Movies

Director, actress on bringing Cameron's Alita: Battle Angel to life

US actress Rosa Salazar on her motion capture performance in Alita: Battle Angel

Before Hollywood film-maker James Cameron turned Avatar into the highest-grossing movie in history in 2009, he was working on a new kind of cinematic heroine with the big-screen adaptation of cyberpunk manga series Battle Angel Alita.

He had a whole franchise planned for Yukito Kishiro's graphic novels about a cyborg discovered on a garbage heap.

However, the runaway success of Avatar led to a staggering four sequels being green-lit, so Cameron made the unprecedented decision to let go of his baby, entrusting his 600-page Alita: Battle Angel script to his friend, US film-maker Robert Rodriguez (Sin City, Spy Kids).

"I totally bought into his version of it and I wanted to help him get it to the screen. I wanted, as a fan, to see that movie," Rodriguez, 50, told AFP at last year's CinemaCon industry convention in Las Vegas.

"So that was my approach to it, not to go and take it and turn it into something else, but help Jim finish what he had started out to make."

Opening here on Feb 5 with sneaks from Feb 1 to 4, Alita: Battle Angel is an epic adventure set hundreds of years in the future.

The unconscious titular protagonist (Rosa Salazar) is found in a scrapyard by Ido (Christoph Waltz), a doctor who realises that somewhere in her abandoned cyborg shell is the heart and soul of an extraordinary young woman.

He tries to shield Alita from her mysterious past as the corrupt forces that run things come after her - and she discovers she has unique fighting abilities.

US actress Salazar, 33, known for the Divergent and Maze Runner teen franchises, leads an Oscar-winning all-star cast featuring Jennifer Connelly, Mahershala Ali and Waltz.

Rodriguez, who befriended Cameron 25 years ago, didn't so much rewrite Cameron's Alita script as edit it down to a manageable length, suggesting some additional photography and dialogue, and moving the action to South America.

And he has always believed in Cameron's vision of a CGI cyborg that appears every bit as real - in soul, if not in appearance - as the young women who will see the movie.

"A lot of the time, manga-type material is unrelatable to an audience because it's just so far out, it's all spectacle and not enough emotion and human relatability," he said.

"And that's the opposite of what Jim does."

Q&A WITH ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL'S ROSA SALAZAR

What was it about Alita that appealed to you?

Well, a few things, like Robert Rodriguez, who is Latino and who I've wanted to work with for years.

He's such an iconic film-maker because he can make a film out of nothing. Like with El Mariachi (1992). Desperado (1995) was the first thing I saw of his, with my mum. I was a young girl and I just fell in love with it. It was a strong emotional story, a love story with explosions and guts and guns and bar shootouts.

And then of course there's James Cameron. And, like Robert, he creates stories with strong, well-rounded female characters. They've both been doing it for years.

Another big thing for me is that I had been doing these big movies and this felt like a graduation for me. I've done stunts and wire work. I've fallen down. I've jumped off stuff. In the Maze Runner films, there are some crazy sequences - riding around in a car with a big gun popping through the sun roof. All of that was a great training ground for Alita and I really wanted to test my skills.

I also wanted to do performance capture, because I love acting and finding new ways that I can bend my craft and use it to funnel it towards this goal we're all trying to create. And I really wanted to show that you can be a Latin woman leading a big-budget studio film.

Did you do any prep?

I am such a big fan of (English actor famed for motion capture) Andy Serkis that I watched every single behind-the-scenes featurette a long time ago on DVD. And then I was watching (English actor) Benedict Cumberbatch as Smaug (in The Hobbit movies), and a lot of the Planet Of The Apes movies which were done by Weta Digital, who also did Alita.

When actors do performance capture, often the character they're playing doesn't look anything like them. But with Alita, there seems to be a reasonable amount of you in the character.

It's an anime version of myself. It's super cool! And it was always the plan, that whatever actress was going to inhabit the role, it was going to be her performance and her face and her features. More and more as they edit and draw the film, every time I see it, it looks more like me. Which is eerie, and wonderful.

When I was playing Alita, we were one and the same. They used a lot of my real face and the real scars, divots, muscle pulls, lines, creases and imperfections to look like me.

Although one thing I had to change was my posture, because cyborgs don't hunch. And I have the worst posture. So I had to have my shoulders back constantly and just be standing straight and not lean.

Did you have to learn a lot of fighting skills?

Yeah. Training almost killed me. When I walked in there, I was made out of croissants. I was writing my short film, and writers don't eat well. So I was really out of shape. I was thin, I had no endurance, no core.

I trained with (US martial artist) Keith Hirabayashi for months. And I changed to a plant-based diet and it was very hard. Well, now I'm vegan. Because James Cameron convinced me to be vegan and he's right. You feel stronger, more capable.

But it's not just me. There are nine women that bring Alita to life. Whenever we reach my physical capabilities or abilities, another person takes over who's been doing this for life. So you have many martial artists, contortionists, rollerbladers. And then you have me doing all the acting when they're recording the bodily info.

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