ALITA: BAT­TLE AN­GEL

IT’S TAKEN 20 YEARS, TWO A-LIST DI­REC­TORS AND BRAND-NEW TECH TO BRING CY­BORG EPIC ALITA: BAT­TLE AN­GEL TO THE SCREEN. EM­PIRE GOES IN­SIDE JAMES CAMERON AND ROBERT RO­DRIGUEZ’S QUEST TO SHOW YOU SIGHTS YOU’VE NEVER SEEN

Empire (UK) - - CONTENTS - WORDS NICK DE SEM­LYEN

Robert Ro­driguez di­rects. James Cameron writes and pro­duces. The rest of us rub our thighs like Vic Reeves in Shoot­ing Stars.

Handed by one friend to an­other, with no idea of the con­se­quences that would arise.

It was some­time in the late 1990s, and di­rec­tor bud­dies Guillermo del Toro and James Cameron — each re­cov­er­ing from a gru­elling shoot, Mimic and Ti­tanic re­spec­tively — were meet­ing up for one of their reg­u­lar geek-out ses­sions. It was cus­tom­ary for them to bring along things they thought the other might dig: comic books, sci-fi nov­els, movies. On this oc­ca­sion del Toro (or, as Cameron called him, ‘El Gordo’, aka ‘The Fat Man’) had in his satchel a VHS cas­sette, an im­port from the Far East. Cameron (or, as del Toro called him, ‘Jaim­ito’, aka ‘Lit­tle Jim’) hadn’t heard of it, but he took it home, popped it in his player and hit play. Then, just like in the hor­ror movie Ringu, an oth­er­worldly fe­male form popped out of the screen at him.

The char­ac­ter was a young cy­borg named Alita, blank of mem­ory, bionic of limbs, deadly in com­bat, wan­der­ing the sur­face of a rav­aged Earth in search of an­swers. Cameron watched the whole thing, rewound it and watched it again. Bat­tle An­gel: Alita had a new fan.

In fact, it had a cham­pion. What he had seen was an­i­mated — a 2D adap­ta­tion of a cy­ber­punk manga se­ries by Yuk­ito Kishiro. Al­most im­me­di­ately, Cameron started think­ing about what could be were he to make it in live-ac­tion. He called del Toro and asked, “Are you gonna go af­ter this?” Del Toro replied, “No, Jaim­ito. You like it, you do it.”

And so be­gan years of ob­ses­sion. Even as Cameron grap­pled with the enor­mous project known then as ‘Project 880’ and fi­nally re­leased as Avatar, he be­gan to map out the world of

>>>>>>>>> It be­gan, just like the hor­ror movie ringu, with a Ja­panese video­tape.

Bat­tle An­gel: Alita in far more de­tail than Kishiro ever had. “I did a shit ton of notes,” the di­rec­tor un­der­states. “Be­cause the books evolved over time — when­ever he had a new idea, Kishiro just kind of shifted the rules of re­al­ity slightly. I was try­ing to get it to trueup in­ter­nally.”

This in­cluded tak­ing some of the hard­est hard-sci-fi el­e­ments, such as a city called Zalem that hangs high in the air, throw­ing trash down onto the sur­face where the char­ac­ters live, and re­verseengi­neer­ing the science. “In the story there are space el­e­va­tors that con­nect Zalem to the Earth,” says Jon Lan­dau, Cameron’s long-time pro­ducer. “And Jim fig­ured out that for them to work, it would need to be set on the Equa­tor.”

“We don’t have ten­sile ma­te­rial strong enough to make a space el­e­va­tor yet,” frowns Cameron, rue­fully. “But when we do, some­one will build them.”

Nearly 20 years passed. The di­rec­tor made Avatar. He rev­o­lu­tionised VFX tech­nol­ogy. He went on an un­der­seas ad­ven­ture with Black­ad­der star Tony Robin­son (truly a cun­ning plan). And all the while he brain­stormed Alita, wait­ing for the right time to di­rect it. “I was be­ing a dog in a manger,” Cameron ad­mits. “I thought, ‘It doesn’t mat­ter if I’m 80 and I’ve got an oxy­gen tube up my nose and a walker — I’ll do this movie.’”

But then he went to lunch with an­other friend. And ev­ery­thing changed.

Robert Ro­driguez and James Cameron had been mu­tual ad­mir­ers for many years. Cameron was amazed by Ro­driguez’s gym rou­tines: “He does these in­sane, mon­ster work­outs. Like, be­yond Crossfit kind of things.” Ro­driguez, for his part, got over-ex­cited by the sophistication of Cameron’s DIY video-con­fer­enc­ing kit: “Un­be­liev­able… You could zoom in and out!”

The two di­rec­tors first met back in the early 1990s, click­ing as they swapped tales of their ul­tra-low-bud­get early films. In 1995, Ro­driguez screened Des­per­ado for Cameron, sit­ting out­side read­ing Cameron’s “script­ments” for Spi­der-man and

Avatar while his hero watched his movie. Over the fol­low­ing years, they came close to work­ing to­gether. In 1997, mid

Ti­tanic, Cameron asked Ro­driguez if he’d be up for di­rect­ing a ma­jor fran­chise film, to ap­pease wor­ried Fox ex­ec­u­tives.

“Ti­tanic was go­ing so over-bud­get that it was like, ‘Hey, can you make this movie for me to get them off my ass?’” Ro­driguez laughs. “We talked about it for a while and then stopped talk­ing about it. I got the feel­ing they said, ‘The guy’s so over-bud­get, we don’t even want that other movie.’”

They even con­sid­ered co-di­rect­ing a Co­nan The Bar­bar­ian movie in 2003, us­ing bur­geon­ing per­for­mance-cap­ture tech to cre­ate a mus­cle-bound hero who would out-arnie Arnie. “He was go­ing to look like a Frank Frazetta paint­ing,” says Ro­driguez. “But the tech­nol­ogy wasn’t there yet. I ended up do­ing Sin City in­stead.”

Fast-for­ward to the sum­mer of 2015. Cameron and Ro­driguez meet up for a meal at Light­storm, the for­mer’s LA HQ. They shoot the shit. They pe­ruse art­work for the Avatar se­quels. And then, out­side in the park­ing lot, sit­ting in his car but with the door yet to swing shut, Ro­driguez asks if Cameron is work­ing on any­thing. It turns out to be a fate­ful ques­tion. Be­cause just as del Toro passed Bat­tle An­gel: Alita on to Cameron, so Cameron, in a spark of in­spi­ra­tion, de­cides to pass Bat­tle An­gel: Alita on to Ro­driguez.

“It sud­denly dawned on me that

I was go­ing to be work­ing on the Avatar

movies for an­other eight years,” he says. “Some­body should make Bat­tle An­gel.

And who bet­ter than Robert? So I sent him a moun­tain of stuff.”

Cameron isn’t kid­ding. Over the years he had typed up over 1,000 pages of notes on the project, plus sev­eral script drafts he had noo­dled at with co-writer Laeta Kalo­gridis. One of them was

a sprawl­ing tale of in­sur­rec­tion: “Alita brings down an em­pire — very much in the Star Wars mode.” But in the end he sent Ro­driguez what he thought of as the “ro­man­tic” draft. “It’s the one that tugged on my heart­strings the most,” Cameron says. “The kind of Romeo and Juliet script, which I had writ­ten back in 2004 and dis­carded. It was un­wieldy — about 180 pages long — but I thought it cap­tured the spirit of the anime, the kind of bit­ter­sweet aes­thetic, the best.”

Ro­driguez was blown away when he sat down to read it. “It wasn’t a jum­bled mess,” he re­calls. “It was just long and he’d never had a chance to cut it down. The story was fan­tas­tic. And I could re­ally iden­tify with Alita, as she goes from be­ing dumped in the trash to be­com­ing some­one who could go change the world. I was hooked.”

As the sun went down, he sent Cameron an email, ref­er­enc­ing the bounty hunters in the story who turn in cy­borg heads for cred­its. The email read: “How many heads do I have to col­lect to work on this thing?”

Cameron’s re­ply came an hour later: “You’ve col­lected enough heads. Call me to­mor­row.”

Up un­til then, Ro­driguez had made mod­er­ately bud­geted movies, usu­ally writ­ing, shoot­ing and cut­ting them him­self. Now, sud­denly, he was head­ing up one of the big­gest and most am­bi­tious movies ever made, backed up by Hol­ly­wood’s most suc­cess­ful film­maker. “Even though I’ve known Jim a long time, this was now at a dif­fer­ent level,” he says, still giddy. “That’s not, ‘Let’s go get a pizza to­gether.’ It’s, ‘Let’s make a project to­gether.’ It was re­ally cool.”

When Em­pire vis­its the Alita: Bat­tle An­gel set in Jan­uary 2017, we find a Robert Ro­driguez movie that’s not ex­actly a Robert Ro­driguez movie. Yes, he’s on his home turf — Trou­ble­maker Stu­dios in Austin, Texas, where he’s shot ev­ery­thing from Sin City to Grind­house. Yes, he’s in a di­rec­tor’s chair, thumb­ing through script pages. And yes, the Iron City set that sprawls across one of the sound­stages, bright and sun­drenched, brings to mind the set­tings of his Mari­achi movies. But this time he’s not per­son­ally over­see­ing the cin­e­matog­ra­phy (that would be The Matrix vet­eran Bill Pope), or the edit­ing (that would be Avatar vet­eran Stephen E. Rivkin). And he’s the first to ad­mit that with this project he’s do­ing some­thing akin to karaoke.

“I don’t want to see an­other Robert Ro­driguez movie,” he smiles. “I want to see an­other Jim Cameron movie. There’s a dearth of those. So like an ac­tor gets into char­ac­ter, I’m get­ting into char­ac­ter as him.”

Jim Cameron movies, tra­di­tion­ally, share one qual­ity: each is a high-wire walk, push­ing the art of film­mak­ing for­ward in risky fash­ion. Alita: Bat­tle An­gel is no ex­cep­tion. It’s rolling the dice on whether au­di­ences will be­come emo­tion­ally in­vested in a lead char­ac­ter who looks hu­man, but is ac­tu­ally com­puter-gen­er­ated, brought to life by per­for­mance cap­ture. This aims to be the block­buster that fi­nally crosses the Un­canny Val­ley, into the realms be­yond. “We could only make this movie now,” Ro­driguez says. “With Avatar and Planet Of The Apes, those were aliens and apes.

They still re­ally hadn’t done a hu­man. So it wasn’t like they had the tools al­ready. They had to build them for this.”

For Rosa Salazar, the ac­tor cast as Alita, it’s been a strange and mind­blow­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. Not only does she get to play two phys­i­cally dif­fer­ent ver­sions of the char­ac­ter — at a key point in the story the cy­borg up­grades to a ‘Berserker’ body — but she has had her face stud­ied in more de­tail than prob­a­bly any hu­man in his­tory. “The vis­ual-ef­fects guys know the mus­cles un­der­neath my skin and how they be­have,” she marvels. “At one point Ritchie from Weta ran up to me with his lap­top, look­ing fraz­zled, and said, ‘You’re mov­ing your left eye up and the right cor­ner of your mouth is mov­ing in tan­dem. I don’t un­der­stand why.’ When my face doesn’t be­have, it crashes their soft­ware.”

On set, Salazar is clad in a grey body­suit and hel­met, a ti­ta­nium rod gath­er­ing minute data on her fa­cial move­ments. On screen, it’ll be both her and not her — an eerie blend of re­al­ity and fan­tasy (in one scene, real tears will trickle down a CG face), punc­tu­ated by two over­sized eyes. “Those eyes, you just get lost in them,” says Keean John­son, who plays Hugo, a cy­borg-hat­ing hu­man who finds him­self fall­ing for Alita. “She has such a whole­some, beau­ti­ful, strong pres­ence about her.”

In a project with many bold de­sign flour­ishes, not least a whop­ping great city in the sky, these eyes are the bold­est — the thing that will get ev­ery­one talk­ing. Salazar, for one, loves it. “I never, ever, ever, ever want to do a project where peo­ple look at the trailer and go, ‘Oh yeah, I get it,’ and then move on to the next one,” she says. “I want to do things that make peo­ple go, ‘Holy shit.’ We wanted to be faith­ful to the manga, to make her as Alita as pos­si­ble. And, you know, there’s a rea­son in the story for it.”

Cameron in the past has pulled off tales of the un­like­li­est star-cross’d lovers: a broke artist and a high-so­ci­ety lady, a hu­man Ma­rine and a blue alien, Arnold Schwarzeneg­ger and Jamie Lee Cur­tis. Alita: Bat­tle An­gel pushes things even fur­ther: pre­pare for a ro­mance be­tween a woman who is al­most en­tirely ma­chine and a man who col­lects ma­chine parts for a liv­ing. If it sounds like an out-there premise, then shoot­ing it was of­ten equally as sur­real.

“There’s a scene where we’re on a bridge in the rain, and I’m putting my hands through her hair,” says John­son. “Ac­tu­ally, I was putting my hands through string. They’d stuck 11 or 12 pieces to the side of her hel­met with

Vel­cro.” It’s re­as­sur­ing to know that, even in state-of-theart mega-bud­get film­mak­ing, some prob­lems can still be solved with string.

Cameron and Ro­driguez may have gone with the “ro­mance” draft, but no-one will be able to ac­cuse the movie of be­ing short of ac­tion. Set 700 years from now, its world is one in which hu­mans can cy­ber­net­i­cally up­grade them­selves, bolt­ing on metal limbs and turn­ing them­selves into fear­some fight­ing ma­chines. Cue some truly out­landish cre­ations, some of which are es­sen­tially a hu­man brain at­tached to a mass of whirling weaponry.

There’s the sneery Za­pan (Ed Skrein), Cameron’s favourite piece of de­sign. “We had the idea that these guys would treat their bod­ies like car cul­ture in LA,” he says. “So we took that riff and de­signed this Latino cy­borg, with an Aztec cal­en­dar mo­tif on his back. Robert added the lit­tle chrome dealio on his face.” And there’s Grewishka, a nine-foot-tall metal ma­niac played by the usu­ally diminu­tive Jackie Earle Ha­ley. “He’s got brute strength, but he’s also em­pow­ered by these cy­ber-doc­tors,” ex­plains Ha­ley. “One of his skills is that he’s got these talon-like fingers that can shoot across the room, pierce just about any­thing and snap back just as fast.”

Even Christoph Waltz, who plays Alita’s own cy­ber-doc­tor/ men­tor, Ido, gets in on the ac­tion. The scene Em­pire watches him per­form on set, scan­ning Alita’s body in Ido’s cheap­jack med­i­cal bay, is a rel­a­tively quiet day. “This is a vis­ceral story,” he grins. “Lit­er­ally — there are vis­cera torn out!” Else­where he will wield a rocket ham­mer (yep, a ham­mer that’s also a rocket) in his du­ties as a ‘Hunter-war­rior’, track­ing down rogue cy­borgs. And he is present for one of the film’s most am­bi­tious set-pieces. Set in Iron City’s Bar Kansas, it’s a good old-fash­ioned brawl, ex­cept brought to life with cut­ting-edge tech and pit­ting Alita (who spe­cialises in a form of cy­borg mar­tial arts called panzer kunst) against roughly 40 mech-heavy killers.

“Our aim was to make the ul­ti­mate bar fight,” ex­plains Ro­driguez, who has form with hu­man/ma­chine hy­brids, hav­ing given Rose Mcgowan a gun-leg in Planet Ter­ror. “Be­fore we shot it, I went to Youtube and looked up ‘Top Ten Bar Fights’ — and found out sev­eral of the en­tries were from movies by me and Jim. T2, Des­per­ado... We kind of do sim­i­lar stuff. Ex­cept that mine go into pure fan­tasy, and his stay grounded. Jim would never have a guy pick up a gui­tar case and fire a mis­sile. That doesn’t fly with him.”

Alita will also be tested via an in­sane sport called Mo­tor­ball, high-ve­loc­ity rac­ing where souped-up cy­borgs at­tempt to mush each other into nuts and bolts. “It’s NAS­CAR rac­ing meets MMA meets WWF, on steroids,” hy­pes Jon Lan­dau. “It gets pretty crazy... You know,

‘My Din­ner With An­dre Part 2’.” For Ro­driguez, read­ing the Mo­tor­ball se­quence that even­ing back in 2015 was the mo­ment that con­vinced him to make the movie. “Jim has used the sport in a re­ally cool and dra­matic way,” he says. “Fuck, you’re ex­cited be­cause the stakes are so high. It gets you jump­ing out of your seat.”

If the di­rec­tor’s ex­cite­ment hasn’t abated one bit, the same is true of Cameron him­self, who made a sin­gle visit to the set for two hours in late 2016. There, he gave a rous­ing speech, then headed straight to the props de­part­ment, where he hoisted aloft the manga’s most iconic weapon, a su­per-charged sword known as the Da­m­as­cus Blade, a big grin on his face.

Ed Skrein was gifted a Blade on his fi­nal day. “It was a night­mare get­ting it through British cus­toms,” the ac­tor laughs. “But I have it in my of­fice in East Lon­don now and it’s my pride and joy. Right next to my Dead­pool katana.” Cameron, on the other hand, is still wait­ing for his. “I’m think­ing my tail-lights were out of sight about the time they for­got about send­ing it,” he mock-grouches, two years af­ter that happy day. “But I’ll re­mind them.”

If you were won­der­ing what to get him for Christ­mas this year, now you know.

Could Alita: Bat­tle An­gel pull an Avatar and get four se­quels? No-one knows. One thing’s for sure: Cameron has plenty more story to tell. He refers to this as “the first film” and men­tions, off the record, a few things to ex­pect should there be a sec­ond (let’s just say that Zalem, which is only glimpsed from below in this movie, would play a far more sig­nif­i­cant role). There is a lot of story to ex­plore with Alita too, in terms of both her past and her fu­ture — she ends the movie in a lit­er­ally dif­fer­ent form to that with which she be­gins it, ex­pe­ri­enc­ing a cy­borg’s ver­sion of ado­les­cence.

What­ever hap­pens, here is his­tory be­ing made. CGI char­ac­ter or not, it’s re­fresh­ing to have a gi­ant tent­pole block­buster fronted solely by a fe­male char­ac­ter: even Avatar and Ti­tanic were two-han­ders. “I love this movie for my sev­enyear-old daugh­ter,” says Jen­nifer Con­nelly, who plays Mo­tor­ball im­pre­sario and Ido’s ex-wife Chiren. “I like that [Alita] is so pow­er­ful and flawed, and has to wres­tle with her wild­ness and the parts of her she feels don’t fit. I love her be­ing the cen­tral char­ac­ter of the story.”

There’s the tech­no­log­i­cal as­pect, paving the way for a whole new kind of in­ter­face be­tween hu­man per­for­mance and per­for­mance-cap­ture wiz­ardry. “It took me a few times to see it to dis­as­so­ci­ate with her, be­cause she’s me, but she’s also a brand-new per­son,” says Salazar. “I’m find­ing that peo­ple love talk­ing about Alita. Peo­ple on other sets. Ran­dom peo­ple in my street. My lo­cal barista. He loves the eyes, by the way.”

And then there’s the fu­sion be­tween two A-list di­rec­tors, un­prece­dented on this level, blend­ing Ro­driguez’s rock ’n’ roll swag­ger with Cameron’s steely fo­cus. Dur­ing pro­duc­tion, a sign went up at Light­storm, read­ing, “Trou­ble­maker West”; a short while later, an­other, “Light­storm South”, was stuck to a wall at Trou­ble­maker. “It was a dream col­lab­o­ra­tion,” says Cameron. “I’d feed him a page in the morn­ing — he’d run out and shoot it.”

Only on one sin­gle oc­ca­sion did the two men fall out. And it was ex­actly the kind of spat you’d hope for be­tween the di­rec­tors of Sin City and The Ter­mi­na­tor. “It was over the way a cy­borg’s face got sliced off,” Ro­driguez chuck­les. “I wanted to keep an eye and enough of his tongue so he could say a line. Jim wanted it all on the ground.”

It’s all in the de­tails.

ALITA: BAT­TLE AN­GEL IS IN CIN­E­MAS FROM 6 FE­BRU­ARY

Pro­ducer Jon Lan­dau, James Cameron and Robert Ro­driguez scope out the set.

Alita (Rosa Salazar) comes face to tur­ret with one of the Cen­turi­ans, ro­bots that pa­trol Iron City.

Above: Alita and friends ex­plore out­side the city. Here: Dr Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz) per­forms cy­ber-surgery on Alita.

Jen­nifer Con­nelly as Chiren, Ido’s ex-part­ner and a cy­ber-whizz her­self, with Ma­her­shala Ali’s shady busi­ness­man Vec­tor.

Eiza González as hit-cy­borg Nys­siana, es­sen­tially a walk­ing cut­lery drawer.

Salazar, Keean John­son (Hugo) and Ro­driguez go for a spin on a gyro bike.

Jackie Earle Ha­ley as Grewishka, a nine-foot-tall cy­borg who can out-ter­mi­na­tor the Ter­mi­na­tor.

The Mo­tor­ball con­tes­tants line up: they’re a good-look­ing bunch.

Vec­tor and goons.

Prep­ping for the mother of all brawls in Bar Kansas.

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