Robert Rodriguez famously began his filmmaking career making El Mariachi (1992) for $7,000. The Texan filmmaker wrote, shot, edited and directed his neo-western debut using the proceeds of his time in an Austin facility as a “medical research lab rat” where he “sold his body to science” (his words).
Rodriguez says: “In that hospital, the Terminator 2 trailer kept playing non-stop, because it was just coming out. I was, like, ‘Fuck, I want to see that movie.’ I got out, saw it, and I never would have thought I would be making a movie with that guy.”
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James Cameron was “that guy”, the man who directed the first two Terminator films as well as Avatar (2009) and Titanic (1997) – the first and second-highest grossing films ever made. Rodriguez has now directed Alita: Battle Angel, with Cameron joining Laeta Kalogridis on script duty while co-producing the film with Jon Landau.
Alita: Battle Angel is a spectacular sci-fi adventure set in the 26th century. The story, based on Yukito Kishiro’s manga comics, concerns teenage cyborg Alita (Rosa Salazar), who is salvaged from an Iron City scrapyard by Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz), a secretive robot boffin who knows more about Alita’s origins than he’s letting on.
A genre hit-maker with From Dusk till Dawn (1996), Sin City (2005, co-directed with Frank Miller) and Machete (2010), Rodriguez has edited all of his films since 1994 in his home. Since 2002, he’s also done the sound mixing in his garage. Aside from these links to his DIY roots, the enthusiastic, infectious energy he’s had since El Mariachi remains, even as he makes $150m blockbusters.
With Alita: Battle Angel about to hit cinemas, we asked Rodriguez to talk us through his favourite sci-fi films.
Escape from New York (1981)
Director: John Carpenter
“Escape from New York, in particular, is the first [sci-fi film] that made me want to be a filmmaker. It moved me, because I was 12, I think. It blew my mind that New York is a maximum-security prison. The power of creating a world like that: you just believe it, because you just say it, and then you see a wall with a special effect. You created a whole new world with words and a little bit of picture and not very much money. I figured if I ever got to be a movie maker, it would be low budget because I’m from a family of 10 kids and no money.
“Some of my favourite stuff in Escape from New York was when he was just creeping around and you think something’s going to pop out of the dark. It was like a horror film, a house of horrors. That was cool about the future, that sort of dark fantasy, that dark mystery of the night, that dark romance.”
“And it’s ‘John Carpenter’s Escape from New York’. He wrote it, he directed, did the music. I was, like, ‘This guy’s having all the fun in the world.’
“I had so many hobbies. I didn’t know what I wanted to do or be. [After that] it seemed like I could do everything, if I made movies. So I started making movies.”
Blade Runner (1982)
Director: Ridley Scott
“I’d seen Blade Runner by then too. I loved the soundtrack, I loved the feel of it, I loved the visuals of film noir and the future. Again, you’re inventing whatever you want. Making up vehicles, making up a way of life; I thought that was so enticing, to escape from reality by creating stories that were your own rules, your own view of the world. That was like playing God, but a cool God, making this cool shit.
“For a 12-year-old to see that stuff, it was mind-blowing. That’s usually the age when people start figuring out who they’re going to be. Because that’s when everything opens up to them.
“Whenever I talk to an artist, that was the age. Whatever you’re exposed to at that time [becomes important]. I still have my old Starlog magazines, and you look at that time period, it was amazing. The fabled early ’80s.
“You look at one magazine, it was Heavy Metal (1981), Escape from New York, The Thing (1982). The back cover, Blade Runner. It was ‘Wow, pantheon of pump.’ One cool thing after another happened. No wonder my mind was spinning at that age. I was at that age at the perfect time.
“[Blade Runner] still had a lot of action. He was chasing down replicants, he was retiring replicants. But it was more a film noir version [of sci-fi]. Back then it was the version that had voiceover and it didn’t matter. You were hanging out on the street with this guy. It was such a cool new world, you didn’t have to have a-mile-a-minute action. The vibe was so dangerous and kind of seedy.”
The Thing (1982)
Director: John Carpenter
“The Thing is also very much a brooding picture. It’s not full of action. Boom, boom. The tone of the music. Boom, boom. The cold and the spaceships and it’s like, ‘Fuck, something’s going to happen, it’s not going to be cool.’ It really inspired me because I thought they do so much with nothing, and that’s what I would have to do, because I wouldn’t have resources.”
The Terminator (1984)
Director: James Cameron
“[I started making] stop motion at first and then started making live action stuff. And then, The Terminator came out. It was the same thing. This guy was making visions of the future but being very budget-conscious: he didn’t set it in the future, he set it in the present day, had the guy just time travel. Very smart. That way he doesn’t have to go build out a whole future, but just do a few little flashbacks. I thought that was killer.”
Director: Paul Verhoeven
“RoboCop. I got a lot of ideas from that. That’s why Spy Kids (2001) is called Spy Kids, because I remember seeing a big poster for RoboCop: ‘That’s the most idiotic title I’ve ever heard. Who’s going to see a movie called RoboCop? That sounds so stupid.’ Then I saw the movie. ‘Oh. Satire.’ Total Recall, that was cool. Starship Troopers. I like Paul Verhoeven. Those movies were great.
“You can tell a foreigner made it, because he could see and comment on America more than an American filmmaker could. So it felt so dead on.
“When you see the press going towards the window when the guy’s thrown out, you see us as bloodthirsty Americans. It’s true, it’s a caricature. I thought it was so clever and funny. I put shit like that in Machete (2010) after that.
“You’re going for broke, and that’s what RoboCop felt like. It was like ‘turn it up to 11’. For a sci-fi movie, it was really badass and hyper-violent and crazy funny. And then Total Recall (1990) I liked because I thought that was one of the better, ‘I don’t remember who I am – Oh! I was a badass [films].’ It’s a bit like Alita. ‘I don’t know who I am. Oh, then I’m the most badass person in the world.’”