Now, was Push your first movie?

David Rodriguez:  Push was my first feature, yes.

Michelle Tompkins:  And then your next was American Bully.

David Rodriguez:  American Bully was different. I think that how it got made and the story of American Bully are both equally as crazy. It was the fall of 2007, and I had co-written two pilots with my writing partner at the time, Zack, and we were getting some traction with those two pilots. It was September and things were kind of bubbling and then all of a sudden we were getting some indication that the writers weren't happy with negotiations and there could potentially be a strike. So, in late October, we hear that the strike is imminent; no one is going to buy anything new, no one is going to develop anything new, especially from new writers, so we should probably figure something else out.

I had this idea of American Bully prior to even making Push. And sometimes I say I wish American Bully was my first feature because it was just such a hard-hitting film and story. But the AFM was happening in LA - Santa Monica - and there were two investors there that were kind of in the business of making these B horror movies in Louisiana. I pitched them the idea, while at a bar called The Well in Hollywood, of American Bully and they loved it. They said, ""We want to make this movie, we've always wanted to do a festival piece.""

Two months later, I was in Louisiana prepping American Bully.

Michelle Tompkins:  And you did something other people weren't able to do, and Once Upon a Time in Queens you put together Chazz Palmintieri and Paul Sorvino.

David Rodriguez:  Yes, and that was probably one of the more exhilarating times in my life, to see these two guys who are in these two iconic Italian gangster movies - A Bronx Tale and Goodfellas and I'm actually rubbing shoulders with them and telling them how to be in my story about this aging mobster that comes home from prison and he's got nothing left and he's trying to reconcile in his brain how to have a relationship with his gay daughter, which was played by my wife, Renee Props, and it was just a really good time in my life.

I actually needed that because, in October of 2011, I lost my dad. He and I were super, super tight and I wrote this screenplay in '09, and he would always ask me, ""When are you going to make that movie about the gangster guy?"" And I said, ""Soon Dad, I don't know. I have to try and get the money, and you know how it is."" He had passed four months or so before, five months or so before, and all of sudden I'm on set with an amazing cast, many, many good friends, Michael Rappaport, Chazz as you know, Lev Gorn, Paul Sorvino, my best friend Paul Ben-Victor, and then I'm working with Renee. It was just an amazing experience all the way around. We were in this incredibly authentic environment in Middle Village, Queens, and my dear friend Ignazio was part of helping us secure locations and put things together. It was a really fun and amazing and fulfilling experience that came at the right time in my life and in my career. I think, quite frankly, a combination of that and American Bully and a couple other things that I've done were really the catalysts to help me break down that tremendous and fortified door to get into television.

Michelle Tompkins:  And that's really where you are focused right now.

David Rodriguez:  You know, that's it. I'm kind of loving the one hour drama. It's something that suits me because I like to work. I like to go to work every day. Although films are incredibly satisfying, it just takes a long time to put a feature together and I don't know that I'm in that state in my head right now where I could just sit idle and wait for a financier or wait for a meeting or wait for that A-list actor that can turn the tide for the financing. For me, that just doesn't make sense right now. And I've sort of made that progression from being a guest director to being a producing director, so now I actually get to go to work every week Monday through Friday for six months.

David Rodriguez talks about the difference between feature directing and TV

Michelle Tompkins:  Now, what is the difference between directing a feature and a TV series?

David Rodriguez:  With a feature, there's so much more autonomy and control because a feature is really the director's medium. It's how the director sees the transformation of the information that's on the page to the screen. All of those big decisions are really made by the director. I mean, the bigger the movie, the more hands there are in the cookie jar, but I think that’s  the way that it's supposed to work - and I would like to say that it's still that way - is that features are the director's medium, where television is really the writer's medium.

It's kind of a confusing thing when you think about it, because then you think, well, what's the director's role in television? I think because it all happens so fast, there's really no long gestation period, where a writer can think about their project for a long time, and really tweak and make it what they ultimately want it to be before they let somebody read it, so that by the time that the director gets it on the feature side, it's kind of well-developed and it's all on the page.

Where in television, It can't be all on the page, so then it becomes a very collaborative process with the writers, and it becomes more about their emotional interpretation. So being able to give that information to the director, and then the director goes forward and puts this together. But it's just such a fast process. In TV, you're prepping for several days, and you're shooting— and you're making an entire episode of TV, 23 or 46 minutes, in eight or nine days. Where a feature, you could be prepping for three months and shooting for another three, four, five months. So I think that truncated schedule is probably the biggest difference of them all.

Michelle Tompkins:  Now, do you have to audition to get the jobs now, or— I mean, how do the directing jobs come to you?

David Rodriguez: I mean, I think early on, when I first started directing TV, I had to do the round of meetings and get to know people, and people had to get to know me, and you have to meet the executive, and so on and so forth. With guest directing now— and I'm just hesitant to say this because I'm still sort of living this crazy life and I don't know how this all happened, so I'm like, 'Is this real?' I'm pinching myself - but in the network world, I've developed a reputation— or in the guest directing business, that is, I've developed a reputation, so now I just get the offers through my representation.

As it relates to the producer/director job, which I did on The Chi and I'm currently doing on Animal Kingdom for John Wells, that was— those are different scenarios, where you go to a meeting, you make sure that— they make sure that you're the right fit, and so on and so forth, and then you get the offer I think that with The Chi, I had to jump through a couple more hoops because that was my first producer-director job, but John was really good. This company was really good about researching people, and making phone calls, and finding people. So I didn't have to jump through as many hoops because I had just directed on Animal Kingdom last season, so that was a little easier, but ultimately yeah, when it comes to the producer-director thing now, I think I'll always have to go in and meet somebody, especially if it's a new camp, but on the guest director side, where you're going from show to show to show, I'd like to think that my reputation and the product that I've turned in, speaks for itself.

Michelle Tompkins:  Good.  Which projects are you working on right now?

David Rodriguez:  I'm currently the co-executive producer and director on Animal Kingdom.

Note: Since the interview took place, David Rodriguez recently directed episode one of season six of Power, he is currently directing SWAT and is signed on to direct an episode of What/If staring Renee Zelwegger for Netflix.

Michelle Tompkins:  For those who don't know it, tell us about Animal Kingdom, please.

David Rodriguez:  It's a show starring: Ellen Barkin, Shawn Hatosy, Ben Robson, Jake Weary, Finn Cole, we currently have Denis Leary in the lineup, and it's about a woman who has a gang of sons who commit robberies all over Southern California. And it's sort of Dave's done original Animal Kingdom feature, which Jackie Weaver won the Oscar for, and this is sort of the— this is the TV version of that. But it's just a lot of fun. It's shot in California, so you can't complain about the weather. And everybody is having a good time this season, so it's really nice to be a part of. John Wells is kind of the dream boss to work for, super fair, firm, but you always know where he stands, and where he's coming from.

Michelle Tompkins:  So you, in your directing also, were music supervisor for some of your projects, is music important to you as well?

David Rodriguez:  Definitely. Ï mean, I think with my features, because I wrote and produced the three indies that I directed, I always kind of have this knack for what should be playing in the background when these characters are talking, whether it's a score or whether it's not original music. So it's always been a part of my process. In television, I don't really get to do that as much, but in the feature world I did, and that was where I— and that will come through growing up in music, and being a budding little rapper when I was in my teens, and making beats, and going to the studio, and doing all that. Music has just been, probably, the most important— it's the most important piece of art and entertainment in my life, even more so than film and television. I could sit around all day and listen to jazz, or listen to old-school hip-hop, or listen to 80s New Wave and never have to look at a screen. I could imagine all of what I would see on a big screen or a small screen just by listening to music.

Michelle Tompkins:  What was your favorite thing about working on Chicago Med?

David Rodriguez:  Honestly, it's just working with, probably, the most talented and grateful cast I've worked with in a while. I mean, I guess my personality does not allow me to suffer people that act ungrateful or are difficult, because I tend to want to check people right away, and let them know that this isn't the way that you behave when there are 40— when people are working 14, 16 hours to make you look good. And that's sort of my approach when I go to work, but I think with Med, it's just a really great and sweet cast and crew that allowed you to do your thing with no judgment. They know their characters, but they also listen to  your ideas, and they're grateful for being there every day, and having a job, and being able to call themselves series regulars on a big hit show that whole Chicago transfer crossovers, the cast and crew on PD and Fire and Med, it's always been a really wonderful experience. And I really miss those guys. I miss going there and working there. Fortunately or unfortunately, we want to try new things and direct new projects, and I've directed collectively seven Chicago episodes of Med, PD, and Fire, so I think at this point it's time to— let's see what else is out there. What's the new challenge? What else can I lend my voice to as a director? And as a producer.

Michelle Tompkins:  Was it tough for you to go from producing your own product to working Monday through Friday six months out of the year?

David Rodriguez:  No, because I didn't really make the transition that way. The first thing I did was an independent film, which was all mine and I had all the control. And then I started TV directing, so I would go to one show for three weeks and another show for three weeks and another show for three weeks. And when I decided that it was time - and actually, I had a great conversation with a man who I considered my mentor who I have a lot of love for, Mark Tinker, who was the executive producer/director of Chicago PD - he and I sat down and I asked him. I said, ""Hey, what do you think about me being a producing director like yourself?"" And he said to me, ""You have the personality for it."" So when I made the transition to being a producing director on The Chi, and I was now working again on a project for a longer period of time Monday to Friday, I loved it, because especially in TV and on The Chi, there were ten episodes in that season that I somehow, some way, have put my stamp on. That I've sort of influenced the look of the show, and influenced the dynamic of the show and the way that the actors have delivered what they've delivered.

So, that's incredibly satisfying, and that's part of what I do on the producer side, is maintain the look, maintain the personality of the show. On the director's side, I get to jump in two to three times a season and direct a few of the episodes, together with a few of the guest directors. So it's a really cool job because it's so much about being there and not having to get to know new people every few weeks, but just jumping in when it's my turn, and everybody already knows me, they know my personality, they know what they're going to get out of me and vice versa. So it's just an easier transition. It's almost like it's being the big brother, the crazy uncle, of the family that you know will always show up and he's going to give you what he's going to give you and he's never going to bullshit you.

Michelle Tompkins:  Sounds like a great person to work with. I like that. Now, where do you live now?

David Rodriguez:  I split my time right now between Austin and Los Angeles. So Austin, Texas has become home for me, but I'm in LA for six months, so my wife and I decided, let's call Austin home. But we also know that we need to have a home in Los Angeles, and we have friends here and we have a big social life here and work is here, so it just makes sense for us to have a place in both cities.

David Rodriguez on his wish for there to be more Latino filmmakers

Michelle Tompkins:  Now what is DGA's Latino Steering Committee?

David Rodriguez:  So I was actually a co-chair of the Latino Steering Committee for two terms in a row. And essentially what the mandate is - and I know I'm going to screw this up because I have a different view of this - but it's really just about empowering the Latino DGA members and allowing them access to opportunities and programs and DGA directing initiatives that may be a part of the different studios. It's really about just sharing information so that the Latino community within the DGA, whether they're first ADs or UPMs or directors, don't feel like they're being left out of the more important opportunities or decisions that are being made inside and outside the DGA, if that makes sense.

Michelle Tompkins:  Are there a lot of Latino directors right now? Are they up and coming?

David Rodriguez:  Unfortunately no. And it's something that I've noticed. I think it's still an uphill battle when it comes to diversity in directing. I know that I have a lot of friends that are white male directors that have said to me it's hard to get a job as a white male director nowadays. And I kind of chuckle a little bit because that's what minorities have been saying their whole lives.

Yeah, I had that problem for years. And many directors had that problem for their careers. Look, I think it's a careful balance and it's a sensitive thing on how to be able to do this so that everybody feels like they're getting their fair share of the pie. I don't know that there are— and I guess the issue with Latinos I think, is you could look at— you know, my mom looks African and Indian. My dad looks like a white guy. But they're both Puerto Rican. So the difficulty becomes that Latinos at large - and I'm not speaking about one specific Cuban, Mexican, Dominican, Puerto Rican or another - it's just at large. Latinos appear to be way more integrated into society, where as an African American, it's clear as day. And the flip side of that is that if you're Latino and somebody has an issue with that, you're screwed at the phone call because you gotta say, ""David Rodriguez."" You can't say ""David Jones"" or ""David Washington"" or ""David McCoy."" It's Rodriguez. That's it. So if there's going to be an issue it's going to be at the phone call. So I think that, what are the answers to these questions? I sort of take it on my dad. I feel like I'm doing what my dad would have done. And he would've said to me - and I feel like I get those whispers in my ear - ""Yes, you're Latino. Yes, you're Puerto Rican. Yes, your last name is Rodriguez. But you have the same abilty as anybody else. So you're no longer getting opportunities because you check a box. Now you get opportunities because you're good at what you do."" And I think we just all have to get to that place. How we get to that place, who gives us the opportunity to be able to get to the place where you've done 20, 30, 40, 50 episodes, 100 episodes of television. How to get to that place is really everyone's own individual journey but ultimately once you get that break, then you need to figure out how you're going to sustain a career in directing. And to circle back, I watch television because I have to on a regular basis, and it's very, very rare that I see Latino surnames behind the first name when I see the ""directed by"" credit. It's just very rare. It's still a rare thing.

David Rodriguez gets personal

Michelle Tompkins:  What do you what do you like to do for fun?

David Rodriguez:  Wow. That's a good question [laughter]. Direct. Being on set. But when I'm not doing that, I just like spending time with my wife, and being on my Harley, and playing with our dog, and just doing normal stuff, and hiking when I could, and playing hoops when I could. I don't like to be still. I like to have something to do all of the time. I'm not a somebody-to-relax-on-the-couch-for-a-few-hours guy. It's just I'm not made up of that yet. Maybe when I'm a little older, I'll need to take that midday nap. But right now, I'm good.

Michelle Tompkins:  How do you celebrate after you've finished directing a TV show or a movie?

David Rodriguez:  [laughter]. I don't know that I do celebrate when I wrap. Here's the God's-honest truth. Every time I've gotten a job— well, when I first got into the business, I celebrated every time I thought I was going to get a job [laughter], and it rarely happened. So I opened up a lot of bottles of wine and champagne for nothing [laughter]. And now that I am busy, thank God, I don't get to celebrate. I wrap the show, and I'm thinking about what I want to do next. So if I were to say what you do— I guess the better answer would be I celebrate every single day because I actually get to do what I love to do all the time, regularly, and I get to pay my bills and buy groceries with the fruits of that labor. And that, to me, is celebratory in and of itself.

Michelle Tompkins:  That's the dream.

David Rodriguez:  It's the dream. I actually make a living saying action and cut, maintaining a look on a show, going out to the desert and sighting a location. I make a living doing that. And there's something really amazing and special about that. And look, I have an amazing support system. I got a great family. I got a great wife. I walk into the house, and my dog jumps all over me. My kids are awesome, so it's great. I mean, we all complain about whatever, but I don't have any— I can't legitimately complain about anything because it just comes off as whining [laughter].

Michelle Tompkins:  How do you like people to connect with you?

David Rodriguez:  They can connect with me through Instagram and Twitter and if you really want to talk to me, go on my website, directordavidrodriguez.com and you can send a message there. But typically Instagram and Twitter are the best way. Everybody's on Instagram. I don't go on Twitter as much as I used to so Instagram seems to be the way to check out what I'm up to. And my handle is directordavidrodriguez on that, just all— no dots, no underscores, no nothing. Just altogether.

Make sure they put director in the front. If they put directordavidrodriguez spelled all out, then they'll get me.

Michelle Tompkins:  What's something that you want people to know about you?

That there's so much more to me other than film and television that makes me tick I'm passionate, I'm honest, I'm loyal, I'm no frills, I just want to keep doing what I'm doing. I just want to continue to put out great content. I have no fantasies of being famous. All I want to do is just let people know what I'm up to, I hope they enjoy it and know that I'm always going to put everything I've got into whatever I'm doing.

Michelle Tompkins:  What advice do you have for filmmakers who are just starting out?

David Rodriguez:  Have a plan. Have a real plan and always manage your expectations.

David Rodriguez can be found here.

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Michelle Tompkins

Michelle Tompkins is an award-winning media, PR and crisis communications professional with more than ten years experience with coverage in virtually every traditional and new media outlet. She is currently a communications and media strategist and writer, as well as the author of College Prowler: Guidebook for Columbia University. She served as the Media Relations Manager for the Girl Scouts of the USA where she managed all media and talking points, created social media strategy, trained executives and donors and served as the organization’s primary spokesperson, participating in daily interviews with local, regional, and national media outlets. She managed the media for the Let Me Know internet safety and Cyberbullying prevention campaign with Microsoft, as well as Girl Scouts’ centennial Year of the Girl To Get Her There celebration in 2012, which yielded more than 800 million earned media impressions. In addition to her extensive media experience, Michelle worked as a talent agent in Los Angeles, California, as well contracting as a digital content developer and her writing has appeared in newspapers and online. She is passionate about television, theater, classic movies, all things food and in-home entertaining. While she has lived and worked in NYC for more than a decade, she is from suburban Sacramento and gets back there often to watch the San Francisco Giants on TV with her family.