- Robert Rodriguez and producer Jon Landau (“Avatar”) talked to Business Insider at CinemaCon about the evolution of bringing “Alita: Battle Angel” to the screen.
- It was originally a project James Cameron was to make, after he discovered the manga around 2000. However, the success of “Avatar” changed everything.
- Rodriguez has resurrected the project, and explained how it will still feel like a Cameron movie, and why it won’t make the mistakes of recent manga release, “Ghost in the Shell.”
Before James Cameron made “Avatar” and broke all box-office records, he was planning on making the big-screen adaptation of “Battle Angel Alita,” the famous manga series created by Yukito Kishiro.
In fact, Cameron’s deep dive around 2000 into the rich material about a cyborg named Alita (played in the movie by Rose Salazar) who tries to rediscover her past after being found in a garbage heap by a cybernetics doctor, wasn’t just going to be a single movie but a franchise.
However, Cameron had to put the project on hold as the success of “Avatar” has now led to him making multiple sequels of the movie (at the same time). Luckily, he’s found a worthy filmmaker to take on the “Battle Angel” material.
Robert Rodriguez, who is known for his wide range of titles (“Desperado,” “Machete,” “Sin City”) took Cameron’s material and crafted it into a stunning 3D movie (opening December 21).
After showing footage of “Alita: Battle Angel” at CinemaCon on Thursday, Rodriguez and producer Jon Landau (“Avatar” movies) sat down with Business Insider to talk about the evolution of the project and why this manga won’t end up like the big-screen version of “Ghost in the Shell.”
Jason Guerrasio: Jon you said on stage that Robert came in and “edited” Cameron’s material to make the movie. Robert, what did that entail?
Rodriguez: Jim was writing “Alita” for himself to make. So he had already taken the 30-plus books and found which stories to focus on and created a story that was a movie story. He even wrote his first draft, which was long but he would have gotten there if he kept on it. But he got busy on “Avatar” so it was just left. So I asked him at this one meeting, “What are you going to do if you’re now doing ‘Avatar?’ If you’re only doing ‘Avatars’ what happens to ‘Battle Angel?'” He said, “I won’t have a chance to make it, but hey, if you can figure it out you can go and make it.” And I was like, sh– that’s what I’m doing this summer. I took his 600 pages of notes home with me and I figured out what I needed to fill in.
When I read it I could tell this doesn’t need a rewrite, it just needed to be cut down. So being an editor I just pretended it was already shot and I just edited it down to length and I suggested some additional photography and dialogue to patch the holes. That’s it. And he went, “That sounds good, let’s go make it.” That was the main work, taking the vision that he already had and like I made “Sin City” in the style of Frank Miller, I made this like it would fee like a Jim Cameron film that I always wanted to see.
Landau: And Robert did that on his own. He didn’t say, “Put a deal in place for me to be the director.” He just went and did it. And that speaks volumes. And we read what he did with Jim’s 180-page script, and nothing was missing. And that told us that he understood what was important thematically. A lot of people talk about plot, Robert held onto the themes that were so important.
Rodriguez: In fact, Jim told me he would play a game with himself while reading the script. He would be coming up on a part of the movie that he liked and would say to himself, I bet that’s cut out, and he would love that it wasn’t cut. The stuff that I thought he would miss the most, I made sure to keep in there.
Landau: Honestly, Robert wasn’t the first director we came to for this, but we never found the right fit to give up something that we believed in. I mean, Jim put in the time commitment to write it.
Guerrasio: I know that “Battle Angle” is a very different manga than “Ghost in the Shell,” but seeing the disappointing result critically and financially for that movie, can you see the potholes you need to navigate around?
Landau: I think the pothole to avoid is what Jim did in the script. This is a movie that is about her. This movie is about emotion. One of my favourite shots in the movie is when Alita cries. That’s a human thing. I think oftentimes other movies are made based on mangas that don’t access that human quality. So to us she’s just a character. And that’s why I said on stage, “She’s not a superhero, she’s a hero.” Just a regular girl who comes into this world and I think everyone can identify with her.
Rodriguez: Also, Kishiro didn’t write a movie that was particularly Asian. It was actually set in Kansas City. But we set it in South America because Jim’s scientific mind made him believe that a space elevator would work better near the equator. So I was excited to make a Latin-based movie with a diverse cast that was organic to the story. This is set in the last city that’s left in existence so people from all over are there. That helps you avoid the pitfalls of something that’s particular to a society, like “Ghost in the Shell.”
Guerrasio: Robert, you’ve taken risks on your movies all the way back to your first one, “El Mariachi.” What makes this different from those?
Rodriguez: It was risky in this sense: You’d seen “Planet of the Apes,” but that’s an ape, we were making for the first time a really human face. We’ve seen it in the “Star Wars” movies but that’s just a few scenes. Here is a real character that we’re creating and it has to be as human as the characters around them. We don’t shoot hardly any green screen in this. Just to extend sets. Real sets, real actors, and there are a couple of characters that are completely CG and they have got to stand up skin for skin, eye to eye with anyone else. No one had done that. So we’re pushing the envelope with that. But my risk level was lower because Jim had gone through this already on “Avatar.”
Guerrasio: Jon, compare and contrast Robert’s style to James’.
Landau: The interesting thing about both of them is they are true auteurs. They both write, direct, edit – cinematographers when they want to. What I have found is Jim has his way of doing things. Robert is a student of filmmaking and he’s adapted his style to making a Jim Cameron movie. A commitment he made. He understood he had to leave the world he was familiar with and approach it differently. Jim does that through always using different technology.
Rodriguez: Here’s an example how we’re different. We’re both into 3D, and he invited me to the making of the ‘Terminator 2″ 3D ride that he shot for Universal Studios. I’m such a fan and I try to impress him by telling him that I was taking a 3-day steadycam course because I was going to operate steadycam on my own on “Desperado” because I couldn’t afford a steadycam operator. And he said, “I bought a steadycam, but not to operate it, I’m going to take it apart and design a better one.” [Laughs.] That’s the difference between me and Jim. I’m just a mortal trying to figure things out, he’s designing a whole new system.
Guerrasio: I need to bring up “Avatar,” Jon, what are the challenges of shooting two movies at the same time?
Landau: Well, we are doing a little more than two.
Guerrasio: Oh, I thought you were shooting just two right now simultaneously.
Landau: Two and a little more.
Guerrasio: Ah, OK.
Landau: I think what we had to get our heads around is the first “Avatar” was a marathon. Now we’re running a triathlon. We have to gauge ourselves and our crew to handle that long-term thing. But when you break it down, what we are really doing here is a miniseries on a super scale. There are segments of that miniseries that need to come to completion for the story arc. And then you build upon that. Once we got our heads around that we’re really telling one big story, we were able to figure out how to plan it and schedule it. The cast is there and they are doing scenes from movie two today, movie three tomorrow. But we explained to them it’s not different than doing just one movie. You do the end scene on day five and another scene another day. It’s just communicating that to people.
Guerrasio: Robert, you are always directing or producing, one project that I want to know that’s always talked about is “Machete Kills Again… In Space.”
Guerrasio: Is that a real movie?
Rodriguez: Danny [Trejo] and I always say we’re making that. The joke was that “Machete” 2 and 3 were together because you have a fake trailer for 3 [in “Machete Kills”]. The idea is we got to kind of make it already because there’s the phantom trailer floating around. But you never know, we might make it. People have always expressed interest. There might be a way to do it.
Guerrasio: I feel you can make those movies with Danny for years and people would watch them.
Rodriguez: It’s crazy, I met Danny on the set of “Desperado” and I told him about “Machete.” “You are going to play a character called Machete some day,” and it became his most iconic character.
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