Robert Rodriguez interview: Alita: Battle Angel’s cliffhanger ending and possible sequel

Robert Rodriguez Keean Johnson and Rosa Salazar on Alita: Battle Angel set with photo from Rico Torres for Twentieth Century Fox

Credit: Rico Torres/Twentieth Century Fox

Alita: Battle Angel surpassed box office expectations and opened to be the #1 movie last weekend nationwide. The movie has earned a CinemaScore of A- and a 94% on Rotten Tomatoes’ audience score. It’s opening in China this weekend and is expected to make $63.5 million. We had the chance to chat with director Robert Rodriguez about Alita: Battle Angel including the fan reception, cliffhanger ending, balancing his influence and James Cameron’s script, composer Tom Holkenborg (Junkie XL), making the chocolate bar that Alita eats, coming back for a possible sequel, adapting the manga, and Alita’s big eyes.

Nerd Reactor: The movie was the #1 movie last weekend and received positive reactions from fans.

Robert Rodriguez: It’s been great. People really responded to the movie and word of mouth, getting out. It’s always hard for like a new franchise, but it’s been a fantastic reaction by the audience.

Nerd Reactor: Were you concerned with whether you wanted to have a cliffhanger ending, or did you want to try to wrap things up?

Robert Rodriguez: You can’t wrap up a story like that. There’s like 30 books. We always did have an ending that feels right for the character. I thought where Jim had ended it in the script was really a smart way to go. It starts with her not knowing who she is, thinking she’s insignificant… no memory, and by the end she knows exactly who she is and what she has to do. It’s a good arc for the character to end there, where it feels like you can imagine a sequel. It doesn’t have to have one.

I’ve had other movies like that before. In El Mariachi, he didn’t get the guitar case with weapons until the very last scene in the movie. In Sky Kids, they didn’t actually become spies until the very last scene in the movie. It’s more of an origin story to who she is. How does she become the battle angel, and we call to that in the last scene. So I think that was the right place to end it.

Nerd Reactor: James Cameron has been working on this project for a while. What’s the balancing like between having your touch to the movie as well as his?

Robert Rodriguez: I mean, it’s going to have my touch on it no matter what because you’re directing it. When you direct, you make every decision between what color something is to what actor you pick and how to play a scene. But I really love the original manga and love Jim’s script. I wasn’t trying to impose my style. I actually knew that I shouldn’t impose my style on it because it needed to feel more grounded and real for you to believe the fantasy. There’s so much fantasy in it. Whereas my other stuff tends to be whimsical or stylized. I knew I didn’t want to go the Sin City route and make it look like a manga come to life. Because it would just be too unbelievable, unlike the tone of the script which read more like a Jim Cameron story. His fantasy and sci-fi are always grounded a lot more in reality so that you believe it. So I really wanted to go that route.

[The film] still ends up having some touches of mine, but people mistake the touches though. [laughs] They say like, “Oh, we can tell the bar fight was probably something you came up with.” No, the bar fight was in the original manga and in Jim’s script. But it ends up having the feel of my stuff because I did the music for that scene and I have a certain shooting and cutting style. I try not to impose too much on this, but you kind of can’t help it.

Nerd Reactor: You compose music for a lot of your movies, but for this one, you got composer Junkie XL. What was it like working with him?

Robert Rodriguez: Yeah he’s great. I heard the score of Fury Road and I thought he was awesome. And I mean it had such propulsion and drive but then also had heartfelt moments. That is what this felt like it needed. I’ve worked with composers before. A lot of times I would compose my own score when I’m out of money and I can’t afford a composer. But when you have the budget to able to hire really great collaborators, I love learning from the masters and he’s really masterful and all of that. It was really fun to work with him. And you speak their language because you’ve done it before, so it’s easier to communicate with all the different heads of the departments that you usually run yourself.

Nerd Reactor: You’re known for cooking for the cast. Did you do any cooking for Alita?

Robert Rodriguez: Yeah. The chocolate that she eats in there, I made that chocolate. I made the bar. I’m a chocolatier. That’s in the movie. I usually have everyone over to my house and I cook for everybody, and it’s part of the fun of the movie project.

Nerd Reactor: What about having that chocolate be mass-produced?

Robert Rodriguez: I don’t know about mass-produced, but I’m going to be doing a cooking school probably for the Blu-ray. [laughs]

Nerd Reactor: I know that James Cameron was inspired by Alita for his television series, Dark Angel. I was wondering if that had anything to do with this film, or was it strictly working on the source material?

Robert Rodriguez: I’d never even heard of whether he talked about Dark Angel in this at all. I actually couldn’t even confirm that. I’ve never heard that. But yeah, I read his script first actually. When it was announced that he was going to do this project back in early 2000, they showed a picture of Alita and they showed a picture of Jim and said this was his next movie. So I stayed away from the manga on purpose because I figured the movie would be out in a few years. I didn’t want the story spoiled.

When I read the script finally, I loved the story. And it surprised me how emotional it was and how the themes were bigger than the genre that it was in. I then went back and read all the manga and saw where he got the main details from and also where he deviated and made it richer and more Jim Cameron. So like Motorball, they don’t even play Motorball, they’re just trying to kill her. With sequences like that, it’s a complete fabrication of Jim’s. So I was a big fan of both versions.

Nerd Reactor: If the sequel does happen, would you come back for it? Do you have any ideas on what it would include?

Robert Rodriguez: Oh yeah! I would love to come back and do that one. It was so fun. Working with Jim’s great, I thought Rosa was incredible, and the effects were just amazing, To think they would even be better by then for the sequel because they just keep evolving. Those guys at WETA are just at the top of their game. And just as a writing process, even if there isn’t a sequel, I got to see how Jim crafts his movies and stories. He outlines out several pictures just to let you know what to include in the first one and what not to include and what’s not necessary. There are so many mangas and so many places we can go that it would be pretty easy to come up with a second step.

Nerd Reactor: Was there a lot of leeway for adapting Alita?

Robert Rodriguez: It’s exciting that there’s a lot of leeways. You know, there’s a lot of really cool ideas, sequences, characters and visuals. It’s pretty rich. There’s a lot more to work with there than even I had in Sin City. (Those were always shorter stories.) So there’s a lot to work with.

Nerd Reactor: I love Alita’s eyes because they convey a lot of emotions. Were you ever hesitant on whether you should keep the big eyes?

Robert Rodriguez: No. I saw his early paintings that he was going to do. He was going to do this back in 2005, and imagine there wasn’t even the technology back then. And when I saw the first visuals that he had put together just with paintings, that first image of her with the porcelain arms and large eyes, that was something you’ve just never seen before. And Jim always does something you’ve never seen before in his movies, and I realized that that’s what it was going to be. I didn’t even question it. It was definitely how we were going to be doing it. It was true to the manga. Through the paintings, you can tell she would convey a lot more emotions. She’s a cyborg so it makes sense that she would have those features. But yeah I think the benefit is the eyes are the window of the soul, and you see a lot more soulfulness coming through. And the whole hat-trick has to be that the most humanity is coming from a character that’s not really human.

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