'Alita: Battle Angel' Star Christoph Waltz On Working With Robert Rodriguez And Cinematographer Bill Pope [Interview]

Alita: Battle Angel isn't a movie set in the future that's all about doom and gloom. Director Robert Rodriguez's grand spectacle tells a story with genuine warmth and kindness, thanks in no small part to the presence of actor Christoph Waltz. Playing Dr. Dyson Ido, who discovers Alita in a heap of trash and jolts her back to life, Waltz helps make Rodriguez's adaptation of Yukito Kishiro's manga series more heartfelt than a typical studio movie (which Alita: Battle Angel most certainly is not).

Waltz plays a paternal role and watches Alita's self-discovery unfold like the audience does. Another part of Waltz's role and job: assisting in explaining the world, Alita, and the tech. The actor does plenty of heavy lifting for the story, but like Cameron's handle for world building, Waltz does it all with a natural ease. Plus, if there's one actor you're going to immediately buy as a brilliant scientist and doctor, it's the Inglorious Basterds star, who recently told us about his experience with Rodriguez, cinematographer Bill Pope (The Matrix), and producer James Cameron during a brief phone interview.

The movie is gigantic in scale, but you spend a lot of your screen time one on one with Rosa Salazar. Does a project like this feel like a big machine or not too different from a drama without effects? 

Both. Of course, it's impossible to overlook the big machine, but what we were supposed to do and what we wanted to do is do the intimate drama, serious acting kind of thing, and I think that's what is nice about this movie — that you have a combination of things that you don't see that often in huge spectacles.

How much time did you want to spend exploring the source material?

It can be misleading, so there's a little bit of a danger lurking in delving too far into the source material, especially if it's a graphic novel, because it kind of impresses images on you that are not yours, yet it's so interesting to see where something comes from and what the changes were that happened during the adaptation and the transposition from one medium into another, I find that interesting to see, but really valuable, the most valuable thing should always be the script.

Of course, James Cameron wrote the script a long time ago, and since he spent so much time writing these characters and immersed in the world, was there anything inspiring about your conversations with him? Maybe anything he said about Dyson Ido you kept in mind during the shoot? 

Well, of course, if you talk to James Cameron, almost everything is inspiring, but specifically about this, he was very, very discreet and very careful. We knew that he initiated it, we knew that he bought it, we knew why he liked it, but we never went further than that, because he wanted Robert to make the movie, and that is not only a very generous gesture, it is also a very smart thing to do, because, by nature, directing a movie is an operation that doesn't really take to interference too well, and interference is rarely, rarely productive. So I understand that it's a difficult decision, but it's an either/or decision, and Jim really, really made that decision consciously, and he could have picked any director, but he picked Robert for a reason, and then he let him do his movie. So that's the spirit.

Robert Rodriguez is not the average director and usually wears many hats on his movies, like composer and cinematographer. With all his talents, what makes him unique as a collaborator? 

He couldn't really employ all of the talent. I mean, of course, you can always employ all of your talent, that's clear, but, in this case, he did have a cinematographer, and he did have composer, and he did have the big machinery to captain. That was probably different from what he's used to, because he always does everything himself. He did have an editor or two to do it, and that's a great step for Robert to try to employ his vast experience in every single aspect of the filmmaking process, and still delegate it and direct these accomplished professionals into giving their best for the movie that he wants to see.

I have no experience with it, but I'm sure directing a huge movie like Alita, of course requires different and more, let's say, leading or qualities as a leader than doing a small, quick, spontaneous kind of shoot, yet one does not contradict the other, and that's why his experience is really what guaranteed the successful progress of this shoot and post-production and everything. If he talks to these people, he knows what he's saying, and those people know that he does and listen to him accordingly, that's immense.

What was the extent of your collaboration with Bill Pope? Actors seem to have varying relationships with cinematographers, but how much collaboration with a DP is involved with a movie like Alita: Battle Angel?

Well, all the great cinematographers work with their eyes open and their ears in terms of listening to what the director has to say, and all the great ones don't really engage their mouth too much because they are busy, and Bill Pope is exactly one of those. So we had great conversations, because I keep asking [questions], because I'm interested in what cinematographers have to say, but he would not interfere with what's happening in the scenes, or amongst the actors, or what the director tells the actors. He wouldn't even say, "Step a little over to the left, there's a better light." He kind of lets things happens and looks at them. He's always standing there with his arms folded in front of him, and looking and watching, and that's what the great ones do.

What do you come away from making a movie of this scope having learned? When you work on a movie this big, how much do you want to learn about all the effects and moving pieces involved? 

That's why I had interesting conversations with Bill, because I'm interested in light and lighting, and that's what he does so masterfully, but there was a legion of visual techs people and computer people, and that is something that is really, completely alien to me, so to find out what all of that is about is already a wild exaggeration, because I just wanted to know what they do with it and how they do it, and that was interesting. But it didn't really interest me to the degree that traditional cinematography, which is still involved. It's still lit with various fixtures. It's still considered under the same, more or less, technical perimeters than a hundred years ago, only evolved and developed, and the fixtures are so sophisticated, but it's still to the consideration of the cinematographer to actually look at the image and see what he does with the light, still the same thing. So it's the classic, in a way, that interests me the most.


Alita: Battle Angel is now in theaters.