You started with El Mariachi… Now you’re in full-fledged James Cameron territory. How does this journey look like for you?
It actually does flow in a strange way. I met Jim just before Desperado. I was telling him, ‘Hey man, I just took a Steadicam course. I just learned how to do Steadicam myself’. We both come from the low budget background [James Cameron famously got his filmmaking training by working for Roger Corman]. He started seven years before me, and with Terminator, he had to do all the jobs himself. He understood that I was trying to impress him saying, ‘Hey, I took a three-day Steadicam course because I can’t afford a Steadicam operator’. He said, ‘I bought a Steadicam, but not to operate it. Just so I can take it apart and design a better one’. We’re over here trying to learn Steadicam, and he’s designing a whole new system. That’s always been our relationship. I’ve always been in awe of the way he thinks. He thinks much more like an engineer who’s very creative.
We were both into 3D early. He started designing 3D cameras for underwater. Spy Kids was the first digital 3D movie, and I used his cameras that he was designing for underwater. One time he came in my house and said, ‘I heard you have an editing system in your living room?’ I go, ‘Yeah, come check it out. I’m editing Desperado, Dusk Till Dawn and Four Rooms all at the same time myself’. He’s like, ‘I’m doing that! I’m going to tear down my house and put in an editing system. I’m going to cut my next movie’. He did, he was an editor on Titanic, with two other editors. He got an Oscar for editing. That’s how we’ve always gotten along. So, this movie [Alita: Battle Angel, which Cameron co-write and co-produced] made sense for us to make together, because we tried to work together on several projects… we wanted to co-direct something.
Cinematically, you’ve always been drawn to strong women; what was it about Alita that spoke to you?
It’s almost like you’re drawn to just her as a person. Jim [Cameron] always had very strong females, Sarah Connor, Ripley… When I first saw that he had gotten the rights to this, I thought that there must be something special about this character because he doesn’t usually adapt people’s work, he writes his own original material. For him to take up manga and want to adapt it, there must be something about that character that’s different than something he would have created on his own. I didn’t know what it was, and I didn’t want to know. When I saw the first announcement back in early 2000, he said he was going to make Battle Angel, and showed an image. I said, ‘I don’t want to read it, because it’ll spoil it. This movie might be out in a couple of years’. It wasn’t. I waited years and years, and years, and it never came.
Finally, a couple of years ago, when I was talking with him, I asked, ‘What happened with Alita? When is that coming out? When are you going to finish with these Avatars?’ He said, ‘I don’t think I’ll get to finish it now. I wrote a script’. He went and showed me the material he had done, which is amazing. The anime eyes and she looked like that, and had those arms. He was going to do that in 2005. Avatar was ready first, so he did that. He gave me the script. I went home and read it, and I identified with so many of the characters. I identified with the father figure that Christoph plays, who has a young daughter, because I have a daughter the same age. I identified with the boy, who is the cool tech kid. And I completely identified with her, this character who was found in the trash heap. She thinks she’s insignificant because she’s thrown out. Because of her background, she must not have anything to offer the world, and finds out instead that she’s extremely powerful, and actually can cause great changes in the world. That’s a very universal story, and I feel like that’s my story too. I really identified with her, and I thought, if I can identify with her, then imagine everybody else. That’s what Jim does. Jim finds stories that people all over the world can identify with, and embrace. It has to start with that. It has to start with the characters and your love for the character, and your likeability of the character. When I first saw the title Battle Angel I thought it’s going be like those other manga type movies. It’s going to be a pretty dark and dreary dystopian future. And this was the opposite. It was a character that you really could fall in love with.
The beauty, the way she sees the world, how she sees everything as being very ideal. That’s what he does. Before you can bring in the spectacle, it has to have a story. Sometimes the sci-fi movies focus too much on the spectacle, and not enough on what makes you attracted to the character, which is warmth and humanity. The idea that she was a cyborg kid, you feel her humanity stronger than most of the other characters. Those were very warm characters who had to find their inner warrior. She’s already the tough warrior, she just doesn’t know it. She just doesn’t remember. Instead, she has to find her heart.
That was the twist. I thought, okay, that’s what drew him to it. So, I need to make that the focus of the story when I go and make it. That has to come through, because that’s what drew me to it to begin with.
How much of your relationship with your daughter do you put in the one in this film?
I just wrote another script that has a father/daughter relationship too. Those are the things that you know from having a kid. There was something in the graphic novel, and it was in Jim’s first draft, but then he did another draft for somebody else, and that aspect of the character was gone… Which was, the father was a hunter warrior. He was a bounty hunter, as well as a cyber doctor. So, he not only repairs her, but at night he had a secret life. I wanted to put it back in, because I knew as a father, that character becomes very disposable very quickly if he’s just a dad. As soon as she starts making her own moves, he’s just a Geppetto worrying about her all the time. It’s like, ‘dad, I’ve got shit to do’. If you’re just always the doting father, your kids have very little use for you beyond 13, 14.
With my kids, the biggest thing I noticed, if you become their mentor, they no longer look at you as dad. You’re no longer chasing them, they’re chasing you to come and learn more, because they want to do what you’re doing. That’s why I left that in, so she could be like, I want to be a hunter/warrior. And he won’t let her. That’s her tension. He doesn’t want her to become that other thing. But he becomes impressive to her in a whole other way if he can be that mentor. That aspect I wanted to keep in, because that’s the relationship I like to have with my kids. Where I’m no longer dad, now I’m their co-worker. I’m like a mentor, and they’re constantly trying to push past me, and do, because they’re using me as a means to learn. That’s the best that you can get. It’s a good way to keep them. It’s so much fun. We’re doing stuff together that just gets us so excited every day.
Alita: Battle Angel is in cinemas February 14, 2019