Interviews Movies

Reimaging a Classic: An Interview with Alita: Battle Angel’s Robert Rodriguez

Visionary filmmakers James Cameron and Robert Rodriguez create a groundbreaking new heroine in Alita: Battle Angel, an action-packed story of hope, love and empowerment. Set several centuries in the future, the abandoned Alita (Rosa Salazar) is found in the scrapyard of Iron City by Ido (Christoph Waltz), a compassionate cyber-doctor who takes the unconscious cyborg Alita to his clinic. When Alita awakens she has no memory of who she is, nor does she have any recognition of the world she finds herself in

With Alita: Battle Angel comes a total sensory immersion into a world of unbridled imagination, breathless action and visceral emotion.  Two of today’s leading creators of game-changing movie realms, James Cameron and Robert Rodriguez, have combined their mutual zeal for world-building and for empowered female heroines to push the possibilities of visual story-craft into a new zone.  After over a decade in the making, they now invite audiences to enter directly into an intricately alive metropolis of the future—and into the high-octane yet heartfelt mission of Alita to fulfill her human potential—forged through an alchemist mix of evocative performances, creative design, performance-capture technology, CG imagery, VFX and native 3D filmmaking.

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Ardent fans couldn’t wait for Cameron to tackle the manga.  But by the mid-2000s Cameron stood at a fateful crossroads:  forced to choose between his two creations, to go all-in on either Alita or Avatar. It goes without saying that he took the path of Avatar, sensing the technology was ready to be pushed where he needed it to go.  But the exponential leap that followed would also make Alita possible.

Cameron never stopped dreaming about giving life to Alita. Yet the worldwide hunger for Avatar sequels kept him expanding that universe and he saw no clear space for Alita on the horizon.  It wasn’t until one day when he was talking with his good friend Robert Rodriguez that it came to him that he would feel comfortable passing Alita on into the right hands—into say, Rodriguez’s hands.  Cameron and Rodriguez often had stimulating conversations about cinematic techniques, but now Cameron had the idea of going further, of inviting his friend to be creative partner on this project he held so closely.

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While Cameron is renown for some of cinema’s most sweeping epics, from Terminator to Titanic to Avatar, Rodriguez cut his teeth in the indie world by making madly inventive, hyper-vivid action thrillers on lean-and-mean budgets, often writing, directing and shooting them himself. After gaining acclaim with the micro-budget El Mariachi at age 23, he continued cultivating his creative freedom and high-energy style on such hits as Desperado, Once Upon a Time in Mexico, Sin City, Machete and Planet Terror, as well as becoming an early 3D innovator with the Spy Kids series of family films.

There was little doubt that he had the kind of extreme commitment to vision required but Alita:  Battle Angel would take Rodriguez into a whole new scale of production.  It would also take him to his very favorite place:  way outside even his wide-open comfort zone.

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A long-time fan of the Kishiro books, Rodriguez says he was yearning for Cameron to make the movies.  “I’d been dreaming about it and waiting for it,” he muses. Yet, when Cameron asked him to step into those shoes and realize the dream on his behalf, it was irresistible.  Rodriguez loved how the initial script took the world Kishiro created and, while staying true to the spirit of it, translated it into a Cameronesque tale of love and adventure. “I identified with Alita.  I identified with Hugo.  I identified with all the characters—and that’s what Jim does amazingly well,” he says.

The meticulous work Cameron and team had already done gave Rodriguez a home base from which to blast off in his own way. “Jim’s thing is making sure even the most sci-fi elements believably work,” says Rodriguez. “He’d already figured out how every part of Iron City would operate from an engineering POV. So from the start, nothing felt imaginary. It was ready to come to life.”

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That was especially true for Alita.  Rodriguez adored how Cameron had approached the tiny hero with reverence, as a young woman coming into her own power, setting the course for her life on her own terms.  “The thing that struck me as unique about Alita is that she’s not a superhero per se.  She has unique fighting abilities because of how she was created, but her emotions are entirely human. Her discovery is not so much her powers, which were always there, but her heart, morality and humanity.”

Every frame of art Rodriguez saw, from the sun-washed, color-splashed streets of Iron City to the cyborgs whose machine bodies were infused with human qualities of charm, humor and hubris, spoke to him.  The chance to play with all the tech Cameron, Lightstorm and Weta had invented for Avatar—the facial performance capture system, the Simulcam system for superimposing digital characters onto actors in real-time, the 3D Fusion Camera system and more—was also a strong magnet for Rodriguez.

The Koalition interviewed Rodriguez about tackling the manga, making Cameron proud, the innovation of Alita and more.

Check out the interview below.