'Alita: Battle Angel' Producer Jon Landau On The Film's Long Road To The Big Screen [Interview]

Alita: Battle Angel has been a long time coming. Based on Yukito Kishiro's manga series Battle Angel Alita, the big and intimate Robert Rodriguez film was once going to be directed by producer James Cameron, who ended up choosing Avatar over the property. Cameron ultimately handed directorial duties over to Rodriguez, who helped whip Cameron's epic script into a manageable length.

Even with a different director at the helm, producer Jon Landau wanted to make a James Cameron-style event film, describing the movie as "a movie with themes bigger than its genre" and "has a central relatable character, who on many levels, is an ordinary character who ends up doing extraordinary things against this epic backdrop." Alita: Battle Angel, which the site's own Hoai-Tran Bui rightfully praised as Hollywood's first good manga adaptation, certainly checks those boxes.

We spoke to Landau recently and he told us a bit more about the project's history, working with Cameron, deleted scenes, and Avatar 2.

When was your first conversation with James Cameron about Alita: Battle Angel

This goes back all the way to 1999 or 2000 when Guillermo del Toro introduced us to "Alita: Battle Angel." Jim saw it as a movie he wanted to direct, and he told me why he wanted to direct it for his eight-year-old daughter. He saw it as a movie that was about the empowerment of young women, women who don't have to think of themselves as insignificant, and that they can make a difference in the world. Not just for women, but for young people everywhere, it's the idea that inside of everybody, there's the ability to be a hero.

Can you imagine making the movie in the early 2000s?

I don't think it would've been right in 1999, but in 2005, we sort of looked at the landscape of what might be possible. You know, Jim had written another script ten years earlier, which was Avatar. We said let's do some RND, and took a year from 2005 to 2006, testing the waters. We didn't know which movie we were going to make, but history has shown, we chose to do Avatar first, and when that became what it did, we had to put Alita on the back burner.

You've said this about James Cameron before, but it goes for you as well, that you both want to explore the unknown, especially in filmmaking. When production finally began on Alita, what was new?

You know, I think what really felt new is the facial performance capture. Alita was much closer to a human character than Neytiri or Jake or any of the Na'vi characters, or even Caesar and what Weta had done in the past. To push the nuances and the subtlety of emotional performance in the face of a humanoid character, that was the biggest challenge.

What were some of the other advances of working with that technology now versus when you made Avatar? How much have those effects advanced since then? 

I think in the simplest terms, on the first Avatar, we built a single standard-definition head rig to capture the facial performance. On Alita, we used two high-definition cameras [Laughs]. Weta Digital was then able to analyze each of those images on almost a frame by frame, pore by pore basis. Weta told me this recently: one of Alita's eyes alone has more detail than all of Gollum from Lord of the Rings.

Was there ever a moment on Alita where you saw a final rendering of the character, and thought, "This is going to work"?

Look, you have to take a leap of faith on these characters. It wasn't until we really saw the scene where she goes up and looks at herself in the mirror for the first time, because that was one of the first scenes that we got back, and she looks in the mirror astounded with what she sees, and we were too. We were like, "Wow. Weta really did it."

Before Robert Rodriguez took a pass at the script, James Cameron's draft of it was mammoth, like 180 pages. What work did the script need and what got cut?

The work that it needed, and Robert put it best, he said, "Jon, I'm not going to rewrite Jim Cameron, because you don't. I'm going to edit him." Jim had never got back [to the script] again. What Robert did, he looked at things he felt were superfluous to the character's story, and scenes – quite a few of them, in fact – that took place outside of Iron City and in the badlands, the wasteland in the world. Robert focused more on the story of Iron City and combined certain characters and focused on her story, instead of telling other stories.

alita battle angel clipsThere was also the 600 page document James Cameron had.

He gave Robert 600 pages, yeah.

Did you read the whole thing? What was it all about?

I did read that whole thing. There were sections, like, what does it mean to be a cyborg? And when I say section, I mean 20 pages of that. Nova, a character who's in maybe a minute and a half of the movie, there were 12 pages of notes about his character we actually gave to the actor [playing Nova]. Jim and his process, he wants to know where the character has been, and where is he going, because it all informs what you need to do with the story you're telling. Giving that to the actor, it determines how he plays it a little.

How is James Cameron as a writer when he's directing? Does he allow for many line alterations or changes?

No, no, no. Well, both, okay? Jim, I tell people Jim has three stages of writing. I think one of Jim's greatest strengths is he never loses sight of why the writer did something, because it's him. The first phase is the script — and we all understand that — and the second phase of writing is when he is working with the actors. He'll allow for spontaneity and creative collaboration on the set, but he never loses sight of why he wrote something. But that's what then happens in what I'll call his third phase of writing, which is editing. When he goes to edit a movie, he brings that same writer sensibility to the editing process. If there's a scene, for whatever reason, that did not work or becomes superfluous — and there always are — Jim always asks the question, "Why did I write it? What was it doing? What purpose was it serving? If it's not working and I have to change it, how do I feel in the gap it's created from whatever changes I've made in the editorial process?" To me, it's those three things for a writer.

[Spoiler Alert]Were there ever any of those moments on Alita: Battle Angel? What scenes were cut?

I'll tell you about a scene that had to go, and a scene we had to put in, because it goes both ways [Laughs]. There was a scene where Hugo woke up in his cyborg body, and he reacted to that. It was a scene we realized, I'm going to describe it with a term we used way back when when we were doing True Lies — a cul-de-sac. We went all in, played out this scene, and we came back, and story-wise, we were really at the same beat. We just did not need to take this journey on that cul-de-sac at that point in the movie.

But, what we did need was to figure out was how to bridge – this is what I call the "truth scene" — at the end of the movie when Alita and Hugo were up on the tube to this final scene where she comes down and the scene in the stadium. We added in the scene with the blade and the teardrop, which was not in the original script.

[Spoiler Over]Sequels are often rushed to get made, but with Avatar 2, obviously you all took the time you needed to get the story right. I was wondering, though, how do you and James Cameron look at the space of time between the first and second movie? Does it make any difference? Do you have to consider how the cultural landscape has changed between the first and second movie? 

You know, we don't have to think about the cultural landscape; we have to think about the script and the storytelling. There were many years between Star Wars and Star Wars, initially. Not the first movie, but after that. We're making standalone movies that will standalone.

What we learned about the response to Avatar: people want to return to the world of Pandora, and they want to spend more time with Jake and Neytiri. Rather than rushing into doing the sequels, because Jim doesn't rush it, we have to build our foundation, and that's the scripts. Knowing that we wanted to tell multiple stories, we didn't want to just solve one script, we wanted to solve the scripts for all of the movies we wanted to make before we ventured out to making them, that's what took us the time.

I believe what's going to happen people are going to return to the world because the scripts Jim has delivered, they deliver on the promise created by the first movie: where we're going to go, both in terms of the environment and the emotional story with the characters.

We made a decision for the sequels not to do necessarily what other science-fiction movies do, which is if they want water, they go to the ocean planet, and if they want snow, they go to the ice planet. We looked at all the wonders the Earth shows us, and we realized we could travel our whole lives and not see all the true wonders Earth has, so Jim made the decision to set the sequels all on Pandora. Our stories introduce to us different environments, and also different cultures.

Again, on Earth, we have a diversity of cultures. By exposing not just one Na'vi clan, but different clans as we move into the sequels, that are different. It's not that they just go to different places. If you live somewhere else, culturally, you're going to be different. How does that play out amongst people – getting along, dealing with each other, what type of conflicts it creates, and all of that.


Alita: Battle Angel opens in theaters February 15.