James Cameron on Alita: Battle Angel’s long journey to the big screen

The filmmaker talks to Den of Geek about working with Robert Rodriguez and how technology has changed Hollywood

Are two heads really better than one? Well, when it came to bringing Alita: Battle Angel to the big screen, it certainly helped.

An adaptation of Yukito Kishiro’s popular manga series about a cyborg warrior fighting for justice in a dystopian future world, it’s a film that Titanic and Terminator director James Cameron has been working on since the late ’90s. But for various reasons – the lack of suitable technology, the huge success of Avatar and the forging ahead of its sequels – it never quite came to fruition. Alita started slipping into the murky waters of the dreaded development hell – and desperately needed someone to drag it back out.

Enter Robert Rodriguez, an old pal of Cameron’s who he believed could be the perfect candidate to finally turn Alita into (photo)reality. The Sin City director came on board to helm Cameron’s script, with Cameron himself staying on as producer. And so began an intriguing partnership between a maverick filmmaker celebrated for his independent spirit and fast shooting style, and an Oscar-winning blockbuster titan responsible for the two highest-grossing movies of all time.

Not that you’d know it. When Den of Geek catches up with Cameron in a swish London hotel, he couldn’t seem less like the intimidating power player you might imagine. Friendly, jovial and incredibly relaxed for a guy who’s spinning so many plates, he’s an enthusiastic conversationalist who clearly enjoyed the new experience of a “creative collaboration”.

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“What you see is an amalgam of our sensibilities,” he says. “It’s not a Jim Cameron movie ghost-directed by Robert. And it’s not a pure Robert movie. This was about working together to create a common goal. And that’s why I can be really proud of the movie.”

Here, Cameron tells Den of Geek about working with Rodriguez, how they pushed forward the technology on Alita, and how Hollywood filmmaking has changed over his 40-year career.

Watch Alita: Battle Angel – The Cameron Effect on Now TV

Alita is obviously a film that’s very close to your heart, and you’ve worked on it for years. What was it that originally spoke to you about the story?

The thing that spoke to me originally is the thing that is now currently the greatest strength of the movie, which is Alita herself – her strength, her confidence, all that stuff, but also how she begins as this kind of wide-eyed young girl in this new world, who’s quite innocent in a way. And there’s something about that that appealed to me specifically at the time I wrote it, because I had an eight-year-old daughter; she’s now 26.

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I was looking at the world a little bit through her eyes and anticipating those issues that I would have as a father as she came into her teenage years and adolescence through young womanhood, and thinking, ‘OK, what’s that going to be like? Maybe I’ll do a film about that.” The best way to learn any subject is to make a film about it, because it forces you to think about it a lot. So that made a lot of sense to me at the time.

I also liked the world. I like dystopian future stories. But it wasn’t dark. The thing about [Yukito] Kishiro is that he can be brutal, but he’s not dark, because Alita’s not dark. She’s not a dark character. There are a lot of dark characters around her – everyone in Iron City has got some kind of agenda; there’s something kind of sinister going on with everybody. But she’s this innocent that’s dropped into the middle of all that. So that appealed to me.

As someone who’s synonymous with pushing new technology, did you always imagine Alita as an all-CG character?

I was intrigued by the technical challenge of a photo-real human character done in CG. So with the exception of the size of her eyes and her ability to leap further, move faster, things like that, and to be dismembered and still be functioning – those are the CG parts of her. But we had to make her photo-real. We had to make her sort of flesh and blood. And that was a bigger challenge I think when I first imagined this than it is now. And obviously Weta [Digital] slam dunked it – she’s real from the time she first opens her eyes. But I always had faith that that was possible.

That’s why I founded co-founded [effects company] Digital Domain back in 1992, because I wanted to do that. And that’s why I wrote Avatar in 1995, to give Digital Domain that as a challenge. So I’d been driving pretty relentlessly toward that goal for a long time. When I started developing Alita in 1999, it was just really a progression of that same idea. And then it became neck-and-neck between Alita and Avatar for which one would go first. We were developing the technology to do both films simultaneously. And we were planning to amortise the R&D costs across both films, but that sort of implied that I do Avatar and then the next year I do Alita.

It didn’t work out that way because I got distracted by other things, like a deep-water expedition and some sustainability work and then coming back to the Avatar sequels, which took me about three-and-a-half years to write. At a certain point, it just looked like it was a receding goalpost that kept getting moved farther away. And that’s when I decided to give it to Robert.

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And was Robert your first choice to take over as director?

I wasn’t looking for a director. It’s not like I said, “OK, it’s time to let go of Alita. Give me a director’s list.” It didn’t work that way at all. Robert and I had been friends for a long time. I’d admired him really since I first met him. He just seemed on fire – everything he did was radical and kind of better than the way I did it. When I when I first met him he had an Avid [editing system] in his living room, before I even practically knew what an Avid was! He’s cutting his own stuff and he’s shooting and he’s operating his own Steadicam… I thought, “This guy’s crazier than me! But in a good way.”

And so we just became friends right away. And we had looked for ways to work together over time. And I could tell that he honored the idea of a creative collaboration as he had done it before with Quentin Tarantino [on From Dusk Till Dawn and Grindhouse] and Frank Miller [on the Sin City movies]. He gave Frank Miller co-director credit because he believed so strongly that the image that Miller had created was definitive. And he was making noises like that about me on Alita. I said, “Dude, there’s the director and there’s the writer. OK, I may write very lucidly about what the picture is gonna look like, but that’s not the same thing. So you don’t get to do that.” [Laughs]

With all of the effects and the scope of the production, this project is obviously a huge undertaking – in many ways bigger than any of Robert’s previous movies. How did he find the experience?

I made him a promise. He had never done a big studio movie. He’d done big movies within the framework of his Troublemaker studio, which is a small indie. But I think he had maxed out at $40 million, and we’re talking about a picture four times that size. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that he had just neglected to make a studio movie. I think he didn’t want to have to deal with people telling him what to do.

I always interpreted that as being his rebelliousness, and I expected him to be much tougher to work with. It’s not. It’s just that Robert doesn’t like fights. He likes everybody to get along and just be all part of a fun team. And so he just kept himself away from a situation where he’d ever have to have a fight. And I didn’t really realise that about him, even though I thought I knew him pretty well. But it all worked great because I said, “Look, here’s what I promise you: you don’t have to talk to them [the studio]. You just talk to me. You know, I wrote it, I have a vision for it, but I’m handing that vision off to you. You’re the director. You have to carry the flame.” And that’s just how we did it.

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Robert’s known for his fast shooting style and really embracing that kind of DIY-filmmaking. Did he carry that over into this film?

For Alita, I said, “You’re not going to be able to do that stuff. You can’t shoot it, edit it, score it… You can’t do all that stuff on film of this scale; you’re going to have to delegate.” He’d never really delegated before because the way he contained his budgets was to kind of do everything himself. He cultivated this kind of cottage industry, with a few trusted people. But I said: “That’s not going to work for this. You’re going to have to get a DP [director of photography]. And you’re going to have to get a composer.” And I think he just felt like, “OK, it’s time to see what that is.” I didn’t tell him who to get, but I told him he just had to take the pressure off himself.

So he and I kind of met in the middle, because I’m used to bigger pictures, but I always like to be hands-on – and do a bit of my own production design and operate the camera myself and all that sort of thing. I think he actually enjoyed the process – he felt like he was able to conduct a bigger orchestra, as opposed to playing the instruments himself. Not that he can’t. He can go right back and do it –  and I guarantee you he will, because he loves it.

You have Rosa Salazar playing Alita via performance capture – when did she come on board and what did she bring to the role?

The CG can be seamless, but it’s only going to be as good as the performance. So the critical thing for us was getting the right actress. Rosa came in and auditioned early on, and we just kept coming back to her. She was just so perfect for this character. I don’t recall any of the casting ever being a tussle between the two of us.

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You always look back and say, “We got lucky.” But I don’t think it’s luck. I think it’s instinct when you see somebody that’s that speaks to you as the character. That’s why I don’t like to cast stars, because stars won’t read. I have to see it, so I can react to it. It’s very hard for me to cast somebody I don’t know. I would cast somebody who I do know, because I can imagine them in the part. I would cast Sigourney Weaver blind, because I know her so well – she obviously didn’t read for Avatar. But I would have a hard time casting a star that I hadn’t worked with before.

You have a history of making films with strong lead female characters…

Robert does that, too. He’s always liked good female characters. I think this project appealed to him as a father with a young daughter. He’s going through now what I was going through when I initiated the project. My daughter – the daughter in question – is now at Harvard, but I also have a 12-year-old who’s itching to see the film.

One of the film’s standout sequences is the motorball set-piece. Was that something you loved from the books?

What’s not to love? I mean, it’s a bunch of cyborgs smashing each other’s brains out! I pulled motorball forward when I was adapting Battle Angel, because it doesn’t show up until books three and four. The Hugo story [Alita’s love interest] spans books one and two. So I pulled motorball forward and found a way to structure it in. The story is not exactly Kishiro’s roadmap; it’s my kind of mash-up. There was no way I was making an Alita movie without motorball. But the final product is 100 per cent Robert’s conception. He did all the pre-vis[ualisation]. He did a bunch of stunt motion capture on our stages in LA. And Weta played a big role in motorball, because it was probably the least defined sequence in the movie. So they took all that and they really evolved it. It was a real three-way collaboration.

You’ve been in the business of filmmaking now for around 40 years… How has it changed in that time?

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I would say virtually 100 per cent. Every single technique, machine and process that I used when I started has been replaced. We don’t even shoot on film. About the only thing that we have in common right now is that there’s still a lens and you still have to put it in focus. You know, we used to do matte paintings on glass, and now they’re all essentially Photoshopped.

So there’s nothing that we did then that we’re doing now, and yet it’s still the same exact process. You imagine it, you write it, you draw it out and then you bring it to life. So the storytelling aspects are the same. And there are no shortcuts in casting – it’s still an actor walks into a room, they read some lines off a page and you have to imagine what they’re going to look like. So technology can’t replace certain things. The human component of it hasn’t changed at all.

And the writing is writing. I mean, I wrote Aliens on a legal pad. But other than the fact that it was hand-written, writing is writing – there’s a blank page and then something starts to happen and then you reach a point halfway through the process where the characters start to talk on their own. And it’s always been that way. I can tell the moment when it happens: you’ll be sitting there writing one day and all of a sudden… Boom, you write the next line without thinking about it because that’s the way Hicks would say it.

Alita: Battle Angel is in cinemas now.