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.
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 Tarantino), 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 II. 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 you 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 postproduction. 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.
How 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 its 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 rulebook. 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.