The opening night party for SXSW wasn’t your normal festival soiree that’s set in a random club where booze flows like lava whilst a DJ plays eardrum piercing EDM jams of the “untz-untz” variety. Instead, the Austin-based confab set the film festival bar high with an opening night party on the set of Robert Rodriguez’s upcoming Alita: Battle Angel (opening Dec. 21) based on Yukito Kishiro’s manga. Rodriguez was on hand to celebrate the evening alongside producer Jon Landau and stars of the film Rosa Salazar and Keean Johnson.
The event was a first for the fest as Rodriguez opened his doors to Troublemaker Studios, his production facilities a stones throw away from the SXSW epicenter in downtown Austin. Festival-goers were welcomed into the fictitious Iron City, a city 600 years into the future that gives cyberpunk junkyard vibes, combining the dustbowl grit of a planet like Star Wars‘ Jakku but cut with the edgy danger of Mad Max: Fury Road. But don’t get it twisted — it’s genuinely something that we have never seen before.
Fox’s sci-fi action pic, which was also produced by James Cameron, follows the titular Alita, a cyborg who, after being rescued from a scrap heap by a doctor, has no memory her past life except that she is a deadly fighter. She becomes a bounty hunter, but amidst all the action and adventure, she goes through her own journey of self-discovery.
Members of press and select SXSW VIPs were given a personal tour of the set by Rodriguez and Landau after being treated to exclusive, eye-popping footage of the film, which is set to open Dec. 21. Known for keeping his production within the confines of his Austin home, director Rodriguez has always managed to execute excellent set pieces that take us to another world and with Alita, he continues his use of practical sets combined with CG. He’s managed to stick to his guns and remain in his element in Austin instead of moving his work to Hollywood. “There’s no need to take the cook out of the kitchen,” Landau said in regards to Rodriguez staying put in Texas.
Landau adds that Rodriguez is dedicated to his craft and it shows with these real-life set which brings a sense of Hollywood magic (but in Austin) that is seldom achieved anymore. Rodriguez reveals that the expansive set was built on a parking lot with the walls reaching 20 feet — but will look much massive on screen to complete the epic look of Iron City. He also says that many of the buildings are fully finished so that they can film instead and out.
Nonetheless, Landau points out that the fictitious city is a melting pot and it shows with the mix of Cuban, Asian and other cultures throughout the storefronts and signage on set. The mix and connection of cultures is a subtle way for the story to celebrate differences and unite, but with Rodriguez, he has always managed to be inclusive in his films, showcasing different actors of color and putting women front and center.
Rodriguez, tells Deadline the importance of the need for more different, inclusive kinds of stories. With Salazar, a Latina actress, starring as the titular character, Rodriguez, a Latino director, says “I can identify with Alita because she started from nothing” and she grows from that and becomes empowered.
“Alita is a woman who discovers that she is a woman who has the ability to make a statement and that is something that we have to realize inside of us and it starts with the first step,” said Landau.
Salazar tells Deadline: “With the #MeToo Movement and Time’s Up, I think that it’s poetic that Alita is coming out at a time when all of these movements are going strong and we’re changing the course of history. That’s really important right now and a lot people will relate [to] someone who so vulnerable yet so powerful.”
Johnson, who plays Alita’s love interest Hugo, adds to Salazar’s sentiment saying that “it was incredible to know that there’s a comic book out there like this” and that “young women will walk away feeling empowered” because of the character of Alita.
Salazar says that Alita has a line where she says “I do not stand by in the presence of evil.” She adds, “I hope when they leave the theater, they feel the same thing.”