As illustrated pulp grows more sophisticated, so do the eye-popping
Open on a black-and-white rooftop. Half cloaked in shadow, a man crosses to a woman in a blood-red dress, pulls her close and tells her he loves her. Then he shoots her dead. The subject matter is pure pulp fiction, but the look comes straight from the mind of Frank Miller.
Director Robert Rodriguez prefers to think of “Sin City” as a “translation” — rather than an “adaptation” — of Miller’s hardboiled graphic novels. A longtime fan of the series, Rodriguez wanted to make a movie that treated the source material like a blueprint, referencing Miller’s stylized panels as literal storyboards.
The result is just one of several examples, once dismissively referred to as “comicbook movies,” in which filmmakers use graphic novels as the launching point to make sophisticated, visually revolutionary motion pictures. And the Academy has a history of taking notice.
In 1989, it awarded “Batman” an Oscar for art direction. A year later, “Dick Tracy” took the same award. Three years ago, Oscar voters nominated “Road to Perdition” — based on the graphic novel by Max Allan Collins — in the same category.
But does “Sin City” stand a chance? The film is quite possibly the most literal adaptation of a graphic novel ever made, and yet nearly all the film’s celebrated visuals are virtual.
Rodriguez shot the movie in color against greenscreens, then switched to high-contrast monochrome in post, adjusting the contrast levels and adding select color highlights, like the crimson dress in the opening scene.
“The way the light and shadow work, if you look closely there’s no possible way it could be lit like that (in the real world),” says Rodriguez, who tried his best to match Miller’s stark, expressionistic style. “That’s what’s so stunning about his books.”Rodriguez was so adamant about getting the look right that he invited Miller himself to co-direct the film.
On set, Miller was able to give the actors valuable backstory on their characters while Rodriguez — who did his own production design — focused on the filmmaking.
“He was just great. He knew so much about the world,” Rodriguez says, but he admits, “I would turn down some of his ideas because they strayed too far from his books.”
Director David Cronenberg was far less faithful in adapting John Wagner and Vince Locke’s “A History of Violence.” In fact, he didn’t even realize the script was based on a graphic novel when he agreed to do the movie.
With production designer Carol Spier, the director decided on a look for the film that reflected his own psychological response to the material.
When Spier learned about the film’s origins, she ordered a copy of the graphic novel, but didn’t open it until they had finished shooting.
“We had already established what we wanted the film to look like,” she says. “At that point, I didn’t want any more influences.”
Even screenwriter Josh Olson maintained his distance from the source material. “I’m a huge comicbook fan, but that had nothing to do with this job,” he says. “I can’t think of a movie that bears less of a resemblance from the comicbook or graphic novel. I felt like this was purely narrative-driven. If I was writing ‘Batman,’ I would be more (concerned about) loyalty to the visuals.”
As it turns out, the “Batman Begins” team drew from Miller’s “Batman: Year One” for story points, but broke from the look of both the graphic novels and the earlier Tim Burton movies.
Helmer Chris Nolan “likes realism,” production designer Nathan Crowley explains. “We figured the thing about Batman is he doesn’t have any superpowers. His only superpower is money. That gave us the opportunity to play realism as the logic to everything we did.”