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Robert Rodriguez on how he pried ‘Alita’ from James Cameron’s hands

By: - Columnist
/ 12:50 AM February 21, 2019

Robert Rodriguez —PHOTO BY RUBEN V. NEPALES

LOS ANGELES—“I’m not giving it to a director. You’ll have to pry it from my cold dead hands,” Robert Rodriguez quoted James Cameron as saying about his passion project, “Alita: Battle Angel,” in an interview in 2012.

Flash-forward to 2019. Robert directed “Alita: Battle Angel” with James’ full blessing. James, whom Robert calls Jim, also wrote and produced the cyberpunk action movie based on a manga series.

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The boyish Robert, wearing his trademark newsboy cap, black tee and dark blue jeans in this recent interview, pointed out that while he was glad he got the project, he felt the pressure.

“The fact that I got it, I thought, I can’t screw this up,” said the Texan filmmaker of “Alita.” He answered questions in between quick bites of bacon strips. “The last thing I want is for Jim to watch it and go, ‘Huh, I knew I should have directed that myself.’ I want him to be proud of it, and he’s so proud of it.”

Robert himself is proud about casting Rosa Salazar, who lands her biggest role in the titular character—a cyborg who is deactivated but cannot remember anything of her past life, so she goes on a journey to find out who she is. The fantasy adventure seamlessly combines live action and CGI.

“It’s one of the things that excited me about Rosa,” Robert said of the actress of Peruvian heritage. “She’s so full of life. So expressive. More human than human almost, that I thought, wow, I’ve never seen someone’s face dance like that. And if the CG can capture even half of that, we’ll have a captivating full-of-life performance, where you forget you’re looking at CG.

“It’s so her. That’s why you hear the feedback of audiences who are just so captivated by her. It’s because of the actress, not the CG. Her performance really comes through.”

Also in the cast are Christoph Waltz, Jennifer Connelly, Mahershala Ali, Ed Skrein and Jackie Earle Haley.

While Robert continues to be an innovative filmmaker, “Alita” is a far cry from his feature debut, the acclaimed “El Mariachi,” which he shot for only around $7,000. After several successful films, the buddy and frequent collaborator of Quentin Tarantino founded Troublemaker Studios in Austin, Texas, where he likes to shoot his movies, including “Alita.”

“Alita: Battle Angel”

One of Robert’s finished films is “100 Years” which will not be released until 2115. Yes, that’s not a typo—the movie will premiere on Nov. 18, 2115. Otherwise known as “The Movie You Will Never See,” it stars Shuya Chang, John Malkovich and Marko Zaror.

Premiering a bit closer in terms of date is “Red 11” (March 15), Robert’s film based on the research hospital where he sold his body to finance “El Mariachi.” And now that Robert has finished “Alita,” maybe he can come closer to finally making “Machete Kills in Space,” which will star Danny Trejo, a reality.

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Below, in Robert’s own words, was how he came to pry “Alita” from James’ hands:

Jim and I have been friends since before “Desperado.” We had similar backgrounds. People forget and say, “You make such low-budget, do-it-yourself movies.” Well, so did Jim. You just forget because he has made such huge movies. But that’s how we always related to each other. We actually wanted to work together before.

In 2003, we were going to codirect something. But I did “Sin City,” instead. I would visit his sets. I was there on the “Avatar” and “Titanic” sets. I was on the “Terminator 2” 3D ride set. We always kept in touch over the years. I inspired him to be his own editor because he came to my house once and saw me editing. He said, “You’re editing in your living room?” That was really punk rock back in 1994. And he did that and got an Oscar for editing “Titanic.”

I inspired Jim to learn Steadicam because I was learning Steadicam. I was having a social lunch with him about three years ago, just to see what he was up to. I was like, “When are you going to do that movie that I saw announced way back in 2000, ‘Battle Angel’? I’ve been waiting for that one.”

I didn’t know what it was. I didn’t read the manga purposely because I didn’t want to spoil the ending. But it was supposed to be his next picture. And it never came out. Jim said, “I guess I’ll never get to do it. I did a lot of work on it. Do you want to see what I did?” So, he took me up to his room.

I couldn’t believe he was going to show me stuff from that. I didn’t know he had done work on it. I thought he just had the rights. He showed me a bunch of scripts he had.

Then, he showed me something that he always makes before doing a project. He does an art reel. So, in 15 minutes, you get a summary of the whole story.

Jim had something like that for “Alita.” It was about eight minutes long. The first image I saw that captivated me was Alita looking at her porcelain arms, and she had the large manga eyes. I was like, “Wow, that’s amazing-looking.” He was going to try to do a full CG face with manga eyes, like in the book. In 2005, he was going to try to do that. We can barely do that now.

I read the script and loved it. It was like, “Oh, I can see why he wants to do that.” Strong female heroine like he does, sci-fi, cyborgs like Terminator. I didn’t expect it to be so emotional, to have such a great story that can play beyond the genre. He makes movies that have universal themes, that are bigger than the genre they’re in, like “Titanic” and “Avatar.”

So even if you’re not into sci-fi, even if you don’t know what a manga is, anyone in the world can watch “Alita” and just go, “Wow, that really affected me.”

I wrote him an e-mail after I read it and said, “This is a full Jim Cameron world. Jim Cameron-level stakes, ‘Titanic’ love story, very relatable. I identify even with this 13-year-old girl. She’s a universal character. Someone who thinks she’s insignificant, but who has a great power to change the world. I was invested in the father-daughter story because I have a daughter that age.”

He wrote back, “Call me tomorrow.” So that’s how we got working on it.

Jim said, “I could never crack it. If you can figure it out, you can direct it.” So, I took his script home that summer. He said, “Let’s make a deal with Fox, and they pay you to write.”

I said, “No, don’t pay me anything. I’ll do it for free. Then, if you like what I do and you don’t think I’m the right director for it, it’s yours. Give it to somebody else. Let me just have the honor of getting to try.”

I took the script and cut it down to 120 pages, because it was too long. Of course, that’s the best sales pitch because then he got it. He loved it.

Jim said, “You’re directing it. We’re starting tomorrow.”

[email protected] Follow him at http://twitter.com/nepalesruben.

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TAGS: Alita Battle Angel, James Cameron, Robert Rodriguez
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