Robert Rodriguez

Rebel with a cause

Words: Ann Donahue 
Photography: Michael Muller

With Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, Robert Rodriguez makes a summer blockbuster on his own terms

On one side of the room sits an electric chair. It’s bigger than you’d expect—not so much a chair, more 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 this one is delicately carved with ornate designs to emphasize its ethereal purpose.  

The themes of ruin and redemption run concurrently in director Robert Rodriguez’s films, so it’s no surprise that he’s decorated the conference room at his 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 from 1995’s Desperado. They are impressive, striking artifacts, but one has 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 artwork just outside of his office door says it all. It’s a quote attributed to Steve Jobs, and it reads, in part: “Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in 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.”

“You have to have a little incubator of ideas where you can feel free to fail.” 
Robert Rodriguez

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Rodriguez is crazy enough that he’s changed the world of filmmaking. Instead of working under the watchful eye of corporate overlords on the megabacklot of a studio in Los Angeles, he operates Troublemaker out of Austin, Texas, in hangars on the city’s abandoned airport. He created all of his next movie, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, here: from casting to filming to creating the wardrobe and props to composing the score to the special effects work to designing the posters. Given that the August 22 release is a sequel to Sin City, a movie that made $158 million worldwide, this level of autonomy in big-business, all-eyes-on-the-bottom-line world of Hollywood is astonishing.

Frank Miller, author of Sin City

Frank Miller wrote Sin City in 1991 and it was published by Dark Horse Comics in 1992. All portrait quotes taken from A Dame to Kill For, from the Sin City series.

“Someone else created the Hollywood system and the business, but for a creative person, it really doesn’t make a lot of sense,” Rodriguez says. “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 go feel it out.’ They’d say, ‘Get out of here.’ ”

The credits roll of a Rodriguez film looks like a textbook’s entry for monomania: For Sin City 2, he’s the co-director, producer, composer, cinematographer and editor.

“My favorite hobbies growing up were photography, drawing, music, making movies,” Rodriguez says. “I chose filmmaking because I could still keep all my favorite hobbies under the project of a film. So 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 favorite jobs.’ ”

It’s a work ethic forged from a history of making movies on a tight budget. Rodriguez’s first film, 1992’s El Mariachi, 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 $1 million 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 for cheap, in just a month—was born.

“I was the one that 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 quick when I sold that movie.”

“When you have a property like this that’s magical, you want to do right by it.”
Robert Rodriguez
Robert Rodriguez

“It was Dwight McCarthy! He’s crazy! Crazy! He’s been making threats! And now there’s blood everywhere! Please! Hurry!”

“I just always felt like I grew up making movies at home, in my backyard. Why should that change?” 
Robert Rodriguez

Hollywood’s faith in Rodriguez was confirmed with the success of his Spy Kids series, which started in 2001; the four films have since earned over half a billion dollars globally. This gave Rodriguez 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 realize 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.” 

“I’ll figure it out when I get there, and it will work because I’ve done it before.”
Robert Rodriguez

What entranced Rodriguez was the work’s visual style—Miller draws in stark black-and-white lines; just like his characters, there are no shades of gray. He tells tales of disfigured murderers, prostitutes, vengeful cops and corrupt politicians. In the first Sin City, Rodriguez brought the grit and gore to screen 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,” Rodriguez says. “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 canon: The high-concept, ’70s homage Grindhouse collaboration with Quentin Tarantino fizzled commercially, but it did lead to two spinoffs for Rodriguez—the campy, culty Machete and Machete Kills

But every time he went into his office at Troublemaker, 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.

Robert Rodriguez

“It’s as quiet as it gets in Sin City. Police sirens rising, falling, cutting through the traffic’s white-noise roar.”

“He just bangs things out.”
Jessica Alba

The filming of Sin City 2 began with one phone call: Rodriguez dialed the actress Jessica Alba and asked her to show up as soon as she could at Troublemaker. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, Robert, you have to give me more notice than this!’ ” Alba laughs. “But that’s the way it works.”

Since Alba appeared in the original Sin City as the exotic dancer Nancy Callahan, she did, on a certain level, expect Rodriguez’s spur-of-the-moment summons. Upon receiving the script six months earlier, she started working with a choreographer to master the multiple dances she performs 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 no other actors cast when he started shooting. “Having your own studio, you don’t have to ask permission to get going,” Rodriguez 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 on the cutting edge 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 Day-Glo 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,’ ” Rodriguez recalls. “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.’ ”

Robert Rodriguez

“You don’t visit Sin City to read the bible.”

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For consists of four of Miller’s stories—two previously unpublished shorts, the title graphic novel and another work, The Long Bad Night. It’s in 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 Miller’s works. It will retain the black-and-white severity of the original, but this time it will also be in 3D.

“I wanted to go further towards what the books originally offered,” Rodriguez says. “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 the time required by the usual big-budget summer movie. This gave Rodriguez time to pursue other interests. As he worked on post-production on Sin City 2, Rodriguez also launched the El Rey TV Network, aimed at English-speaking Hispanic viewers in the U.S. So far, it’s being carried nationwide on DirecTV, Comcast and Time Warner Cable, 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—the show’s key bar soundstage doubles as an actual bar for employee parties. For Rodriguez, all his creative endeavors 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?”

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