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Crunchyroll Expo 2018: Alita: Battle Angel Panel Report

by Deb Aoki,

One of the marquee events at Crunchyroll Expo 2018 was the Alita: Battle Angel Manga to Movie panel, featuring the creative team behind the upcoming feature film adaptation of Yukito Kishiro's cyberpunk sci-fi manga. On hand were director Robert Rodriguez (Sin City, Machete), producer Jon Landau (Titanic, Avatar), and “Alita,” Rosa Salazar.

In development since 1999, Alita: Battle Angel was first picked up as a feature film project with James Cameron (director of Titanic, Avatar) in the director's chair. This manga movie seemed to stay in pre-production limbo for several years until director Robert Rodriguez was tapped to handle the film by Cameron and Landau.

Mostly filmed in Austin, Texas at Rodriguez' Troublemaker Studios production company at an estimated production cost of over $200 million, Alita: Battle Angel is now complete and scheduled for N. American theatrical release on December 21, 2018.

Hollywood manga movie adaptations have had… well, they've had a spotty history with critics, with anime/manga fans, and at the box office. Perhaps with that in mind, Rodriguez, Landau and Salazar came to San Jose on the first day of Crunchyroll Expo to preview their creation and to sell their story to a large, packed room of hundreds of curious anime and manga fans.

The panel started with introductions by Crunchyroll Director of Events Dallas Middaugh. Middaugh previously worked in publishing at both Viz Media and Del Rey Manga / Kodansha Comics, which, coincidentally, where the first and current homes for the Battle Angel Alita manga (a.k.a. GUNNM in Japanese). Describing Battle Angel Alita as one of his all-time favorite manga, Middaugh introduced a pre-recorded video clip from Alita's creator, Yukito Kishiro, who had this to say:

Yukito Kishiro: I'm sorry I couldn't be there in person today, but I wanted to send this message to you about Alita: Battle Angel. I have been fortunate enough to visit Robert Rodriguez and Jon Landau at Troublemaker Studios and see them at work on Alita. I met ‘Alita’ herself, Rosa Salazar and Christoph Waltz who plays Ido. I read the script by James Cameron and Robert. I saw the places I once imagined built into physical sets for filming.

It has been some journey! To watch other artists interpret your work can be a strange experience. But in this case, I feel excitement. I see how the filmmakers are being true to these characters I have lived with for so long. And I know how compelling a story they are telling. The truth is, I can't wait to see the finished movie! And I hope that you'll be as excited as I am, after you see this early look at what's in store with Alita: Battle Angel!

After the message from Kishiro, and a showing of the trailer from Alita: Battle Angel, Middaugh brought out Rodriguez, Landau and Salazar to talk about the long road from manga to movie for this iconic sci-fi manga series.

Dallas Middaugh: This is a project that's been in the works for a long time.

Jon Landau: Jim Cameron and myself, we learned about Alita in 1999. At the time, it was a project that was something that Jim wanted to direct. The reason why is because of the character Alita, and everything that she represents. Jim has three daughters, and he saw in Alita the story of a young woman coming to terms with herself, discovering who she is, and what she really can do.

Jim wrote a script, but by the time it got to where he liked it, it was way too long. This right about the time we got started working on Avatar. We jumped into Avatar, and once it became apparent that Avatar become what it did, we realized that Jim would be directing movies in the Avatar world for a quite some time. We started looking for the right director that we could “parent this child” with together.

We talked to a couple of different people over the years. It wasn't until we had lunch with Robert, and he turned to Jim and said, 'if you're doing Avatar for the next several years, then what happens to projects like Alita?' And Jim's eyes lit up! He shared with Robert his script, and his 600 pages of notes…

Robert Rodriguez: That was the pared-down version too! He had a script that was close to 200 pages, and that was only because he didn't have a chance to go back and edit it. But he told me, 'Hey, if you want to take a crack at the script, there's a possibility that you could direct it, and we could make it, if you can figure it out.' So I said, 'Hell yeah.'

I took it home, and that became my summer project, trying to figure out where I could cut it. To help, Jim gave me some of his notes. He had over 1,000 pages of notes, but he gave me 600 of them. (laughs) That helped me figure out where I could fill in holes, where I could patch things up.

Jim is an engineer by trade. To work with Jim is a master class in how to think creatively, and think in an organizational way. He can engineer a ship that can break the world record in diving, and he can engineer a movie that will appeal to the entire world. That's the kind of mind he has – this mix of engineering and creativity.

Jon Landau: Robert took Jim's 180-page script, and he's not going to re-write it, because you don't re-write Jim Cameron -- (Robert)'s going to re-edit it. What Robert brought back to us was a 128-page script, and when Jim and I read it, we didn't miss anything. It told us that Robert understood what was most important in the film; the themes of the movie, the story of the character. He got rid of the things that were superfluous, but kept the important things.

Robert Rodriguez: That's where it helps to be a super-fan of somebody like Jim. I've studied his work for so long. As soon as I read the script, I knew what stuff was essential, and what parts he probably wouldn't miss and what stuff he would miss – all the character stuff, all the stuff that would make it appealing to a mass audience; the stuff that people could relate to. So I knew I had to keep that kind of stuff. It was then just a process of elimination – figuring out what to keep, to keep all those pieces working. After that, then we had something we felt we could work on, because the manga series is very long. (Cameron) had already focused on the parts of the story that were meaningful, so his take on the story was already pretty exceptional.

I love taking original source material and being very true to it as well. Anyone who is a big fan of the manga will enjoy this movie too, seeing how much of what we kept that is very true to the manga.

Dallas Middaugh: I have seen several of those scenes and I have to say that it's pretty amazing that there are scenes that are shot-for-shot, following the panels of the manga.

So Alita is a character that has been around for several years. It's been published in Japan and in the US since the 1990's. I think it's safe to say that it's a fairly iconic character in the world of manga. Rosa, what's it like to take on a character like that?

Rosa Salazar: Obviously, (playing Alita) is a great responsibility. I love this character so much. I spent a lot of time with Yukito Kishiro's work -- his writing and drawing, and spent time with her. Anyone who has met Alita will understand why people feel protective of her, even though she obviously needs no protecting. It's been a wild journey. Jim told me, “I'm passing the baton on to you.”

The most fun part of being able to transform into Alita, the part that influenced me the most as I was trying to become Alita was the martial arts training. The martial arts are so essential to her – that's her first language. Being able to transform my body, to become this woman who is strong in her body, that goes hand in hand with being emotionally strong, being someone who can harness her chi, harness her tiger, and know when to let it out, and when to keep it in. I'm Latina, so of course the heart part comes very naturally. (laughs) It was really fun to put my big heart and mesh it with hers, and into her body, and subsequently hand it over to Hugo. I did not take this responsibility lightly.

Jon Landau: That was something that Kishiro recognized when he came to visit the set. He's a man of very few words. The fact that he recorded anything (like the video message) is actually pretty amazing.

We brought him to the set to see his reaction when he walked into that world. But when Rosa ran up to him, gave him a hug and handed him one of the graphic novels and asked him to autograph it, he knew that this is a world that she dove into; the character of Alita and the whole style of the manga that he had created, to bring it to the screen.

Rosa Salazar: Right. We got a question earlier that was something like, 'What do you do with the fans who are really into it, how do you deal with the negative side of fandom? Why do they feel like they're the gatekeepers?'

Well, I'm a fan, and I understand why. The work is so precious. Of course you'd be apprehensive to see whose hands this lands into. But you've got two visionaries here – you've got one of the best producers on the planet. You've got directors who really get off on making films and innovating on set, and putting the story first. It's in the right hands. I like to think that I did my part. That graphic novel was dog-eared, with lots of colored tabs.

Dallas Middaugh: The world of Alita is a really rich one. I think there's over 30 volumes of the series at this point. How did you decide what to pull from those volumes, what story you wanted to tell from it? Could you give us a brief overview of what the story of the movie will be?

Robert Rodriguez: Jim drew from the first two books of Battle Angel Alita, because it had the parts about her relationship with Ido, about being found in the scrap yard, and he also liked the Hugo interaction. But he thought that fans of the manga would be pissed if there was no Motorball in this movie, but that part of the story didn't show up until volume 4 or something. So he came up with a very cool, high-stakes Jim Cameron way of presenting it that's still based on the story and the characters. He just did it in the right way, he made it very exciting.

When I saw the original art that he made back in 2005 when he was going to make this film, he had Alita being photoreal with manga eyes, which is something you've never seen in a film before. Jim always presents something you've never seen before, whether it's the silver T-1000 or liquid metal, or the Titanic sinking, or a fully-realized race of people in Avatar…

Even back in 2005, the visual effects (technology) were not there to do this, but he was going to do it anyway – to push the envelope to pull this off. We still haven't seen anything like this before, so we wanted to do something where manga fans get to see a movie that is a photo-real version of that world that we've only seen in comics, and never seen in real life. That was an exciting thing to try to realize.

Jon Landau: Ultimately, the story we picked, this story takes place 600 years in the future. There's a scrap yard in the center of the city, and there's this cyborg doctor, Dr. Ido (Christof Waltz's character) who scavenges through the rubble. He does pro-bono work for cyborgs, and in this city, cyborgs, they're not robots – they're human, there's some human element to them.

He finds this core of a young cyborg that he brings home. He gives her a body, because what the core he found was only the head and torso. Ido gives her a body that he once built for his paraplegic 12-year old daughter, but he never got to give it to her before she was tragically murdered. This is his second chance at fatherhood.

Alita comes into this world, and it's her journey of self-discovery. It's her journey of coming into a world where she has not memory of who she is; she thinks that she's an insignificant girl who was thrown out with the trash. As she goes on this journey, she finds within herself that she has the ability to make a difference. She finds in herself a hero that changes people and changes the world that she's in. We're so excited to finally present this to everybody.

Dallas Middaugh: It sounds fantastic. I've seen scenes that follow the action in the manga pretty closely. Could you speak to that a little more? How important is to be exactly faithful to the manga, and where is it important to step away?

Robert Rodriguez: I tend to feel, and I think Jim would agree, that where there's a story need, to create something for the story, to make the story work better as a movie, then go with that. Some of what Jon described (about the Alita: Battle Angel movie plot) are inventions that Jim came up with, inspired by the manga.

But when you get to the action sequences, which are so mind-blowing in the manga, Jim himself would just go like, 'I'm putting THAT in the movie, I'm putting THAT in the movie…' And so when you go to design and storyboard and work out the action, I like to start with what's there, because it's great already. Not just to change thing just for the sake of changing things. Let's start with what's there, and if we need to make adjustments, then sure, we can.

Even when it came down to design sometimes, if you're going to design a cyborg, you might as well ask, well, what did Kishiro do? There might be something really valid in what he did that could work for today even though it was originally created in the Nineties, but we still haven't seen a lot of this stuff anywhere today. It's still very original and very true. I like to give it its day in court first. We could go and invent new stuff all day long, but why? would we do that, when the source material is already so rich, and so great like that?

Some of those frames are so rich, and so haunting. I'm glad to see them in the finished film.

Jon Landau: In the past, Hollywood hasn't done a great job of taking from the (manga) page, or taking from the anime and portraying it in a Hollywood, cinematic way. Right from the get go, we said we want to honor the creators of this world, and the fans of this world. We're making this for you. We looked at this story, and we said, it's here -- Let's take what's here and pay honor to it and not change it.

Dallas Middaugh: This is a time when we're seeing a lot more kick-ass women in movies – and a lot of them come from comics. We're seeing things like Wonder Woman taking off, and I think Alita falls in that category. Rosa, what's it like portraying a such a strong, kick-ass character on screen?

Rosa Salazar: Well, I play a strong, kick-ass woman every single day in my life. (laughs) It's not exactly a stretch for ole' Rose!

I think a lot of women would agree, a lot of women who are here today would agree, given the kind of art that you're into. Women are completely and utterly dynamic beings. We're everything – we're strong, we're intuitive, we're sensitive, we're curious. We touch something and get burned, and we think, how can we do something with the flame? Women, we sometimes go in chest first. What I like about Alita is that it has one foot in this category, and one foot out, and I'll tell you why.

This is a very universal theme. It's not just about being a woman, although Alita is a young girl who spends some of her most formative years in front of you on screen. I'll tell you why it's 'one foot out.' It's so universal to everyone here: We start out thinking that we're not significant, that we're not one of the special people who are significant, and some of us are told that we're very insignificant, and now we have this hill to climb. Alita starts this way – she's literally found in the trash.

I'm a poor Latin kid from DC. If anything, it really was a cathartic moment. And then she goes on to have this journey, being brave and being curious, finding her way, and finding out who she is. In doing so, she discovers her true power, her true magic. Women are obviously magic! We carry and create life, after all. But all of us do - we all carry magic inside, but in order to find it, we must look for it. Alita is the essence of survival, and of destiny.

Jon Landau: Another thing about Alita is unlike other superheroes, she doesn't come into this world with known special abilities. It's the idea that she's not a superhero, she's a true hero, and each one of us can be a hero.

Rosa Salazar: To build on that, Alita doesn't wake up and tries to find her physical power. She has already been a warrior in her past life. We're working backwards this time – She's trying to find her heart and her innocence, which she was never allowed to have.

Jon Landau: She's also trying to find love along the way; love from a father figure, love from a significant other. These are natural things that happen to young women and young men as they grow up.

Rosa Salazar: And if you know anything about adversity, and I'm sure everyone in this room knows something about that, adversity is a double-edged sword. It can be awesome, because you learn a lot of great lessons, but try telling that to someone who's going through it! (laughs) It's painful! And that's just a small part of our story.

Dallas Middaugh: The name of the creator of the original manga, Yukito Kishiro has come up a lot, and I was wondering how involved was he in the making of this film?

Jon Landau: So initially when we got the rights to this movie, the first thing that Jim did, even before he got the rights, is he went and met with Kishiro in Tokyo, and he talked about what he would want to do. Jim felt that responsibility to him. We could have acquired the rights without that meeting, but Jim wanted to meet with Kishiro face-to-face and talk about what he wanted out of the movie.

Then, as we've developed the project and artwork for the film, I've made several trips to Tokyo to show Kishiro the art work in early stages, artwork in later stages, scenes that weren't finished, scenes that were more finished. We invited him to the set in Austin, which was the first time he ever came to the States. He came to Austin and visited Robert. We've developed a great relationship, where (Kishiro) has given us feedback about what we're doing.

A lot of times, Hollywood will walk away, and not want to involve the creator (in film production). But to us, the creator is very important. As for the video (that you saw today), that was something he offered to do. He knew we were coming here, and he knows that there are fans of the original manga here. He wanted to do something that he's never done before Alita, which is to tape this kind of message.. We're thrilled that he's been this involved.

Dallas Middaugh: That's awesome. So, you're at Crunchyroll Expo, and you're in front of an anime/manga crowd -- are there other anime and manga you'd like to make movies of?

Robert Rodriguez: I started as a cartoonist, so a lot of my work is very manga-like. The Desperado character, Machete, the girl with machine gun legs -- a lot of these things are the kind of thing you'd come up in a fever dream. (laughs) I always start by drawing out characters.

I did an interview with Crunchyroll earlier, and they asked my favorite anime. I remember being in college when Akira first came out. I remember watching Akira on the big screen every day after school. It was fun watching other people's reaction to it! You'd see people coming out of the theater saying, 'what the f**k did I just see?' (laughs) This was at University of Texas – Austin, and I just loved it.

There have been many over the years, but just recently I got into it more, because now my kids are into it! I turned them on to different movies as they were growing up, but I guess they just watch anime on their phones. They were watching Crunchyroll on their phones, so I'd see stuff that they'd watch like Samurai Champloo and JoJo's Bizarre Adventure. I'm waay into JoJo's Bizarre Adventure! Waaay into that.

I tell them to let me know when they're watching something so we can see it together. I love seeing things through their eyes. It's entertaining and educational for me, to seeing what hooks an audience. You need to know that as a storyteller. Especially now that they're teens, they're getting into storytelling, and that's so good because it gets them into how stories are told, and gives them a methodology, and it's awesome! They gave me the Readers Digest of things, like 'First you get into the card game, and then…”

So I gave them a gift: I bought a subscription to Crunchyroll, so they don't have to sit through all the commercials! They were sitting through the commercials, just binge-watching anime on their phones, and I was like, let's watch it on a big screen! This should be a big screen experience!

Me and my boys, we make movies together now. I guess for us all to have the experience together, I'd like to make JoJo's Bizarre Adventure with them! I mean Jojo's just sucks me in, one episode after another! I tell them, you gotta shut this thing off, or I'll never get any work done!

Jon Landau: Robert talked about making movies with his kids. So for this movie, we built a big part of Iron City on a backlot of Troublemaker Studios. 100,000 square feet of city blocks and buildings! He came in with his sons on the weekend before we were to start principal photography. Then Robert comes in a week later with a movie that he shot with his sons on the backlot of movie! (laughs) What a great way for him to learn all the different angles of the set!

Robert Rodriguez: It kind of looked like one of those Halo levels, so I said, 'Let's go make it!” So I got Halo swords, and we had all the sound effects. We filmed this whole battle, when the set was all pristine and hadn't even been used yet! It came out really good. It helped me figure out the angles where to shoot the movie, and gave us a kick-ass home movie too! (laughs)

Rosa Salazar: When I was auditioning for the role – it took months, and I hadn't heard back. But I said, 'Hey would you like to read my short film script, Robert Rodriguez?' (laughs) I sent it to him, and he gave me some feedback. He gave me such valuable notes, I went and shot this short film (Good Crazy, released in 2016) We did this the week before we tested.

We shot this film, and I get a call from my agent telling me that my short film got into Sundance (Film Festival)! I called Robert and said, 'Hey, our film got into Sundance!' (laughs)

Jon Landau: We did cast Rosa months before we started filming, and she gave herself to this part. She did a lot of training, she started taking martial arts lessons. She learned rollerblading, just a whole different regimen and commitment.

Talk about commitment – there was a point when her agent offered her this role, where she'd go to Italy to shoot for two weeks, and wear Vera Wang clothing… and Rosa said 'No, I'm Alita.' She kept her commitment, from the day she got the part to today, and we're eternally grateful for that.

Rosa Salazar: When you start doing martial arts, you don't want to stop, because any time down, it sets you back. When you start getting really obsessed with it, you want to be there every day, to see how far you can get, how far you can push yourself, how far your determination will take you. It was kind of a no-brainer, but I'm touched that you remember that story! You owe me a Vera Wang gown! (laughs)

Dallas Middaugh: Anything else you'd like to share with us today?

Robert Rodriguez: I can't wait for people to see this! It's been since 1999! It's been an almost 20 year journey for you to see something that thankfully is still cutting edge, still something very new. It's been gestating for so long, so we're glad that the timing worked out so that it still feels fresh and new. It will cut through all the other projects that are out there, all the other things that you could spend your movie-going dollars on. It'll be exciting and special, while still having a lot of classic storytelling elements. It has a lot of heart – you'll feel something after you watch it.

Jon Landau: While we have Rosa up here, and she's certainly our star, I want to also point out that we have a tremendous cast. We have Christof Waltz (Dr. Dyson Ido), Jennifer Connelly (Chiren), Keean Johnson (Hugo)…

Robert Rodriguez: We have three Oscar winners in this movie! (Cristoph Waltz – Inglorious Basterds and Django Unchained, Jennifer Connelly – A Beautiful Mind, and Mahershala Ali – Moonlight)

Jon Landau: I want this to be a movie that when you see it, you'll feel like we did our part to take something that has been somewhat on the fringe, and made it mainstream. We're taking something that has been a manga, has been adapted as an anime and bring it out there for the world to see these incredible stories. If you come away from Alita feeling that we've done that, then we've accomplished everything that we wanted.

Dallas Middaugh: So before we wrap up, as I mentioned earlier, there are over 30 volumes of the Battle Angel Alita manga, what are the plans for Alita 2?

Jon Landau: I'm going to throw it back out there! If enough people go see the movie, and we hope they will, we are prepared to do that. This is a world that is ripe for other storytelling. But we need this movie to work, to prove that it can be what we believe it can be, and let audiences tell us if they want more. The three of us here would love nothing more than to work on more of these stories.

Rosa Salazar: That's right. When I talked with Jim on the set of Avatar 2, I said, 'Sooo, when are we going to make Alita 2, buddy?' (laughs) He said, 'Well, we'll have to wait and see what the audience wants.' That touched my heart, because I know he has all of you in mind when he's making his films. The power is in your hands.

Dallas Middaugh: (to the audience) Last week, they sent me some boxes – each one were the size of shoeboxes, and each one weighted 31 pounds! Inside the boxes are these collectible coins – they've got a lot of heft to them! There's enough for everyone here, and you'll get them on the way out.

Jon Landau: These are the Credits from Iron City. In Iron City, paper currency doesn't exist. There's an image of Zolom, and on the other side, there's a Motor Ball. We thank you for being a fan of Alita and a fan of this type of genre, and this type of work. We thank you!

Alita: Battle Angel is scheduled for release in North America on December 21, 2018. You can see the trailer and learn more about the film at its website at 20th Century Fox: https://www.foxmovies.com/movies/alita-battle-angel and the Alita: Battle Angel Facebook page: https://www.Facebook.com/AlitaMovie/ and on Twitter: https://twitter.com/alitamovie?lang=en

The entire Battle Angel Alita manga series, including the new deluxe editions of the original series, its sequel, Battle Angel Alita: Last Order and prequel Battle Angel Alita: Mars Chronicle are available now from Kodansha Comics.

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