SXSW: Robert Rodriguez Offers Sneak Peek of 'Alita: Battle Angel'

The director invited press and general SXSW attendees to his Troublemaker Studios in Austin for an early look at the Iron City set for the delayed Fox title.
Jesse Grant
Jon Landau and Robert Rodriguez

"This used to be my loading dock," said Robert Rodriguez as a group gathered in a small screening room located inside Troublemaker Studios in Austin, Texas.

The space, the director went on to explain, was put together so he and producer Jon Landau could watch dailies for Alita: Battle Angel, the Fox action film due out later this year. Rodriguez even quipped that they’d managed to do it in his own aesthetic, complete with luxury recliners and decorations along the walls.

At the special preview, held as part of SXSW’s opening night, Landau told the dozen or so journalists in attendance that the story of making this movie out of Yukito Kishiro's Japanese manga began back in the mid-1990s, when director James Cameron was trying to adapt it. 

"It's a story about a strong female protagonist," said Landau, which he explained was one of Cameron's fortes. The Terminator director had wrestled with trying to develop a script for years, and eventually had to choose between moving forward with Alita or Avatar. Obviously, Cameron chose the latter, which meant his schedule would be full as he focused on the world of Pandora, and he had been trying to find the right director to helm Alita since then. 

During an informal lunch with Rodriguez, Cameron shared the script, which needed to be cut to be turned into a feature-length film. Rodriguez read it and told Cameron he didn't want to rewrite the material, but rather edit Cameron's work. Four months later, Rodriguez presented Cameron with his draft, and the project finally began to move forward.

Back at the former loading dock, Rodriguez and Landau screened a rough cut of a lengthy trailer, which included some still-unfinished effects and a few shots of star Rosa Salazar's pre-rendered face, dotted so it could later be motion-captured and revised digitally to create the unique look of the titular character. They then instructed attendees to put on 3D glasses to view two completed scenes, one featuring a quiet moment from early in the film and the other showcasing an admittedly thrilling battle sequence that will occur later on. 

Fox has pushed the release date for the effects-heavy pic back by five months. Rodriguez and Landau did not address the delays during the preview. 

Following the screening, Landau led a guided tour, which began with a viewing of some of the film's concept art, composed of crisp, colorful, digitally rendered sci-fi cyberpunk imagery that echoed its source material.

The tour continued through the massive set of Iron City, a 77,000-square-foot world that Landau explained took exactly four months and six days to built. The set was immaculate with detail, including ornate architecture that was covered with street signs, storefronts and graffiti in multiple languages to showcase the grimy, post-apocalyptic melting pot that serves as the setting for Alita.

Some structures were fully built out, filled with furniture and decor that helped add to the tangibility of Iron City, which was dotted with Junk shops, taquerias, fortune-tellers and residential spaces. Even automated taxicabs lined the streets, all helping to fully realize the soot-covered world.

While it could be compared to universes depicted in both Blade Runner films, along with a dash of later Mad Max films, it looked entirely unique. The set was built two-stories tall, where the higher levels could be filled in later with digital effects to help create a fully realized futuristic environment.

"There are no straight streets," Landau said, explaining that this gave Rodriguez a chance to make the world seem even bigger onscreen because moving from one end to the other would make the set look completely different.

After the private tour ended, the set opened to the public for a massive SXSW welcome party, complete with DJs, local food trucks and bars. As the other attendees began to filter in, there was no shortage of wide-eyed, jaw-dropping reactions, a testament to the pristine work done to help bring Iron City to life. 

Originally slated for a summer release, Alita: Battle Angel is now set to bow Dec. 21. It stars Salazar alongside Jennifer Connelly, Christoph Waltz, Jackie Earle Haley, Eiza Gonzalez, Lana Condor, Mahershala Ali and Ed Skrein.