Robert Rodriguez is the visionary filmmaker that brought us films like El Mariachi, From Dusk till Dawn, Sin City, The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl and Spy Kids. He is known for saying “Don't give me any money, don't give me any people, but give freedom, and I'll give you a movie that looks gigantic.” He was recently given the task to make the film adaptation of the manga/anime Alita: Battle Angel. The lead character Alita, a cyborg living in a dystopian future, is played by Rosa Salazar who previously starred in the television series Parenthood and American Horror Story: Murder House, as well as the films Insurgent (Divergent Series) and Maze Runner: The Death Cure. Producer Jon Landau had previously produced Avatar and Titanic. Honey-chan jumped at the opportunity to sit down with the three forces behind the sci-fi epic Alita: Battle Angel while visiting Crunchyroll Expo in San Jose, California.
Interview with Robert Rodriguez (Director) Rosa Salazar (Actress) and Jon Landau (Producer) Alita: Battle Angel
Robert, you made some incredible action films such as the Mexico Trilogy and From Dusk till Dawn. You have even done some family films like the Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl. I imagine you’ve had a lot of creative control on those stories as the key developer of those worlds. You now have created a film with some great source material. What challenges did you face working from source material that already has a following and a well-developed world?
Well, this is my first PG-13 film, which is something always wanted to do. I used to have a heart attack when parents would say they took their kid to see Desperado. I’d done a lot of the R-rated ones and this is more in line with the kinds of movies that Jim (James Cameron) does. I’ve always been a fan. He did Titanic and Avatar and this was a project that he was going to do and it was his script and his vision for it. It was the first time I read something that I felt I could do in that range from small children to grandparents. It’s what you would call the fourth quadrant because it has such wide appeal, such universal appeal. He found a story that really appealed to him and he added more to it and made it really universal by it being about this little girl found in a trash heap. The feeling that she’s insignificant and finds out that she has the power to change the world. I think that is a very universal theme. I think that is why he’d want to make this film himself and why he would be attracted to that graphic novel. I thought it was a great project to do and to learn from him. I tend to do a lot of things that are really whimsical and dream imagery, it’s just a weird dream and two hours later it would be over. This is very real, very grounded, the sci-fi is more like science fact the way he (James Camron) approaches it so that you believe this life. I think that I got a masters class.
Because James Cameron was developing this for so long, was it a close collaboration or did he just let you do your own thing?
He really wanted me to make it my own. The only reason he thought I could take it on was because he saw what I did with Sin City and how I really made it true to Frank Miller’s work. He knew that I wanted to make a Jim Cameron movie, the lost Jim Cameron movie 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 or as close to it as I could. I was in-character making this movie, I was in James Cameron character and would ask him questions all the time. He was always telling me to make it my own. But at the end of the day I didn’t want him looking at this thinking, “I should have made this myself.”
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.
When I booked the role he (James Cameron) wrote to me and my first reaction was “Oh my god,” and by the time I got 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 a bullet sheet of the things he had said; I just didn’t know how to respond.
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?
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.
I think the last thing that Rosa talked about is for me the big one. The idea of her thinking of herself as insignificant but learning that she can do more. Why is that important to me? Because I think it is an important message to everybody that inside each one of us is the ability to make a difference.
You think that you don’t have a chance in hell at getting anywhere in the world, that everything is against you, and then you find an inner power based on who you are. That you can influence people based on the best version of yourself.
You’ve done a lot of CGI-heavy films; how has that prepared you for filming Alita?
Jim said it was just about scale. He said “you’ve done a lot of the techniques.” We also built a lot of set. She (Rosa/Alita) 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?
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.