Icons Interview: Frank Miller

Icons Interview: Frank Miller

By Icons Staff - Posted Mar 31, 2005

G4: How would you say Sin City came together?

Frank Miller: It’s ironic really because what happened was I had been working in movies as a screenwriter and I had gone through the longest period of my life not drawing (which was two years) and really kind of burned out from the way movies were made. I don't have anything bad to say about any of the people I worked with, but I couldn’t stand losing any control. So I sat down in my new home in Hollywood and I just decided I was going to start drawing again, and I was going to draw exactly what I wanted. Damn Hollywood--I wasn’t going to work for anybody anymore. And so I started Sin City. It was something that had been gelling in my mind for years and I just decided to completely please myself. I was very nervous about what reaction it would get because it was black and white and it was crime stories when mostly what comic books do is people in tights hitting each other really hard. 

I called up my publisher and said, “I want to do this book, but I’ve got to do it absolutely my way. And if it loses money, I’ll share in the loss,” which was unheard of.  And he said, “No there’s no need for that, it’s not going to lose money.”  And I draw this comic book that is everything I always wanted to draw. It’s a dirty little secret of comic book artists that what we do--cartoonists in general--is we construct stories around things we really like to draw. And so the first three priorities were tough guys in trench coats, beautiful women, and vintage cars.  So I constructed an entire world where these [elements were]…and I went on for 12 years to draw my Sin City and was in love with it.  The weird thing was that this of all things would bring me back into movies. 

G4: How did Robert Rodriguez convince you to okay the project?

FM: Robert Rodriguez hunted me down like a dog. He had a vision for this movie that at first I couldn’t accept. He saw--because of his work in CGI and because of the aesthetics of the book, ‘cause he loved the stories--he saw that a different kind of movie could be made. When he first approached me, I was just awful. I really didn’t want my baby loose. I’d gotten a lot of offers for Sin City and they’re just always…there’s a tendency in Hollywood movies to give everything a happy ending, which Sin City almost never has, and to…I felt that if Hollywood got their hands on Sin City, it would turn into another cop or crime movie, just like all the rest they do. Robert had the idea of making it graphically identical to the comic book. And so he coaxed me into hooking up with him in a Hell’s Kitchen saloon, where he really was a straight guy in Hell’s Kitchen wearing a cowboy hat, and I couldn’t quite believe it. He showed me some things he worked up, and they were really quite lovely, quite beautiful. And these were things he'd just done with his crew and with his sister and so on, just things to show me graphically how it would look. And I was very impressed, but I turned him down again. A few weeks later, Robert called me up and said, “How about you come to Austin. We’ll shoot a test for a day. Fly to Austin and we’ll shoot a test and we’ll see if we want to do this thing or not. And if you don’t want to do it, we just won’t do it.”  So I said sure. 

I showed up in Austin and there was Josh Hartnett standing with Robert’s crew. And there was Marley Shelton. It leapt to my mind, test my ass, this is the first day of principal photography, we’re in business. But I was still skeptical ‘cause I’m so protective of my baby. He said he would be perfectly faithful. And as much as I had an immediate liking of him, those are words I heard before and couldn’t entirely trust. But then we shot this one day sequence and I got to work with actors, which I never knew I had loved so much. And Marley Shelton came over and asked me a question about my character and the hook was in my mouth. Robert had pulled it off and I never looked back--we had a great time. I just wanted to start casting that day. And we developed a remarkable partnership I think.

Sin CityG4: What was it like gathering the cast for the film?

FM: I think it’s Robert; it’s most of it...that a lot of people want to work with him. Right now he’s got the magic touch and he’s immensely popular. He’s fun to work with, and as we approached people, some of them responded just to the chance to work with Robert, and some of them responded to the material. I’ll never forget the afternoon that Robert and I went to Bruce Willis’ house--one of his houses. And at this point, we had what we called the test and we put it on Bruce’s big screen. Bruce sat on a bear mattress and watched it. And he kind of stood up and said, “Those the words from the book?” Robert said, “Yeah.”  [He replied] “I’m in.” And he was a dream to work with every single step of the way. The cast just came together. It was almost like everybody wanted to be in this thing. And Robert has quite an eye for casting. I mean, we cast it together, but he was the one who knew everybody’s names. He had the rolodexes.

G4: What was your impression of his adaptation of your stories?

FM: It was Robert’s structure for the thing that impressed me the most because he had a structure for the movie. I had always thought that it if were adapted...I mean, I even wrote a screenplay for Sin City once they adapted the first story, the one with Marv in it now called the “Hard Goodbye.”  But Robert’s idea was to make it an anthology and so it has a short story with three of the novels incorporated, about forty minutes each. And you move from one to the other and you really get the sense that it’s a single world.

G4: You've worked with Hollywood before, but never as a director. Can you tell us about your first time directing?

FM: I loved it. I loved directing. I had no idea what it would be like. I didn’t know how much I loved actors. I expected the worst and I got the best. The first day Bruce Willis showed up, I was terrified. I thought, “I’m a first time director and he’s Bruce Willis,” which means there’s the floor and I’m the mop. He showed up and though we had talked before...he’s a really nice guy, but I still thought he was Bruce Willis. It was like working with Humphrey Bogart or something. And we were working on one scene which had kind of a funny voice-over line that had the crew laughing, which I regard as dangerous because you don’t want the crew to be laughing. It leads to actors playing to it and things getting goofy and you end up with something on the screen that’s unbearable. And so the crew is laughing, I went over to Bruce and I said, “You know, this is a really sad scene. When you see Carla Gugino come in, you’re seeing everything you’re giving up.”  And he just gave me that Bruce Willis glare.  We all know the glare. And he just poked his finger at me and said, “You keep telling me that man, I need to hear that.” When Truman Capote said that actors were stupid, he proved he wasn’t a director.

G4: Have your opinions on Hollywood changed as a result of your experience?

FM: Not necessarily, but it sure changed my opinions of Austin, Texas, because we shot Sin City there and it was a dream--we had an amazing level of liberty. There were no studio reps all over us or anything and we made the movie we wanted to make. And when there were disagreements between me and Robert--which were few--they were between me and Robert. They weren’t between the two of us and a larger entity. I loved working in Austin. I loved the town and the crew was just astonishing.

G4: So, tell us about your other projects. We hear you're writing the new Batman and Robin series...

FM: It's called Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder. And Jim Lee is going to be illustrating it.  And it’s going to feature a young Batman in his early 20’s that just essentially had foisted upon him this very young boy who wants to be his sidekick. And he can’t get rid of the kid. The kid just sticks around. The reason I call it Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder is that Robin is really the main character. I want to do a story where you see his journey begin as a superhero and where Batman is not really the most likeable fellow in the world. I never thought he was likeable. He’s the guy you want in a blind alley with you, but he’s not the guy you want at dinner with you. And I want you to fall in love with Robin.

G4: What is it about Batman?

FM: You do Batman right, and he’s going to be popular. He’s a great character. I was once asked by somebody if writing Batman was like holding a Ming vase or something. And I said, “No, it’s like holding a big-ass diamond that you can’t break.”  You can throw it against the ceiling, against the floor, anywhere, and you just can’t break Batman. There are ten ways to do him and they all work.

G4: Were you a lifelong reader of comics?

FM: I stopped reading them about the time that I started meeting girls. It’s an organic transformation, but I also fell in love with crime fiction. Everything from Micky Spillane to Dashiell Hammet to Ray Chandler. And I kept drawing comics, but I stopped reading them so I started doing things that looked like an amateur doing Sin City. Then I moved to New York to try to break into comics and was told that this wasn’t guys in tights hitting each other, so I had to learn how to do that. But during that whole period because of the great state of television in New York at the time, back then I would spend the whole night watching these old crime movies and I was gone.

G4: When was it that you realized you wanted to do comics?

FM: I waited until I was six years old and then I started folding over typing paper, stapling it together and drawing comic books. I got support; my father drove me to New York when I moved there. I was like a little Tarzan. My parents’ house was off 14 acres of woodland on a mountain top and I would just run around barefoot through the woods in Vermont. It was a wonderful childhood. I learned the joys of falling through the ice in a fast moving river, all kinds of things.

Elektra G4: Since you couldn't get into the business right away, what was your first job in New York?

FM: I was a carpenter...sort of a carpenter. I helped hang doors and things in a loft. It turned out to be run by a coke dealer. So I had to run away from mafia guns at one point (laughs).

G4: Tell us about your relationship with Neil Adams. How did he help you finally get your start in comics?

FM: Neil was my mentor. He was very generous with his time. I simply called him up and asked him if I could show him my pictures. And he had me over to his studio. He was running a big shop then, and he did a bit of advertising work. I never really worked there, but he would always take my phone calls and I would come over and he’d tell me how terrible my work was. And it reached a point where beyond just berating me and telling me to move back to Vermont because I was hopeless, he’d pull out tracing paper and start correcting me. And then one day, I came in and he just picked up the phone to Gold Key Comics and said I got something for you and he got me my first job. It was doing Twilight Zone comics. I spent a week drawing every page. Usually that’s something you do within a day.

It was my first professional job and I took forever on it. It was three pages long and I took three weeks to draw it, but it was a start.

G4: Eventually that led to work on other things, like Daredevil?

FM: I became the principal artist on Marvel’s Daredevil working with writer Roger Mackenzie and my collaborator Klaus Jensen, who inked it. That was the beginning of a very long and good collaboration for us. And eventually I took over writing it. That’s where I introduced my character Elektra. 

G4: Where did you come up with Elektra?

FM: I was just exploding with stuff. I wasn’t really thinking about my audience all that much except spinning yarns to keep people into the story. I just thought that the one mistake that was being made, I call it the Lois Lane mistake, is that we have these extraordinary, vibrant, physical heroes. They look like gods. And who do they wind up with, normal people? I just thought that was absurd. Daredevil had a long line of girlfriends, but I thought, how about one that can kick his butt, how about one where it’s really serious? And also how about her being a bad guy, which is what everybody gets wrong about Elektra. They try to make her nice, they try to make her good. She’s not good; she’s very, very bad. She just feels bad about being bad.

G4: And in your mind, she stayed bad...

FM: I can tell you the process that led to the story that led to her being murdered. In my sequence, it was inevitable. I was plotting as I went, but it became very obvious that she had to go. There was no other way to take it. She wasn’t going to end up making baklava for Matt. So I approached my editor who said, “You can’t do that. She’s too popular.” So I went where I always went, which was the editor-in-chief, Jim Shooter, and popped into his office and said, “Jim, I think I’m going have to kill Elektra.” And he sighed; he looked like he had a headache and he said, “Tell me a story Frank.” And I told him my story. And he said, “Great, do it.” And that was it…because it really was inevitable that she die. The notion of her turning her into a good guy or something was not for me. Now with Marvel, I had no control over what they were going to do. I didn’t own Elektra. I made her up, but I didn’t own her. And they just saw a franchise and went with that. 

RoninG4: What about Ronin?

FM: Ronin was a joy to do. As much as I loved doing Daredevil, Ronin was scarier to work on and much more challenging, much more ambitious. I just learned a ton on Ronin. I loved that book because it was me with reckless abandon absorbing the Japanese and the French. It was a wild mix, it was a reckless piece of work, but I still love it.

G4: How did you go about working on Batman?

FM: Dick Giordano, who was then the editor-in-chief at DC Comics, had been on me to do Batman for a long time but I had always felt too intimidated by it. I just felt like the character was too big for me. I didn’t really have what it took for it. And then, one day I was just thinking about it. All of a sudden I realized that I was about to turn 30, and Batman was permanently 29. And I was going to be damned if I was older than Batman. So I came up with this…I started concocting this story where he was in his 50’s and coming out of retirement, and with a much harder edge. And DC went with just about every single thing I proposed. We got Dark Knight Returns with that. It was another one of those times that life just felt explosive because the work was just flying out of me.

G4: What was your first exposure to Batman?

FM: I picked it up in a department store, back when they sold comic books in department stores. I picked it up and I had just opened it and it was probably Jerry Robinson’s artwork, I’m not sure whose it was, but I opened it up and I just fell in. And I’d like to say that even though it just cost twenty-five cents, I just bought it. 

Batman: The Dark Knight ReturnsG4: What was your vision for your version of Batman?

FM: My Batman was formed by the atrocity of his parents; that is, by formed I mean he’s not thrashing around helpless in reaction to it, but it’s who he is. He never saw the face of the guy who killed his parents, so he grew up with this wound that eventually became the purpose of his life. And because he never saw the guy, he’ll never stop because he’ll never get satisfaction.

G4: Were you surprised by the reaction to The Dark Knight Returns?

FM: Everybody was. That thing went over like gangbusters. It was an unheard of event. It was like everybody was waiting for this to happen. Because it was the one they wanted all along and because I was lucky enough to have the clout to do it and to have the faith of the publisher. Because everybody from Jeannette Kahn to Paul Ebbets to Dick Giordiano backed me on it. And of course we had fights--that’s part of the job--but it was really like this thing had been crying to happen. It wasn’t so much a matter of inspiration from on high as it was inevitability I think.

G4: And then you moved out to Hollywood...

FM: Well actually what happened was, this sounds strange, I moved from New York to Los Angeles to find out what California was like. I really didn’t have any designs on any movie work at all. Then one morning the phone rang and it was John Davidson, who was the producer of Robocop, asking me if I’d be up for writing a sequel. And I’d just seen the movie on videotape, back when there was videotape. Remember that? I loved the movie and I thought, “Yeah, I could work in movies.” And I just fell into that, for the next couple years I was completely wrapped up in exactly that. After that, more work came and it was offered. It’s fun work and it’s lucrative, obviously. And so I’ve been in movies up until when I just decided I couldn’t handle it anymore and went away and did Sin City, which is my movie.

G4: What did you learn from the experience of writing the Robocop movies?

FM: Well, Robocop 2 was the more intense of the two, more because I was on the set everyday and watched the whole process. For Robocop 3, I was little more distant because I didn’t go to the set. In both cases, I learned the same lesson though. Don’t be the writer. The director’s got the power. The screenplay is a fire hydrant and there’s a row of dogs around the block waiting for it (Laughs).

G4: Then you went back to comics and did 300. How do you feel about that now? Are there any plans to make a film of it?

FM: I’m not really attached to that as now. I’m the author and I’ll be shown things and so on.  We haven’t really figured all that out now. I was about seven years old when I saw the clunky old 20th Century Fox movie, 300 Spartans, and sat there next to my older brother and just…my parents were sitting behind us and we saw the whole story of Thermopylae play out where the 300 Spartans were up against 300,000 Persian soldiers and they held a narrow pass for three days in an astonishing act of sacrifice. And at the end, when they started dying, when the Persian arrows were starting to hit them, I talked to my brother and then I went back to the next row and said, “Dad, do good guys die?” And he said, “I’m afraid they (do), son.” And it was the first time I encountered the notion of heroic sacrifice, which informed just about every piece I’ve done since. So eventually once I’d gotten sick of boring everybody to death about this book I was eventually going to do, I finally decided I better sit down and draw it. And I did.

G4: You seem to draw from a wide variety of influences. What about Japanese film?

FM: Well, just the other day I was watching a remarkable live action piece called Azumi.  Have you seen that? It’s this wonderful story of this young female ninja assassin. And it reminded me once again just as the Lone Wolf and Cub movies have of how the Japanese aesthetic is just a beautiful and terrible thing to behold. In Kazuo Koike's works, the movie adaptations are…well they're as faithful as Sin City is to its source material. They’re terrifying and merciless and beautiful. So I’m going to use the usual reference to Kurosawa because they’re obvious. 

G4: Would you say your expectations run high for your adaptations?

FM: One thing about entertainment--whether it’s comic books or movies--is that you can’t imagine the fate of the piece of work. I proceed with confidence; I think we all do and hope that he audience will love it. I’ve had the experience of a lifetime.

G4: What's your general opinion on comic book movies?

FM: I’m afraid that comic book movies tend to be better the closer they are to the source material. I think the Spider-Man movies and X-Men movies are examples of people being very close to the material and being very faithful. Whereas one thing that I think the Superman franchise suffers from is that they started out with such a blockbuster, so now they think they’ve all got to be that big. And I wish they’d just be knocking them out every year and just having a ball with it. Spider-Man in a lot of ways seems like they’re having a lot of fun and it really shows.

G4: Did you see Elektra? Would the movie change your feelings about your creation?

FM: I’ll love her ‘til the day I die. I didn’t see it (the film).

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