Filmmaker Robert Rodriguez Finds Clarity on His Journey to Make Alita: Battle Angel

click to enlarge TWENTIETH CENTURY FOX
Twentieth Century Fox

Director/co-writer and San Antonio native Robert Rodriguez admits he really wasn’t interested in making a Robert Rodriguez movie when the opportunity to make Alita: Battle Angel fell into his lap. Visionary filmmaker and Oscar winner James Cameron (Avatar, Terminator) had long been linked to the project and had planned on directing it himself. While Cameron eventually stepped back so Rodriguez could grab the reins, he stayed on as a producer and someone Rodriguez hoped would be open to a collaborative relationship.

“I was always asking him for advice and he was the one that kept saying, ‘Make it your movie!’” Rodriguez told the Current last week during an interview about his sci-fi film featuring a teenage cyborg. “I was like, ‘No, I want to make it more like your movie!’ I already knew how I make movies. I wanted to learn how he makes movies. I really wanted to learn from the master.”

During our interview, the Current talked to the Desperado and Sin City director about working with motion-capture special effects for the first time and the inspiration he pulled from Cameron’s past films.

Alita: Battle Angel opens at San Antonio movie theaters February 15.

You, of course, had worked with a lot of special effects before. What resonated with you about the idea to use motion-capture effects in Alita: Battle Angel?
Oh man, I saw Jim (James Cameron), who I’ve known for 25 years, use it on Avatar and saw how that turned out. It was interesting, but it wasn’t until I started working on [Alita: Battle Angel] that I saw the real benefits of it. I always find it helpful when an actor can put on a costume and start becoming the character. So, I was curious what would happen if they had no costume! What’s cool is that it actually neutralizes them in some way. They stop thinking about their external self and their performance comes completely from the inside out, which is, ideally, where you would want a performance to come from. It frees them up so fast. It’s just incredible what [these actors] were able to do.

Are you surprised how far along this technology has come since Avatar hit theaters a decade ago?
Yeah, they took it further after Avatar and after [the reboot of] The Planet of the Apes. But that was aliens and apes. They hadn’t really gotten into it with human characters. So, this was kind of like the final frontier. We had to go in blind hoping that they could figure it out. It’s just stunning to look at now. We can’t believe it. Jim can’t believe it either – how far we’ve gone in the last three years. You have to push the envelope with each challenge and this was it.

I know making Alita: Battle Angel had been talked about for 20 years. During production, were there any moments where you thought this movie might not happen?
No, because I know when Jim sets his mind to something, he’s going to do it. I worked on the script that he had started and he loved it and said, “We’re going to the studio and we’ll get the money and we’ll start making it!” You just have to forge ahead. You don’t have all the answers, but that doesn’t mean you can’t do it. It just means you have to find the answers along the way. That's what Jim has always done. He just figured it out along the way. It gave me a lot more comfort to know that it was possible to go in and shoot blind and eventually get clarity on the journey.

click to enlarge TWENTIETH CENTURY FOX
Twentieth Century Fox

There’s a scene in the film where you shoot Ed Skrein’s character from below as he’s pushing someone out of the way. It reminded me so much of a scene in Terminator 2 with the T-1000 where he’s doing the same thing. Am I right?
Oh, yeah. I took that right out of [Terminator 2]. (Laughs) I was like, “Hey, this is a Jim Cameron movie. I can put a Jim Cameron-style shot in there!” The reason that shot works so well is because that’s the best place to put a camera to make someone really look larger than life and utterly dangerous. I really wanted to invoke that Terminator feel. That’s completely why I put it in there. It’s an homage to [Jim], but, also, it’s the best place to put the camera for a shot like that because you go, “Oh, shit. This guy is going to squash the hero like a bug!”

It seems like nowadays, the most successful movies at the box office are adapted from franchises that audiences are familiar with like Marvel and DC. Because Alita is from Japanese manga, was it a concern at all that potential moviegoers just wouldn’t be familiar enough with the story to give it a shot?
You never know what’s going to work. Then again, Avatar wasn’t based on anything. Jim and I said that if we appealed just to the manga crowd, we would get a very low box office, so we wanted to go beyond that. You do that by creating a very universal story that is being told with a lot of human truth and emotion and in a very spectacular way and in a very spectacular world.

Everyone in San Antonio knows your origin story and how you broke into mainstream Hollywood in 1995 with Desperado. Since then, no one from San Antonio has been able to duplicate what you did. What message do you have for San Antonio filmmakers who are trying to find their way into the industry?
You can make a movie anywhere and anytime and by yourself if you have to. I just did a new movie that is going to play at South by Southwest called Red 11 that I made for $7,000 (the same amount of money he used to make his first feature film El Mariachi in 1992). Before we screen the movie, we’re going to show a documentary on the making of it. We’re showing you how to write, shoot, direct, edit, cut and score you own film in 14 days with no money and still come out with a kickass result. Seeing is believing. It’s going to open up a lot of people’s eyes to what is actually possible.

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