It was a bitter, cold Saturday in New York City, but spirits were high in the Waldorf Astoria Hotel. Gathered for a press junket were the stars and director of "The Spirit," the film adaptation of Will Eisner's beloved comic strip series. Nearly everyone was present and accounted for: director Frank Miller and actors Gabriel Macht (The Spirit), Eva Mendes (Sand Saref), Sarah Paulson (Ellen Dolan), Dan Lauria (Commissioner Dolan), Scarlett Johansson (Silken Floss) and Samuel L. Jackson (The Octopus) were all in attendance to promote the Christmas Day-debuting flick.
The potential for "The Spirit" is huge, especially given the recent movie success of Frank Miller's properties "Sin City" and "300." Still, perhaps no one is more aware of the latest film's possibilities than the ghost with the most himself, Gabriel Macht.
"In many ways, every part you get when you audition as an actor has potential of breaking through," said Macht. "Obviously this one has the biggest potential because I'm involved with Frank [Miller's] vision of the film."
"There's no greater opportunity for a younger actor than to play the Spirit, I think," Macht continued. "I had the best time working on the film. Hopefully people come and see it and we can make a couple more [Spirit films.]"
Macht's co-star, Scarlett Johasson, is no less impressed with the film, though she concedes that the comic book world had eluded her until "The Spirit." "[The] world [of comic books] always seemed a little exclusive to me," said Johansson. "What brought me to this project was Frank. I loved 'Sin City' and I thought he must be an interesting fellow!"
After a three-hour lunch meeting, Miller found Johansson to be quite interesting herself. Likening her to a "young Lucille Ball," director Miller rewrote the role of Silken Floss to cater to the young actress's strengths. "He decided to expand this character," she confirmed. "I was extremely lucky."
Johansson is just one of many beautiful and talented women involved in "The Spirit." Actress Eva Mendes is well aware of the sex symbol status of her character, the sultry Sand Saref. Despite this, Mendes said there's definitely brains behind this broad. "For me, if I just felt like an accessory, I wouldn't have done the film," said Mendes of her character. "I would've felt very shitty about myself, just flaunting it without having a foundation. [But] my character uses everything she has as a woman to get what she wants.
"If there were no brains behind the body, I would have major qualms with [the film]. But she's so kick-ass in every way and she's such a smart dame that part of her sexuality, part of getting what she wants, is turning up the sex."
The third and final lovely lady on the stage, actress Sarah Paulson, plays The Spirit's love interest Ellen Dolan. Of the film's female ensemble, Paulson is perhaps the only one that doesn't ratchet up the sex element in such an overtly visual manner. "My character didn't really have an over-the-top quality with the costumes," agreed Paulson. "I was absurdly jealous when I'd go in the makeup chair and see these pictures of the continuity and of Eva and Scarlett.
"The thing I liked about the part is that there isn't a single woman in this movie that's a damsel in distress. There isn't a single woman in this movie that isn't a strong woman."
Ellen Dolan, The Spirit's personal surgeon in the movie, is just one of many characters that underwent significant changes during the translation from comics page to film reel. Nevertheless, director Frank Miller said that when it comes to making comic book movies, it's typically a good idea to stick to canon.
"The truer [the comic book films] are to the source material, the better," Miller said. "I would cite Marvel Entertainment's recent success with 'Iron Man' and 'Incredible Hulk' as wonderful, witty jobs of adapting them. I think if [adaptations] get too presumptuous, comic book movies tend to fall apart."
Speaking of "Iron Man," it's hard not to notice Nick Fury himself, self-avowed comics geek Samuel L. Jackson, who appears in "The Spirit" as the Octopus, Denny Colt's nemesis that shares his enigmatic healing power. Of all the characters in the film, Jackson is perhaps the most different from his comic book counterpart.
"It's quite an honor to walk into a situation and put flesh and blood to a character that's only been a pair of gloves," said Jackson, referring to the Octopus's lack of visual form in the comics. "Frank gave me license to be as demented and as genius and as funny as I wanted to be. "I kind of took that as my license to do all the things I ever wanted to do in a film. Chew as much scenery as I felt like chewing -- and not be criticized for it."
After a brief pause, Jackson looked down the rim of his glasses and warningly reiterated to the room full of journalists: "Everybody got that?"
"[Frank and I] would talk about the Octopus," continued Jackson, "and [we] realized that he had his own reality, which we decided to kin ofa put out there, every day, in a different costume. Every day, he'd wake up in a different fantasy that he wanted to live in and that's how he dressed, and he'd send a costume into Silken [Floss's] room and she'd dress up and we'd hang out all day long like that. As we got to that place, we realized the genius and the dementia [behind the character]."
Mirroring the partnership between The Octopus and Silken Floss is that of The Spirit and Commissioner Dolan, who acts as a mentor and trusted ally to the masked hero. It didn't take much to spark the dynamic between Gabriel Macht and Dan Lauria, who plays Dolan in the film: they've known each other since Macht was five.
"I used to babysit him," smiled Lauria.
Miller chimed in, "That was two years ago!"
"[Our dynamic] was pretty immediate," Macht described. "He and my father had been friends for a while, and I also grew up watching Dan on television [as Jack Arnold on 'The Wonder Years'], so it was a great give-and-take right away."
"It was astonishing to watch when those two appeared on screen together," said Frank Miller of the dynamic between Macht and Lauria. "Nobody could take their eyes off of it."
When asked how familiar with The Spirit Samuel L. Jackson was prior to the film, the actor remarked, "I've read comics all my life and I was familiar with The Spirit. He was one of my favorite characters because he had no superpowers. Everyone always wanted to be fast like The Flash or strong like Superman."
Obviously, Frank Miller agrees with Jackson's love for The Spirit as a character, and cites his long friendship with Denny Colt's late creator, Will Eisner. "My relationship with Will Eisner was a long and abiding one where we argued incessantly," Miller explained. "The very first time he saw one of my pages, he told me what was wrong with it, and we kept arguing ever since. It was the classic 'Irish Catholic meets the Bronx Jew.'
"Eisner finally read [the first page of 'Daredevil'] and he said, 'He's lying in the back of a garbage truck, and his caption says, "I'm lying in the back of a garbage truck!" That's redundant!' I said, 'Well, he's blind! He has to put it together!' He wouldn't accept that explanation, so we just got at it."
Despite their occasional differences, Miller has nothing but the highest praise for his departed friend. "To be as brief as possible," Miller said at the junket's conclusion, "I would cite two people who I'd consider mentors that helped make life better for comic book artists: Will Eisner and Neal Adams."
"The Spirit" opens in theaters everywhere December 25.