On one side of the room sits an electric chair. It’s bigger than you expect, not so much a chair, more of a throne, and that gives it the presence of a wooden beast with leather straps ready to lash out and entwine you. Directly across the room from the electric chair is a confessional booth, another giant block of dark-stained wood, but instead this one is delicately carved with ornate designs to emphasise its ethereal purpose.
The themes of ruin and redemption run concurrently in the movies of American director Robert Rodriguez, so it should come as no surprise that he’s decorated the conference room at the headquarters of Troublemaker Studios with two of the eeriest and evocative symbols of frailty and faith. The electric chair is a prop from his 2005 film Sin City; the confessional is a prop from 1995’s Desperado.
They are impressive, striking artefacts, but you get the sense that they are merely nostalgic items from movies he long ago put his heart and soul into, because for Rodriguez, there’s always something new in filmmaking to explore. A framed piece of art near his office says it all; it’s a quote from Steve Jobs, and it reads, in part: “Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs n the square holes… and while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones that do.”
He’s crazy! Crazy! He’s been making threats!
And now there’s blood everywhere! Please! Hurry!”
Rodriguez is crazy enough to have changed the world of filmmaking. Instead of working under the watchful eye of corporate overlords in a huge studio in Los Angeles, he operates Troublemaker out of Austin, Texas, in hangars on the city’s abandoned airport. He created all of his new movie, Sin City: A Dame To Kill For, here: from casting to filming; from creating the wardrobe and props to composing the score; from the special-effects work to designing the posters.
Given that his latest release is a sequel to Sin City, a movie that made US$158 million worldwide, this level of autonomy in the big-business, all-eyes-on-the-bottom-line world of Hollywood is astonishing. “Someone else created the Hollywood system and the business, but for a creative person, it really doesn’t make a lot of sense,” says Rodriguez. “You have to have a little incubator of ideas where you can feel free to fail, feel free to take a chance on something. You can’t always go to a studio and say, ‘Hey, let me go borrow your soundstage, and I don’t even know why. I have an idea. Let me feel it out.’ They’d say, ‘Get out of here.’”
The closing credits of a Rodriguez film are thick with repetition: for Sin City 2, he’s the co-director, producer, composer, cinematographer and editor. “My favourite hobbies growing up were photography, drawing, music, making movies,” says Rodriguez. “I chose filmmaking because I could still keep all my favourite hobbies under the project of a film. So on all my early films, I did everything. And then as I got into the Hollywood system, I thought, ‘I don’t know why I should give up these things. They’re still some of my favourite jobs.
’”It’s a work ethic born from a history of making movies on a tight budget. Rodriguez’s first film, El Mariachi (1992), about a musician who is mistaken for a murderer, was made for $7,000. The distribution rights were acquired by Columbia Pictures, which then spent $1m to market the film. It went on to earn twice that amount, and the legend of Rodriguez as a run-and-gun director – someone who could shoot an entire feature film very cheaply, in just a month – was born. “I was the one who made movies very inexpensively, so they would always turn a profit,” he says. “I made El Mariachi out of my apartment. I thought, ‘I don’t have to be in Hollywood, they don’t care. As long as it shows up on their desk and they can distribute it and make some money off it, they don’t care where you make it or how you make it.’ I think the formality went out the window really quickly when I sold that movie.”
Hollywood’s faith in Rodriguez was cemented by his Spy Kids series; the four films since 2001 earned over half a billion dollars globally. It gave him the power to pursue whatever passion project he wanted, and what he was obsessed with was a series of brutal film noir graphic novels by Frank Miller. “I would go to the comic book store, buy a Sin City, and go home and realise I already had three copies,” Rodriguez says. “I just loved it so much, and I knew nobody could ever make a movie out of it, because they would just ruin it.” What entranced him was the book’s unique visual style.
Miller draws in stark black-and-white lines; just like his characters, there are no shades of grey. He tells tales of disfigured murderers, prostitutes, vengeful cops and corrupt politicians.
In the first Sin City film, Rodriguez brought to life the grit and gore using as much of Miller’s visceral style as he was comfortable showing in 2005. “The first film, I didn’t push it as far because I thought people wouldn’t understand what they were looking at,” says Rodriguez. “It would be too distracting, it would be too strange. And then people thought it was visually groundbreaking. I was like, ‘Oh my God, I didn’t even go all the way with it.’”
Since then, there have been some misfires in Rodriguez’s filmography; the high-concept Grindhouse collaboration with Quentin Tarantino fizzled commercially, but it did lead to two spin-offs for Rodriguez, the campy, culty Machete and Machete Kills. But every time he went into his office at Troublemaker Studios, he would see the row of Frank Miller’s graphic novels lined up behind his desk. After almost 10 years, Rodriguez wanted to return to Sin City.
The filming of Sin City 2 began with one phone call: Rodriguez dialled the number of American actress Jessica Alba, and asked her to turn up as soon as she could at Troublemaker. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, Robert, you have to give me more notice than this!’” says Alba, laughing. “But that’s the way it works.”
Since Alba appeared in the original Sin City as the exotic dancer Nancy Callahan, so she wasn’t surprised at Rodriguez’s spur-of-the-moment summons. She’d received the script six months earlier and was working with a choreographer to master her dances in the sequel. After all that prep, her work in Austin was done in a matter of days. “He just bangs things out,” she says. “He’s really calm and kind.”
Besides Alba, Rodriguez had not cast any other actors when he started shooting. “When you have your own studio, you don’t have to ask permission to get going,” he says. “Once the train has left the station, people jump on board.” Sure enough, within days, those who had signed up included Eva Green, playing the titular dame to kill for, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who portrays a gambler on a mysterious mission.
Filming the first Sin City, Rodriguez was one of the pioneers of the green-screen technique, which places actors against a blank background and then fills in their surroundings digitally during post-production. Rodriguez’s green-screen soundstage at Troublemaker is immense, a cavernous set the size of an industrial factory floor, all painted in the DayGlo green of a tropical insect. It can be a mind-bender for those who haven’t worked in the medium before.
“When Josh Brolin showed up, he said, ‘Where’s Mickey Rourke?’ and I said, ‘I filmed him already,’” recalls Rodriguez. “And he said: ‘All my scenes are with Mickey?! He’s carrying me around and we’re drinking together and he’s driving me in cars!’ and I’m like, ‘I know. I’ll figure it out when I get there, and it will work because I’ve done it before.”
Sin City: A Dame To Kill For is made up of four of Miller’s stories: two previously unpublished, the title graphic novel and another, The Long Bad Night. The movie takes a vignette structure that mimics the first film, but Rodriguez wants this one to be bigger, bolder and more in line with the shock-and-awe style of Frank Miller’s works. It will retain the black-and-white severity of the original – but this time there will also be a 3D version. “I wanted to go further towards what the books originally offered,” says Rodriguez. “When you have a property like this that’s magical, you want to do right by it.” Filming the entire movie took 35 days, one third of the time required by the usual big-budget summer movie. This gave Rodriguez time to pursue other interests.
While he was working on post-production for Sin City 2, Rodriguez also found time to launch the El Rey TV Network, aimed at English-speaking Hispanic viewers in America. So far, it’s carried nationwide on cable TV, and features two original series: a TV version of Rodriguez’s 1996 film From Dusk Till Dawn and the black-ops caper Matador from Fringe creators Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman.
El Rey has the same ethos as Rodriguez’s film productions. From Dusk Till Dawn is filmed at Troublemaker and the show’s soundstage doubles as a bar for employee parties. For Rodriguez, all his creative endeavours are done on his own terms, enlivened by his hard-won freedom to be a little crazy.“I just always felt like I grew up making movies at home, in my backyard,” Rodriguez says. “Why should that change?”