Nearly a decade after the first film, co-directors Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller have reunited to bring the visually stunning Sin City graphic novels back to the screen for Sin City: A Dame to Kill For. In a town where murderers reign and the desperate want vengeance, their paths cross at the famous Kadie’s Club Pecos, where Nancy Callahan (Jessica Alba) still dances while mourning the loss of her love, John Hartigan (Bruce Willis). With Marv (Mickey Rourke) in the center of the carnage, a cocky young gambler named Johnny (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) takes on the villainous Senator Roark (Powers Boothe), and Dwight McCarthy (Josh Brolin) is battles with the woman of his dreams and nightmares, Ava Lord (Eva Green).
During a conference at the film’s press day, actors Jessica Alba, Josh Brolin, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Eva Green talked about living in Sin City, with this dialogue and these extremes, going into the mind of Frank Miller, trickiest scenes, playing a Rodriguez bad-ass, the motives of the women in Sin City, working in Austin at Troublemaker Studios, working with Christopher Lloyd, feeling comfortable with Nancy’s swagger, the sex and sexuality of the story, and why Nancy is a stripper who never actually takes her clothes off. Also there, Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller discussed getting even closer to the comics this time around, what the 3D added, the process of lighting the film, what their collaboration has meant to each other, and how they’d like to go into production on a third film, right away. Check out what they had to say after the jump.
ROBERT RODRIGUEZ: Yeah. I remember with 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 a half-step between the graphic novel and the movie, and people really loved the feel of it and thought it was an original and great treatment of it. So this time, we went ahead and pushed it further towards the book, especially with the more abstract drawings and his graphic approach to it. It’s just eye-popping. We thought, “If they like that, let’s go all the way.” So, when people say, “How did you update the look?” It wasn’t really to make it different from the first one, but actually closer to the source material. And then, we did it in 3D because I just thought that would lend so much better to a graphic novel because of the absence of information. A lot of 3D movies have so much on the screen that you almost don’t know where to look. But because his style is so stripped down, and there’s so much black, and then there’s just the actor and a few set pieces and maybe snow, everything would pop a lot more. We thought, if you did it in 3D, it would really make you feel like you were in his graphic novel, in Sin City.
FRANK MILLER: Robert pushed for the use of 3D. 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 the focus can be used in 3D.” And so, I became convinced, as I usually am by him.
Frank, there are so many signature works that you have on the bookshelf, with 300 and The Dark Knight Returns. Where does Sin City fit in among your babies?
MILLER: When I first decided that I wanted to do comic books, I was all of six years old, and I decided that I would do them for the rest of my life. I grew up on Super Boy comics, and then Spider-Man. After awhile, they started seeming juvenile to me, and I lost interest. But, I kept drawing. Meanwhile, what I was reading were things like Mickey Spillane and Raymond Chandler. And so, the two loves merged into doing crime comics, which I thought was just an absolute natural and would go over big. I moved to New York and was told, “Go back home. We don’t need you. Go pump gas. You’re from Vermont. We’ve got no use for you. You’re not drawing guys in tights.” So, I learned how to draw guys in tights, and I put them in as many crime situations as I could. And then, after working in comics and gaining some notoriety, and then working in Hollywood, I sat down and decided that I would just please myself. So, I did the one comic book that could not possibly be turned into a movie, and it ended up being Sin City. Then, [Robert Rodriguez] showed up.
Jessica, what was it like for you to go back to Nancy, so many years later, with all of the new places and different confrontations that she finds herself involved in?
JESSICA ALBA: In the first film, she starts off as a little girl, and she’s a victim. She’s kidnapped, and then, later, she was tortured. And she gets saved by Bruce Willis’s character, Hartigan. But then, this one picks up after he has killed himself. The love of her life is gone. She’s devastated. She’s an alcoholic. She’s still dancing, but she’s not happy about it. But it was cool to be able to take someone from this sweet, innocent, naive victim to this very powerful warrior, who takes her life in her own hands and gets revenge.
MILLER: I’ve got to add that the original working title for Jessica’s story was “Nancy’s Last Dance,” because she had been the abused victim. She’d been through the wringer, and she had ended up, as many women in her situation do, which is an exotic dancer. And this time, she turns into something else. I’ve already got her next chapter planned, so please show up for the second movie.
Josh, what was it like to step into this city, with this dialogue and these extremes?
JOSH BROLIN: As an actor, doing it for 30 years, with every movie, you’re trying to figure out a way to make it more naturalistic and more organic to humanity. When you have lines like, “Never let the monster out,” it’s hard. You have to find the cadence, and the cadence doesn’t come to you. It’s the kind of movie that you really have to dive into. You can’t really manipulate the movie. You can’t manipulate Frank Miller’s mind. It’s impossible.
MILLER: Many have tried.
BROLIN: And the fact is that Robert is one of the only ones that has come and broken Frank to trust him with a wonderful movie. So, I was a big fan of the first movie, but this one is different. There’s an absurdity to it that I completely understand. So, the opportunity to be able to do it was really unnerving. But when I watched it, it’s one of the few movies that I’ve done where I thought, “Thank god, I’m in this movie!” I really feel proud to be in this movie. I think it’s next level. And everybody says that during press things, but I truly thought that they’ve gone to the next place. I enjoyed it so much. It’s very dark. It’s a lot of fun. It’s very sexy. It’s one of those things that I would go and see a few times, if I weren’t in it, but because I’m in it, it would seem pretentious.
Eva, was there a scene that you were worried about being particularly tricky?
EVA GREEN: I was very nervous for the scene after she tried to shoot Dwight, where she’s talking with the cops and she’s lying. She’s a compulsive liar. The challenge in this film is to still be believable and lie, all the time. To play all of these different women was a challenge. And she’s so bad, which was very fun. She has no conscious, and no sense of right or wrong. She’s pretty evil.
MILLER: One of the first scenes they shot with Josh and Eva, had to be my favorite scene in the entire book. It was the scene where they meet again, after four years, in a bar. And she is genuinely falling back in love with him, and he is doing his best to resist her, but he can’t because she’s got her own superpowers. And after I saw that scene, and I saw how they played it and how they moved across decades in the performance, I took them both aside to tell them that this was my favorite scene. It was the one that I was most worried about, and they had pulled it off perfectly. I was stunned.
Joe, what did you most enjoy about playing your character?
JOSEPH GORDON-LEVITT: The thing that I liked most about my character, on the page, was that the very cover of the script said, “Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez.” I remember, when the first film came out, going to the movie theater and saying to myself, “I’ve never seen anything like this. It’s somewhere in between a cartoon and live-action. That’s perfect.” For me, and probably for a lot of actors, we grew up watching cartoons, and what you want to be is a cartoon on the screen, but, you have to settle for being a live-action actor in a movie. But in this case, you get to become a cartoon, in a way, and I love that. I actually really loved acting in just the green environment and fully embracing an abandonment of realism and reality. You go to Sin City, and you go into a graphic novel. We go into the mind of Frank Miller. The sky isn’t perfect detail. It’s actually just pure black, and the snow is pure white. We’re not in the real world, and isn’t that what we’re all looking for when we go to the movies? Don’t we want to escape our real world and go into something larger than that, simpler than that, more beautiful or darker? This movie delivers that. I enjoyed just getting to become a part of that world and play a Rodriguez bad-ass. I grew up watching his movies and loving his movies, and it was such a thrill to get to do it.
RODRIGUEZ: She first auditioned for me when she was 17. She was too young for this role in this movie I was doing, but I kept my eye on her because she was one of the few Latin actresses trying to break through. I encouraged her and said, “Keep going.” And then, she got Dark Angel, and I knew her through my friendship with Jim [Cameron]. We’d seen each other, over the years, and said, “We have to work together, some day.” So, when it came time for Sin City, I met with her, and there she was.
ALBA: He didn’t think I was right for Nancy. He said that, I was too tough, at first, because she was so sweet and innocent.
RODRIGUEZ: Yeah, it was hard to find anyone to be like the Nancy in the book. If you look at the Nancy in the book, it’s a very difficult character to figure out. That was the character I just could not figure out. I knew that I liked Jessica, and I wanted to work with her. So, I said, “You’re just going to have to create a Nancy.” And she created something that even inspired Frank to write this next story. You almost create something new with that.
How has working together changed, since then?
RODRIGUEZ: I’m always trying to work with Jessica. She’s awesome. She’s in my Machete movies. She’s in my Spy Kids movies. I’m trying to put her in every franchise that I have because then there will be multiple movies.
ALBA: He calls me up and he’s like, “Can you come shoot this little thing?” And I’m like, “Okay, what is it?” And he’s like, “Well, it’s just this little movie. Come down for just a couple days, and it’ll be fun. We’ll shoot you out.” That’s just what he does, and I’m there. I show up every time because it’s so inspiring to be in his world and to be submerged in his universe.
RODRIGUEZ: When you use the same actors a lot, you get to know them and you realize that one movie can’t explore all the talent that they have. You really have to give them several different kinds of roles, in completely different movies, to push them and to push yourself. You trust that you know that they’re going to step up because you’re counting on them and you’re giving them an opportunity to not just do the same thing again. Even with this, what she does here is completely different than Sin City 1, and she arrived with a lot of that. She arrived with so much of it worked out that it raised the bar. She was the first character that we shot for Sin City 2, and it raised the bar on all the actors that were going to come after that.
MILLER: And when Jessica first showed up, I hadn’t seen her in eight years, so I went up and gave her a hug and said, “Hi.” And she said, “Hello.” I thought, “What did I do to piss her off?” But then, I realized that she was already in her part. Jessica really made an amazing leap between movies, in terms of what she was willing to bring to bear, and the absolute ruthless discipline that she brought to the part. The sense of menace that she was able to portray was something that we never ever had a chance to do before. It was pretty astonishing.
ALBA: They snuck the script to me because I knew Robert was going to call me on a Monday and ask me to show up on Thursday, and I wasn’t going to have any time to prepare. So, I said, “Just send me the script. I know that we’re not shooting any time soon, but I wasn’t to see what I have to do.” And I saw that throughout the script, there were all of these dance sequences and she’s in disguises. I was like, “Okay, I have to learn to dance. This is going to be great.” So, I worked with a choreographer, and I put together the costumes and wigs, so that I was prepared. And then, I worked with an acting coach to get into that headspace. I’m a mom. I have two kids. I run a company. I’m not this drunk stripper who’s out to seek revenge, so I really had to get into the headspace of the character and I did some preparation.
BROLIN: That’s impressive. Robert usually shoots you out in a week or two. You dive into this green world, and you don’t know how it’s going to be until you actually see the movie. It’s easy to think that this is just Robert’s thing, and that you’re painting in the middle of it. But to take it that seriously is wonderful, and it really shows up in the film. It’s just a different level to what you did in this film from the last. I loved you in the last, but I loved you in this one.
MILLER: Nobody has ever looked so good with scars, I’ll tell you that.
The women in Sin City are angry and frustrated. What was the thinking behind that?
RODRIGUEZ: The women all have their different journey. Nancy is broken-hearted.
ALBA: Gail is supportive, loving and nurturing. That’s her way of nurturing and loving, of course. But, it’s actually very powerful for women. I bizarrely think that this is the perfect date movie. If a guy took me on a date to see this movie, I would marry him, for sure. It’s bad-ass chicks and rad dudes, who are sexy, all over the place, and there’s so much cool action.
What was the experience of going down to Austin to work at Troublemaker Studios?
GORDON-LEVITT: I loved it! I was so inspired by that particular aspect. Here’s a filmmaker who has decided to make his own world and his own industry, and do it his way. You drive just outside of Austin, and not only does he have all of the ability to shoot whatever he wants, but all of the cutting and visual effects and music are going on next door. Traditionally, because movies are such mammoth tasks, they have to get divided up, and that can sometimes be interruptive to one individual’s voice coming through. But the way that Robert does it, it’s so, so, so him. He’s managed to approach the medium of filmmaking in a way that’s like what an artist like Frank Miller is able to do, by himself, sitting with just his own tools of writing and drawing. I really, really, really admire that, and I found it enormously inspiring.
Joe, what was it like to work with Christopher Lloyd, aka Doc Brown? Would you trust him to take bullets out of your body?
GORDON-LEVITT: Well, that depends on whether he has his flux capacitor handy. I love that scene too. I love getting to see Christopher Lloyd do something dark. I actually worked with Christopher Lloyd a long time ago – 21 or 22 years ago. He was the angel in Angels in the Outfield. This was our reunion, and you couldn’t really ask for a movie that was more diametrically opposed. It was perfect. He’s this junkie in dirty clothes, but he’s got this almost poetic, sad, self-talking soliloquy going on the whole time while he’s setting my bones with popsicle sticks. It’s like, “Man, this is Doc Brown! Shouldn’t we be talking about 1.2 gigawatts.” It’s really cool because he’s actually a really strong actor who can do a lot of different things and apply that energy that he brings to a character, like Doc Brown for Back to the Future, but putting it in this really dark flavor of a Frank Miller world is really entertaining.
MILLER: One of my great pleasures in working with directors is working with actors. It’s really my favorite thing about it. I remember walking over to Christopher Lloyd’s trailer, and he greeted me at the door. I just sat on down and said, “You’re known for your comedy, but I want to see you play this completely straight.” And boy, he delivered the goods. It’s a terrifying performance.
RODRIGUEZ: I’ve been a huge fan of his, ever since I saw him in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The guy’s a great character actor. Sometimes a movie series that becomes popular can be a blessing and curse because you get known for that. People don’t give you a chance, after that. They just go, “Oh, that’s Doc Brown. He’s always going to be Doc Brown.” I was just a fan of his. I’m a big proponent of getting somebody that you always admire and giving them a chance to do something else because they can redefine themselves.
And he came in, and the first scene where he comes out and yells across the street, everyone just erupted in applause because he’s got a magnetism and presence where you can hear a pin drop. People were just hanging on his every word. He’s just that kind of an actor, and he doesn’t get to do that enough. So, I think he enjoyed it. I said to Joe, “You get to have two very cool, collaborative scenes today. You’re going to work with Christopher Lloyd in the morning, and Lady Gaga in the afternoon.” It was his first day on this green screen, and he was with Christopher Lloyd, and then Lady Gaga. It was a blast.
Jessica, at a press conference for the first Sin City, you expressed trepidation about embodying Nancy’s swagger. Were you more comfortable with that, this time around?
ALBA: Yeah, I was 21 or 22. I was so young, and I wasn’t really comfortable in my own skin. Being on a stage and dancing was terrifying to me. I didn’t want to make a misstep. I knew how incredible this world was, and I just didn’t want to disappoint them or myself. With this one, I felt just more confident. I feel more comfortable in my own skin, and I feel like, if I’m going to be blessed with this career and be able to do movies, I might as well go 150% and really push it and be fearless. That’s the attitude that I took.
MILLER: What Jessica brought to it was pretty astonishing. She came out with a lasso and danced across the stage, and I was seeing a dream come true. I could not keep my eyes dry. It made me weep, as she finished the dance. Everyone stood there in utter, stony silence. Jessica jumped off the stage and said, “Well, I went over big,” and I had to follow her out and say, “No, they were speechless.” She was that good.
Sex and sexuality is a big part of this story. For Eva and Josh, knowing the amount of post-production that the film would have later, did that affect you while you were actually shooting?
GREEN: Yeah, definitely. I trusted Robert. He came to my trailer, and he swore to me that I would look amazing, with the right lighting and the shadows. You always feel quite vulnerable when you’re naked on a set. You feel quite silly, actually. And with the green screen around you and your tiny thong, it’s not that sexy. You have to trust their vision. But, it looks stunning. It’s art. It’s not vulgar. It’s not indecent. It’s not realistic. It’s beautiful, I think.
BROLIN: She says it’s not sexy, but she is sexy. She trusted Robert, but she did not trust me. Nobody trusts me. That’s why I do movies like this. No. It’s unnerving, but you get in there and you do your best. You try to be fearless, but you are extremely fearful, during those times, because you’re not sure. You have no idea, especially in green screen, what movie you’re doing. You really don’t. And then, you see the movie and you’re like, “Oh, my god, I’m on a cliff right now! I’m having sex right now! I thought I was dancing.” When we did it, it was really uncomfortable. But there was something about this cast where we just jived, immediately. There was not a lot of pretense on the set. And when you trust somebody that much, you know that you’re going to be taken care of and you’re willing to go that much further. It may be a total manipulation, but it works. And when you see a movie like this, and you see truly how beautiful it is, whether it’s artistic or not, it’s truly beautiful and truly unique. As an actor, that’s the best feeling in the world. Whether people see it or not, we’ll be able to look back on this and say, “That was really great to be involved in.”
Considering how faithful to the comics almost everything else is, in these movies, how does it make sense that Nancy, the stripper, isn’t topless?
RODRIGUEZ: That was the thing. When I had seen that book, originally, it was drawn a certain way. Frank drew these to never be movies. That was the whole point. He said, “I’m going to make a book that can never be made into a film.” So some things, especially in the first film, we had to adapt. You couldn’t find an actress that you wanted, at the caliber, that would even consider doing that. Nancy was just walking around topless, all the time, even when she wasn’t dancing. It just didn’t make that much sense.
ALBA: She also did triple back flips, topless with the lasso.
RODRIGUEZ: It was very stylized, in that way. So, I knew Jessica wouldn’t do topless, but I wanted her. I knew that I could either get someone that looks just like the book, but can’t act like Jessica, or I can get Jessica and just cover her up. People, to this day, still think she was naked because she does it so sexy and some things are exposed, and they ask her about the nudity in the first one, all the time, when there wasn’t any nudity. It’s all in your minds. We can suggest a lot with costume and with attitude.
MILLER: It’s one thing to be sitting at a drawing board, alone in your home and coming up with a fantasy character, and drawing her whichever way you feel like drawing that day, then dealing with a real performer. All of a sudden, things change. It’s amazing, in working with actors, how much I learn from them and how many new lines will come to mind because of their personality or their strengths. In Jessica’s case, there were no worries. I was thrilled.
Robert, even in the first Sin City, you lit the scenes to look exactly like the books. How challenging was that process?
RODRIGUEZ: The lighting takes time. When we’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, which is where the graphic novels are so great. You already know where your key is going to be and where there might be a back light. And I know how to manipulate the images quite a bit. If I shoot a certain way, I can add a lot of shadows later. I figured that out with the first Sin City, but it’s got even easier now, with the technology. And it gives you a lot of freedom later, to play with all the lighting and get it right. I was still lighting the set up until about two weeks ago, and 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, and then you ink it. When you’re filming, it’s like you’re penciling it all in. You know where everything is going to go. But, that application of the final ink takes some time.
Frank and Robert, for the two sequences that were new and that weren’t graphic novels before, how did you go about developing those? Did you start with drawings or work from a script?
RODRIGUEZ: After working with Jessica on the first film, and really loving the relationship between Jessica and Bruce, Frank was already talking about this new story that he was inspired to do, where he followed what happens afterwards. So, we said, “Okay, that has to be one of the stories.” It’s a cool idea that people can’t just go buy a book and know what’s going to happen, so we did another new story and I challenged him to come up with another character. 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. He said, “I’m 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 writing that.
And I knew the ideal actor for it. I told Frank about this guy that I thought would be great. I knew that Joseph Gordon-Levitt would bring an energy to the movie, and that he’s very collaborative and very smart and very creative, and that he would be someone that would help us finish working on it and finish the writing of it. Since he 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 that he falls in love with, and then try to find the actor, we just got the actor and skipped that process. That’s why Joseph was really important casting.
MILLER: What Joseph brought to the performance was a new and different kind of hero for Sin City, and so the script had to adapt. It often does.
Jessica, how involved were you with deciding on the costumes for Nancy?
ALBA: Robert has worked with (costume designer) Nina [Proctor] for a long time, and she’s incredibly creative and so amazing. I literally just like pulled together a bunch of things, and she pulled together a bunch of things, and we threw them all together, in a pile on the ground. I had wigs, and I was trying things on, and we figured it out and created it together. I really wanted each costume to reflect what was happening to Nancy, emotionally, so that it makes sense when she has that breakdown, at the end. And so, that’s how we thought about the costumes and the looks and the dances. You just see a tiny little piece of all of that, but I think it was enough.
Jessica, how do you combine running your company and making movies?
ALBA: With this, I was shooting three days at a time in Austin, and my partner was here with my company. I have incredibly smart, incredibly capable, awesome partners, and they make sure that the lights stay on and that people are getting their products and everything is going smoothly. I wouldn’t be able to do movies, if I didn’t have such incredible partners.
Frank, how has seeing your work getting adapted to the screen affected your art? And Robert, how has your collaboration with Fran affected your filmmaking?
MILLER: It’s probably made me more aware of character. Working with the kind of talent that I’ve gotten to work with, like the cast of Sin City, it 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. Although, I draw Marv and I think, “Boy, I could throw a little Mickey [Rourke] in there.”
RODRIGUEZ: For me, I learn so much every time I work with somebody, and the actors, too. Especially with this kind of a movie, where Frank’s story and his visual storytelling was just so bold, we wanted to take the movies and turn them into a graphic novel, so that people wouldn’t even know what they were looking at. It’s still visual storytelling, but it’s approached completely different. The two mediums don’t have to be separate mediums. They can be one and the same. 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. I think it helps push you into more experimental ground for everything that you do after. I’m still learning. Everyone is so different. Every performance is different. I’ve worked with many fantastic actors, and they’re all different. To judge a performance is really difficult. Sometimes that first instinct that they have is better than anything you can come up with yourself.
If there’s a third Sin City, will we have to wait another nine years?
MILLER: No, it will be out Tuesday.
RODRIGUEZ: That’s his standard answer. You have to understand that he said that for Sin City 2. No, we want to go right away. If people come out to see this one, that shows they want another one, and that will get us going on another one. It was a lot of fun doing this. I think the technology has gotten to a place where the actors understand the green screen. That was one of the phenomenons with 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 3D movie, which was Spy Kids 3D. 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?” They hadn’t done full green screen movies yet, and that wasn’t that long ago.
That was ten years ago, so it shows how much it’s changed. But I really noticed, on this one, that everyone showed up at just a whole other level because they’d done more green screen by then. They knew how that green screen experience was going to translate into Sin City, and what it would look and feel like afterward. The performances were, 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, there are stories that we’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.
Sin City: A Dame to Kill For opens in theater on August 22nd.