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Frank Miller’s graphic stories about the hard boiled characters of Sin City jump to the screen with the help of bravado filmmaker Robert Rodriguez – not in any predictable adaptation, but in faithful recreation of the look, feel and style of the original, complete with Miller’s words and his pen as the lighting designer. This is how the filmmakers like to present their film.

Welcome to Sin City. This town beckons to the tough, the corrupt, the brokenhearted. Some call it dark. Hard-boiled. Then there are those who call it home. Crooked cops. Sexy dames. Desperate vigilantes. Some are seeking revenge. Others lust after redemption. And then there are those hoping for a little of both. A universe of unlikely and reluctant heroes still trying to do the right thing in a city that refuses to care. 

The central story follows Marv (Mickey Rourke), a tougher-than-nails street-fighter who has always played it his way. When Marv takes home a Goddess-like beauty named Goldie (Jaime King), only to have her wind up dead in his bed -- he scours the city to avenge the loss of the only drop of love his heart has ever known. 

Then there’s the tale of Dwight (Clive Owen), a private investigator perpetually trying to leave trouble behind, even though it won’t quit chasing after him. After a cop is killed in Old Town, Dwight will stop at nothing to protect his friends among the ladies of the night. 

Finally, there’s the yarn of John Hartigan (Bruce Willis) – the last honest cop in Sin City. With just one ticking hour left to his career, he’s going out with a bang as he makes a final bid to save an 11 year-old girl from the sadistic son of a Senator . . . with unexpected results. 

"bursting at its seams with raw impulses and emotions."

Sin City is a town that exists – literally and figuratively - in black and white, a world every bit as stark and hard-edged on the outside as it feels on the inside. Only the rarest flashes of blazing colour light up this city. Likewise, it is a place of deep contrasts. Contrasts between the corrupt, the power-hungry and the unredeemable on the one hand, and those still clinging by their fingernails to morals, hopes and broken-hearted dreams of love on the other. An imaginary metropolis drawn to be not just bad, but bursting at its seams with raw impulses and emotions. 

The city was born in 1991, emerging from the heated imagination and skilled pen of modern comic book master Frank Miller. It was to become one of the most critically acclaimed graphic tales of its generation. Miller, a vital player in the modern revolution in comic book storytelling, had previously won fans -- and a dose of literary acclaim -- working on Marvel Comics’ Daredevil and the influential Batman graphic novel, The Dark Knight Returns. His mark on pop culture continued with the creation of such popular characters as the ninja assassin Elektra and the futuristic samurai Ronin. 

He was already an iconoclast, but his stories from Sin City broke all previous molds. 

There are no superheroes in Sin City. Just tough-guys, hard cases, guns, girls, lovers and losers trying to make it through the dark, dark night. All exploding off the page in white-silhouetted drawings that riveted many who had never been comic book fans before. 

Sin City descended from the great American pop culture tradition of pulp tales. Like hardboiled crime novels and noir films of the 40s and 50s, Miller took the comics into an off-limits realm: the dark heart of the city. Here was the quintessential American urban frontier rendered with true grit. A place where the dialogue always snapped, outlaws were perpetually fighting the system, and a current of heated rage and sexual desire buzzed just under the cool surface. 

"drew on classic myths and tragedies to tackle themes of human loss and yearning"

Miller’s men were built like thick blocks of muscles, his women were drawn with pure seductive voluptuousness and his city was one of infinite alleyways, winding staircases and cold, steel monoliths. His stories were filled with hardboiled thrills, but also drew on classic myths and tragedies to tackle themes of human loss and yearning. 

The success of the fictional town was unmistakable. Miller’s acclaimed books were honoured with the prestigious Eisner Award and National Cartoonists’ Award.

At his own risk and expense, Rodriguez shot some early tests to show Miller what he had in mind. The two met in a Manhattan bar where Rodriguez flipped open his lap-top and revealed the world of Sin City in kinetic form. Rodriguez: “Frank was floored. He said, ‘wow, that’s pretty powerful stuff, mister’ and I said, ‘Frank, that comes right out of your book.’” 

Even with Miller coming around, Rodriguez had already planned to take one more step to convince the artist his comic-book world was going to be safe. He sent Miller the script that he had typed up. Rodriguez: “That’s why I’m not taking a screenwriting credit. All I did was type what I saw in Frank’s books, and then edited them down to pace. I transcribed three of Frank’s books into one script: The Hard Goodbye, The Big Fat Kill, and That Yellow Bastard. I knew he’d been burned before. So I was turning the process around for him, because usually it’s the artist who has to risk everything when someone’s making a movie of his work, and I felt like I should take all the risk.” 

Rodriguez continues: “So I told him, ‘hey, let’s not even make a deal yet. Why don’t we shoot the opening scene on a Saturday with my crew and some actor friends, (Josh Hartnett and Marley Shelton), my effects company will add the effects, and I’ll score it and complete it up through the opening titles. Within a week you’ll be able to see the finished opening and decide if we should make a deal and continue.” I figured if Frank liked what he saw, we could keep going with the rest of the movie, and if not, he’d have a nice short film to show his friends.”

They shot the opening in just ten hours. Miller loved it. The show was on.

"Tarantino was paid one dollar to shoot an extended sequence"

Tarantino was paid one dollar to shoot an extended sequence in the story The Big Fat Kill. Tarantino and Rodriguez have previously worked together on such films as Desperado, Four Rooms and From Dusk Til Dawn. Most recently, Rodriguez composed music for Tarantino’s Kill Bill 2 – also for the price of a dollar.

But there has long been a difference of opinion between the two on whether the future of cinema lies in film or digital video. To score a point on his side, Rodriguez showed Quentin some of the experiments he had shot early on for Sin City.

Tarantino: “It was my first view of what this world was like and I thought ‘oh my God’ they’re actually doing the cityscapes and the silhouettes which I just love and all the lighting, and the camera angles – everything. I was interested.”

Published July 14, 2005

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