This past week, I was able to attend a Q&A with the legendary Robert Rodriguez and Jon Landau. Collectively, these men have defined modern entertainment, with one forging out a legacy as the world’s premier genre filmmaker, and the other producing the two biggest box office hits ever. The minds behind the likes of Desperado, Sin City, Spy Kids, Titanic and Avatar have a new project on the way. This is a film by the name of Alita: Battle Angel. Joining them for the ride is a man whose reputation precedes him, one Mr. James Cameron.
The Q&A served as a fascinating insight into the process of two true Hollywood masterminds. The perspectives of the grindhouse-style director and the big-time producer merged together as one to educate us on this film’s journey. Alita has been a long time in the making; 19 years, to be exact. Landau and Cameron first started developing this massive undertaking way back in 2000, and the film itself was first announced in 2003.
Based on the beloved Manga by Yukito Kishiro, James Cameron was originally attached to direct. This Q&A (hosted by editor-in-chief of Empire magazine, Terri White) was a real eye-opener into the arduous task of getting ideas from the brain to the script to the screen. Jon Landau explained how Cameron hit a crossroads in his career where he was either going to make Alita or Avatar. In hindsight, he bet on the winning horse. Avatar still stands as the highest-grossing film at the worldwide box office and has a bevvy of sequels on the way.
This did leave Alita up in the air, however. At this point, more than half a decade of development had gone into this thing — it couldn’t just be allowed to die. This is where Robert Rodriguez comes into the fold. He elaborated on his relationship with Cameron and how they bonded over both coming from a low-budget background. There was also a humorous anecdote of Cameron getting the idea to build an editing rig in his house from Rodriguez, which was ended with the “one-man film crew” pointing out that Cameron won the Oscar for Best Editing for Titanic not long after.
It almost seemed like the relationship between these two men was that of old friends. Two artists, joined by their love of old school, do-it-yourself filmmaking. This all led to Cameron handing the script to Rodriguez (along with approximately 600 pages of notes), to see if he could crack it. The summer passed, and Robert came back to the powerhouse pairing of Landau and Cameron with his vision for the film’s future. It was at that point that they had their director.
Cameron had already developed the technology to make the movie work. His R&D department were working tirelessly to bring Avatar to life, after all. On paper, it’s a team that makes sense. James Cameron, technical mastermind. Jon Landau, movie production wizard. Robert Rodriguez, maverick auteur. The stars had seemingly aligned to make this project a reality. Rodriguez emphasised the creative freedom that he’s been afforded in bringing this long-delayed spectacle to the silver screen. He broke down the importance of using real sets for a 100% CGI protagonist to interact with so that her presence in the world can be sold to the audience. Cameron’s famous attention to detail has been married with the fantastical allure of a Robert Rodriguez world.
Regarding the movie’s technical aspects, Jon Landau was giddy to go over just how much went into making the film a reality. The most telling comment he made elicited an “Ooooh” from the crowd: that a single eyeball of Alita contained more rendering detail than the entirety of Gollum. When dealing with a premise that sees an ancient cyborg warrior rediscovering herself in a cyberpunk dystopia, that sort of detail is important in convincing us she’s real.
We’re now at journey’s end, Alita: Battle Angel has suffered numerous setbacks and delays, but these three titans of the industry have come together to deliver the goods. The mind boggles to think that Jon Landau is working on this and multiple Avatar sequels simultaneously. He didn’t seem tired or stressed though, he appeared to be a man who had nothing but love and passion for what he does. In a brief exchange after the Q&A, where I thanked Landau for his efforts, he responded with, “Thank YOU for loving movies.” Those aren’t the words of a man who is trying to fill a quota, but the words of someone with love for his work.
It’s a surprise that this is the first time we’re seeing a collaboration between Rodriguez and Cameron, though the former explained that they’ve been trying to get something off the ground for some time. Obviously, both are ridiculously busy men, but it was a chance meeting at a Hollywood party that got us to this point. To hear the bumpy and fascinating road that this movie has been down laid out so clearly made me appreciate what I watch even more.
Alita: Battle Angel will be released February 14, 2019. I for one am excited to see where this journey ends. Almost 20 years of blood, sweat, and likely tears will culminate in a dazzling, visually stimulating sci-fi epic. The most telling story of all that gave me faith was from Mr. Landau, as he fondly recalled Yukito Kishiro visiting the set for the first time. Famously a man of few words, he merely smiled when he saw his creation realised for the big screen. If that isn’t a glowing endorsement, then I don’t know what is.