Frank Miller's graphic novel leaps off the pages


Published: Friday, April 1, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, March 31, 2005 at 11:09 p.m.
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Bruce Willis stars as Hartigan in "Sin City."

Dimension
When Robert Rodriguez approached Frank Miller about adapting "Sin City," he knew he needed a great pitch.
"I told him we shouldn't insult it by turning it into a movie. We gotta take cinema and turn it into this book," Rodriguez recalls.
But to adapt Miller's black-and-white 2-D world of tough guys in trench coats and back-alley crooks, the duo thought they had to go to extreme lengths of digital mimicry.
The movie is based on three "Sin City" comic books, an extravagant noirish world of fantastical ultraviolence. Famous among comic book readers for his "Daredevil" series, Miller always said Hollywood would never get its hands on "Sin City."
"When it comes to adapting material, very, very rarely do you get 'The Silence of the Lambs,' " says Miller. "Usually you end up with 'Catwoman' - something that just uses the title and throws out the source material."
Rodriguez, who directed the "Spy Kids" films and the famously inexpensive "El Mariachi," felt simpatico with Miller.
The author of the book "Rebel Without a Crew," which inveighs against large, specialized film crews, likes to operate his own camera, do his own editing and create many of the effects.
"When I looked at the books and it said, 'Drawn by Frank, inked by Frank, lettered by Frank,' I was like, 'I think I know this guy,' " says Rodriguez.
So Rodriguez convinced Miller of his dedication to faithfully recreating "Sin City." He even wanted to co-direct it with Miller - a move that made him drop out of the Director's Guild of America since it forbids multiple directors.
Rodriguez says the decision was easy - even though he sacrificed insurance, residuals, a chance for a directing Oscar and his next scheduled project (for Paramount Pictures, which only hires DGA members).
"What's the alternative? I won't be able to make this movie? That's why you get into this business - to make really cool, new, challenging cinema, not to be in a club."
A screenplay was culled from Miller's books practically verbatim. Storyboards were not made - the comic's frames had already done the job.
"Sin City" - which stars Bruce Willis, Clive Owen, Benicio Del Toro, Mickey Rourke, Elijah Wood, Josh Hartnett, Jessica Alba and Rosario Dawson - was shot entirely with a green screen, which means the only things that are real are objects the actors touch or the cars they ride in. Everything else was later digitally inserted using special effects.
With more than 1,800 effects shots, its production is much like 2004's "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow." That film flopped, critically and at the box office, despite its considerable style.
Style aside, "Sin City" is sure to make some people squeamish because of its extreme violence and (what some may see as) misogyny.
It's a familiar gripe for Miller.
"Chuck Jones got criticism for violence!" Miller answers, alluding to the legendary animator who created Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote among others. "It's one of those buzz words."
While "Sin City" draws considerably from film noir's cityscapes, the lighting and texture is uniquely that of a comic book - like eyes glowing in the dark.
"A lot of Frank's lighting is not really physically possible, and that's why we had to shoot it all on a green screen," Rodriguez says. "But when you look at it, it doesn't feel like an effect. . . . It's an abstraction of reality."
To get the stark shadows of Miller's drawings, Rodriguez not only separated the actors from the background, but often from each other to light them specially.
"Everything becomes like a painting and you're using light the same way Frank uses ink," Rodriguez says.
Working together, the co-directors paid obsessive attention to capturing the "Sin City" of the page, frame by frame.
"We were working with my drawings up on one camera where we would superimpose the real image and adjust it until it matched my compositions," says Miller.
Though the film - made at Rodriguez's Austin, Texas-based Troublemaker Studios- is almost entirely composed of deep blacks and bright whites, the filmmakers shot the movie in color, later transferring it. That made it possible to keep some of the colors as brilliant exceptions to the overall palate.
In the opening scene, a woman stands on a high-rise balcony. Only her slinky dress is in color - a deep red. This and other color highlights throughout the film stand out in a manner similar to the little girl's red coat in Steven Spielberg's "Schindler's List."
One of the movie's chief (and most terrifying) villains, Yellow Bastard, was also kept in color. Nick Stahl ("Carnivale," "In the Bedroom") couldn't look less like the character - but he certainly did after five hours of makeup and the addition of prosthetics.
Shooting without film made for a very different experience for Stahl.
"They didn't cut ever, which was weird," Stahl says. "In one sense it was great because it does kind of free you up. You don't have to think, 'Do I have time for this or that?' You just have to do it. For that reason, you had to come very prepared. It was a little exhausting."
Rodriguez reports that even his buddy Quentin Tarantino - long a film traditionalist - was impressed after he came to "guest direct" a scene. (He was paid $1, the same amount Rodriguez got for scoring "Kill Bill Vol. 2.") For Rodriguez, "Sin City" would have been just a regular movie if not shot digitally.
"What I love about new technology is that it really pushes the art. It really pushes it in a way that you can't imagine until you come up with the idea," he says. "It's idea-based. You can do anything."
For his part, Miller thinks "Sin City" is not only a benchmark in the history of cinematic technological advances, but a redefining of Hollywood's growing relationship with graphic novels.
"This is the first time in the courtship between comics and movies that the two are really joined in intent," Miller says. "It's paced like a comic book; it feels like a comic book. Not the 'Biff!' 'Bam!' 'Pow!' kind of comics that a lot of people still believe defines the form, but the new era of the graphic novel."
So does Miller have a newfound faith in Hollywood?
"What I'd say is: We'll see about Hollywood, but I know I can work in Austin."

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