During Crunchyroll Expo this year, Nuke the Fridge along with several other outlets had the opportunity to speak to director Robert Rodriguez, Alita’s actress Rosa Salazar , and producer Jon Landau about the upcoming live-action of Alita Battle Angel.
Robert, you’ve had a varying career with films like Dusk till Dawn, which is very adult oriented, and Spy Kids, very kids-oriented. With Alita, it’s based on a manga that was popular decades ago and you’re bringing it to a new generation for both longtime fans and fans with children. What was the challenge in adapting the story to ensure you were striking a balance?
Robert: Right, this is my first PG-13 movie. I had a heart attack when parents said they took their kids to see Desperado. This is more in line with the kind of movie that Jim (James Cameron) does. I’ve always been a fan of Titanic and Avatar and this was a project he was gonna do and when I read his script; his vision for it. It was the first time I felt I could do that’s just from small children to grandparents could watch. It’s what you call a four quadrant story because it has wide appeal. And Jim just does that best, he found a story line that really appealed to him and he added more to it that could play like this universal story about a this little girl bound in a trash heap who thinks she’s insignificant and finds out she has the inner power to change the world. That’s a very universal theme. You could see why he wants to make that himself, why he was attracted to the graphic novel, what made me curious what he saw it in. When I saw what he was doing, I responded to it tremendously and thought it would be a great project to do and learn from him because I tend to do things real whimsical. Like a dream, two hours and it’s over, his is very much grounded very real sci-fi. I think I had the best masterclass teacher around.
Because James Cameron was developing this for so long, once you got a hold of it, was there a close collaboration between you two or did he just let you do your own thing?
Robert: He really wanted me to make it my own. He saw what I did with Sin City because I took it and really made it true to Frank Miller’s work. That’s why I even called it Frank Miller’s Sin City, I made that the title. He knew that I wanted to make a a Jim Cameron movie because this is the lost Jim Cameron movie that me and the rest of us got robbed from seeing because Avatar was too successful. So we wanted to see that movie. I wanted to help get that movie made as close as he wanted and I would ask him questions all the time. I don’t want him looking at this at the end of the day and saying “I should’ve made this myself”.
Jon: When you asked Jim a one line question, what would you get back?
Robert: I would send him very short questions because I knew he was busy and he would send back this long email, breaking it down, it was a master class.
Jon: I think from a Lightstorm (Entertainment) prospective it was really about taking what we bring to our films and what Robert brings to his and to really combine the two. So, we worked with both art people at Trouble Maker Studios and Lightstorm. I loved it. I went down there for a meeting and there was a sign that said Lightstorm Sound and when Robert came out we had a sign that said Trouble Maker West. It was a collaboration between Robert’s art department and the art department we used on Avatar. Jim wanted to empower Robert to make his movie.
What do you admire most about the character of Alita?
Rosa: What I admire most about Alita is her sensitivity. She is found completely devoid of any memory, who she is, where she is, or how things work. Her first impulse, despite having this extensive martial arts training, it is not first instinctual thing she does. I like that her first approach to everything is wonder and sensitivity to everything around her and when we meet her that’s how we will feel. I watch her discover things. I feel like I’m discovering things as she moves through it completely led by her heart. I really admire her for how in the beginning she thinks herself completely insignificant and she finds that she is extraordinary and not only that but also that has the power to save not only the lower world but all worlds.
You’ve done a lot of CGI-heavy films; how has that prepared you for filming Alita?
Robert: Jim said it was just about scale. He said “you’ve done a lot of the techniques.” We also built a lot of set. Rosa is surrounded by actors and her and two other actors have full motion capture suits. I wanted it to feel tactile, I wanted it to feel as real as one of my Once Upon a Time in Mexico movies but with a high-tech element.
The term “toxic fan” has been used a lot recently, especially in the science fiction community, to describe what can be considered fan-entitlement. What do you think the cause of this is and can this kind of negativity harm films or even dissuade studios from making a film if there is a pre-established fan base?
Jon: I think studios have a certain role in the industry and filmmakers have a different role. Filmmakers are the ones that have to go to the studios when they (the studio) don’t want to make Avatar, and they didn’t, and say this is why you should make it. When they question a manga, it’s because they haven’t done this before. You need filmmakers like Robert to go in there and say here is the film I see, here’s the vision I see, and open the studio’s eyes. As far as I know, nobody at a studio ever got fired for saying no to a movie. They get fired for saying yes to the wrong movies. The filmmaker is there to give them the confidence in their decision so they can take chances on a movie with blue people that have tails or on a female character that has bigger-than-normal eyes. I think all these things are filmmaker-driven and you convince the studios to get on board with that. I think that’s when you see the exceptional thing. When you look at it the highest grossing movies, not sequels, are the ones the studios wouldn’t jump to make. We know that about Star Wars. We can see that in a movie like Home Alone where Warner Bros. didn’t want it and then another studio did it. We are in a filmmaker-driven business and they need to be the visionaries.
Thank you to Crunchyroll for the interview opportunity!