Angel of Vengeance: Robert Rodriguez and James Cameron unite to bring 'Alita' manga to the big screen

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Strong female protagonists have always been featured in the movies of James Cameron, and not surprisingly, the Canadian filmmaker planned to adapt the cyberpunk manga series Battle Angel: Alita, published by Yukito Kishiro in 1990 about a discarded cyborg suffering from amnesia in a post-apocalyptic world. However, the project became indefinitely delayed when Cameron made the decision to devote himself to developing Avatar sequels. The situation changed during a reunion between Cameron and Robert Rodriguez, best known for the Spy Kids franchise.

“I’ve known Jim for 25 years,” recalls Rodriguez on his cellphone while waiting in an airport lobby for a flight from Austin, Texas to New Zealand, where Weta Digital, the visual-effects house for the renamed Alita: Battle Angel, is based. “I hadn’t seen him for a long time. I actually thought he was living in New Zealand. But when I found out that Jim was in Los Angeles, we had lunch together and that turned into a four-hour hangout session. Jim walked me through the Avatar sequels and had all of this art out. It wasn’t until the end that I even mentioned Alita. I asked, ‘If you’re just going to be doing Avatar movies for the rest of your career, then what happens to movies like Alita? I’ve been waiting for that forever.’ I read that he was going to do Alita back in 1999. Jim answered, ‘I don’t think I’ll ever get to it. But you can check out the script and I’ll give you the notes. See if you can figure it out.’ It was so awesome. You could tell that the whole movie was there. It was just too long. He never got a chance to finish cutting it because he had moved on to Avatar.”

The original script by Cameron was 186 pages and was accompanied by 600 pages of notes. “It wasn’t like the document needed a lot of work,” states Rodriguez. “Filmmakers like Jim write scripts for themselves or it doesn’t get made. When it’s that long, you can’t let 60 pages out without hurting something. Knowing Jim as a filmmaker, storyteller and friend, I know he wouldn’t care about the action and sci-fi. Keep all of the character stuff. Keep the heart of the picture. Cut the rest. That was what surprised him the most when he read the script. Jim told me, ‘I was playing a little game with myself. Every time I turned a page, I thought you were going to cut my favorite scene, but no, it was still there! I don’t know what you cut!’ What also helped too were the notes which enabled me to patch it with other material of his.”

A different cinematic approach was required for Rodriguez, who originally started as a cartoonist. “My stuff is always more whimsical and fantastical. A guy could pick up a guitar case and fire a missile out of it. I don’t need to know how it works. That wouldn’t work with Jim. Jim would be like, ‘Wait. How did that fire?’ His science fiction is more science fact. It has to be grounded in order for you to buy the fantasy. I love that. I went further in that direction. I said, ‘I want to shoot this more like The Abyss and The Terminator. I want to do it on real sets, with real actors, very little greenscreen, real locations, and only the performance-capture actors will be replaced with CG so that it feels real. It was harder for Weta Digital to do that because in Avatar they’re on Pandora, which is a made-up planet, whereas we’re here on Earth with real sets with actors who look like people who have to appear to be completely real. I had never done that before in my own movies, but Jim had the right script and sensibility so I could mimic his style in order to get it to feel that way. The last thing I wanted was for him to look at Alita and go, ‘Ah, shit. I knew I should have directed this myself!’ I needed him to feel like he was watching his own movie.”

Normally, Rodriguez makes films costing around $40 million; Alita: Battle Angel has a blockbuster budget of $200 million. “I love that realm [of $40 million], because it’s a low enough budget that they let you have complete freedom with casting, what story you tell, and is enough money for me to make the movie look like it’s twice that. Usually, if you’re doing a studio project it’s their property, you’re only directing it, they are going to want to protect their investment and are going to be risk-averse. It’s not going to be as fun. I avoided them until this one. This one felt like the best way to jump in that arena, because it’s not really a studio picture. It’s a Lightstorm Entertainment [the production company founded by Cameron and producer Lawrence Kasanoff] picture. Fox is distributing and was supportive before I ever came on, as they always loved Jim’s story. I’m primarily making Alita for Jim and [producer] Jon Landau. They’re real filmmakers and artists who have a final say in everything.”

Rodriguez has been known for being a one-man production crew, but this time around he was supported by composer Junkie XL (Deadpool), cinematographer Bill Pope (The Matrix, Baby Driver) and editor Stephen Rivkin (Avatar). “I’m a one-man crew when I don’t have any money! Jon Landau and Jim said, ‘Make sure that you’re surrounded by artists you’ve always wanted to work with.’ What helps when you’ve done those jobs is that you can communicate on a whole other level. You’re not just saying that the light doesn’t look right. You can say, ‘I think the backlight should go up another 5K.’ We get there a lot faster. I loved Junkie XL’s score for Mad Max: Fury Road. It was propulsive but had a lot of heart and emotion; that was very much what we were going for with Alita. I’m a huge fan of Bill Pope. Bill Pope is going to give Alita a lush, professional, Jim Cameron big-size look and he delivered gorgeous photography. Editing is my favorite part of the job. Stephen Rivkin has an amazing perspective and has worked with Jim Cameron a bunch too, so he knows how to take something that is unwieldy and hone in on the important stuff. Knowing the job also helps me to even admire it more, because I know what they do is special.”

Initial concept art for Alita: Battle Angel was created back in 2005. “The first images I saw took my breath away,” Rodriguez recalls. “Even back then, there’s no way on Earth that they could have done this movie. Alita had large eyes and a porcelain body outline. We had that to start with but got a big break when Jim was doing a massive rewrite on the Avatars, so all of his artists were idle for three months and got to come onboard. Jim wants his science fact and they already know how to get that. Had I developed that art myself with other artists who hadn’t worked with Jim, it would have been a much longer process. Then I brought some of my development team from Troublemaker and they did some cool stuff as well. We housed them over at Lightstorm so they could do the Jim Cameron-level stuff, which is more realistic and grounded and not whimsical, which was what they were used to with me.

“Jim and I almost worked together even as far back as 2003 in parts of Sin City and we were talking about doing a fully captured character on the project,” Rodriguez reveals. “This was a chance to do something like that. It felt like Alita should always be a performance-capture character. The first thing I did was go right into Photoshop and took pictures of the actresses [including Rosa Salazar, who was eventually cast to play the role] we were seeing early on and started doing photorealistic art of their faces to see how big you can go with the eyes and where it stops looking correct. My first meeting with Weta Digital, I showed them some of the work and they were like, ‘We can see that this will work, but it’s going to take a lot to get there because a moving image is completely different.’ When you’re drawing a manga, you can change her face in every panel. You can’t change her face for every shot in a movie. The biggest challenge was to create one model that in every angle looked right.” Rodriguez adds, “We wanted her to feel realer than real,but at the end of the day Alita is cyborg, so you could always say she’s not going to look completely human. People have only seen finished shots for the trailers. But now she looks so human that the finished effect is wild.

“The original story was set in Kansas City, and in Jim’s mind the only place a space elevator would work was close to the equator, so it ended up being South America,” Rodriguez notes. “I’ve never seen a Latin country in a futuristic movie. The color and texture are going to be different than anything you’ve ever seen before.”

The majority of the plot was taken from the first two books of the 30-volume manga series, with the Motorball action sequences taken from book four. “Jim had figured that all out already by the time I got on. I also scoured the books for any other kind of coolness that I could pull in that would fit into this first story, because it’s so much great material.”

Real reference was essential for making the digital environment work believable. “Even with the Scrapyard, we had enough scrap hit by the sunlight that you could extrapolate the rest of the scene from there. Then Weta Digital goes way beyond that! I thought it was going to look one way, but it came out like a completely visualized world.”

After a couple of theatrical release date delays, Alita: Battle Angel finally arrives in time for Valentine’s Day 2019. “I probably should have been intimidated when I took the project,” Rodriguez admits. “But it was more like, ‘Here’s an opportunity to take a master class with somebody.’ I won’t get it right a hundred percent of the time, but when they tell me what I get wrong I’m going to learn so much from Jim, Stephen and Bill. You take every lesson that you’ve learned on these movies into your next one. Walking in somebody else’s shoes is the easiest way to learn a completely different skillset.”