Alita: Battle Angel

Platform(s): Movie
Genre: Action
Publisher: 20th Century Fox
Release Date: Feb. 14, 2019


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'Alita: Battle Angel' Cast & Crew Interview

by Adam Pavlacka on Oct. 9, 2018 @ 12:00 a.m. PDT

Alita: Battle Angel is an action-packed story of one young woman's journey to discover the truth of who she is and her fight to change the world.

Last month, WorthPlaying had the chance to participate in a panel interview with the cast and crew of the upcoming film, "Alita: Battle Angel." This is the transcript of the interview with director Robert Rodriguez; producer Jon Landau; and actress Rosa Salazar, who portrays the titular character of Alita.

Q: Robert, you've had a varied career with films like "From Dusk 'Till Dawn", which is very adult-oriented, and "Spy Kids," which is very family-oriented. With "Alita," which is based on manga, something that was very popular decades ago. 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 that you were striking a balance between action and family-friendly?

Robert Rodriguez: Right, this is my first PG-13 movie, which I've always wanted to do. I did things for really small kids 'cause I knew they shouldn't be watching "Desperado." I'd have a heart attack when parents say, "Oh, we took our kids to see 'Desperado.'" So I'm going to make something just for them that has that kind of action or more action-type, R-rated stuff. This is more in line with the movies that Jim [Cameron] does, which I've always been a fan of — "Titanic" and "Avatar." This is a project that he was going to do, and when I read his script and his vision for it, it was the first time I'd read something that I felt I could do in that range, where small children to grandparents could watch it. It's what you would call a "four-quadrant story" because it has such wide, universal appeal. Jim does that best. He can even find that in a manga that you might think plays older, he found a storyline that really appealed to him, and he added more to it to really make it something that could play like a very universal story about this little girl found in a trash heap who thinks she's insignificant and finds out that she has the inner power to actually change the world. That's a very universal theme.

You can see why he wanted to make that himself, when he makes his own material all the time, why he'd be attracted to that graphic novel, what did he see in it? It made me curious. "What did he see in it? There must be something there." 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. I tend to do things that are really whimsical and kind of dream imagery, like you're just having a weird dream. In two hours, it'll be over. His is very much, very grounded, very real, sci-fi is more like science fact the way he approaches it, so you believe the flights of fancy. So I was really into the idea of trying something really new with this project, knowing I had my own Terminator near me and a second one to help guide me if I was steering off course. I had the best master class teachers around.

Q: 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?

RR: He really wanted me to make it my own, but he knew that the reason I even thought I could take it on because he saw what I did with "Sin City," which I took and really made it true to Frank Miller's work. That's why I called the movie "Frank Miller's Sin City" because I wanted people to know that was his. So, he knew that I wanted to make 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. We wanted to see that movie, so I was going to help get that movie made the way he would — as close as I can get. You never can make it really Jim Cameron, but at least I wouldn't make the kind of steps that I'd normally do. I would just be in character. I was in the character of Frank Miller when I did "Sin City." I was in the Jim Cameron character when I made this. I would ask him questions all the time, and he would send me answers, but he was always, "Make it your own, make it your own." But making it my own would be, I didn't want him at the end of the day, looking at this and thinking, "I knew I should have made this myself." I tried to hit all the right notes.

Q: Robert, when you asked Jim a one-line question, what would you get back?

RR: I would try to send him very simple questions because he was busy with Avatar. He would send back this whole, long, breaking-it-down master class, and I have in a whole other book about what I learned from Jim. He would just be very thorough because he's an engineer by trade.

Rosa Salazar: When I booked the role, he wrote me. First, he asked Robert, "Do you think it's OK that I reach out?" And he's like, "I think it may be fine if you reach out." He wrote to me, and by the time I get to the 16th paragraph about how he was passing the baton, I was in full tears and sobbing mode. I had no idea how to respond to this email. I made like a bullet sheet of the things that he had said. This email pained me. I could not respond to it. (laughs)

Jon Landau: What we want to do from a Lightstorm perspective is take what we can bring to our films and what Robert brings to his and combine the two. We worked both with our people at Troublemaker Studios and I loved it — I went down there for a meeting, and there was a sign when I got there that said, "Lightstorm South." They had the logo and all that. Then when Robert came out, he came out on to one of our stages to do some testing and performance capture, it said, "Troublemaker West." It was a collaboration between Robert's art department, the art department we use on "Avatar" to create the world to working with an editor that we've worked with who's also currently working with us on "Avatar" but is also working on this. Jim really wanted to keep his imprint to allow Robert to make his movie but to empower Robert to do that and to be there as the consigliere.

RR: I know what it's like to work on a project for many, many years, so as much as he wanted me to make it my own, I know that he was missing out on some of the making of, so as soon as an image would come up or I'd take a photo of Christoph [Waltz] in his costume for the first time, I know he's visualized this for so many years, more than me, I would send him photos, and he would be like, "It's just like what we imagined." (laughs) You could tell he was getting the thrill of getting to see it come to life. You don't want to wait for the premiere for that. You want to start seeing it as I'm seeing it. It was really exciting to incrementally add some things, just knowing that he visualized it so long that he'd appreciate it, and he did.

Q: What do you all admire most about the character of Alita?

RS: What I admire most about Alita is her sensitivity. I really like that she's found completely devoid of any kind of memory. She doesn't know who she is, where she is, how things work, and her first impulse, although she has this extensive martial arts Panzer Kunst training, that's not her first instinctual thing. She can barely walk. She's just been reconstituted. I like that her first approach to anything is wonder and sensitivity to everything around her, and I think that when we meet her, that's how we will feel. When I watch her discover things, it's like I'm discovering them for the first time and she's just moving through it, completely led by her heart. That's the first thing I admire about her in a laundry list of things I admire about her. She believes she's someone completely insignificant and goes on to discover, not only is she someone significant, she's someone extraordinary with extraordinary capabilities, someone who could have the power to not only save the lower world but all worlds and all people.

JL: What Rosa just talked about, the last thing, that's for me the big one, which is this idea of thinking of herself as insignificant but learning that she can do it. Why is that important to me? Because I think it's a message for everyone today, that inside each one of us is the ability to make a difference. We just have to find that in a day and age when we all have to make a difference. Alita embodies that, and Rosa's performance embodies that.

RS: It really is a metaphor for that journey.

RR: When I read the script, I really responded to the father-daughter aspect of Ito and the girl who's got to grow. He's got to prepare her to just leave him. At first, he's very protective and then you realize that she's light years ahead of me. But then I also identified with her character because that's all of us — a lot of our background. You come from somewhere where you don't think you have a chance in hell of getting anything in the world, you have everything against you in the beginning, how you begin your life. Then you find you do have an inner power and you can influence people and based on who you are and the best version you can be of yourself, you can actually create a lot of change. In the old days, we would say, "That's the everyman character," but now, you'd say she's the "everyone character."

RS: Mm-hmm.

RR: Really, anybody could identify with that, even a 50-year-old guy could identify with that character.

RS: Being a Latin actress to be able to do that is special.

RR: With a lot of the characters he wrote, you can identify with so many of them that it felt like, "That's me." That's what really has a universal appeal. If I can identify with her journey, then we know we've got a really great story, and then I saw what Jim saw in it.

JL: What it is about the character Alita is that she's not a superhero; she's a hero, and there's a difference. Superheroes, you can admire them, but they're not aspirational because you can't be them. Alita starts out as everybody; she doesn't come into the world with it, but she becomes a hero. That goes back to that idea that within each of us is the ability to be a hero.

RS: Yeah, she discovers her power over time, trying things.

Q: Robert, you've done many styles of film-making, from "El Mariachi" to very CG-heavy films, like "Sin City" and "Spy Kids." Taking those past experiences of different movies you've directed, what are you hoping to bring to "Alita"?

RR: Well, fortunately, a lot of them were pushing the envelope with technology back in the day, and Jim even said, "What you're going to do here is more a matter of scale than of technique. You've done a lot of these techniques."

We wanted to keep it very grounded, because that's how Jim Cameron science fiction is. So we built a lot of sets. She's surrounded by actors and real sets, and her and maybe two other characters have full motion-capture suits. We wanted it to feel really tactile and be very real — as real as one of my "Desperado" or "Once Upon a Time in Mexico" type movies but with a high-tech element. We use very little green screen, so it's not like "Sin City" at all as far as translating something, but it's done mostly on-location, so then it feels real. So having done all those different types of movies helped decide what this one would need based on the script and how I thought Jim would've made it had he [done] it himself. That all helped to have that experience of working with technology in that way, only now, I have such a great many more collaborators to bring it to life because there's a lot of detail that has to be done.

Q: The term "toxic fan" has been around a short time, but the idea of those rabid fans, especially in the science fiction community, feeling like they're the gate keepers of what it should be and what it shouldn't be. Do you see that negative vibe causing studios to think twice about some properties because people may raise a fuss and it may damage the industry?

JL: Studios have a certain role in the industry. I think filmmakers have a different role. Filmmakers are the ones who have to go to the studios when they don't want to make "Avatar" — because they didn't want to make "Avatar" — and say, "This is why you should make it." Then they question, "Hey, a manga hasn't done this before." We need filmmakers like Robert to be able to go in there and say, "Here's the movie I see. Here's the vision that I see," and it opens the studio's eyes.

A studio, to me, nobody at a studio ever got fired for saying "No" to a movie. (laughs) They get fired for saying "Yes" to the wrong movies, so you have to give them the confidence in their decision by showing them that they can take the chances on a movie with blue people that have tails, on a movie with a female character who has bigger-than-normal eyes, that all of those things — or a comic book come to life in "Sin City" — all these things, they're filmmaker-driven, and you convince the studios to get on board with that, and that's what you see the really exceptional things. If you look at, historically, the highest-grossing movies — and I'm not talking about sequels, now — non-sequels, they were all surprises. They're all ones that, on the surface, the studios wouldn't have jumped to make. We know that about "Star Wars." We can see that in a movie even like "Home Alone." The way Warner Bros. didn't want to do it, and then suddenly, another studio did it. "Avatar" — these movies, it's the surprises, and we're in a filmmaker-driven business, and they need to be the visionaries.

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