James Cameron took a very long break after the exhausting production and release of Titanic. People forget now, but the common thought in Hollywood was that Cameron was working on a Heaven's Gate-level bomb. Too much money was being spent on a romantic historical romance, they said. The audience just wasn't going to show up. Then the movie made two billion dollars.
It was twelve years before Cameron made another movie and that next movie was almost Alita: Battle Angel. In fact, he was developing it alongside what would become Avatar and went back and forth between the two on which would be his Titanic followup. At the end of the day his script for Alita was just way too long and Cameron couldn't manage everything he wanted to do in just one movie, so he shifted focus to Avatar and once again made box office history.
Cut to 2015. Robert Rodriguez was having lunch with Cameron and asked him what projects he worked on that never happened. Cameron mentioned Alita and Rodriguez asked to read it, all 180+ pages of it.
Rodriguez was immediately enamored with the story, based on the Japanese manga, of an android girl discovering her history and deciding on whether she was going to be a force for good in the world or the brutal weapon she was constructed to be.
So Rodriguez came back to Cameron with an interesting request: Could he edit the script? He was clear that he didn't intend to rewrite it. He said he could edit the material already there down to a shootable version and Cameron could do whatever he wanted with the result... Re-develop it for himself, throw it out, whatever.
Cameron said sure, go for it and four months later Rodriguez sent him the drastically shorter script and when Cameron and his longtime producing partner Jon Landau read it they were astonished because while the script was shorter by a third they couldn't tell what had been snipped. Everything they wanted to say with this story was there. The action set pieces were still there and still thrilling, the tale of a girl transitioning into womanhood was still at the forefront. It was the movie Cameron had in mind, just more concise.
He was so impressed with the work Rodriguez did he figured he had found the man to actually make the movie a reality. Once again Avatar took priority for Cameron who was neck deep in all the sequels he was writing, so he tasked Rodriguez with directing Alita. Cameron was always a phone call away to answer questions and Cameron's right hand man, Jon Landau, was always at Rodriguez's side.
You'd think that could be suffocating for a filmmaker who has defined his career by getting his complete vision on the screen doing as much of the movie as he could. From operating his own camera to writing, producing, composing, editing and even doing his own VFX, Rodriguez has a reputation for being a lone wolf, creatively speaking.
But in this case his vision was to make this film as much like a James Cameron movie as possible. He underlined this to me when I visited the Austin set of Alita: Battle Angel last year. He said he didn't want to make a Troublemaker Studios movie, he wanted to make a Lightstorm movie, which is why all the footage from the trailers look a bit different from what you expect from a Robert Rodriguez joint. Lots of CG and dynamic action, yes, but also huge practical sets and a little bit more breathing room when it comes to the editing and character moments.
Wrongly or rightly Rodriguez's style has become synonymous with greenscreen filmmaking pretty much since Sin City. But that's definitely not his approach this time out.
The result is an approach that hopefully takes the strengths of both Lightstorm and Troublemaker and melds them into something new and unique. The integration was so important to Cameron that he even had a sign put up at his California offices that said “Troublemaker West,” and Rodriguez answered by putting a sign up in his Austin studios that said “Lightstorm South.”
A full year of preproduction went into designing this crazy world. James Cameron's art team worked hand in hand with Rodriguez's Austin team and came up with designs that are both faithful to the look and feel from the original Manga while also being something that worked for the big screen.
In the Battle Angel world cybernetic augmentation is the norm. Sometimes it's slight... a hand, a foot, an arm. Sometimes it's major. There's one character, played by Jackie Earle Haley, that is pretty much just a human head on a gargantuan 8 foot tall robot brute body.
The design team took that year and cranked out many variations of cybernetically enhanced people. I saw art of an old man playing a double-necked guitar with robotic arms that had two hands, one for each neck of the guitar, for instance. You've seen the trailers by now, so you've seen a glimpse at how far they've gone to populate this world.
The majority of the film takes place in Iron City, a poor slum city that lives off the discards of the rich, exclusive, protected floating city above them. This is where Christoph Waltz's Dr. Ido finds a broken Alita (played entirely in motion capture by Rosa Salazar) in a junkyard. Something about her moves him and what he does to help her might give a hint at what exactly he feels for this person.
She awakens with a new body constructed
with loving care and attention to detail. Floral patterns are
intricately carved with silver metallic flourishes. It's a small
body, built for a child. We find out Dr. Ido built this for his sick
daughter, with the intention of giving her back her mobility and
freedom, but he was too late. In short he begins to view this
stranger as the daughter he never had.
This is a story of second chances. Ido
has a second chance at being a father and Alita has a chance to be a
different kind of person. She may not remember her past, but her past
remembers her and it's not exactly filled with rose pedals and puppy
For the set visit I was walked around Iron City, which was built on Troublemaker's backlot, just across the fence from where I sit typing this over at Rooster Teeth's Austin Studios offices, as a matter of fact. On screen the city will tower dozens of stories tall. They didn't go that far in reality, but they did build multiple connected city blocks up two stories. CG will take care of the rest, but the foundation will be real. Every wall, window, door, sign, road, step will be real so it won't just look like actors composited against a CG backdrop.
Iron City had a very Rodriguez feel. This place looks like futuristic Desperado. Heavy Latino influence, but mixed with a handful of other cultures, especially Asian, to create a new blend that's lived-in, patched together with every available resource and feels like it's covered in dust.
The only filming I got to witness with my own eyes was a crowd scene as spectators cheer and boo the players of a brutal but popular sport called Motorball. If you've ever seen the James Caan Rollerball, think of it that way, but with way more robot augmentations that allow for some crazier games.
Christoph Waltz was in the stands watching on nervously. Alita is taking part and the deck is stacked against her. While in the stands Waltz recognizes some of her competitors as assassins and tries to warn her that this isn't just a game and her life is in danger.
One thing I noticed is that most of the extras weren't dressed super futuristically. This isn't Blade Runner where everybody is wearing plastic ties and holding glowing umbrellas. There was a punk vibe to those in the stands, but still pretty modern-looking.
In short everything I saw and personally experienced felt every measure the combination of James Cameron and Robert Rodriguez I was promised by producer Jon Landau at the beginning of the visit. They're taking some wild swings with this one, particularly in the design of Alita herself.
Much has already been made about the giant anime eyes. Some hate it, some love it, some are just perplexed by it. It's weird and so will a bunch of this movie, but that's usually the secret to Cameron's success. Giant CG blue cat people was weird as hell, too, but then became the biggest movie in the world for a decade.
There's no guarantee this movie will hit anywhere near Avatar levels. In many ways it's a harder sell and the filmmakers seem to know this.
When asked if this movie was being planned as the start of a franchise or a complete one off, Landau gave a real interesting answer. He said they didn't want to have the hubris to assume a sequel, but they wanted to be smart and have some pieces in place for further films. That's the reason for the slight change in the title. The original manga is called Battle Angel Alita. The reason for calling it Alita: Battle Angel makes it easier to title potential sequels, like Alita: Fallen Angel, etc.
I myself can't make any kind of final judgment call on what we'll be getting come December 21st, but I can say whatever the final product ends up being it wasn't haphazardly thrown together. It has two insanely creative filmmakers joining forces with all the strengths of their individual teams and some of the best effects houses in the world to tell a futuristic action adventure with actual time spent on character development.
Anyway, I hope that gives you guys a little peek behind the curtain at what's been going on with Alita: Battle Angel. Thanks for reading along and thanks to Fox and Troublemaker for letting me wander the streets of Iron City and letting all you guys know about what I saw.