We interview Rosa Salazar about bringing the iconic manga character Alita to life in Robert Rodriguez and James Cameron's Alita: Battle Angel.
At the end of October we traveled to New Zealand to visit Weta Digital where post-production is underway for Alita: Battle Angel. We got to speak to the SFX leads behind the groundbreaking project, the same creative geniuses that worked with James Cameron on Avatar (and who are working on the sequels), along with Cameron's producing partner Jon Landau. We even suited up in performance capture gear to become a cyborg but we'll get to that later.
This is a story about Alita, and while the innovative processes and tech are most certainly awe-inspiring, it's not just the movie magic that brings the adaptation of Yukito Kishiro's graphic novel something incredibly unique. It's also how it crafted and tells the story of a young woman transitioning into her true self. But first, how did this journey begin for Rosa Salazar?
How do you compare the advanced performance capture to "traditional" acting with a more normal camera setup?
Rosa Salazar: Well, it is a little more effort and you're in a skin tight, airtight suit for the majority - the entirety - of the filming process. A lot of the discomfort is bodily, you know, it's environmental. So like we're outside in Austin, Texas and it's 100 degrees, and I'm in a do-rag and a helmet, in a Lululemon sweatsuit, wetsuit, like zipped completely up to the chin and attached at the waist. You're hot so you're naturally drinking lots of water but then you have to let them know 15 minutes in advance that you have to pee because - as you learned - it's not easy to get in and out of the suit. And you have to ROM [calibrate] in once you've gotten out of it again [laughs]. You have to re-ROM in, and face ROM, re-attach the helmet, etc. so a lot of that stuff is really easy to get down. Now I know how much water I need to drink to make it through this part of the day and then I'll have that break.
A lot of it is just stuff you learn to cope with but other than that, I mean, you're in a groundbreaking suit that is... this is the cutting edge of technology and we're creating a brand new human. That's different. I'm not a huge fan of the live-action hair and makeup and wardrobe. I love my job. Obviously, I love acting. I almost feel like I've graduated that part and now I'm onto this. You know what I mean? [Laughs]. Like I'm onto doing the process plus another process because I don't know, I got really obsessed with this and the ability to create a character without the nuisance, almost, of making sure my angle is right. I can be really in my head and superficial if it's my coverage and go like "oh now the camera is here so I have to do this and then I'll look here, and then the lighting, and oh we have to get the lighting..."
With this there is none of that. You're free! You're completely free to exist so it affords you that right, that ability to play because you're free. You're not thinking of the superficial details of how does my face look, how do my clothes look, how does my hair look.
There's never been a character like Alita before so how do you audition or test for a part such as this?
The same way you audition for a regular old project. You go through the proper channels. You get an audition, you get a script, you prepare, and then you show up and you audition. You sit in a room filled with every actress you've ever admired and you do your best to contain your nerves and your excitement. I love auditioning so for me it was such a thrill to go into the room and "oh I get these five minutes for me to perform my play" in front of Robert. I really love that. It's the same but once you get further along in the process then they start putting you in the suit, saying this is what you'll live in for the next four month or whatever, and these dots, this is what you look like. It's a step-by-step process. "Okay, now we're going to test you, camera test you in the suit."
Once you get further along in the process it's a different audition process and they're checking for other things now. But the first and foremost thing they look for was a performance because that's what it's all about. If you don't have that it's not going to be captured. That's why they call it performance capture.
You mentioned the script. This has been in the works for a very long time a huge passion project for a lot of people but especially James Cameron, and then you have Robert Rodriguez doing a pass on it - so what's your first reaction when you read the final shooting screenplay?
Well, once I could turn the page from "written by" these guys [laughs] it was, I mean it's such an obvious answer, but what a great script. You don't always read a script like that. That is so filled with emotion, that is so perfectly structured, that it's almost like a masterclass while you read it.
I remember there was one part that my agent and I were geeking out over when we read it which is when she pulls the Damascus Blade away from Zapan and it said it's almost as if the blade chose her. And it doesn't have any bearing on the script, I mean, they're not gonna shoot that part! But you're like "yeah," you're reading it and you're so invested, you're so in it, that you're watching the movie in your mind. It was just a marvelous script and thankfully Robert was able to crack it out of 600 pages of notes and keeping in every single major structural part of the story needed to convey the transition of this character.
The blade is a key part of the character journey and obviously, so is the Berserker suit. From your perspective, does the performance change a lot when you go from her original suit to this almost alien outfit?
Absolutely. For starters, how many movies have you seen made by male filmmakers who chronicle the formative evolution of a young teenage girl? None. [Laughs]. And I read scripts all the time. None of them talk about the formative years a female body, and they've managed to do that and I picked up on that. When we see her, she's 14, and she's in a body that's not really her... "I feel uncomfortable in this body. It's not really my body." If you've ever been a 14 year old girl you know how that feels so you're exploding out of this foreign body. So he's in a foreign body. She's very erect, very vulnerable, heart to the sky in the beginning. And as she transitions, both emotionally she transitions also into a new body. And now this is her body. We know it is her body and it is very capable. It's more capable than her previous body. It's a war machine, but it is her body. It's the one she knows "this is me." And that's a hard transition to make in real life as a woman, like I'm becoming a woman, and that's an awkward process, and it's an uncomfortable process. But alas, here I am. I've transformed into a woman. So now she's 18 and her physicality is a little more natural to her emotions and a little more natural in terms of, you know, she can sort of sit like this. She's not like "Hi, I'm Pinocchio!"
As her internal world shifts, her body shifts. As the struggle begins to really mount it starts to really show in her physicality but again, it's just such a beautiful transition to put on film in such a good way, and such a good way to convey it. As in, here is your old body, here is your new body. And, by the way, both bodies are right proportionately and they're not hyper-sexualized. They're not overly infantilized. They are real representations of bodies.
Alita: Battle Angel Plot Synopsis
From visionary filmmakers James Cameron (AVATAR) and Robert Rodriguez (SIN CITY), comes ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL, an epic adventure of hope and empowerment. When Alita (Rosa Salazar) awakens with no memory of who she is in a future world she does not recognize, she is taken in by Ido (Christoph Waltz), a compassionate doctor who realizes that somewhere in this abandoned cyborg shell is the heart and soul of a young woman with an extraordinary past. As Alita learns to navigate her new life and the treacherous streets of Iron City, Ido tries to shield her from her mysterious history while her street-smart new friend Hugo (Keean Johnson) offers instead to help trigger her memories. But it is only when the deadly and corrupt forces that run the city come after Alita that she discovers a clue to her past - she has unique fighting abilities that those in power will stop at nothing to control. If she can stay out of their grasp, she could be the key to saving her friends, her family and the world she's grown to love.