In 2005, filmmaker Robert Rodriguez and comic book auteur Frank Miller collaborated on a film adaptation of Miller’s seminal work, “Sin City”. Shot digitally entirely against a green-screen virtual “backlot”, the film told three lurid stories in the tone of classic noir and pulp fiction. The film was released to critical and audience acclaim, and to date stands as the biggest hit of Rodriguez’s career.
It was around this time that Rodriguez began regularly collaborating with his close friend, director Quentin Tarantino. Similarly influenced by little-known classics of the grindhouse genre, the two formed an easy rapport in their working relationship. Rodriguez, wanting Tarantino to experience the pleasures of an original score, performed said duties on KILL BILL: VOLUME 2 (2004) for the price of one dollar. To return the favor, Tarantino charged Rodriguez a dollar to shoot a special segment in Rodriguez’s SIN CITY (2005). This segment was titled “DESIGNATED DRIVER”, and features the actors Clive Owen and Benicio Del Toro conversing with each other as Owen drives through a particularly soggy night.
I remember going to see a midnight screening of SIN CITY when it was released. I was a sophomore in college, and was becoming acutely aware of Andrew Sarris’ auteur theory after learning about it in my Media Studies class. 2004 had been a particularly energizing year for me in that regard, thanks to the release of Tarantino’s KILL BILL: VOLUME 2 and Rodriguez’s ONCE UPON A TIME IN MEXICO. The prospect of both men teaming up for a slick neo-noir promised to be a hell of an experience.
Oddly enough, Tarantino’s segment isn’t presented with any kind of moment that alerts you to the scene’s director. The trailers billed Tarantino as a special guest director, but no one knew which scene was actually his; each scene flowed so effortlessly into the next. I spent the entirety of my first viewing trying to figure out which sequence it was, only to later learn that it was the DESIGNATED DRIVER scene. It’s one of the film’s strongest moments, so I wasn’t surprised at all to learn that fact.
In the film, Owen’s character- Dwight- has just killed Jackie Boy (Del Toro) outside Sin City’s Red Light District. His prostitute allies have hooked him up with a stolen car to drive to the tar pits so that he can dispose of Jackie Boy’s body, and thus of the murder evidence. As he drives, Jackie Boy appears to come back to life—a macabre sight with his throat slit and the barrel of a gun lodged firmly through his head. We realize that Jackie Boy’s re-animation is only a manifestation of Dwight’s imagination, taunting him with the gravity of the situation, which is only made worse when his gas runs out and a cop pulls him over.
The performances are consistently great throughout the feature, but this scene in particular belongs to Del Toro as some of his greatest work. The dull glimmer in his eyes, along with that painted on grin is absolutely haunting. I can’t be the only one who thinks he’d make a perfect Joker in a future BATMAN film, right?
Because he’s acting as a special guest director, Tarantino doesn’t get to impose his own style on Rodriguez’s pre-established aesthetic. As such, DESIGNATED DRIVER marks Tarantino’s first brush with the digital format and the Sony CineAlta series of cameras. Rodriguez serves as the Director of Photography, deftly lighting the car set against a green-screen so as to believably convey motion. Shot in full color, the footage was later digitally de-saturated to a high contrast black-and-white, with punches of color and the stormy, wet environs added later via CGI.
After shooting, control of the film was taken away from Tarantino so Rodriguez could conform the footage to his vision. This meant he, not Tarantino’s usual editor Sally Menke, edited the dailies, and he also composed the scene’s ominous score together with John Debney and Graeme Revell. Really, the only dead giveaway that this is Tarantino’s scene is the handful of references to famous films in the dialogue.
DESIGNATED DRIVER is admittedly a very small part of Tarantino’s oeuvre, but it’s incredibly notable for its digital production aspect. A vocal proponent of celluloid, Tarantino has famously eschewed digital filmmaking out of a purist mentality, and its entirely possible that he would never have touched the format if it weren’t for SIN CITY. Whether it convinced him that film is the only way to go, or made him reconsider the usefulness of digital, he won’t say. But what we do know is that he can make the jump between formats with ease, while still delivering some of the most arresting moments in cinema.
DESIGNATED DRIVER is currently available as a sequence inside SIN CITY on high definition Blu Ray from Touchstone.
Producers: Elizabeth Avellan, Bob Weinstein, Harvey Weinstein
Writer: Frank Miller
Director of Photography: Robert Rodriguez
Production Designer: Steve Joyner, Jeanette Scott
Editor: Robert Rodriguez
Original Music: Robert Rodriguez