Nine years ago, they wowed – and nauseated – the world with Sin City. Now, Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez might have topped it. Andrew Lowry lets them confess all...
Since its release in 2005, Sin City has become a specific kind of modern classic. A film where Elijah Wood is fed to a wolf isn’t going to trouble Haneke fanboys (although people forget it won a prize at Cannes), but it’s been filed in a far more cherished category: one of those films everybody likes. And now, nine years later, its long-awaited follow-up Sin City: A Dame To Kill For is hitting cinemas. Hitting them again and again, and again and again, silhouetted in black and white, until there’s little more left than a bloody mess.
As creator Frank Miller says, “The new one is frightening, mean and it has Jessica Alba firing a crossbow. Just the way I like it.”
The Darker Knights
He may be sales pitching now, but cinema hasn’t always been so kind to Miller. After spending the Eighties revolutionising comics – his book The Dark Knight Returns all but invented the concept of a gritty, realistic take on Batman – Hollywood called, and he was hired to write the Robocop 2 script. That sequel became a too-many-cooks affair, and the experience left Miller convinced he was out of the picture business for good.
“Being a screenwriter was not my destiny,” he says now. “In fact, it was a form of self-abuse – it’s like building a fire hydrant and seeing a whole host of dogs line up to p*ss on it. I was p*ssed off, went back to the drawing board and decided to do one comic book that could never be adapted into a movie – that was Sin City.”
A black-and-white bonanza of nudity and beheadings set in the most full-on town outside of Newcastle, the collection of Miller’s noir-inflected interlocking stories very much put the ‘graphic’ into ‘graphic novel’. If his superhero work had suggested shades of grey in a billionaire ninja vigilante, Sin City’s heroes were angels with very dirty faces – not above torture or even cold-blooded murder.
“I’ve written crime stories since I was young, and I’ve a lot more crime stories in me,” he says. “I love the contest between good and evil played by characters who are not overtly good or evil. A lot of these people may seem very flawed or damaged, or useless as human beings, but when the actual test comes, they emerge as heroes.”
And how was it returning to the Sin City universe more than 20 years after the first stories? “I can always plug into it,” he says. “We’ve used two original stories, and come up with two originals – we’re trying to tie things up in a bow, and bring Jessica Alba’s story to a conclusion.”
“It seems like he always has Sin City in his head and can just tap into it,” adds filmmaker (and Miller’s partner in lavishly-rendered crime) Robert Rodriguez. “I don’t know if that should worry me or not.”
Long before the original film, Rodriguez had noticed Miller’s ‘unfilmable’ work. Technology had progressed to the point where the stark, stylised look of the comic could be effectively replicated. But there was one problem – Miller had been burned by the movie-making industry. However, he says now, “There is nothing Hollywood about Robert Rodriguez. He does everything out of Austin, Texas – there’s none of that LA bullsh*t.”
Anxious to win the writer’s approval, Rodriguez shot a ‘proof of concept’ short (the opening scene of the first film), with Josh Hartnett and Marley Shelton performing in front of a green screen, to be replaced with the computer-generated Sin City, and the comic’s high-contrast black-and-white look applied. Miller was blown away: “It’s uncanny to see your ideas rendered on screen so accurately. We just had to do it.”
And so began a collaboration which is finally being revisited this year with a sequel. But why such a long wait? “We’ve had a script for years,” says Rodriguez, “but we got caught up in all kinds of industry stuff, and other projects got off the ground sooner. In a way, it’s good that we waited – we have the perfect cast for the second Sin City, and we couldn’t have got it if we’d gone into production in 2007.”
Talking to them, it’s clear Miller and Rodriguez had a ball making this second film; they’re clearly fond of each other. It’s an unusually close collaboration – they prefer calling the films ‘translations’ of the comics rather than adaptations, and Rodriguez left the Directors Guild Of America so he could give Miller a co-director credit on the new film. “I wanted it to be Frank Miller’s Sin City,” says Rodriguez, “and be specific to what his work was, and I wanted to be a facilitator in translating his work to the screen, rather than adapting it. Even if he wanted to change things, I would resist at times and try to convince him that the book was better: ‘You don’t have to change it up, Frank, it was perfect the way it was.’ It’s weird protecting something from the guy who created it in the first place.”
But how do a comic-book artist and a film director work together day to day? “It was so natural it’s unspeakable,” says Miller. “It helps that Robert is a cartoonist, and we can sketch out scenes together in advance. He has a very keen eye.”
“Sometimes it can be subjective,” says Rodriguez, “but he has a unique visual sense that we try to reflect in our framing. He’ll be drawing constantly on set and will do so for every camera setup. The actors love it, too – it gives them a way into getting the tone right. From just three lines I can tell where he’s thinking of having the camera. So we’ll get set up, and before he’s even finished the drawing it’ll be, ‘All right, Frank, we’re ready to shoot.’ I can read him that quick sometimes.”
The Green Zone
The presence of two directors (and performance notes delivered via the medium of doodled cartoons) isn’t the only thing that’s unconventional about the Sin City 2 set. Because the actors are composited into computer-generated backgrounds, you can create scenes between two actors who never even met on the day.
This was done sparingly in the first film, but Rodriguez admits to a lot more in the sprawling follow-up: “If you’d like to try to sync up all those schedules, be my guest,” says Rodriguez. “It actually has some benefits – you can concentrate on one character at a time, rather than dividing your attention. The real shift for this film has been in the actors. In the first film, a lot of them didn’t know what green screen was. That’s different now and the acting is even better – a lot has changed in 10 years. Everyone knows what they’re doing with green screen so the performances are bigger and better.”
So, attracted by the chance to do their best femme or homme fatale, a host of acting’s hottest contenders duly showed up to Rodriguez’s purpose-built Texan facility. Bruce Willis, Jessica Alba, Mickey Rourke, Rosario Dawson and others return from the first film, joined by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Josh Brolin and Eva Green. Watch out for Gordon-Levitt having a very bad day after a too-successful poker match, and Green considerately keeping the costume budget down.
Which is another reminder that the years haven’t dulled Sin City’s edge – a poster featuring Green’s titular dame Ava Lord in a negligee was banned in the US, something Rodriguez shrugs off as a reminder to audiences that his film doesn’t inhabit the safe world of network TV. And this underlines the fact that the world of Basin City stands in opposition to even the most acclaimed superhero spectacular. It’s dirtier, rawer, more interested in the grown-up and grotesque. Miller and Rodriguez are middle-aged men now, but their film contains more beheadings than medieval wars. So, as refreshing as the Technicolor wit of something like Guardians Of The Galaxy is, it’s good to know there’s still a place where you can see Real American Hero Mickey Rourke sawing a man’s limbs off.
After all, you can’t make a pearl without grit.
Sin City: A Dame To Kill For is in West End cinemas on 22 August, and in cinemas nationwide from 25 August