It’s hard to believe that it’s been nine years since the first Sin City. The 2005 adaptation of Frank Miller’s graphic novels pioneered the new comic aesthetic, translating Miller’s black-and-white panels of the anarchic Basin City using CGI. Since then, technology has grown, along with a couple of imitators (Sucker Punch, Watchmen) that fared poorly at the box office. The film also tragically lost original stars Brittany Murphy and Michael Clarke Duncan, and has in turn brought in new faces, from Dennis Haysbert to Jeremy Piven. Insider gossip circulated about the Weinstein brothers bailing on the project after the poor reception of the Rodriguez- and Tarantino-helmed Grindhouse. The big question looms: Has interest in the pulp noir—and it’s violent, decidedly sociopathic denizens—waned?
Co-directors Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller have plowed ahead, retaining the same kinetic energy and gleeful violence, this time around in 3-D. And despite all obstacles, the two insist that now was the perfect time to revisit Sin City.
The A.V. Club: Does it feel like nine years since the first film?
Robert Rodriguez: No, it went by so fast. It felt like maybe four or five. We had gotten sidetracked with other projects. I think we were ready to make it around 2007 and we were already talking to some key cast members. It wasn’t quite all gelling yet and we didn’t have all the stories. We just wanted it to be close to the other one and not wait so long. The Weinsteins weren’t working at Disney anymore and had started a new company. We needed all the elements to be correct. It took a while to get the financing right, to get the stories right, and for this cast to happen. Some movies just have their own time clock, and no matter what you do, the stars will not align until it’s time. The time happened at the right time. This really is the perfect time. We wouldn’t have had this cast or any of these situations otherwise.
Frank Miller: It flew by. Like Robert, I kept busy. It’s a project where my mind would get back on it, or Robert and I would talk about it. Like Robert said, when the time was right, we did it.
AVC: How did the stories come together? Did you know it was going to be A Dame To Kill For as the centerpiece?
RR: When we first put together the proposal for what the first movie would be I had to leave A Dame To Kill For out because it was a much longer book. To truncate it and try and jam it into an anthology would have done it a disservice. I think it still worked without it even though Clive Owen’s character talks about a face change and you don’t know what he’s talking about. But that was fine. Sometimes with the books you read them out of order, so it was fine. Frank said, “Yeah, that should be its own movie.” So we already knew we were going to do that as a second movie. And while we were making the first movie he was inspired on the set with Jessica [Alba] and Bruce [Willis] to do a follow-up story to theirs.
I thought that it would be cool to do an original story where people can’t just buy the book and know what’s going to happen. Let’s write one more new one. “Do you have any ideas?” He told me, “Well, there’s one character Johnny who’s got a coin and he can’t lose. He beats the wrong guy at poker and it’s called ‘The Long Bad Night.’” I said, “Okay! That’s the next one. Write that one.” That way people will have some surprises and some things that they’ll be looking forward to that are classics of the Sin City canon, but then some that are just wild cards. We just actually had to have him write it and draw it.
AVC: Frank, did you still relate to the material and feel passionate about it, or did it take a minute? Did it seem dated at all?
FM: I’m always going to love Sin City. It’s where my crime stories happen, and it’s the comic book that I spent a lifetime waiting to do. I’ve wanted to do crime comics ever since I was in my early teens. I’d grown up on superheroes and enjoyed the hell out of them until I turned 13 or 14 and discovered girls. That led me to all kinds of different fiction, including the works of Mickey Spillane and Raymond Chandler. As I was making my way in comics I discovered late night New York television which at the time was brilliant and full of film noir. I started burying myself in it, so this love affair I had with the genre just kept growing and it hasn’t stopped.
AVC: It was hard to think about Brittany Murphy and Michael Clarke Duncan passing, but Dennis Haysbert just kills it.
RR: Just kills it. He knew Michael and he came in and I said, “This is the situation,” and he was like, “I would love to do it for Michael.” People came in to really service the story. There was a character that exists there and I think what we did with him and what Dennis brought to it really does feel like a prequel. It’s like the younger version of that character, and then Michael takes the baton. When you put it in the right order, that’s the A Dame To Kill For story. The Big Fat Kill comes after A Dame To Kill For, so the performances go together really well.
FM: With Brittany, there was no pressing need for her character. But also, I just couldn’t stomach the idea of anyone else playing her. I fell so madly in love with her when she was playing that part that it would have been very awkward. I’d rather just make up a whole different character.
AVC: How do you play off each other and split directing duties?
RR: It’s kind of like this.
FM: It’s kind of like handball as a blood sport. It’s a lot of give and take. There’s a bunch of stuff that he knows that I don’t know.
RR: Or only he would know because he created it. A lot of it I would defer, or not defer but just ask him, “Is this how it’s supposed to be?” And he’d say, “Well, no, because…” So much of it isn’t in the book. It’s in his head. I just know as a writer that you write a screenplay and no matter how long you make a screenplay, 10 percent of it is in your head. You think it’s there but it’s not. It’s very skeletal. With books it’s even more so. So an actor would come up to me and say, “Why is my character doing this?” and I’d say, “I don’t know. Let’s go ask Frank. I’m curious to know too!” I’d say, “How come this character is like that?” And he’d tell me, “Oh, that’s not in the books at all.”
FM: I’m reminded of the time we were doing the first Sin City and Robert just walked up to me and said, “Uh, how come there’re dinosaurs in these tar pits?” And I said, “Because it’s cool. It’s cool to draw, all right?”
RR: There’s no other real reason. But it’s good to know at least. I’m operating the camera, so I’m right there with the actors. Sometimes I know we have a great take because you get a feel and the actor can feel it, but we still have to get up, walk over to the back, and see if Frank is smiling. If Frank’s smiling, we know we nailed it. If Frank doesn’t like it, we have to try again. It’s much easier to have two people there. It’s nice as a director because a lot of the pressure is off. To have another set of eyeballs is just the best.
AVC: Do you remember the first time you picked up a Sin City book?
RR: As soon as it came out. It was Marv [on the cover], the first one. I was a cartoonist so I was big into comic books. There’s a friend of mine who’s a big cartoonist now named Chris Ware. He had a book Floyd Farland, Citizen Of The Future. It was a futuristic story but it was almost in a Sin City style, black and white. I used to stare at that thing and go, “God, that’s so cool. How do you figure out what to white out and what to black out?” Then Sin City came out and I saw it and was like, “Oh my God!” That was like a quantum leap, even more complicated. It hurts your brain as an artist.
Finally I got to see his originals. It’s very interesting. He pencils in everything. He pencils in the whole room with amazing pencil work. Then with the ink he blacks out half of it, white outs the rest of it and then erases it all to simplify it. It’s so striking. I thought, “I want to see that in a movie.” I used to buy the book over and over again, and all the books that came out. The individual issues, the compilations—I’d go to the store always looking for Frank Miller. They would say, “Oh, there’s another book there” and I’d get it, go home, and I already had two of them. I didn’t realize I’d already bought it like three times.
FM: I did a lot of new covers.
RR: After 10 years of that I finally said, “I got to make a movie out of this.” Just to validate all the freakin’ books I’d bought, and over-bought, and bought again. I would use those characters as references. I remember one time I had a video game company and they were knuckling around with some stupid concept, like a Duke Nukem-type hero and I was like, “That’s bullshit man!” I showed them Big Fat Kill and was like, “That’s a hero. Make a guy like that in a video game. Look how badass this guy is.” It’s stripped down, lean, mean. He was always the archetype of all these kinds of cool, badass heroes. I couldn’t wait to do a movie with it when I figured out how to do it with technology, with the way he drew it.
AVC: Frank, what’s your working process like? Do the images or the words come first?
FM: First I have to plot a story. The way I usually do that is to jot down, in less than a sentence, what the gist of the story is. With the first Sin City it was simply Conan in a trench coat. Then I work out the ending, then the beginning and middle. If I know the ending from the very start, I know where I’m aimed, and every scene is heading in that direction, whether you want it to or not. Marv spends his entire story telling you they’re going to kill him, and if it works, then you don’t believe him because it’s so obvious.
AVC: Have you always been attracted to violence?
FM: Not in real life. But on the page? Oh yeah, sure. Drawing these comic books, violence is one of the two greatest forces of conflict there is between people.
AVC: Robert, what’s the best thing to happen to film in the last nine years?
RR: Well, there’s not much film left. [Laughs.] It’s all digital.
AVC: Do you ever yearn for a simpler time, or are all the technologies at hand good for the industry?
RR: Yeah, I love going with the flow of where technology is. I adopted digital really early and green screen really early. I did the first digital 3-D movie. So I’m always trying to use technology to push the envelope with moviemaking so we can re-conceive how it can be done and not just do the same thing and keep pushing it. But it’s great. [Holds up cellphone.] This changed a lot of filmmaking. I wrote most of the score on this, on my phone, because I wasn’t near my work station. That’s usually the last place you get an idea. So to have an idea for a piece of music and score, just being able to record it into here and hum and sing all the different parts—I can go, “Oh, that cello goes there.” Technology was really what made it possible to do all these different jobs.
AVC: The El Rey, your own cable network, is the ultimate dream of any film geek.
RR: Have you seen it?
AVC: Yeah, I watched The Burning.
RR: It’s a cool, fun network.
AVC: Are you still as giddy as the kid who made El Mariachi?
RR: Oh my God, it keeps getting better—getting to work with your friends and making the craziest stuff. Now with a network, we can just go, “We’re going to do a show called The Director’s Chair and I’m going to go interview all my heroes.” Quentin [Tarantino]’s episode is a two-parter. The Guillermo Del Toro one is awesome. We have two original shows now and I get to curate and show all my favorite old movies. It’s just a blast.