Rosa Salazar, Keean Johnson, Robert Rodriguez Interview - Alita: Battle Angel

Director Robert Rodriguez is best known for his Mexico Trilogy of films and the Spy Kids franchise.  His newest film is Alita: Battle Angel, a cyberpunk action film starring Rosa Salazar in the title role and Keean Johnson as Hugo, Alita's love interest.  Salazar has appeared in multiple television shows and films including Big Mouth, The Divergent Series: Insurgent, and Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials. Alita is produced by blockbuster director film James Cameron and his co-producer Jon Landau. Landau also produced Titanic, Solaris, and the Avatar sequels.

Screen Rant: Guys, Battle Angel Alita...welcome to...I was going to say San Diego Comic-Con again...

Robert Rodriguez: Like last time! No no.

Screen Rant: New York Comic Con 2018. We are in New York. We are in New York. I'm excited about this film and I'm really happy actually I think that it's really smart, me and Jon were just talking, moving it to the Valentine's Day, that February slot I think is really smart because that's a sleeper date. How influential were the two of you in that decision making process?

Robert Rodriguez:  Well also it's the best time to launch a franchise. We get all the IMAX screens you know, just for presentation. We see that the movie just appeals to all audiences and that's just like a clearer place to launch a franchise.

Jon Landau: Well I think that for us, we were instrumental behind the scenes. You know. We were looking at what the movie has become which is a story with a romance in there between these two. It's really become much more of a family movie than whenever we first envisioned it. And to be out on Valentine's Day to be out leading into President's Day weekend to have no movies coming right behind us. It was the right date to launch a new hero, not a superhero, a hero. Because that's what Alita is.

Rosa Salazar: And for us, we just trust in them implicitly. They know what they are doing.

Screen Rant: So the physicality to this role, Rosa, must have been pretty intense and also I want to know about what you kind of studied to get ready for this. Because it seems like quite a challenge...

Rosa Salazar: It was quite a challenge. It was a process. I went straight into training from being cast. I remember Jim [Cameron] and Robert talking about how, you know, they didn't want to get two kicks out of someone and have her be exhausted and I agreed. And there was a hill for me to climb there. I was riding a lot at the time and I was...I like to tell people that I was made out of croissants, because it was true! So I started training a few hours every single day. We did some Eagle Claw which is kung-fu, we did some Muay Thai kicking. Muay Thai is very fierce fighting so I really liked Muay Thai. We did staff work. We did kickboxing. And it really not only prepared me physically for the role, I mean I really felt strong. It also prepared me mentally. I mean you think about a warrior, you think about their abilities physically. But you aren't always thinking about their abilities mentally and they're linked, the two.

Screen Rant: Now I now that anime films in the past struggled with an American audience, but what sets this apart a little bit is that this can take place anywhere in the world. How does that benefit Battle Angel Alita from other anime films that may have come before this?

Robert Rodriguez: Yeah, well what [Yukito] Kishoro wrote was something that was very universal. It was set in another place, originally Kansas City. But what was nice for me, Jim had decided this before I came aboard, is how the Equator work and how a space elevator would work best would be closer to the Equator. So, he had set it in a Panama City type place, you know like a South American country in the future. Which gives you all the color of a South American country in a futuristic film which you've never seen before. And we are seeing it through Alita's eyes anyway so the color palette is really original for a sci-fi film. But really the character of Alita is what is the real draw and the universal character that he wrote and her journey of self-discovery and discovering that she does have this power to change the world and so we thought that was such a universal story we wanted it to be made as a very universal story.

Jon Landau: It was Kishiro who did in what he wrote and I remember talking to him about this. He really looked at America and he set a story that was representative of that world. And I said to him, "Why the Kansas bar?" Because that's the bar we played in the movie, he played in the graphic novel. And he goes, "Because I like the band." And that was his answer and I think that's why this is different than so many others. And the lead character is not Asian-centric. She's a universal character, we could have cast anybody of any ethnicity to play the part. And we got to choose the best actress and that's what we got.

Rosa Salazar: And they really saw everybody.

Screen Rant: Keean how does Hugo view Alita..from where we start?

Keean Johnson: Well what's interesting is Hugo's obviously a part of this world where, you know, there are people that are cyborgs. There are people with just one body part that's robotic and in Alita's case everything from the neck down is robotic. He's kind of been conditioned in this world that he's grown up in to maybe look down's not looking down on, he just doesn't understand that lifestyle. And he's very much all human. So what's also is interesting is Hugo's journey of meeting Alita and looking past, you know, what she is and helping her find out who she is. Because really that's what it's about. Hugo wants a better life, but then he sees this girl and realizes that he might have it off really bad, but she doesn't even know who she is. So he thinks that it's kind of his duty to help her find that out.

Rosa Salazar: I think that I would go as far as saying that there is prejudice there. People that are human, that have no replacement parts and then people that are totally replaced with parts. It's sort of a Montague and Capulet's situation. Or a .... situation. It's the other side. I think that he being interested in Alita, it changes him in a very drastic way.

Screen Rant: Now Jon I know that this project has been on your radar for quite a while. Now that we are finally getting it, I want to ask you what was it about Robert's eye that was like "Yes, he is the perfect choice for this." Because you do, Robert, you have such a great eye for this kind of stuff and innovation I feel like. I talked to you about this yesterday a little bit, like every DVD I would always watch and have to listen to your commentary for two reasons. One, you would always cook something and have a little meal with it. But two, it's like going to film school. Talk to me about that...

Jon Landau: I think that one of things that Jim and I have always been impressed about Robert and his films is that each world that he presents on film is unique and it's comprehensive. But inside of it Robert has never lost sight of character and story. Whether that's Spy Kids, El Mariachi, whatever it is it always comes back to the characters in his films. And also Robert is someone who we looked at who is not afraid of technology. Because we knew that to bring Alita to the screen with the same emotive quality we needed, we needed someone that wouldn't feel intimidated by technology. And Robert shot a 3D movie before Jim Cameron did, now it happened to use Jim Cameron's system, but nonetheless. So Robert was the right person and he proved it to us when he took Jim's way too long script and he cut it down. And we didn't miss anything. And that told us that he saw what was important. The themes of this character. The themes of this relationship. The themes of a father having a second chance at daughterhood. Those are all the things that are important.

Screen Rant: That's a great way of putting that. Because when I do think of innovative filmmakers you're definitely at the top of the list with what you do and the vision that you bring to it. How did you want to approach Alita to give it a definitive look and feel away from other anime films that may have come before it?

Robert Rodriguez: Something that Jim mentioned... And also even a critique I even have of my own films. I'm very whimsical in my movies. You know like, a guitar case that fires missiles. Do you really need to know how it works? Nah. But that wouldn't fly with Jim. Jim is more science fact, even in his science fiction. And he builds worlds that are all believable. If you think about it you know? Titanic, The Abyss, even Terminator, they're very tangible, real so then you would believe the space travel. You would believe all the flights of fancy. So this had to be really grounded and real like a Jim Cameron movie. So I really wanted to make it like a Jim Cameron movie, more than a Robert Rodriguez film. In that it had to feel really grounded and real and that informed how we shot it. Which was build mostly sets, not have the CG stick out as CG, so that you believed her. And that was really crucial because that's what he does. It has to be completely grounded. Or you won't believe her for a second. Or anything that I do in fantasy. You don't believe it if it's not grounded. So that was a real cool lesson and also the way to shoot it in the style. Just like I did Sin City in Frank Miller's style, I wanted this to feel like a Jim Cameron movie. I didn't want it to feel like a Robert Rodriguez movie. I didn't want Sin City to feel like a Robert Rodriguez movie.

Keean Johnson: Well but there is, however, a bar fight scene that is very much a Robert Rodriguez...

Robert Rodriguez: ...I don't know because I told Jim, I said, "We gotta make this bar fight really cool." I went and looked up top ten bar fights online and two of them were his and two of them were mine. Dusk til Dawn, Desperado, I guess that's just what we do. We had to kind of top ourselves, so half of that is at least Jim's.

Screen Rant: That's amazing. Now for you two. I love sci-fi, I love anime. I love the comic book genre. Mainly because they are cautionary tales that we can all learn from. What do you hope that audiences take away from this film?

Rosa Salazar: Well, I hope that audiences...Young girls obviously but also young boys and all people...I hope they take away the theme that really inspired me when I started. When I read the script and when I talked to these guys. Which is, here you have a character who considers herself a tiny speck of dust. She's insignificant. She says, "I'm just an insignificant little girl. I don't matter. I couldn't possibly change anything. I couldn't possibly do anything. I couldn't make a difference." And then she goes on her journey of self-discovery and finding out who she is, who she was. And empowering herself on that journey and realizes, discovers that she actually does have the ability to change her circumstances. And she actually is someone quite incredible who has the power to change things for everyone. I would like them to take away that you may feel like a small, insignificant person. Like you couldn't and oust the monsters that we see on our TV's every single day. But you can. And you can do something and you just have to follow that thread.

Keean Johnson: And just from like a film-goer's perspective, in this day and age it's very rare where you go to a theater and you sit down and you watch a film and you watch a story that you don't know anything about the characters beforehand... It's not a sequel. It's something completely new. So just as like a film-goer's perspective just being able to go to a film. Sit down and watch...

Rosa Salazar: You lose yourself.

Keean Johnson: ...something that you've never seen before. And see a world that's going to be the first time telling it other than you know, the two episode manga on You Tube or the anime. It's just going to be so fun for people, just like Avatar...I went on my first date to Avatar, ever. And the date went terribly, but it was mainly because I sat down and saw this film where you're thrown into this world that you've never seen before. So I just watched the movie the whole time and kind of forgot about the girl I was with. But you know, hopefully people can have the same experience...

Rosa Salazar: ...And I hope that she goes and sees Alita with a different date...

Jon Landau: What Keean's talking about, about going to the movies... People go for escapism and I think the world that Kishiro wrote and now that Robert has realized on screen is a place that people are going to want to escape to. And then they go on a journey with characters that they can relate to. Kishiro wrote a character who learns to become a hero and doesn't come into the world as a superhero and that I think creates a very much greater aspirational dynamic for audiences, because in Alita they see something that they too can become.

Screen Rant: Absolutely. Well guys I'm excited to go on the journey with all of you in February of 2019. Which I again think is a brilliant date and you know maybe you can take your first date if this is your first time seeing a movie like this and have a film going experience. Thank you so much for dropping by.

More - Rosa Salazar Interview for Battle Angel: Alita

Key Release Dates
  • Alita Battle Angel (2019) release date: Feb 14, 2019
Quake Doctor Strange and Captain America at Marvel Comic-Con 2019
Every Marvel Panel At Comic-Con 2019

More in Interviews