SIN CITY - Q&A with BENICIO DEL TORO
Benicio Del Toro is Jackie Boy
A chance encounter with filmmaker Robert Rodriguez left Benicio Del Toro rather baffled. They were at a party when Robert sidled up to say hello to the actor and announce cryptically 'don't cut your hair....'
"I was like 'what's wrong with this guy?' I mean, what was that supposed to mean," recalls Benicio with a smile. The next day all was made clear when Robert called him and explained all about SIN CITY and Jackie Boy, the character he wanted Benicio to play.
The actor was unfamiliar with Frank Miller's graphic novels but was immediately intrigued. Then, when Robert showed him some early footage, he was hooked. "I was like 'count me in...' I knew it was going to be an adventure. And I was right..'"
Del Toro plays Jackie Boy a man who has been corrupted by the power of his badge - he's a 'hero cop' - and fallen into bad ways. When he takes his gang of friends into the Old Town for some adult pursuits with the Ladies of the Night, he gets into far more trouble than he bargained for.
The prostitutes, led by the beautiful but deadly Gail (Rosario Dawson), with the help of her former lover, Dwight (Clive Owen), are nobody's victims.
Del Toro loved the innovative filming technique adopted by Robert Rodriquez and the stylised, film noir rhythms of the dialogue and the fantastic array of characters created by Frank Miller. "It's a whole world, very much of it's own," says Del Toro. "And when you marry Robert's filmmaking techniques and Frank's storytelling, it really works. This has been a fantastic experience.."
Frank Miler grew up reading superhero comics which eventually led to the discovery of hard boiled crime writers like Raymond Chandler and Mickey Spillane, master of the 'pulp fiction' genre.
When Miller first showed up in New York, as a teenager desperate to make his way in the world of comic books, his early drawings featured 'guys in trench coats and beautiful women in fast cars and stuff and they not too politely told me that all they did was people in tights hitting each other."
Miller happily obliged and over the coming years built a formidable reputation at the cutting edge of comic books, both as an artist and a writer. He worked for publishers including DC and Marvel and it was his work with the latter, on Marvel's Spectacular Spider-Man, in a story in which he united the web slinging hero with another character, Daredevil, which led to Miller being given the title to develop.
He also created the powerful and extremely popular Elektra and during the early eighties, Ronin, which marked the first of many collaborations with his partner and future wife, Lynn Varley.
Miller, 48, is also credited with reinvigorating the Batman franchise thanks to his work on Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. In 1991, Frank created Sin City, drawing heavily on his knowledge of both New York and Los Angeles but mostly, his ever active and incredibly fertile imagination.
Sin City marked a return to the pulp fiction that he loved so much - a stunning landscape peopled by voluptuous broads, crooked cops, evil predators and desperate hoods who sometimes, follow their hearts and try to do the right thing. It's dark, brooding, violent, often funny and always sexy as hell.
The dialogue crackles with devastating put downs, snappy one liners and a rough poetry and rhythm which owes much to the likes of Chandler, Spillane and Dashiell Hammett and those other crime writers that Miller first fell for as a teenager.
Understandably, many filmmakers realised that the cinematic potential of Sin City was huge. But Frank Miller, who has had plenty of experience, sometimes negative, of Hollywood in the past, didn't want to compromise his vision - and felt that if he handed over the film rights, he would inevitably be doing just that.
Robert Rodriquez, however, was determined to convince Miller that his intentions were honourable. The filmmaker works in his home town of Austin, Texas and like Miller, he's a bit of an outsider, a visionary who often bucks the system to do things his way.
And the key to convincing Miller was that he wanted to translate - not adapt - Sin City to the screen. "He was reluctant in the same way I thought somebody would ruin it by turning this into a movie and that was my whole point. I said 'I've figured how to do it, we're not going to turn this into a movie, we're going to make movies into the graphic novel.'"
At his own expense, Rodriquez planned to shoot the opening sequence - featuring Josh Hartnett as a smooth talking killer - and let Miller watch. If he didn't like what he saw, then nothing more would happen. But if he did, they were in business.
"I had to reverse that whole tide of all the bad things that had happened to him and I knew if he came down and saw us shoot the opening and then he would be convinced," says Rodriquez. "He saw us there with the books opened, we were all following the shots and he was just like 'wow, this is unbelievable...'"
Rodriquez used ground breaking filming techniques to shoot the film on digital almost entirely against a green screen background - one of the few sets to actually be built was the bar which, at some point, features almost all of the vivid characters in the three different segments.
It meant that the actors - like Del Toro, Owen and Murphy - were often working alone with very few props. If anything, says Murphy, it enabled both actor and director to concentrate more on the performance.
Such was Rodriqeuz's commitment to remaining true to the integrity of the project that he wanted Frank Miller to be his co-director who would be there, by his side, every day of the shoot. But one week before the start of production, the powerful Director's Guild of America, refused Miller a co-director credit, claiming it was against their rules and Rodriquez promptly quit the DAG in protest.
"It was like obey the rules or make this movie," says Rodriquez. "I was already at a point where we were a week away from shooting, I didn't know that it was against the rules to have a second director, I'd seen multiple directors before.
"I just thought it would be better to leave than stop shooting or not shoot the movie. I mean, everyone just feels that this is something really new and exciting and different and at that point I was going to bring Quentin on as a director so they wouldn't have gone for that anyway. And you know it's better that I'm just not in that group because we have such crazy ideas, it's better that I'm just free."
The Quentin in question is a certain Mr Tarantino, his close friend and director of such classic modern masterpieces as RESERVOIR DOGS and PULP FICTION. They have a history of working together, swapping creative ideas - they both made FROM DUSK TILL DAWN, Robert scored the soundtrack for KILL BILL 2 (for a nominal sum of $1, the same fee paid to Tarantino on SIN CITY.)
This time, Robert wanted Quentin to have the chance to work with the digital technology and green screen so he invited him to direct a stunning sequence involving Clive Owen and Benicio Del Toro. So Frank Miller's SIN CITY has not one but three directors.
It also boasts a truly exceptional ensemble cast who jumped at the chance to work with Miller, Rodriquez and - for a lucky few - Tarantino. Jessica Alba plays Nancy, an exotic stripper who is besotted with the cop who, years earlier, saved her from a murderous kidnapper; Hartigan, the cop who pays a terrible price for his heroism, is played by Bruce Willis.
Mickey Rourke makes a memorable appearance as Marv, a brutish hood who loses his heart to a hooker called Goldie (Jaime King) and sets out on a devastating trail of revenge when she is killed, which leads him to the discovery of a chilling cannibal, Kevin played by Elijah Wood,
The Ladies of the Night - the hookers who control their own patch in Sin City's Old Town - are memorably led by Gail, played by Rosario Dawson and the deadliest of all of these proud and predatory women is Miho, played by Devon Aoki.
The film also features Michael Madson as Bob, a corrupt cop, Michael Clarke Duncan as the ultimate enforcer, Manute 'a man so immense his punch is like a freight train...', Nick Stahl as the evil kidnapper known as 'Yellow Bastard' Powers Boothe as Senator Roark, Rutger Hauer as Cardinal Roark and Carla Gugino as Lucille.
Del Toro, 37, is one of the most versatile, talented actors working in cinema today. He recently gained his second Academy Award nomination for his excellent portrayal of a former convict struggling to stay on the path in 21 GRAMS. He won the Oscar for playing a Mexican cop in Steven Soderbergh's TRAFFIC.
He was part of an excellent ensemble cast in THE USUAL SUSPECTS, starred alongside Johnny Depp in FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS and hilariously played an incomprehensible villain in Guy Ritchie's crime caper, SNATCH.
Del Toro was born in Puerto Rico and grew up in Pennsylvania. He made his movie debut in the James Bond blockbuster LICENSE TO KILL.
SIN CITY is directed by Robert Rodriquez and Frank Miller, who created the graphic novels. A section of the film, which starred Del Toro and Clive Owen, was directed by Quentin Tarantino, who is a close friend of Rodriquez.
Were Robert Rodriquez and Frank Miller true to their vision? Has the film turned out the way that they told you it would be?
Yes, totally. Maybe even more. They basically said we're going to turn the comic book into a film and boy they stayed pretty damn close to it even using real actors. It would have been truer turning it into a cartoon I guess but by using real actors they stayed very true in spirit and in soul to what Frank Miller created.
There's a memorable scene with your character and Dwight played by Clive Owen where you have a gun barrel sticking out of your forehead. What was that like?
You don't feel it, to be honest with you (laughs) I don't want to be like a wise guy here. You just don't feel it. What's weird is when you see it on the screen and then you are like 'oh, I remember that day.' But those guys who did the make up, they are terrific, they make it painless and they glue that stuff fast and sturdy and that thing was on my forehead the whole day that we did it without sagging at all.
Was it actually good fun doing those scenes?
Oh yeah, At some point there was Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriquez, Frank Miller sitting there, we are surrounded by green screen and there's not even a car, we're sat on apple boxes and a steering wheel and I just looked at Clive and he looked at me and he just started laughing. Because for him it would have been the actor he is working with has got a gash like this (indicates side of his face) and we both started laughing, we just couldn't hold it. And after that we barely finished one take, it was just fun.
You look completely different because of the make up you wear for the character. Does that help or hinder?
I think it's helpful in the fact that you can hide, you know. In most movies less is more but in this movie more is more, really. Or you can make it that way. And so doing this movie with the make up and all that stuff made it better for me because it's that kind of movie.
How do you approach building up a character?
Well, with this one I wanted to sound like Tom Waits and I ended up sounding more like Michael Wincott who is a friend and I called him and said 'Michael I'm sorry, I ended up sounding a bit like you but I didn't mean to.' because he has a very distinctive voice, a great voice, so I sound a little bit like him. But it all comes down to the script, that's the bottom line, the script is the most important thing, for me anyway. And then from there you try to make an interpretation on that character.
Are you a fan of noir?
Yeah, I think that Frank Miller has a lot of Dashiell Hammett, you know the tough banter from women and men, the femme fatale, it's all over Miller's writing and he's very much influenced by Raymond Chandler.
What about the technical aspect of the movie? Did the green screen bother you or do you take the view that you just have to get on with it?
You just go for it. I mean, it could have bugged me for about 15 minutes but in the end you just get used to it and it's a bit like doing a play where there's no props. You know, I could be in a play and I'm supposed to be in Central Park but there is no park there, there's nothing but I'm looking at the trees. So it was kind of like that.
What attracted you to SIN CITY?
What really attracted me was Robert Rodriquez in the beginning, you know, and I actually met him at a party. I knew who he was and I knew his movies and he came up to me and said 'hey, don't cut your hair.' And I said 'OK, what's wrong with this guy.' You know, like what was that supposed to mean? And the next day I get a phone call and we meet up and he opens his laptop and he had shot the first sequence you see in the movie already. I saw that and I said 'well, I don't know Frank Miller's book but count me in because it looked like it was going to be an adventure. I met him the next day, I went to see him and he had shot already the opening sequence of Sin City and you know when I saw it - I've been in the business a long time and I knew he was up to something special, something unique. And it was like 'yeah, I'm interested..' and then I got The Big Fat Kill written by Frank Miller, took it, read it and I called him and said 'OK' The schedule was five days, that's all.
Because it's a graphic novel translation does that make the violence less disturbing do you think?
For me it does. I mean, hey look at Road Runner, he's falling off cliffs all the time and look at Tom and Jerry they beat the hell out of each other. So this is like that in a way, at least for me. It's over the top violence, not real.
What does your character represent in the tale?
For me he's someone who has forgotten where he's come from, he got success and turned on everything he stood for. He was a hero cop, got all the power and forgot all the things he stood for and just became addicted for more power and yeah, he's a bad guy. The type of guy you don't really like, they get to the top of the mountain and they forget where they came from.
Robert was saying you requested some prosthetics. Why was that?
Frank Miller is not only the writer he is also the artist behind the book, so the drawings of Jackie Boy were a little bit pointier than my face. Robert works with this group of K and B and they are terrific prosthetic guys and I said 'look since we have the best, why don't we just try it...' and Robert agreed. I kind of like that face (laughs). I remember when Quentin Tarantino showed up and he liked the fact too.
You got to work with all three of the directors including with Quentin for the sequence he did. I gather he was just a little uncomfortable with some of the technology and the green screen....
Yeah, he was. You know Quentin is a force of nature and he walked in and Quentin Tarantino became the lead star on the set, you know, and he is just really good. All the ideas he put on the table we just went to try and accomplish these ideas.
The dialogue is virtually lifted from the graphic novels. How did that work?
I thought the dialogue was very good. But it is based on the books and they talk and talk and talk whereas in reality they might not talk that much. But I think the dialogue is terrific, it's very Dashiell Hammett or (Philip) Marlowe. It's very much like that, a throw back to those film noirs of the forties. We try to keep the dialogue as straight forward as possible.
What kind of a challenge was it trying to translate the graphic novel frame by frame to the screen?
You know, it's interesting for me it was like having a road map for what you are going to do. It was almost a beat by beat of what my character was supposed to do. And Robert wanted to stay very close to the book, he didn't want to explore other stuff. And when you have a script usually you don't see it you just read it, so I have an idea, he has an idea, everybody has different ideas about how it is going to look, but here the idea was on paper so we just kept it as close as we could and we stayed on the line. We had a good blueprint and I knew that coming into it.
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