How James Cameron’s ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL Became Robert Rodriguez’s Biggest Movie Yet

James Cameron is a filmmaker who dreams big. He gave us a new brand of cyborg terror with the iconic Terminator 2.

He made history come to towering, tragic life with 11-time Oscar-winner Titanic. And he shattered box office records and took visual effects to a whole new world with Avatar. For nearly two decades, Cameron dreamed of giving this same level of big-budget, boundary-pushing spectacle to Yukito Kishiro‘s magnificent manga Battle Angel Alita. This winter, his dream comes true with Alita: Battle Angel, but with another director at the helm. So how did Robert Rodriguez come to direct Cameron’s long-time passion project?

Nerdist learned all about Alita: Battle Angel‘s winding road to production when we visited its set in Austin, Texas, in March of 2017. There, we spoke with storied producer Jon Landau, who took us on a tour of Rodriguez’s Troublemaker Studios, including the 100,000 feet of set built to bring Kishiro’s vibrant Iron City to the big screen. As we weaved through busted up bars, colorful streets, and a treasure trove of concept art, Landau gave us the timeline of Alita: Battle Angel.

Battle Angel Alita, Alita, Battle Angel, Robert Rodriguez

The original comic ran from December 15, 1990 to April 1, 1995. In 1999, Cameron was “King of the World,” soaring high off the success of Titanic. Thinking big, he secured the rights to adapt Battle Angel Alita and met with Kishiro to discuss its adaptation. Through his production company Lightstorm Entertainment, Cameron imagined creating a sci-fi franchise that would awe audiences worldwide. Asked about the title change from Battle Angel Alita to Alita: Battle Angel, Landau explained it was done with sequels in mind. This film will cover books one, two, and “a little bit of three,” out of 27. So, the “Battle Angel” subtitle could be easily switched out for future installments, if audiences want them. “If people love Alita, there will be more Alita,” Landau assured us.

By 2005, Cameron had a script he liked. But according to Landau, it was “way too long” to produce. Cameron was simultaneously developing Avatar. Both this otherworldly adventure and his manga adaptation would demand extensive visual effects and innovation. For a time, Cameron was “developing both projects with research and development, not knowing which we would do.” Eventually, Cameron decided to run with Avatar, perhaps in part because it was imagined as a single film rather than the kick-off of a potentially sprawling franchise. Or as Landau put it, “(We did it) never thinking Avatar would become what it became.”

The stupendous success of Avatar shifted Cameron’s priorities. “If you were working on four more Avatar sequels…” Landau said by way of explaining Cameron’s exit from the director’s chair. Though Cameron felt audiences demanded sequels to the smash hit, he didn’t want to leave Alita: Battle Angel on the shelf. So, the search began for a director who could do Alita justice while Cameron continued to explore Pandora. Of course, it took time to find a director that Cameron felt would be the perfect fit for the project.

In 2015, Robert Rodriguez, the writer/director of such bold action movies as Spy Kids, Planet Terror, and Sin City, was meeting with Cameron for a “social visit.” But he was fast-fascinated by the stalled Alita. Impressed by his passion, Cameron gave Rodriguez that “very long script” and asked him “not to rewrite it, but edit it.” Four months later, Rodriguez returned, and Cameron was reportedly elated by what he turned in. “You don’t get Christoph Waltz unless you’ve got a tight script!” Landau explained.

Cameron offered Rodriguez the helm of Alita: Battle Angel. But the fiercely independent director wouldn’t be a hired gun. His Troublemaker team joined forces with Lightstorm to produce the biggest project Rodriguez has ever taken on. However, Lightstorm insisted that Rodriguez delegate more than to which he is accustomed. A “prerequisite” was that the visual effects would be handled by Weta Digital, the company behind the Oscar-winning VFX of  The Lord of the Rings trilogy and Avatar. Instead of scripting, shooting, and postproduction all occurring within a year—as was Troublemaker standard—preproduction on Alita: Battle Angel began a year before the first day of shooting. During a tour of the workshops, the designers from Troublemaker said this allowed them the luxury of time that led to their most detailed work yet.

Maybe most surprising, for the first time in a long time, Rodriguez won’t be writing and directing and shooting and editing his film. He has handed off the camera to lauded cinematographer Bill Pope ( The Matrix, The Jungle Book). And Avatar‘s Stephen E. Rivkin will be the lead editor on the project. Of course, Rodriguez revised Cameron and Laeta Kalogridis’ script and will have a hand in the film’s edit. But Lightstorm wanted to be sure he had the support he needed to focus on directing this epic sci-fi adventure of cyborgs, dystopia, and Motorball.

Though he’s surrendered the helm, Cameron still has an important influence on the film, through his script and his Lightstorm team’s intense collaboration with Troublemaker. The production designers characterized the two filmmaker’s styles as “fire and ice,” and have relished finding how these different aesthetics can play together in the film. Landau described the union of these creative powerhouses as “a real collaboration” and “a marriage.” But as they insisted, “At the end of the day, it’s Roberts’ film.”

Alita: Battle Angel hits theaters December 21st.

Images: 20th Century Fox

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