Robert Rodriguez on what working with James Cameron is really like
When it was first announced that James Cameron would partner with Robert Rodriguez to make Alita: Battle Angel, the internet cocked its collective head. The two directors seemed so different — one a tech-minded, epic-making perfectionist, the other a stylish, economical, fast-moving auteur. Their differences are real, but what’s less obvious are all that the duo have in common. We talked at length with Alita director Rodriguez (Sin City, Desperado) about his working relationship with writer-producer Cameron (Titanic, Avatar). For fans of either director, there are some fascinating insights below about how each approaches their work, how films get made and how Alita was born.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: When did Alita: Battle Angel first get on your radar?
ROBERT RODRIGUEZ: The first time was reading a story about Jim’s projects and this being one he’d gotten the rights for. I was like: “Battle Angel, what’s that?” I read what it was and thought that would be up his alley — very strong female character, cyborgs, I could see why he’d like that. Then I’d forgotten about it until I happened to be visiting him. I hadn’t seen him for a number of years. I’d known him since before Desperado. So I went to see what he was up to with these new Avatar movies, a four-hour meeting of catching up. I was actually leaving — I was in the parking lot. And I’m walking away and I’m like, “Wait a minute, if you’re just doing Avatars now, what happened to the other things you were doing, like Battle Angel?” He’s like, “Got 15 more minutes?” I’m like, “Oh s—, he’s going to show me something!” We went back up to his office and he pulled out a script and laptop video and showed me a 10-minute art reel he had done up. He said: “I have a script I wrote, it’s too long, go check it out, it’s 180 pages.”
So it wasn’t insanely long, just too long.
Yeah. But then he said, “And if you like that, I’ll send you my 600 pages of notes that go with it.” [Laughs] So I was like, “Send me the notes!” I was like, “Dude, what do I have to do to work on this thing? It’s all here.” What happens a lot of times if you have a script that isn’t working you bring in somebody else to rework it, but they won’t get [on screen] credit unless they re-write about half of it. So a lot of times scripts get re-written without needing to be rewritten and you end up with two scripts that won’t work. That’s how [movies in] development a lot times keep going downward. I looked at his script and realized it doesn’t need to be rewritten, it’s so clean. He describes [the film] so well it felt like it was already shot. I said: “What I want to do, since I’m an editor too, is really approach it like an editor. I’m going to pretend like this is already shot and I’m going to edit it down for length and suggest places for some additional photography or dialogue to make the patches work.” And that’s it. So I did it just for free, spent two months doing it, and really had a ball. I really liked it. I sent it to him and he was like, “I can’t tell what you cut out.” And that was the goal, to keep the parts that I knew were important to him. So we took it to Fox.
What I find interesting is you’re both hugely successful filmmakers, but it seems like you approach filmmaking totally differently. He spends years and years engineering one thing, and the budget gets high, and it becomes a massive project. You seem more like a traditional artist — you paint, you do music, you’re impressionistic and make movies economically and quickly. And you’re both also used to having control over everything, too. So how does that come together?
That’s funny. It’s a good point. I’ll tell you what the distinction is. I met him early on. I was very inspired by The Terminator. He did that movie the way I make my movies now — very renegade, down and dirty, with ideas bigger than you can afford. You use tricks to make up the difference. That’s Terminator. He just kept evolving beyond that. I’d just be happy making Terminators the rest of my life. When he was doing Avatar I showed him the trailer for Grindhouse and he was like, “Whoa, that’s like unbridled filming from the id, I should be doing stuff like that!“ “No, no, no, I’m still remaking Terminator, you’re in the stratosphere.”
When I first met him I was going to do Desperado and I was trying to impress him. I said, “I’m taking a three-day Steadicam course because I’m going to learn to operate a Steadicam myself in Desperado.” And he said, “I bought a Steadicam. But not to operate it. I’m going to take it apart and figure out how to design a better one.” That’s the difference between him and me, right there. We’re just mortal men, but he thinks on another plane.
When I was editing Desperado, I was the only editor on the Sony lot that using a computer. It was so new back then, computer editing, everybody was afraid of it. I had it in my living room — which is common now, but back then it was unheard of that you’d be cutting feature films in your house. He came over. “I hear you have an AVID in your living room!” And I said, “Yeah, I’m cutting Desperado, Dusk Till Dawn and Four Rooms all at the same time.” He’s like, “I’m tired of working with editors. They didn’t want to put ‘Bad to the Bone’ in Terminator 2 when I asked them. I had to go sneak in at night and do it myself. They never listen to me.” I’m, “Oh you should do the editing yourself, you know how to edit.” He said, “I’m going to do that. I’m going to tear down a wall in my house, put in an AVID like you have and I’m going to cut my next movie.” And he did. He cut Titanic. He had two other editors, but he cut it in his house and then he got an Oscar for editing! We always were inspiring each other by not letting anything get in our way, hands on, do it yourself. So in that way, we are very similar. Your distinctions sound pretty correct but I think that’s just because he evolved into that. We’re more alike than people realize and we tried to work together several times before.
On [Alita], I knew I would learn so much from his analytic approach to things. When he sends you an email its broken down into a systemic way like how an engineer would do it. I’m like all instinct. Things take him longer because he’s very systematic. I need some of that discipline and he needs some of the juice of just going and doing it. It’s nice to get to get out of how you work and find somebody who accomplishes something a completely different way.
And Cameron changed the story’s entire setting for a physics-based reason?
In the graphic novel, [Alita] was set in Kansas. The whole story was there. Jim figured because of the way a space elevator would actually work it would have to be near an equator, so like South America. Which is perfect, it gave it a more South American look, which I thought was an improvement over Kansas. It felt like the characters could be from all over. All the actors are from different places. It’s like the last city of civilization. [The character] Alita is actually from Mars, and being a cyborg didn’t have to be any one nationality, but we’re giving her an anime look.
Doing anime-inspired titles have been a challenge for Hollywood, what makes the genre so tricky to make work?
When I went and read the graphic novels, they’re so expansive. Like many anime titles, they go on for many epodes. And the work Jim did in his notes showed how he could take a story over many volumes of books and come up with his own three-movie structure. You almost have to make the other movies in your head so you know what to put in the first one. You can’t just go, “Let’s make one movie and figure out the rest later.” And it’s different from what’s laid out in the books. Like as an Alita fan you’re going to want to see motorball, but motorball doesn’t even show up until the fourth book. So how he crafted this story was pretty amazing. He told a real story with characters that would work on film that gave you something to latch onto. Before you have all the spectacle you need a spine of a story that’s compelling to the general audience, and that’s usually what escapes people. Because anime usually doesn’t have have a storyline that’s compelling to a general audience, it’s very out-there stuff — which is exciting, but it won’t play to the masses, and to pay the bill for the spectacle you need a story that will engage people from 8 to 80.
Was there anything you were wary about doing this project?
I just didn’t want to screw it up. Because I knew he would nail it. It’s the same as when I worked with Quentin [Tarantino] on From Dusk Till Dawn. He wrote a great script and I just didn’t want to screw it up. Sin City was an amazing series of books — how can I adapt this and not be the one who drops the ball? Because the source material is great. This had great source material. I knew he could pull it off. How do I do it in his stead?
Obviously, that comes with larger eyes as well, which I’m not sure if that’s ever been done before.
The character was always to look like an anime character, which have a very particular look. That was always part of Jim’s script and his artwork. You’ve never seen a photo-real version of that iconic visual image of anime. That was first and foremost in his mind that we wanted to try as a pre-cursor to Avatar. But then Avatar‘s script was ready first and he made that and broke a lot of ground. Here we get to feed off what he learned from Avatar.
There were a lot of actresses up for the lead role, what made Rosa the right choice?
One of the most fun and scary things about casting is when you have a definitive role where you must find the right person. It’s like when I found George Clooney from Dusk Till Dawn, or Antonio Banderas for Desperado. I was never emotionally affected in a room like that before. I said, “I know your name, people have told me, ‘You need to work with Rosa Salazar,’ and I have to agree.” I watched her tape and wondered if it was as powerful on tape as it was in person. Sometimes somebody affects you in a room but not on tape. or vice versa. I sent it to Jim and he was like, “Holy s–t, that’s the one!” She had this amazing quality. I react to things instinctually. And then Jim will send an email analytically breaking down exactly why she’s perfect — I love it when people are in-character. If he’s not writing a long piece on why somebody is so good then we’re not there yet. He’s very generous. He does not deserve his comments. If he’s excited about something you will get the full breadth of his excitement.
You literally wrote the book on doing big filmmaking on a small budget. What’s it like going to a $200 million budget?
Well, it’s much less than that. Jim said, “If I did the movie, it would be 300 million!” I said, “We’ll make it for a fraction of that but it will look like that. We want it to look like a Jim Cameron movie.” We still shoot very efficiently, we still shoot fast. What it affords you is the level of the effects we have is much higher. Every shot is an effects shot. If I did this movie for myself as a lower-budget movie I’d have to approach it completely differently. I’m using my tricks to keep it at full-Cameron level but to try and keep it contained.
And you also had to convince Fox to let you do the film here in Austin.
Yeah. They came down. Some people don’t know what all we have here. Some places have more tax incentives or rebates and you’ll be able to buy more days but it will take you a lot longer [to make the film]. The efficiencies we have here will make up for it. This is the biggest movie ever done in Texas, for sure. Everyone became very technically proficient here because I was always bringing up digital [movies] early, green screen early, 3D early. So it was a well-trained crew who have earned the right to make this movie.
Was there anything you and Cameron didn’t agree on along the way?
It’s the same as working with Frank Miller [on Sin City] in that way. He’s not just a producer on this, he acts like the producer that he would want. He’s very open to your ideas. As a fan, this is a movie I want to see from him. So if I make this in his style, the way I made Sin City in Frank’s style … during some portions of Dusk ‘Till Dawn, Quentin would come over and go, “This is like a Quentin shot.” “I’m trying to think like you!” I like slipping into someone’s shoes and seeing how they see the world. It’s been a great collaboration. I love working with people who are so good there’s nothing to rub up against. If you have a point or they have a point you’ll listen to it and you can feel which is the right way.
Alita: Battle Angel opens wide today.