When James Brown died in 2006, the title of The Hardest Working Man In Show Business transferred to Robert Rodriguez, the maverick filmmaker behind Desperado, Spy Kids, Machete and Sin City.
Despite working outside the Hollywood system, Rodriguez rules a mini filmmaking empire in his native Texas and he successfully courts mainstream audiences with his gonzo genre mash-ups.
2005's Sin City is arguably Rodriguez's most beloved work, and this year he finally fulfilled his long stated promise to make a sequel, once again co-directing with Frank Miller, who wrote and drew the comic book source material. Sin City: A Dame To Kill For opens in New Zealand cinemas today.
I recently had a chat with Rodriguez about the film. Here's how it went:
Dominic Corry: You make a lot of sequels, but this one has been a long time coming...
Robert Rodriguez: I really love these characters. Sin City was interesting in that the audience really is what kept it alive for so long. Every year I would have to say I was working on it because people would always come up and say, "When are you gonna do a sequel? When are you gonna do a sequel?". Almost 10 years of that. And it's very rare to have a project that people want that much. So there was something special about Sin City.
Why did it take so long to come together?
We almost did it in 2007 but the Weinsteins had started a new company and had to kind of gather some money first. So we went off to do a couple of other projects. Then a few years back, Frank and I got back into writing the script out. I think this is the right time to do it, we got the best cast we ever could've gotten. Some projects just have their own internal timing. It was longer than we probably would've wanted but it actually worked out really well.
Jessica Alba in a scene from Sin City: A Dame to Kill For. Photo / AP
Did you apply any lessons learnt on the first film to the shooting of this one?
With the first film, I'd done a movie like that just beforehand, because Spy Kids 3D was all green screen. And that's what gave me the idea to do Sin City. So I'd had a little experience with green screen. Nobody was doing that back then. The digital backlot is something people talk about, but it was never actually done until around Sin City time. It hasn't changed that much really since then. I mean, the technology is better, the cameras are better, the green screen is how I like it, with a cleaner key. We used Jim Cameron's latest 3D cameras which are all brand new.
What I really noticed was everybody else, all the actors - on the first film I thought they did a great job, but they were even better this time. By a lot. And I think it was because with the first movie, no one had never done green screen, and everyone was wondering what the process was or how it was gonna translate. But after seeing the first movie and everyone having more experience with green screen, I was surprised by how amazing all the performances were. Everybody who came back, you could just tell a night and day difference between the first movie and this movie. They all understood the process a lot better.
Sin City was one of the first films that really showed the stylistic possiblities of this kind of filmmaking. I thought more films would follow in its wake, in terms of visual ambition. Did you?
Well right away 300 took a page from that book and tried to recreate Frank's 300 book using that digital technology. But in both cases, they're based on a Frank Miller book, and he's a very unique writer and graphic artist who creates the looks of these very singular-looking movies. Even his graphic novels look unlike anyone else's. So unless you're basing it on something like that, you're not gonna really get a new look.
Read more: Movie review: Sin City: A Dame to Kill For
The Sin City look was a very new look, in the graphic novel as well as the film. So I can't really think of a source material that would lend itself to the creation of a new visual aesthetic. Frank Miller is a visionary. That's why I wanted to follow his book so closely. It was so amazing on the page I just wanted to see that movie on the screen.
That was the whole idea - let's not make this into a movie, we'll ruin it. Let's take movies and turn 'em into his graphic novel. And how many pieces of work like that are there? Like you say, you'd hope there are more, but name some other source material that would do that? I can't even think of another one that would be as bold as that book is. But it could be done. You can do anything with a computer now. You just need the source material of a visionary artist.
Mickey Rourke in a scene from Sin City: A Dame to Kill For. Photo / AP
If you look at all the special effect movies out, they all kinda tend to look the same. Look-wise, effects-wise, because there's not a central artist who's driving this new aesthetic, so they just do what normally would be done. So I really think that someone like Frank is just so key to creating that. And if you have a visual representation that people can then imitate, you can show his book to the CG artist and go "I wanna make it look like THIS". You need that concept art, and that's what his graphic novels are, they're like storyboard concept art, fully realised.
In his role as 'co-director', is Frank Miller on set every day with you, or is that credit more about recognising his fundamental role in the creation of the look?
No that would be, like a producer or something. He's on set with me every day, for every shot. And it's so fun having a co-director. I'm a cartoonist so I understand, that's why I wanted him to be a director. I told him, "Man I used to draw, I was a cartoonist, I'm telling you it's the same thing. Directing is the same thing that you're doing in a room with a pen. Except you're gonna use a camera instead of a pen. You're already doing amazing visual storytelling with characters that are more alive than a lot of the ones that are on celluloid, and it's the exact same process, except your actors will talk back to you and they'll be able to contribute. So you're already directing better than a lot of us, you're just using a paper and a pen."
I wanted it to be his graphic novel brought to life because I was such a huge fan of it. And I needed him there for that. I need him there to help me stage things, to keep the performances just right, be true to the characters. Because it's not all in the graphic novel, a lot of it's in his head. So he was great at it, but also instrumental in making it that authentic.
Lady Gaga in a scene from Sin City: A Dame to Kill For. Photo / AP
When you came back to work together on this sequel, did you talk about Frank's version of The Spirit?
I don't remember. In the beginning we just focused on what we were gonna do with Sin City 2. While we were on the set of the first movie we'd already been plotting out what we were gonna do in the second one with A Dame To Kill For being the source material.
Is there a special guest director this time around?
There isn't. We thought about trying to get one but then we ended up shooting it so fast and shooting it so out of sequence that it would've been hard to bring someone in for just a section that they could just do. With any particular story, sometimes the actors who are acting together aren't even there at the same time so it would've been hard to pin down a particular sequence for somebody to come guest direct, like we did on the first one where Quentin could come and actually direct one section that we knew these two actors were gonna be in and would be a good scene for him. We ended up finishing this one before we ever got a chance to choose someone.
DC: You're famous for working outside the system. Do you ever get tempted by big studio blockbuster films?
I'm not opposed to doing a big studio film. Usually the reason you would do that is you had an idea or a story or something that you couldn't go generate yourself. I would love to partner with a studio on something that's bigger than the kind of scope I could do on my own. Usually I'll finance my own movies somewhere under the fifty million dollar range. If it's something greater than that, that would be where I would go to the studio system. But so far I haven't really found the right project for that. But someday maybe.
Do you see your independence from Hollywood a fundamental aspect of your filmmaking?
It's really not a 'us against them' mentality, it's really just practicality, y'know. If I have an idea for a movie I'll just go make it. If I relied on the studio system - it's a long process. You'd have to go develop the material, you'd have to wait for a green light, you could be there for years. I see a lot of young filmmakers I try and counsel because they make a great first independent film and they get picked up by a studio right away and put on one of their projects, literally like three years will go by and they never make the movie.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt in a scene from Sin City: A Dame to Kill For. Photo / AP
They get sucked into the system, and it's a system of hurry up and wait. So if I get an idea and it's mine, I can just go finance it and make it tomorrow. So it's really just about speed and efficiency. I was always inspired by George Lucas - he wanted to do Flash Gordon, couldn't get the rights, so he just wrote his own and called it Star Wars. So that's the approach I'll take usually. If someone has a project that they really wanna do but it's tied up with a slew of producers and it's at a studio and you know it's gonna be gridlocked, you have to write your own version.
Rather than go stand in line and try and be someone who directs James Bond movies, I'll make my own James Bond. I'll call it Spy Kids, base it on my family, make it personal. And then you've got a series that's your own. So I tend to be independent because of that.
Is there anything you've wanted to do that you haven't been able to do?
I wanna get into some animation stuff. I used to be a cartoonist but I just haven't had the time to do it. But I think I wanna try and do that next because it's an area I've always wanted to do. I still draw a lot, I have ideas for a look that hasn't been done before. Other than that, sci-fi films. I have a sci-fi project I've always wanted to do. Can't say much about that yet, but it's definitely a new genre for me that I've always been a fan of.
You should adapt Frank Miller's Hard Boiled.
Oh yeah that's a great one
* Sin City: A Dame To Kill For is in New Zealand cinemas now.
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