Robert Rodriguez explains why it took two great filmmakers to bring wide-eyed Alita to life
The vision was James Cameron’s. The man behind the camera was Robert Rodriguez. The result is a movie star like you’ve never seen before.
Rosa Salazar, Christoph Waltz, Mahershala Ali, Jennifer Connelly
February 13, 2019
Over the past 25 years director Robert Rodriguez has often visited his friend James Cameron on sets. The filmmakers showed each other early material, and even planned to direct something together. When Rodriguez asked Cameron about the status of Battle Angel Alita, Cameron’s passion project based on Yukito Kishiro’s manga series, he admitted that after working on the project for over a decade, he didn’t have time to finish it between his four Avatar sequels. He showed Rodriguez the work he’d already done and even gave him the script.
Now, we finally get Alita: Battle Angel, a live action-CGI hybrid from director Robert Rodriguez, co-written and produced by James Cameron. In a motion-capture performance, Rosa Salazar plays Alita and Christoph Waltz is Dr. Dyson Ido, the doctor who finds her.
We caught up with Rodriguez in Los Angeles.
You got a 180-page script and 600 pages of notes from James Cameron. How did you condense that into a two-hour movie?
Only 600 pages of notes? There were a thousand!
What could possibly be in there?
I know. That was what I was thinking. What could possibly be in there? But it was really amazing to see how somebody builds a franchise. How he builds it. He doesn’t just write one story, he already has to figure out what would be the story after, what would be the story before… Jim is an engineer by trade, and that’s just how he thinks.
"He really wanted me to make it my own movie, but I made him understand that I really wanted to make a Jim Cameron film because I didn’t really want to take Alita and turn it into a Robert Rodriguez movie."
How did you approach this mammoth project?
I’ve known Jim for 25 years, I’ve studied his work, we’ve been friends a long time, [so] I looked at the script and I thought, I need to cut out all the things that are not that important to the story and then leave all the things that are important to Jim. I know him enough that it’s like, he’s not going to care so much about this, he is going to care about the father-daughter relationship.
Was he on the set or did he let you do your thing?
He really wanted me to make it my own movie, but I made him understand that I really wanted to make a Jim Cameron film because I didn’t really want to take Alita and turn it into a Robert Rodriguez movie…. I do stuff, usually because of both my taste (I started as a cartoonist), and also because I usually have much less money to work with, I have to be more whimsical. My stuff is usually science-fiction, not science fact, because I can’t afford fact. So if someone picks up a guitar case and fires a missile from it, that’s enough for me. I don’t have to know that it can really work or not. Jim, that doesn’t fly with Jim. That has to be able to work.
How close is the film to Yukito Kishiro’s manga?
The manga is many, many volumes. So Jim read all the manga, for instance he liked one of the villains and the father-daughter relationship of the first book, he liked the boy that she meets in the second book, he liked Motorball from the fourth book. And he figured out a way to put all that stuff together and add new twists to the story and levels of meaning that were very Jim Cameron.
"I feel like an audience member a lot of times ’cause I’ve seen some of these images for the first time as the effects guys do them and go like, ‘Wow! When did we shoot that? That’s amazing!"
You’re a filmmaker who loves doing everything himself — filming, editing, writing, the soundtrack, sometimes even the catering. Isn’t it weird to do it Cameron-style?
It is. It’s very weird…. But this one, it wasn’t difficult to make the leap at all ’cause you’re surrounded by fantastic people. The problem is when you hire people in those jobs and you’re better than them you’d rather do the job yourself. Well, here I was able to use a lot of Jim’s guys and people that he’s worked with that are just super-fantastic in photography and editing, and all the different positions…. I feel like an audience member a lot of times ’cause I’ve seen some of these images for the first time as the effects guys do them and go like, ‘Wow! When did we shoot that? That’s amazing! It didn’t look like that when we shot it [laughs]!’
You’re probably the director who has worked with the largest budget range in Hollywood — lowest at $7,000 (U.S.) for 1992’s El Mariachi and now $200-million for Alita. What did you learn and what’s the budget of your next film?
I’ve already made my next film. I’m just finishing it right now. I’m going to enter it into Sundance. It’s less than $7,000. Feature film.
[Editor’s note: The film, Red 11, will actually debut at SXSW, not Sundance.]
What? Are you serious?
It was supposed to be $7,000 but it came in under. It was the 25th anniversary of El Mariachi so I made a new film with my kids to celebrate it, and with no crew, just my son on boom…shot in 14 days in Austin. And we had a documentary crew film it to show how to make a movie, write it, shoot it, direct it, edit, cut it, score it yourself, with no money. It’s going to be awesome.
For a truly immersive cinematic escape, see Alita: Battle Angel
Alita: Battle Angel is the epitome of a big-screen film. The coming together of two visual visionaries, Robert Rodriguez and James Cameron, will result in eye-popping effects and cinematography. This is one to see in IMAX.