SIN CITY - Q&A with BRITTANY MURPHY
Brittany Murphy plays Shellie
Brittany Murphy has absolutely no doubt that she was fortunate enough to be a part of cinematic history thanks to her role in SIN CITY.
Robert Rordriquez's ground breaking translation of Frank Miller's highly acclaimed series of graphic novels - with Miller serving as co-director - was, quite simply, the most vivid filmmaking experience she's ever had, says the young actress. "This is beautiful, stunning, original," she adds. "It transcends pushing the envelope..."
The 27 year-old native of Atlanta, Georgia is one of America's most sought after stars and she was delighted to get the chance to play Shellie, the waitress who works a bar in the toughest of neighbourhoods, Sin City's Old Town.
Shellie is caught between two extremely powerful men - old flame Jackie Boy (Benicio Del Toro), a police officer who has fallen from grace, and Dwight (Clive Owen), a would be suitor determined to protect her and the Ladies of the Night - the prostitutes - on whom Jackie Boy vents his anger.
Shellie, one of comic book legend Frank Miller's favourite characters, has the honour of appearing in all three segments of the intertwined stories which make up SIN CITY.
"That was really great," she says. "My character has been working in the bar for a long time because actually, some of the stories are meant to be a couple of years apart. I only know this because Frank Miller was on set."
Murphy describes SIN CITY as film noir for the 21 st century. "I'm a big fan of film noir from the forties and fifties and SIN CITY has taken on that mantle. I love it. All of us felt that we were part of something special. The is the first truly noir film of the new century."
Indeed 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 Brittany Murphy who plays Shellie the barmaid - were often working alone with very few props. If anything, says Murphy, it enabled both actor and director to concentrate more on the performance.
"We did one sequence in the bar and there was virtually everyone in the scene on the screen; Jessica (Alba) dancing, I was serving a drink to Clive Owen, Mickey Rourke was there, I had dialogue with Bruce, Nick Stahl, it's a big scene but I was the only actor on set.
"But you would never think so by seeing the picture, it's amazing. It was done at about five in the morning in Austin, Texas. Just me with my little tray..."
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 than 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.
Brittany Murphy, who plays Shellie, has clocked up nearly 40 films in the fourteen years she's been acting professionally. She was higly praised for her performance in 8 MILE and the hit romantic comedy LITTLE BLACK BOOK.
She starred opposite Ashton Kutcher in the romantic comedy JUST MARRIED and UPTOWN GIRLS with Dakota Fanning. Her other credits include the ensemble drama SIDEWALKS OF NEW YORK, Penny Marshall's RIDING IN CARS WITH BOYS and starring alongside Angelina Jolie in GIRL, INTERRUPTED.
There's a big cast for SIN CITY but it sounds like a lot of the work for the actors was done in isolation...
That's true and to this day I've never met Bruce Willis. It's the art of green screen and Robert Rodriquez. We did one sequence in the bar and there was virtually everyone in the scene on the screen; Jessica dancing, I was serving a drink to Clive, Mickey Rourke, I had dialogue with Bruce, Nick Stahl, it's a big scene but I was the only actor on set.
You were the only one there?
Yeah. You would never think so by seeing the picture, it's amazing isn't it. It was done at about five in the morning in Austin, Texas.
Was there actually a set?
I think that was the only set in the entire film.
Your character is in all the segments...
Yes, that's right. My character has been working in the bar for a long time (laughs) because actually, some of the stories are meant to be a couple of years apart. I only know this because Frank Miller was on set.
Do you feel that this is ground breaking cinema?
It is. I feel privileged to be a part of this because I feel that I'm part of cinematic history and to be a tiny little part of cinematic history is an absolute privilege. I saw it a couple of days ago and I think it's wildly refreshing. People generally say everything has been done before and you know what, this hasn't. I'm very proud to be an American right now because it's coming out of American cinema which is very unexpected and unique. This film is a piece of artistic genius and will be taught and utilised in film classes twenty years from now, whether people realise it now or don't and I feel very grateful to have been part of it.
Why do you believe that?
For several different reasons. One because the technology is being utilised properly and two because it's not an adaptation of a comic book, it is a translation of mediums. There's a graphic novel that was then translated into a different medium and I think that's pretty incredible, if anything cinema was being adopted to the novel, not the novel adapted to the cinema. Also, I think that there hasn't been a modern day noir film until now - the dialogue itself is so revolutionary and inventive and original. And to be able to speak those lines as an actor is wonderful. My main segment reminded me of Howard Hawkes' TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT, the first film with Bogey and Bacall and the dialogue was so beautiful and snappy as it goes back and forth and to have a modern day version of that mixed with other influences, is fantastic. I see BETTY BOOP, BLADE RUNNER, so many parts of cinematic history, it's the past, the present and the future all coming together and that's very exciting.
What sort of briefing did Robert and Frank give you about the character?
Well, I performed the character before I was officially attached to the film - for Frank (Miller). Robert and I had wanted to work together and he thought of me as Shellie because of a frame that Frank drew that Robert called sassy and it reminded him of me. He called me and it all happened very quickly, I was thrilled to be thought of for this project and I refreshed my memory as regards to Shellie and what she looked like exactly and then read the dialogue and it was so much fun, you can read the dialogue in the bubbles or you can read them in a script form, it's great dialogue whichever way. And when I went in to see Frank that day I just thought 'well, I'm going to have a blast either way...' I was quite nervous and excited to meet Frank and my interpretation of her was the same as he had when he was writing it, which was very gratifying.
Did the violence in the material trouble you at all?
No, I thought a lot of it was very humorous - maybe you can call my sense of humour warped, mind you my mother was there as well and she was laughing too. But I thought a lot of it was very funny and if had been done literally it would be overwhelming to say the least, but because a lot of blood was shown in different colours other than red - yellow and white - I think because of those reasons, it actually worked out quite well. I mean, Robert does make violent films and so does Quentin (Tarantino) and Frank writes them - but it is rated R so it's up to people of the appropriate age to decide if they want to see it.
It's a very stylised world...
Yes it is. The way the women are depicted in the film I actually found quite feminist rather than misogynist. The women are all part of this partisan city called Old Town where really they are a pack of wolves (laughs) and they take care of one another, they are self sufficient. And the men, at least 80 per cent of them, get their come uppence. And there's lots of different ways to perceive it but that's what great cinema is all about, talking about it, arguing and people will either love it or hate or be offended by it or inspired by it.
Were you disturbed by the darkness of the piece at all?
Not even a bit. I find great humour in a lot of the darkness of Sin City. It has a great humour to Frank's writing. He writes with tremendous rhythm and it's delightful to speak and it has great depth. The dialogue felt nostalgic, a modern version that harked back to the thirties, forties and fifties. It reminded me of all those great noir films. I love that place and time in cinema so much.
Apparently Shellie is one of Frank Miller's favourite characters in Sin City.
Yes, I didn't know that when we were filming or maybe I didn't believe it. I love that she has a tough exterior, she works in Old Town and if you go back to the rest of his graphic novels that weren't filmed for this particular series he explains the history of Shellie and Jackie Boy and Dwight. Shellie is very vulnerable, she reminded me of a struggling Betty Boop, in a way, with so much heart and so much vulnerability and innocent. But she has this tough exterior and even though she is so loving she works in a very tough city where the girls control everything, but she is not a prostitute like the other girls.
It's a tough place to exist...
It's a joy (laughs). But I wouldn't want to live there forever but it was fun living there for a few days.
Is Frank Miller as dark and twisted as you might expect?
(Laughs) He is such a gentle, kind man (laughs) very mild mannered and intelligent and witty. He's not showy at all. He's actually in the picture as the priest.
Was there a sense of excitement amongst the cast that you were making something that was pushing the envelope?
I've done about forty films now and twice I've felt chills that I was part of something that was going to be larger than life and that was during the battling sequence in 8 Mile and definitely every moment of this. This transcends pushing the envelope this is an adaptation of a comic book, a graphic novel to real life, it's just beautiful and stunning and original. And it's inspiring.
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