SIN CITY - Q&A with ROBERT RODRIGUEZ
Director - Robert Rodriguez
Robert Rodriguez used all of his considerable powers of persuasion to convince comic book legend Frank Miller that he should be the director to translate Sin City from graphic novel to cinema screen.
When Miller remained sceptical after a barrage of long distance phone calls, Rodriquez used his trump card and offered to film the opening sequence, at his own expense, as proof of his honourable intentions.
Miller watched Rodriquez film Josh Hartnett as a smooth talking killer and was impressed and when the two men met up again in Manhattan, Rodriguez showed Miller his taster, the graphic artist/ writer was convinced that Sin City could indeed be 'translated' to the big screen in a ground-breaking collaboration
Crucially, it could be achieved without losing any of the integrity of this dark underworld peopled by vivid characters like the brutish, yet tender, Marv (Mickey Rourke), his one night stand - and true love - Goldie (Jaime King), the ultra determined Dwight (Clive Owen), the hooker he loves, the beautiful but deadly Gail (Rosario Dawson) a vision in leather straps usually to be found clutching an Uzi as she protects her 'girls' - the hookers of Old Town - or the valiant Hartigan (Bruce Willis), a cop who sacrifices everything to save a little girl and many more besides.
Frank Miller 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 arrived 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 urban 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 like a live wire 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 discovered 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," explains Rodriqeuz. "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.'"
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 as Shellie the bar maid - 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 to 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.
Rodriquez, 36, was a student at the University of Texas when he wrote the script to his first film. EL MARIACHI, which he directed, photographed, edited and sound recorded for a princely $7,000. The film went on to win the coveted Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival.
EL MARIACHI was the launch a highly successful career which has included DESPERADO, FROM DUSK 'TILL DAWN (with Tarrantino), THE FACULTY, ONCE UPON A TIME IN MEXICO and the successful SPY KIDS movies.
How did the $1 fee with you and Quentin start?
It started when I did the music for KILL BILL 2. I knew KILL BILL since he first wrote it, I remember he read me the first 30 pages of it in 1994. I knew he didn't want to work with a composer for it because a composer might not do what he liked. So I said 'let me do it. I'll do if for free and if you like it you can use it and if you don't you don't have to use it.' So he said 'man, that sounds great! A free score!' But then my attorneys informed me that you can't really do anything for free, as part of a contract you have to exchange at least a dollar to make it official, so it became a dollar. And then when it came time for this movie I wanted him to come and direct a sequence of it and learn about digital just so that he could see that it was really something that he should consider for another movie and he said 'OK, I'll come do it for free,' which of course turns into a dollar (laughs). That's where it comes from, it's a legality on the contract.
Will shoot digital again in the future?
Oh yeah, you can't go back to film once you've done it like that. It's like someone gives you a Ferrari and then they say 'oh do you want to go back to using your horse and buggy?' Well, no, I think I'll stick to using the fast car.
How important is post production for a film like this?
It's probably an equal amount of time spent on shooting and post production. I mean, it's more intense when you are doing the shoot, you are spending a lot of money when you are shooting, all the actors are there and you've gotta move very fast, so you have to concentrate. With the post production you get your artists working on it and they bring you shots every other day and that you can look at, you have a little more time to do it and it's not so intense as when you are shooting. But what was great was having Frank (Miller) there for the shoot because then we have at least two pairs of eyes because you are moving so fast, you have to make sure you catch everything.
Frank is so involved in this project, what would you say is your signature on the film?
I just knew that my contribution would be bringing it to life from the photography - I mean he let me do all the photography and the effects, all the visual stuff I handled. He was working with the actors with me and just getting it done, making the translation was what I had to do.
Had did you recruit such an impressive ensemble cast?
I told Frank that we would get a great cast from the beginning because when actors heard this was how we were doing the movie they would come running. So often they sign on to a project and it turns into something else and they go 'that's not what I signed on for.' But here we are being so faithful to the book we can say 'if you like the comic well this is what the opening sequence will look like translated. This is what we are going to do and we are going to stick with it.' And that's something they can really focus on and bring to life so that really entices people. And plus people have heard how I shoot in Austin and that it's a very informal, free experience. With a lot of movies the actors go on and the director isn't even in charge, the studio is all nervous, making 'em change stuff and this is just a great way to work.
But because of Frank Miller's previous experiences with films I understand he was very wary about letting anyone get hold of Sin City...
Totally and for good reason. 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. He saw us there with the books opened, we were all following the shots and he was just like 'wow, this is unbelievable...'
There is violence in the film but the film is very stylised. Does that make the violence less disturbing?
Yes and it did in the books too. I would look at the books and think 'this is incredibly violent but kind of beautiful when he is laying there with yellow blood spurting out...' There's something really art abstract about it and visually nobody does that in movies and I thought that this is so much better visually than anything we are trying in cinema. I just wanted to do the book, I'm not just going to take the book and re think it and turn it into a movie. Let me try and take cinema and turn it into this graphic novel, then we will have something so potent, so strong and so stunning visually people won't even think they are watching a movie, which they are not. They are watching a living graphic novel.
In terms of cinematic reference though, it's more film noir in its storytelling.
Yes, And part of film noir is that it's about this dark side, those films were pretty savage for their time in the Forties and Fifties, now you watch them and they are pretty tame and all you remember is the femme fatale but really at the time they were shocking, and people still went to see them. What I liked about this was that it was not nostalgic at all. It was very updated for today's times and would be something that would still shock and surprise people but would be thrilling about that dark side and we never had any problem with MPA or anything like that. And I thought it worked like it did in the book, it still got to you but not where you had to keep your eyes closes all the time or was just too repulsive. It was done in a very abstract, artistic way...
Sin City does seem to cater to the dark side of people's nature...
(Laughs) It's the name. I think there's a parole officer and a couple of other people in there, but it's really about the darker side, it's got to be. It has to be - all the guys are criminals, all the women protect themselves, they're call girls who call their own shots. I mean, it's Sin City, that's what it's got to be about.
How would you react to people who might say that it's misogynistic or degrading to women in the way they are portrayed?
I would say that it's a very balanced thing where it pushed the envelope in a lot of directions and the women are so strong in this, they really deliver more than they get. But if you think back to the old film noirs, for their time they were pretty edgy at a time when there were codes and things to be followed. So I think it's very true to Frank's crazy world and the actresses really enjoyed doing it and felt it was something to be proud of. And a lot of women love the movie so I know it's not that.
How difficult was it to convince a reluctant Frank Miller to turn this into a movie?
Well 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.' Because movies aren't inventive enough. The book is better than the movies and that's why he didn't want it turned into a movie. To do that would be a crime. When I figured out a way to reverse the process that's when went after him and said 'you have to see what I'm talking about..' and he had to see it to believe it..
What were the technical challenges of transferring the graphic novel to the screen?
It's kind of why we had to shoot everything green screen because you had to separate the actors from the backgrounds to get that kind of black and white. It doesn't look like any black and white you have ever seen, because black and white movies are really grey and white, everything goes grey. And in Frank's book it's just like black and white only, there are no mid tones, so to do that with real people you have to shoot it fake, you have to do all the tricks of the trade to do what he is doing with pen and ink.
So a lot to do in post production at your studio in Austin...
Yeah, sometimes I'd come out of the editing suite and get in my car and the battery would be dead and I would be like 'when was the last time I left this place?' Everything you need is there and I love work, I love being creative.
Did you find a kindred spirit in Frank Miller?
When I was looking at his books going 'I got to contact this guy, I wonder what he is like?' And it said 'written by Frank, drawn by Frank, pencilled by Frank...' it was like I think I know this guy (laughs).
A multi tasker like you...
Yeah and we work well together. And me, Frank and Quentin are all the same kind of guys. People say 'what is Frank like?' And he's a puppy but he just loves this kind of material, but like Quentin it's not any real part of him.
You decided to quit the Director's Guild because they wouldn't give Frank a co-director's credit. Was that a bit extreme?
No, I thought the movie was so much better than any rule book. It was like obey the rules or make this movie. 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 or 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.
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