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How Joseph Gordon-Levitt Blew Up Frank Miller & Robert Rodriguez’s Return to Sin City, ‘A Dame to Kill For’

How Joseph Gordon-Levitt Blew Up Frank Miller & Robert Rodriguez's Return to Sin City, 'A Dame to Kill For'

It’s hard to believe that it’s been nine years since “Sin City.” So much has changed and we’re worse off, in many ways, which makes the timing just right to slip back into Frank Miller’s deliriously noir hell hole. If anything, “A Dame to Kill For” is bolder yet more cohesive and emotionally involving. It’s certainly more immersive in 3-D and it’s all green screen with no sets whatsoever. As a result, this dream-like world where “Shock Corridor” collides with “Kiss Me Deadly” seems even more tactile and surreal.

“In the first one we only did a half-step between his book and the movie world,” Rodriguez insists. “I didn’t go all the way toward his book because I thought it would be too distracting to people, too much too soon. And they loved the stylization where they could see the white silhouettes and the white blood and the colors, so I thought let’s push it closer to the books on the second one. Let’s make it more abstract. Let’s see if they can swallow that one.

“A lot of it is like dream imagery — they get in your head. I always feel like you descend into Sin City and you’re there for the course of the movie or the course of the read. And then you emerge and go, ‘Where the hell was I?’ Very immersive. That’s what I wanted to do it in 3-D, too. It’s its own world, its own set of rules, its own way of talking and it’s nothing related to anything else, so you’re really in Frank’s brain. It’s a singular vision and you couldn’t do that with every graphic novel.”

There are four interweaving stories in “A Dame to Kill For”: Superhuman Marv {Mickey Rourke) can’t remember the carnage from the previous night in “Just Another Saturday Night”; in the brand new “The Long, Bad Night,” cocky young gambler (Joseph Gordon-Levitt gets in way over his head in taking on the villainous Senator Roark (Powers Boothe); in the eponymous centerpiece, conflicted Dwight (Josh Brolin) reunites with ultra femme fatale Ava Lord (Eva Green); and in “Nancy’s Last Dance,” super stripper Nancy (Jessica Alba) plots to avenge the death of John (Bruce Willis), her savior.

For Miller, it’s been fun directing because he not only gets to collaborate with Rodriguez (who’s additionally a cartoonist) but also the actors in conveying the inner workings of his wacky, retro characters. “The new actors have questions about their characters’ history and their roles in the world, but they weren’t asking what ‘Sin City’ was anymore,” Miller offers. “Everybody knew what kind of movie they were in. I write strange dialog and strange stories and people have to get used to that. And so when Eva Green showed up and you’re hearing lines that might’ve come out of Bette Davis, she just made them work because they had greater trust in the material than if it was just a screenplay or a bunch of drawings.

“It really had to do with Robert forcing the issue from the beginning that this could be adapted and could be translated, and we were true enough to it in the first one for people to grasp the whole concept behind the series.”

But, like its experimental, ground-breaking predecessor, “A Dame to Kill For” is truly a graphic novel come to life — again, only more so, shot natively in 3-D and with Prime Focus (which merged with Double Negative) handling all 2,282 VFX shots. “I understand how to make that move and make that environment work,” Rodriguez continues. “So instead of turning that graphic novel into a movie, I flip it around and use technology to make that movie into a graphic novel. It’s bolder than anything we’re doing in film.”

There’s a seeming unpredictability to the stylization and yet each color choice is motivated by a story point. You don’t see colored eyes or lips on Lord until she turns or going full color with Marcy (Julie Garner), the young stripper from “The Long, Bad Night,” you want it to pop because there’s something special about her.

And yet there was an intriguing wild card situation with “The Long, Bad Night.” Given that it’s an original story, it had to comfortably fit within the Sin City world yet offer an unexpected pleasure. Miller wasn’t even that familiar with Gordon-Levitt.

“It was the first Frank Miller improv’d ‘Sin City’ story, which made it kind of exciting,” Rodriguez adds. “We didn’t have the drawings, we were still writing the story and working with Joseph. He had to make it work. I told [Frank] you’ve gotta just trust me on this. He’s going to come in and do something different than we’ve ever seen. And I told Joseph we were going to shoot it in four days and he came in and did it.”

Nine years ago, “Sin City” helped usher in the green screen movie while “Batman Begins” helped usher in the gritty superhero movie. “A Dame to Kill For” was worth waiting for: it’s the anti-superhero movie. 

“It’s based on comic books and it’s about heroes but it’s not exactly what we call ‘Spider-Man,'” Miller concedes. “And at least the guys don’t wear spandex. Some of the girls do but we don’t mind.”

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