Frank Miller: Blurring the line between novel and movie

Frank Miller (left) and Robert Rodriguez co-directed the Sin City sequel. -- PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
Frank Miller (left) and Robert Rodriguez co-directed the Sin City sequel. -- PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Frank Miller has enjoyed considerable success in Hollywood, where his graphic novels have inspired blockbusters such as 300 (2006), Daredevil (2003) and the Dark Knight movies (2008, 2012).

But with the Sin City series of neo-noir comics he created from 1991 to 1992, he wanted to come up with "the one comic book that could not possibly be turned into a movie".

Then 12 years or so later, "this guy shows up", says Miller, nodding at film-maker Robert Rodriguez sitting next to him at a press event.

The director persuaded Miller to collaborate with him on a movie adaptation of his Eisner Awardwinning comics, which eventually became the critically acclaimed Sin City movie in 2005.

Speaking at a press conference for the sequel to that film, Sin City: A Dame To Kill For, the 57-year-old artist explains why he is drawn to such tales.

"When I first decided I wanted to do comic books, I was all of six years old. I grew up on Superboy and Spider-Man comics, that sort of thing, and after a while, they started seeming kind of juvenile to me and I lost interest.

"But I kept drawing, and 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 an absolutely natural progression."

He thought the Sin City comics, a series of intertwining tales set in a seething morass of violence and corruption known as Basin City, would be Hollywood-proof because of its singular style and over-the-top themes.

Yet the 2005 film, which Miller co-directed along with Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino, was praised for its innovative and highly stylised visuals, which blurred the boundaries between a graphic novel and a movie.

Rodriguez remembers how ground-breaking that felt at the time. "I looked at what we could do with green-screen and digital technology and thought, 'Okay, maybe we won't go as far as the book, that might be too bizarre for audiences.' So we went and did maybe a half-step between a graphic novel and a movie and people really loved the feel of it, they thought it was very original."

With A Dame To Kill For, the film-maker - who shares directing credit with Miller on this movie too - says he has "pushed it further towards the book".

"I thought if they like that, let's go all the way."

And shooting the sequel in 3-D proved to be particularly well-suited to the pared-down, almost monochrome colour palette of the graphic novels, Rodriguez says.

Whereas with many 3-D movies there is so much going on on-screen that "you almost don't know where to look, Frank's style is so stripped-down, and there's so much black and then an actor and a few set pieces and maybe snow, everything pops a lot more if you do it in 3-D. It really makes you feel like you are in his graphic novel."

Despite his original intention to defy the movies with Sin City, Miller says working on the film adaptations has fed back into his art and changed it for the better.

"It's probably made me more aware of character. Working with the kind of talent I've gotten to work with, with the cast of Sin City, makes me think more fully about what is going on behind their eyes."

He praises actress Jessica Alba for taking the character of Nancy Callahan - a stripper seeking revenge for the death of the man she loved - and making it her own.

This is why he did not mind it when the performer said no to going topless, even though that is how he had drawn the character.

"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, and 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 my mind because of their personalities and strengths."

And while he says he is open to the idea of working on another Sin City film, he does not think he will ever draw another dance scene with Nancy Callahan "now that I've seen what Jessica does".

"Because she topped me."