By Noah Howard
Famed producer Jon Landau, partner of James Cameron, has a long and storied career. He produced “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids,” “Dick Tracy,” “Titanic,” “Avatar” and the newly released “Alita: Battle Angel.” “Alita,” based on the manga by Yukito Kishiro and directed by Robert Rodriguez, made a splash because of its cyberpunk aesthetic, its martial arts-inspired action and the striking appearance of Alita herself (a CGI cyborg among live actors, Alita has metal limbs, a photorealistic face and massive, anime-style eyes). Screen desk editor Noah Howard sat down with Landau at a recent Palo Alto screening to discuss this new blockbuster film.
The Stanford Daily (TSD): I want to start off by mentioning what I think is the most obvious question when I saw the trailer: the eyes. The eyes are a very bold aesthetic choice, and there was a lot of controversy about it when the trailer was first released, but I think, in the end, it really works. Nevertheless, can you talk a bit about what that choice was like?
Jon Landau (JL): It was an easy choice for us because Yukito Kishiro, in the original manga, had her with big eyes, and we made a commitment to him that we were going to hold true to the world that he created. Oftentimes, works that are mangas are very Asian-centric, and Hollywood Hollywood-izes the manga and it doesn’t work. We said to Kishiro [that] we were going to do the cinematic version and not Hollywood-ize it. Hollywood-izing it would’ve been, “Oh, well, let’s change Alita’s look, let’s give her blonde hair, let’s give her normal eyes,” and we wouldn’t have been true to the world that he created. Kishiro’s world is a melting pot. You see Iron City in the movie and it’s people from all over the world, the [diverse] languages that are spoken, it’s not Asian. Alita herself, in the graphic novel, is not Asian. A funny story is, when Kishiro visited our set, it was the first time he’d ever left Japan. He went and visited [the set of the] Kansas Bar, and I said to him, “Why did you name the bar the Kansas Bar?” And — through an interpreter — he said, “Because I like the band.” So we kept the eyes the way they were because we were paying homage to what Kishiro had created.
TSD: Did Kishiro have much direct input into the film’s creative process?
JL: I wouldn’t say he had a lot of input, but he gave his blessing along the way. Jim Cameron made a trip over to meet with him before we acquired the rights, and I went back several times and showed him artwork, showed him the script, showed him different scenes in post-production, and two weeks ago, roughly, I went to Tokyo and showed him the final version of the movie. I was very nervous about that, needless to say, and at the end, there were three things he said that made my day. One, that we’d lived up to our promise to not distort his world. Two, the movie was more emotional than he thought it would be. And three, the action, and the motorball [a sport in the film’s world], was on a scope and scale he, when he was writing it, never imagined. That was pretty rewarding.
TSD: I’m also curious about how you chose this property in particular. The last two, off the top of my head, anime-based movies released in the U.S. were “Ghost in the Shell” and “Deathnote,” both of which were properties very popular in the U.S., but I’d never heard of “Alita: Battle Angel” before this. How did you choose this for such a big project, considering it doesn’t already have an audience?
JL: Movies make audiences. They don’t need to go in with an audience. We look for movies that have themes that are bigger than their genre. The theme to me is what you take away from the theater, especially on an emotional basis, and the plot is what you leave at the theater. When Guillermo del Toro introduced to us to the property, Jim had an 8-year-old daughter at the time. He wanted to make this movie as a gift for her. He recognized in his daughter what at some point all adolescents go through, which is this feeling of insignificance. Yet “Alita” shows a story of a girl who takes control of her own destiny, she’s not someone who subscribes to what someone else tells her she is or who she should be. And she doesn’t come into the world with special powers, she’s not a superhero. She discovers inside of her the ability to be a hero. That was the story we wanted to tell, whether it was based on a manga, whether it was based on a book, whether it was based on an original screenplay, we thought that was a universal story that everybody could relate to.
TSD: You mentioned Cameron had an 8-year-old daughter “at the time.” I know this movie has been in production for a long, long time, and it’s very clear that a lot of effort from a lot of people went into it over a long period of time. In the beginning stages of the project, how easy or difficult was it to see the light at the end of the tunnel?
JL: At the beginning of any project, we have different tunnels that we go through. It’s never like we say, “We’re starting here, let’s look at the light at the end of the tunnel.” Our first tunnel is the script, and that often is a very long process the way we go about things. To get to a point where we had a script on “Alita” was five years. And then we said, “Okay, we have a script, but it’s too long, but we can come back and deal with that.” At that same time, we realized that technology was getting to a point where we could do a movie that Jim had written, “Avatar.” And then we spent a year researching technology that could apply to either “Avatar” or “Alita,” not knowing which movie we would do. As history shows, we chose to do “Avatar,” and that again put “Alita” on the back burner. We then needed to find a director. We wanted to find a director that we could parent our child with together, and partner with. Out of a social lunch with Robert [Rodriguez], the idea of Robert doing it came up. That then started the next tunnel. That was 2015, and here we are in 2019 with the movie coming out. I think one of the objectives, especially as a producer, is to keep an eye on that — what you call the light at the end of the tunnel, what I just call the bullseye at the end of the target — and making sure that everybody shares that same vision to get to that light, to get to that bullseye, as we go through what is a very long process. It was long for Robert. Robert had never done a movie of this length … We spent six months shooting it, and we spent two years in post-production. The key is keeping your eye on that goal, how do you get to that end of the tunnel.
TSD: I’m fascinated by the choice of Rodriguez as a director, because he’s sort of the best B-movie director around, he makes A-level B-movies that are incredibly, for lack of a better word, cool. It’s a great fit for this movie, but it’s also an unintuitive fit, considering how giant this movie is. In The Stanford Daily’s review, we said this was a man who could make an amazing movie “out of a toothpick and some pocket lint.”
JL: We felt that Robert brought all the sensibilities you just spoke about, and we brought the big scale … If you look, though, back at Robert’s films, although they’re done on a different scale, many of them have very strong female characters in them, that become iconic in their own right. The “Spy Kids” [movies] certainly had a child and family dynamic that we’re looking for in the Ido/Alita relationship, and Robert is someone who is willing to embrace technology. Robert shot in 3D before we made “Avatar,” with “Spy Kids.”
TSD: Oh right, the third “Spy Kids” movie!
JL: Right! He used our technology! We had developed the technology, but he used it! So he’s not someone who’s afraid of technology, but [rather] is willing to embrace it. That made for a very good fit.
TSD: Another thing I really wanted to talk about was, this movie, it definitely stands on its own in terms of its plot, but [from the ending] it’s also clear that you’re planning a franchise.
JL: That’s up to you! That’s up to how many of your readers you can get to go see it!
TSD: (laughs) I am curious about that decision, though!
JL: Yes and no. The ending gives you a promise of more in her life, so did “Titanic,” you know, it shows her in bed and the whole life she lived. I look at “Alita” as a coming-of-age story. We’re dealing with her life, I’m gonna call it, through her graduation of high school. The end of the movie becomes her culmination, and there’s another story to tell, just as there was when you graduated high school, just as there is when anybody else graduates high school. There are more stories to tell that way, whether there’s a sequel or not, I think that what we tried to do is wrap up and bring closure to the story of this movie, yet show that this movie is now empowering her to go do something bigger than she thought she could do at the beginning of the movie.
TSD: Speaking of the power of the character, the most striking part of the movie is the action scenes. It does not look like an American action movie. Every hit is actually shown in frame, which is great, but also very atypical of American blockbusters, so can you speak a bit about the stylistic choices that went into the action?
JL: We wanted to do fantastical action, but grounded in a reality that we’re creating within the context of the movie, so that it doesn’t take you out of it. We’re able to design the motorball players, with some pretty cool designs, I think, and then, because those sequences are all created with computer-generated imagery, we’re able to move them at faster speeds, we’re able to create dynamic combat within the motorball sequence, and we’re able to control the camera so that we can see the action as part of our storytelling. But then we want to bring into it things like lens flares, because lens flares are grounded in reality. If you’re out in a real stadium, you’re going to catch a flare, and it lets you get away with the other stuff, like when they do the big jump at the end of the one sequence, through all of the phosphorescent spray that’s coming up, like fireworks spray. That’s pretty out there, but it’s grounded with the reality that we’ve created for the sequence.
TSD: It’s so clear that all of this is the result of cutting-edge technology. What does this film do first that no film has done before, and what does the technology allow you to do that you think you couldn’t have done in the past?
JL: What this film does that no film has really done before [is] it brings an emotional humanoid character to connect with the audience that’s not hiding behind blue skin on a foreign alien planet, that’s not hiding behind ape fur (in a great series of movies). She’s out there standing next to some of the great actors of our time — Christoph Waltz, Mahershala Ali, Ed Skrein — and she has to be as photographically real as they are. And what I love about what we were able to do from a technology standpoint is, we don’t need dialogue to convey the emotion of what she’s thinking. We were able to capture the essence of Rosa’s performance and put that up on the screen. When we did the first “Avatar,” we had one standard definition camera recording the face. Now we’re using two high-definition cameras recording the face. It gives us a much higher fidelity in performance. Weta Digital recently told me that in a single eye of Alita’s there is more detail than they had in all of Gollum in “Lord of the Rings.” The skin, the pores, all these things that they’re able to do, is just a much higher level than they were ever able to do before.
TSD: You’ve talked a bit about the significance of science fiction in particular, but this is a very specific sub-genre of science fiction — cyberpunk — which you don’t see nearly as often. What is the significance of cyberpunk as a sub-genre of science fiction?
JL: I think that cyberpunk enables you to drop your barriers a little bit more than other science fiction does. I think that the way it’s approached in literature, the way Kishiro approached it, it creates a greater vulnerability that other science fiction doesn’t have. It’s not as overtly intellectually driven, but there’s an intellectual under bed.
TSD: Great! Thanks so much for the film.
JL: My pleasure!
This transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity.