SIN CITY - Q&A with CLIVE OWEN
Clive Owen is certain that he wouldn't last very long in Sin City. "Oh no," he laughs. "It scared the **** out of me! I wouldn't last a day in that place..."
Fortunately, Owen's character, Dwight, is a man practised in the art of survival in one of the toughest urban environments ever conceived - where the women dress like every man's fantasy but are liable to kill you for looking at them too long.
In this fantastically dark underworld - created by the comic book legend Frank Miller - there's a stark beauty to the landscape, a rough poetry to the dialogue and life is never far away from death. We're talking 21 st century film noir - or as Robert Rodriguez, the director who convinced a sceptical Frank Miller that his vision could be captured on film, calls it a 'living graphic novel..'
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.
"Frank writes great dialogue with great rhythm and humour, very energetic," says Owen. "And it's easy to underestimate that dialogue when you read it in a bubble on a page but when you play it you realise how good it is. Those books of his are some achievement.
"I'm a big fan of Marlowe and Chandler and Dwight for me was like some kind of Frank Miller twisted version of a classic noir character. And I think that's the root of all of Sin City; he starts there and completely bends it out of shape."
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 the proceedings. 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 Owen, Del Toro and Murphy- were often working alone with very few props. If anything, says Brittany Murphy who plays bar maid Shellie, 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 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 Owen and Benicio Del Toro as Jackie Boy, who has suffered a terrible fate - he has a gun barrel sticking out of his forehead - and a car. So Frank Miller's SIN CITY, has not one but three directors.
"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," explains Del Toro. "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. It was great fun."
SIN CITY 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.
Owen would certainly agree that it's quite unlike anything this vastly experienced actor has ever worked on before.
The 40 year old star, who was born in Warwickshire, England, made his name with eye catching roles on British television (notably CHANCER and later, SHARMAN) and then began building his reputation as one of the very best English film actors.
He received wide acclaim for his role in Mike Hodges' THE CROUPIER, joined Robert Altman's star studded cast for the period drama GOSFORD PARK and starred alongside Angelina Jolie in BEYOND BORDERS.
He took the lead in the swashbuckling blockbuster KING ARTHUR and more recently won a Golden Globe and an Academy Award nomination for his performance in Mike Nichols' CLOSER.
Owen lives with his wife and their two children in London. He has recently finished filming the thriller DERAILED with Jennifer Aniston.
Rosario said that there was talking of you going bottomless, as it were, and revealing all. Is that true?
(Laughs) There were some very graphic drawings in the original graphic novel, that's all I'll say. I think the finished article is hard boiled enough, don't you?
Did you have a problem with the violence?
Not at all. I think it's like the most fantastical, macabre wit. I think it's at its funniest when it's the most violent. That's not violence that is related to our every day lives, it's nothing like it. The most extraordinary heightened stylised violence and I might be a bit sick, but I chuckled all the way through. I seriously think it is the most groundbreaking movie I've ever been involved with and there's definitely a market for it because people will just have to check it out. It's going to be very hard to ignore this film because it's so extraordinary.
When you play a character like this how much do you actually create yourself?
None of it (laughs). It was all there for you. We were given such incredible strong guidelines because Robert (Rodriguez's) intention was to be as faithful to the original material as possible. What that means is that there is a whole world of discussions that you have on movies that doesn't apply to this. You arrive and you get to work. There's no 'I think my character would...' bullshit. Because he wears that coat with those red Converse, his hair looks like that, this is the frame today, you have just done that and that bubble there is what you say. It was that defined and within that you do what you do. But there is something rewarding about having such a strong guideline to what you are trying to achieve.
How did you see you character, Dwight?
I'm a big fan of (Philip) Marlowe and (Raymond) Chandler and Dwight for me was like some kind of Frank Miller twisted version of a classic noir character. And I think that's the root of all of Sin City; he starts there and completely bends it out of shape.
Was Frank Miller there all the time?
Yes, all the time, all day every day.
So you could use him as a resource?
I think it would have been impossible to have made the movies without him being there because he has created such an incredible world and he knows these characters inside out. Half the characters bleed into other novels and he fills you in on how he conceived the character, how it has changed, where the storyline came from. And we were being so faithful and he had plenty to say if the dialogue wasn't working right, he would nip and tuck that, if physically it didn't have the dynamism and energy of what he had drawn, he would get involved in that.
How was working with green screen?
It's weird for a day and then you get used to it. With films you use your environment, you go to a set or a location and it becomes part of what you do, you inhabit it, you use it. That's what filming on location is all about but on this you are stranded in no man's land - you've got nothing around you and you feel very exposed for about a day and then you just hone in and it's all about the performance, that's all that is going on. Which is all Robert is concentrating on because there is nothing to distract him; there's no lighting or environment things he has to look after. He is just looking at the actor and what they are doing, which is not such a bad thing.
It's very different film, obviously, to your previous film, CLOSER...
It's very different and I've always had the objective to keep it as mixed and varied and interesting as possible and you couldn't get more different things. But to be honest about it, I was immensely proud of CLOSER as a piece of work, as a whole movie and I'm the same with this, I'm just hugely proud to be a part of it. And it just doesn't get any better. It makes the whole thing very special when you do a piece of work and you watch it and you really like it.
Sin City is a tough city to survive in. Do you think there is one thing that helps the characters survive?
I would never attempt to have a sweeping general theme because Frank has created such a mental, complex crazy place (laughs) that it would do a disservice to sum it up. I literally think that movie is so jam-packed. I felt I'd been to the wildest place I've ever been taken to in a movie, it scared the shit out of me really. I mean, I wouldn't last a day in that place (laughs)! I don't know where Frank pulls it from but he must be scary somewhere..!
What was your reaction when you were offered SIN CITY?
I was very flattered. I didn't know the books, but I'm a big fan of Robert Rodriquez who sent me Frank Miller's graphic novels and I thought they were wild, dynamic extraordinary things. He told me Benicio Del Toro would be in it and I jumped at the opportunity.
It's a groundbreaking project that's paid off. But is it a leap of faith to commit to something like this?
Well, you're backing the filmmaker to pull it off really. Because what we do is only one part of it. The green screen stuff, acting, you are completely exposed. But what completely astounded me when I saw the film is the journey we went on after that - I had no idea I was in that movie. Great. I'm still baffled by it - I don't know how he pulled it off.
Is there a danger with this type of film that it becomes a triumph of style over substance?
No, I think he has created he most incredible wild, weird wonderful world with this. I think everything is bedded in. I think it's the most successful bedding in of computer generated stuff I've ever seen. At the end of the movie I felt I'd been transported to this wild world but I wasn't just marvelling at the technical wizardry and how he had pulled it off, I thought it had all gelled together so exquisitely that he pulled off something extraordinary.
It's very film noir. How do you capture that working in front of a green screen?
You go back to the dialogue and it's easy to underestimate how good the dialogue is when it is a bubble in a graphic novel. And when you read it you think 'my god, this guy can write...' it's got great wit, great energy, great rhythm. The dialogue is lifted out of the books and you realise how talented Frank is.
Your character Dwight has an unusual alliance with the ladies in the film. Tell us about that...
He is lured into Old Town which is run by the ladies of the night where there is a very delicate truce and there is a guy who is causing some trouble and it could all explode really and turn into a very violent situation so Dwight is running around trying to look after his girls. He's as near as you are going to get to a hero in Sin City, because there aren't really any heroes. He is trying to do the right thing.
How would you describe Sin City as a place?
It's the weirdest, wildest, most extraordinary scary place you can go to, really.
How beneficial was it to have Frank Miller on set?
Absolutely essential, we were recreating his world and we wanted to do it faithfully. All the characters have weird and wonderful histories that Frank is obviously in tune with and we couldn't have done SIN CITY without him.
What was it like to witness the relationship between Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller?
It was fantastic. Because there were very clear guidelines about what everyone was trying to achieve and lots of initial discussions, we were trying to be as faithful as possible.
And what about working with Quentin Tarantino?
He came in with his own energy, he was just fantastic. It was a joy to see all of them - Robert, Quentin and Frank - there. It was special. And actually, that was a lot of fun, too.
Do you think that with technology progressing the way it is, actors could become a smaller cog in the filmmaking process?
No, I would disagree with that. I think SIN CITY is another example of no matter how far you go with all this computer stuff, actors are at the heart of this movie. No matter how technically wonderful it is because it's full of the greatest, weirdest, wonderful characters. Some of the acting in it is really fantastic - Mickey Rourke, Bruce Willis give phenomenal performances. It's the bedding together of it all that is so successful in this.
Question & Answer Text Copyright Buena Vista International