Almost a decade after their initial partnering to translate Miller’s crime noir fever dream of a comic book series into a big screen sensation — with Rodriguez so valuing Miller’s template and input that he brought him on as co-director — the two have reunited at last for a second installment: “Sin City: A Dame to Kill For.”
The first film’s pioneering use of digital sets, green screen performances, hardboiled storylines and characters that loop in and out of one another, a cast of A-list acting talent and a near-perfect visual realization of Miller’s distinctive black-and-white graphic style carry through, with some new flourishes. The filmmakers have added 3-D to their arsenal, and two of the film’s four central storylines are wholly original works, including one building on the story of grieving, vengeance-minded exotic dancer Nancy Callahan.
During a recent press conference to promote the film, Rodriguez and Miller offered a glimpse into their working relationship, the process and decisions that informed their latest effort together, and what audiences need to do if they don’t want to wait another nine years for a third visit to “Sin City.”
On developing the two new “Sin City” stories — “Nancy’s Last Dance” and “The Long Bad Night” — that appear in the film without Miller having previously crafted them in comic book form:
Robert Rodriguez: After working with Jessica [Alba] and really loving the relationship between Jessica and Bruce [Willis], Frank was already talking about this new story that he was inspired to do following what happens afterwards. So we said, “Okay — that has to be one of the stories. And that’s kind of a cool idea, that people can’t just go buy a book and know what’s going to happen. Let’s do another new story.” And I challenged him to come up with another character, and to make it easy, whenever he’d come down to Austin to visit I would ask him about it and I would secretly tape anything he said in case that was it. And he said, “Yeah, well, I’m kind of thinking about this character named Johnny and he’s got this coin and he can’t lose.” And I was like, “Okay, here we go!”
It was fun just to be there during the process of that: the writing of it; the crafting of it. That’s why I knew the ideal actor for it. I told him about this guy who I thought would be great: Joseph Gordon-Levitt would bring an energy to the movie, and that he’s a very collaborative, that he’s very smart, he’s very creative. That would be someone that would help us kind of finish the working on it, finish the writing of it because he can bring a lot to it. And since Frank didn’t have it drawn, he didn’t really see the character in his head like his other ones. So rather than make a drawing he falls in love with and then try to find the actor, just get the actor and skip that process. Skip that step and go right to crafting it with the actor. That’s why Joseph was really important casting.
Frank Miller: There was many a line I would come up with which had to do with getting to know Joseph, because what he brought to the performance was a new and different kind of hero for Sin City. And so the script had to adapt, as it often does.
On bringing the second film even closer in line, visually, with Miller’s graphic depiction of his shadowy crime noir world:
Rodriguez: I remember the first film. I looked at what we could do with green screen and digital and Frank’s book, and I thought, “Well, maybe we won’t go as far as the book because it might just be too bizarre for audiences.” We did about like a half step between the graphic novel and the movie, and people really loved the feel of it, thought it was really an original and great treatment of it. So this time, we went ahead and pushed it further towards the book. It’s just eye-popping, so we thought, “If they like that, let’s go all the way!”
[We did it] in 3-D because I just thought that would lend so much better to a graphic novel because of the absence of information. I mean, a lot of 3-D movies have so much on the screen, you almost don’t know where to look. But because his style is so stripped down and there’s so much black — and then just the actor and a few set pieces and maybe snow — everything would pop a lot more if you did it in 3-D and really make you feel like you were in his graphic novels.
Miller: The use of 3-D, Robert pushed. His point was, “We don’t have aliens coming out of every closet and space filling the air and dinosaurs coming out of nowhere all the time. We’ve got your stuff, which is pretty simple, and where the focus can be used in 3-D.” And so I became convinced — as I usually am by this guy.
On adding Rodriguez’s own innate visual sensibility into “Sin City’s” DNA:
Miller: While I’m primarily known as cartoonist, Robert is also a cartoonist from way back. I was doing a lot of drawings, especially for the new stories we were doing. There was the one time when I was at his office, and I was doing all kinds of drawings of Joseph’s story, and all of a sudden, out comes this sheet of paper, and Robert’s drawn this preposterous picture of Senator Roark staring down at money, only it’s in formation of a city. And so I got like five or six more drawings out of that. I mean, that was a great idea!
Rodriguez: That was fun, getting to draw — next to Frank Miller — shots for “Sin City.”
On bringing characters only briefly glimpsed in the first “Sin City” film into sharper focus for the second installment:
Rodriguez: I’m a huge fan of Powers Boothe… I would quote all his lines from “Extreme Prejudice” to him all the time. He very much inspired the character of Moco in “El Mariachi” — the guy in the white suit. And getting to work with him on the first one, I said, “There’s not much for you to do in the first movie, but if we do a sequel, you’re all over all the “Sin City” books.” I was so glad that he had come to do that one little scene in “Sin City,” because that paid off for him here — he’s the whole movie!
And he enjoyed what he was getting to do. You could really feel it on the set. You have to feel it, because there’s nothing else to go off of. It’s all green [screen]. It’s only the actor, and you know when you’re accomplishing it or not, because if you can make it work with just the camera and one actor or two actors that they’re with, then you know by the time all the sauce is on, all the pretty pictures are on, it’s going to really work. But it’s got to work on that base level, and you’ve got to go able to feel it.
On assembling the perfect, shadowy interpretation of Miller’s distinctive black-and-white imagery:
Rodriguez: The lighting takes time when you’re on the set. Fortunately, we can move pretty quickly because I’m lighting just the actors. I don’t have to light the entire set. You light them with the set in mind — that’s where the graphic novel is so great: You know already where your key is going to be, or where there might be a backlight, and I know how to manipulate them quite a bit if I shoot them a certain way. I can add a lot of shadows later, if I light them a certain way. I figured that out in the first “Sin City” as well, but it’s got even easier now with technology, and it gives you a lot of freedom later, to play with all the lighting and get it right. So you’re pretty much still lighting the set — I was still lighting the set up until about three weeks ago! [Laughs] They’re still doing the effects and adding little pieces of shadowing — still shading maybe two weeks ago, still adding shadows to a number of things. It’s quite a process. It’s like drawing. It’s like being an artist. You pencil it in first, then you ink it. Well, when you’re filming, it’s kind of like you’re penciling it all in. You know where everything’s going to go. But that application of the final ink takes some time.
On whether Marv is the ultimate moral compass within “Sin City”:
Miller: [Skeptical] Marv as a moral compass…?
Rodriguez: For “Sin City,” he is considered the moral compass of that world!
Miller: Well, yeah, I guess. It depends on the story. It’s funny, especially working with Mickey [Rourke], but working with Marv, he tends to write himself, and he tends to have a very profound sense of right and wrong that’s disguised by his slovenly and terrifying behavior.
On sharing a scene together, as actors, on-screen in a clever shared cameo:
Rodriguez: In the script, Nancy was lamenting about the loss of Hartigan. She’s drinking and there was an old movie playing, and I go, “Oh, great, we’re going to have to go license an old movie. But when we’re waiting in between with all the green screen, why don’t we go shoot little bits of this?”
Miller: Bob comes up to me one day and he goes, “Let’s just be us.” And then we started ad-libbing dialogue back and forth, just as corny as we can find it. And so we’re playing off of Jessica’s lines, but every line that our characters say is an echo.
Rodriguez: The scene starts, they’re saying, “This rotten town spoils everyone it touches.” I thought, “Well, if there’s no movie playing, what if Nancy’s repeating what she’s hearing from an old movie that she’s seen many times?” Because that kind of came out of nowhere, what she was saying, so we shot ourselves while we were waiting for the actors to get to the set, that little five minutes that we’re sitting there waiting. We’re like, “Quick, lay down right there! The lights are already on!” And we would sit there. I’m actually wearing the same clothes [today]. I put a fedora on, and a jacket. We thought it would be fun to have that there in the background.
On the overall effect their collaboration has on each other as artists:
Miller: As far as how it’s affected my artwork, it’s probably made me more aware of character. Working with the kind of talent I’ve gotten to work with, with the cast of “Sin City,” makes me think, probably, more fully-dimensionally about what is going on behind their eyes. But I draw the way I draw, and ain’t nothing gonna change that!
Rodriguez: You said that it would be hard to draw these characters again and have them not look like the actors now that you’ve taken them.
Miller: Oh, yeah. I draw Marv, and I think, “Boy, I could throw a little Mickey in there!” And I don’t think I’ll do another dancing Nancy Callahan scene after seeing what Jessica does, because she taught me.
Rodriguez: You can take Frank Miller out of “Sin City,” but you can’t take “Sin City” out of Frank Miller. For me, I think I learn so much every time I work with somebody, and the actors, but especially with this kind of a movie, where the idea from the beginning — his visual story telling was just so bold when you read the book. You read the book and just be breathless and go, “Movies aren’t like this at all! Let’s not take this book and turn it into a movie — let’s take the movies and turn it into the graphic novel. Let’s do that instead, and people won’t even know what they’re looking at.” It’s still visual storytelling, but it’s just approached completely different. And the two mediums don’t have to be separate mediums — they could be one and the same. But people just have a block and go, “Oh, that’s a graphic novel. That’s totally different. Movies are this thing.”
If you flip that, that affects everything you do after, because then you rethink everything that you do. You rethink why you make a movie a certain way. So it helps, I think, push you into a more experimental ground for everything you do after that to go and embark on that. I’m still learning. Everyone’s so different. Every performance is different. How an actor works — and I’ve worked with many fantastic actors, and they’re all different. To judge performance is really difficult… You’ve got to be able to see every — you have to see the pictures from all the angles you’re going to use before you can really tell [the story]. So sometimes, that taught me to really sometimes start with a close-up — the big no-no, because then you know if it’s working instead of starting in wide. That happened before with Mickey: I started with a wide shot [but realized] he’s giving us a closeup performance now — drop the wide and go close, and that was the whole scene. It was magnetic. Sometimes that first instinct that they have is better than anything you can approach to come up with yourself.
On how quickly they hope to return to “Sin City” after nearly a decade between the first two movies:
Rodriguez: We want to go right away. It’s best to be supportive: If people come out and see this one, that shows they want another one, and that will get us going on another one, because it was a lot of fun doing this. I think the technology’s gotten to a place that the actors understand the green screen. That’s one of the phenomena that I saw from the first one. The first one, you have to understand, nobody was shooting all green screen movies back then. Digital was brand new. I had just done the first digital 3-D movie, which was “Spy Kids 3-D.” It was mostly on green screen. I thought, “I think I can do a whole movie on green screen with these digital cameras. I think I can do ‘Sin City.'” Well, the actors showed up and they were like, “What is this green screen thing? How is that going to work?” I mean, they hadn’t done full green screen movies yet, and that wasn’t that long ago. Ten years ago, so it shows how much it’s changed. And everyone did a fantastic — but I really noticed it on this one. Everyone showed up at just a whole other level because they’ve done more green screen by then. They knew how that green screen experience was going to translate into “Sin City” — what it would look like afterward, what it would feel like — and so the performances were just across the board so much better, and I was blown away by that. I think everyone understands to a point where we can just go right into a third one and pick up where we left off.
Miller: Not only can we go right into a third one, it’s already a story — stories, actually — and they’re ready to get working on. But they’re all in my head, so you can’t see them unless you see the second one.