Robert Rodriguez is nothing less than genre royalty, having blessed us with — among other things — vampire biker bars (FROM DUSK TILL DAWN), a zombie apocalypse (PLANET TERROR), stylized noir nihilism (SIN CITY), and pulpy splatter action (MACHETE). A film with Rodriguez’s name attached almost always brings certain expectations with it — low budget, western atmosphere — which is why ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL seems like a bit of a departure for him. This epic science fiction film (read our review here) has the majesty and scope of a James Cameron project with a Robert Rodriguez edge, and it does Yukito Kishiro’s classic cyberpunk manga proud.
We were able to briefly chat with Rodriguez about his vision for the movie, James Cameron, comic book adaptations, and optimal cyborg implants.
Famous Monsters. First of all, having been a fan of the Battle Angel manga for 25 years… I never would have expected, 25 years ago, to ever see such a faithful and authentic live action adaptation. So thank you for that!
Robert Rodriguez. That’s great! That’s amazing, I’m glad you already knew about it. That’s even more fun.
FM. This is a different sort of project for you. You’re famous to making films on next to no budget and sort of rejecting the Hollywood machine, and now along comes James Cameron with a $200 million pet project and you sign on to direct it! When people think about James Cameron they think big, epic, technology, sweeping stories. What do you think people think of when they hear “Robert Rodriguez”, and how did you bring that signature to ALITA?
RR. I mean, my signature has always just been scrappy filmmaking because I preferred lower budgets, making more with less, because I got more creative freedom. I could cast Latin stars if I wanted, and nobody could tell me differently. I knew if I went and did a big studio movie, they’d be all over me as far as how it ends, who’s in the cast — because they want their money back, which is understandable. But I’ve known Jim for 25 years, and this was like making a really big independent film, because Jim has the final say. If we liked it, it went in. It was probably the best way to do a big budget movie. And I really loved his script — he had written it for himself to direct, so it was very clearly in the tone of movies that he does, which are a lot more grounded in reality than the things I do. Jim and I both started as artists, but I started as a cartoonist and he started as an illustrator. Illustrators are more realistic while cartoonists are more… whimsical, like my other movies. I didn’t want to bring whimsy to this at all. I wanted it to feel more like his movies, so I leaned into that by shooting real sets, real locations, having us surrounded by real actors, having her biting into a real orange, so you would believe the fantasy and believe her, instead of doing a SIN CITY green screen type movie with manga-come-to-life stylization on top, which would feel too artificial. It didn’t feel like a project that I had to go put my stamp on. It’s still gonna feel like you no matter what, because you’re directing it, and you’re making every decision, from who you’re casting and how they play a scene to what color something’s going to be.
FM. In the same vein, you’ve partnered with other directors before, like Tarantino, and you famously insisted that Frank Miller get a co-directing credit on SIN CITY. One might say that you’re not afraid to share the spotlight, so to speak. What are the advantages of working on a project with more than one major voice as opposed to doing it all on your own?
RR. I love jumping back and forth in between the two! I usually have to do things on my own and do all the jobs myself — not because I think I’m better than anyone else, but because I don’t have any money. I’m trying to make a big film for very little and can’t afford to hire anybody. If I had the money, I’d hire a composer, I’d hire a great [Director of Photography]… I love learning from these guys. When I work with Quentin, I try to shoot in a more Quentin style. If I work with Frank Miller, I definitely make it all Frank Miller style. It’s like taking a vacation from how you normally work to learn from other great collaborators. It’s fun to have another set of brains there to bounce ideas off of, and sometimes just to enjoy the picture while you’re making it — someone who knows the job. It’s fun to have a cohort. [laughs] I know it seems odd that somebody who does so many jobs himself would be that collaborative. Even Jim was surprised. I’m “insanely collaborative!” he calls it. Collaboration means two or more people. It doesn’t have to mean a thousand.
FM. You’ve done family fare before, like SPY KIDS, but one might say that you’re most well known for your pulpy, violent genre stuff. Even James Cameron has done a bunch of violent technology-based films. And the ALITA manga is pretty violent. Was there ever a point when you thought of going in that hard R direction with ALITA, or was it always going to be PG-13?
RR. It couldn’t go that far because we knew we wanted to create new technology, and have her be completely photorealistic in CG. When you’re working on a budget level like that, you can’t block a huge part of the audience out. You can still convey danger and mistakes and threat without going as gory as the manga. And you know, it cost [Yukito Kishiro] ten bucks to make the manga. It’s just pen and ink. If it cost him more, he might have had to open up the gates and let more people in. It’s also basically a story that younger people can appreciate, about a girl who starts at thirteen and turns out to be eighteen, and you don’t want to block those audiences from seeing it. They’ll be the ones to benefit the most from a story that’s so empowering to younger audiences.
FM. ALITA is incredibly technologically forward — it’s amazing to watch in 3D, and you’ve always sort of pushed the boundaries on technological filmmaking. You went 3D on SPY KIDS back before it was a big thing, and you filmed a VR movie called THE LIMIT. What do you see the future of VR being in the filmmaking world? Do you ever see it taking over like 3D has?
RR. It’s more immersive than 3D because you can move your head around. [The Limit] is one of the only VR movies that’s actually done in POV, so you’re the main character. When Michelle Rodriguez and Norman Reedus look at you and talk to you, it feels like you’re really there! You go through all the action scenarios. I think it works better in VR to do POV because when you see it on movies and TV, it’s never that convincing. You know it’s not you. But when you’ve got a helmet on and can look around, suddenly it does feel like you. It’s total wish fulfillment, really, to be inside of an action movie with Michelle Rodriguez and Norman Reedus. [laughs] I’m not sure where it’ll go, it just needs more people creating content for it! Which is kind of why I made the VR movie. If you keep content coming out regularly, more and more people will adopt it.
FM. As I mentioned, I was a huge fan of the BATTLE ANGEL comic book before I even realized that you guys were making this movie. You also managed to adapt the supposedly “unadaptable” SIN CITY to film, to great aplomb. Are there any filmmaking techniques you use that help you to faithfully capture a comic book world? And do you have any dream comic book adaptations you would like to do, even if it’s writing a comic book?
RR. I would love to write a comic book! The trick has been that both of these were by… almost writer/directors, where the artist is also the author. That doesn’t always happen. It’s a very singular vision. Kishiro built a world that was very universal, a melting pot society that had themes larger than its genre. Frank’s stories are amazingly post-modern film noir with a lot more edge and a spin that keeps it from being nostalgic, and a style you’d never seen before in a comic, much less in a movie. I think choosing the right material is more important than how you’re going to treat the material. If you just pick up any graphic novel, they don’t all adapt as well as these did.
FM. To end with a fun question, if you had the opportunity to get a cybernetic implant à la ALITA, which limb or organ would you have replaced?
DA. Oh, that one’s too easy! I’m a cartoonist and I have to draw with my nose an inch from the paper. As I’ve gotten older, my eyesight is getting worse and worse. I need glasses, and it’s still hard to see up close and I still love to draw! So I would definitely have my eyes replaced to get back my 20 year old eyeballs. [laughs]
ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL is currently in theaters everywhere.