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
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.