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On Set with Frank Miller and “Will Eisner’s The Spirit”

by  in Movie News, TV News Comment
On Set with Frank Miller and “Will Eisner’s The Spirit”
“Will Eisner’s The Spirit” one-sheet poster illustrated by Frank Miller

“This is the single greatest opportunity I’ve ever had as an actor, I can’t even describe how fortunate I feel to be here, it’s mind-bloggling” said Gabriel Macht, the performer who’ll bring to life on screen one of the comics page’s most venerable masked, crimefighting heroes in “Will Eisner’s The Spirit.” CBR News was privileged to speak with the actor earlier this week on the 27th day of shooting on the film’s set in Albuquerque, NM, where Macht had just finished shooting a scene in which he as Denny Colt — aka The Spirit — utterly clobbers his archenemy The Octopus (in the form of Samuel L. Jackson).

Seeing the action with one’s own eyes, it is impossible to tell where or when in the film the scene takes place. The soundstage at Albuquerque Studios is occupied by little more than a handful of production staff; a camera; two actors; one or two reporters, obviously; and a startlingly enormous amount of green screens surrounding the gymnasium-sized space in all directions. Fortunately, there are a number of storyboards pinned up around set that give guests a clearer picture of what’s going on in the scene. Even more fortunately, they’re all drawn by Frank Miller.

Set for a January 2009 release by Lionsgate Entertainment, “The Spirit” is written and directed by Frank Miller, himself one of modern comics’ most revered icons and a devoted fan, protégé and dear friend of Will Eisner. “It’s a real privilege [to be directing ‘The Spirit’],” Miller told CBR News. “I’m in love with the material and doing my best to be fair to it.”

Miller, who co-directed the big-screen adaptation of his legendary Dark Horse comics series “Sin City,” first discovered the world of Will Eisner’s “The Spirit” when he was only 13-years-old. “I was blown away,” Miller said. “It was so far ahead of anything else that was coming out. I followed it religiously. There was one night where I picked up the latest issue of ‘The Spirit,’ and I was so excited that I had to stop by a lamppost and read it on the spot.”

The story the young Frank Miller couldn’t wait to read was the classic Spirit tale “Sand Saref,” which is, fittingly, the primary basis for Miller’s motion picture. Originally published in 1950 and later reprinted several times over the years by Harvey Comics, Warren Publishing, Kitchen Sink Press and DC Comics, “Sand Saref” is a particularly noirish episode of “The Spirit” that introduces one of the comic’s most memorable characters. The childhood friend and crush of Denny Colt, Sand Saref came from the same humble, “downtown” beginnings as The Spirit, but walked a wildly different path into adulthood.

Frank Miller directs a scene on the set of “Will Eisner’s The Spirit.”

“Sand is the premiere femme fatale of all of Eisner’s femme fatales,” said producer Deborah Del Prete, whose Odd Lot Entertainment developed the film from its inception. “She’s the great original love of the Spirit’s life, and she’s also the girl who goes bad. She becomes a criminal mastermind of her own. She is essentially the Ultimate: she’s beautiful, she’s sexy, she’s smart, she’s powerful, and, yes, she’s a little voracious; she wants beautiful things.”

The character and her story are obvious ancestors of Miller’s own noir-flavored work, particularly in “Sin City,” and after having co-directed that enormously successful comics-to-film adaptation, Miller had a crystal clear idea of what an actress required to bring Sand Saref to life on screen.

“Eva [Mendes] has a wonderful, exquisite anger,” said Miller of his Sand Saref actress. “Her talent aside, her beauty aside, she has an edge the character really needs.”

Producer Deborah Del Prete agreed, saying, “Eva is breathtaking, she’s powerful and she’s exotic, but at the same time she can be the girl next door as well. She has that amazing quality that she just gets across on camera. She is just ideal in the movie and we all love her. She’s just perfect.”

Also starring in “Will Eisner’s The Spirit” are Scarlett Johansson as Silken Floss, a character whose story grew to facilitate Miller’s admiration for Johansson’s performance; and Dan Lauria (“The Wonder Years”) as Commissioner Dolan, who was also on the lot during our visit. Additionally, DC Comics publisher Paul Levitz appears in the film to utter what we’re reliably informed is a very funny line.

Samuel L. Jackson was cast as The Octopus before Miller even put pen to paper, but as readers of “The Spirit” know, the villainous Octopus is never actually seen apart from his distinctive gloves — a problematic prospect for a live-action motion picture. “That’s not necessarily the way it’s going to be in this movie,” laughed Del Prete.

Director Frank Miller (left) with Director of Photography Bill Pope on the set of “Will Eisner’s The Spirit”

“I’ve always wanted to work with Sam Jackson,” Miller said. “I know I couldn’t get away with 2 hours of a guy whose face you never see. I thought, who would be the perfect Octopus and Sam Jackson came to mind. It seems to me he’s always had a part like this in him waiting to get out.”

“Sam is the actor who’s waited his life to play the supervillain,” Del Prete agreed. “And [The Octopus] is the supervillain of supervillains. He’s quite a psychotic character. ‘Insane’ is the way I would describe him — but quite brilliant also; very, very smart. Sadly, evil-smart. And Sam is just amazing. Sam is larger than life.”

The look of The Octopus in “The Spirit” is perhaps the most obviously Milleresque contribution to Will Eisner’s mythos. Clad in a wildly ostentatious long-coat with tentacle patterns sewn into the fabric, Samuel L. Jackson’s Octopus resembles the enormous, brilliantly grotesque villains and thugs seen in Frank Miller works like “The Dark Knight Returns” and “300.” His eyes are decorated with a typically Miller spikey design, and at a glance, The Octopus seems to tower above the film’s titular hero.

The Spirit himself was cast after an exhaustive search and series of auditions for just the right person to embody Will Eisner’s most famous creation — regardless of whether or not he was a major name-actor. Finally, blonde-haired, brown-eyed Gabriel Macht was identified by Miller and Del Prete as someone who captured precisely who they wanted The Spirit to be.

“Eisner’s Spirit is a true American hero,” Del Prete explained. “He’s a man who is really trying to do right and to right wrongs. We wanted somebody who had that quality in them but we also, in particular, wanted somebody who was very relatable to the Common Man because The Spirit — to those who know the comics — was a guy who could be anybody. We wanted the quality of the Everyday, but we also wanted somebody who had the humor; who had the twinkle in the eye. And we needed somebody who we could believe gets along great with women because The Spirit is very much a lover. We needed somebody who had sex appeal, the heroic quality and the guy-next-door quality.”

“I’m a huge fan of Eisner,” Gabriel Macht told CBR News, smiling in his black suit, painted-on mask and, of course, the Spirit’s iconic red tie. Frank Miller provided Macht and the other actors and members of the art department with custom-made books spotlighting what he felt were the Spirit stories most important to their roles in the film and production, and in doing so made Eisner devotees and new comic book fans out of them.

Indeed, when it comes to “The Spirit,” Miller makes every decision very deliberately, due in no small part to his long friendship with his hero and mentor, Will Eisner. “[Frank and Will’s relationship affected the film’s development] tremendously,” said Del Prete. “Because Frank and I have worked together a long time on the project and developed the script over a long period of months, I can tell you that not a day went by that we didn’t talk about Will and Will’s take on The Spirit.

“I was fortunate enough to meet Will and spent time talking to him about the film before he passed away,” she continued. “We’ve been very careful about protecting the things we think Will would want protected. We laughed many days about how Will would have seen [his comic] coming to life and really loved it. Frank is always considering Will throughout.”

There is one very specific aspect of Will Eisner’s “The Spirit” that Miller was most keen to translate accurately into the film, but it’s not a tiny one. “That would be the passion that Will and I always shared for New York City,” Miller confessed. “You’ll see some very familiar touches that come from Will Eisner and come from the city we both love.”

Miller storyboarded the entire film himself, drawing for hours and hours the action he saw in his mind and in the comics of Will Eisner. “[The look of the ‘The Spirit’] is going to be quite faithful, I think, to Will’s vision as an artist,” confirmed Miller. “I’ve often laid out storyboards my way and then Eisner’s way, and in each case I’ve gone Eisner’s way.”

(The existence of such storyboards indicates something perhaps just as auspicious as a Frank Miller-directed Spirit movie: when translated to animatic form, likely on the DVD release, the images on those bulletin boards would constitute a Frank Miller-animated Spirit movie!)

“But he’s still Frank Miller,” Del Porte added. “And this is a Frank Miller take on Will Eisner. One of the things Frank will tell you is that he and Will became friends and then had a lifelong argument over what was the right way to do this, that or the other! And I think that continues on with this film.”

Indeed, Miller has used the opportunity of directing “Will Eisner’s The Spirit” to assert one creative and philosophical victory over his former mentor, and that victory’s name is Ebony White. The controversially depicted African-American sidekick who appears in many of Will Eisner’s “The Spirit” comics does not appear in the film, and it was a remarkably easy decision for Miller to make.

“Simply this: Frank has just never felt [Ebony White] worked in the comic and this is chance to take him out!” laughed Del Prete. “Frank likes to say, ‘everybody makes mistakes! Will made some, too!’ I said they had an ongoing battle for years and from Day One, Frank said, ‘That’s not a character I want to deal with, personally.'”

Another decision made by Miller was to update the world of “The Spirit” from that of the 1940s to a more nebulous, contemporary-yet-classic take on the fictitious Central City that includes artifacts like mobile phones as well as decidedly retro fashions. It’s an approach seemingly similar to “Batman: The Animated Series,” which is, appropriately, one of the most famous and successful of Will Eisner’s creative progeny, and was strongly influenced by the work of Frank Miller as well.

“Will Eisner’s The Spirit” is not an origin story, and the decision to forego the traditional origin route was another one made early on in the film’s development. “I would say that people will find there’s quite a bit of origin in it,” Del Prete said, “but it is certainly like no other origin story. The origin will be revealed in, I think, a unique and kind of refreshing way.

“It’s extremely easy [for viewers to understand,” she continued. “I mean, are there a couple of inside jokes? Yeah, but none of those inside jokes matter unless you know the inside joke. Everything else in the story, we were very careful to go through a vetting process so people who didn’t know the comics would understand the story.”

Tonally, “Will Eisner’s The Spirit” appears to be precisely what fans would imagine a filmed collaboration between Will Eisner and Frank Miller to be like. “Something ‘in-between’ would be the right way to put it,” Del Prete said. “I feel the character has a lot of the James Bond quality to him. It’s adventure, it’s mystery, it’s romance. There’s still some Frank Miller edge to it, there’s no doubt, but there’s still the Eisner sensibility as well. ‘Sin City’ is very, very dark. ‘The Spirit’ is the darker version of Eisner, but there’s Eisner in there. It’s funny. This is a funny movie. There’s a lot of comedy in this movie.”

“It wouldn’t be Will Eisner’s ‘Spirit’ if there wasn’t humor in it,” agreed Frank Miller.

Indeed, the principal goal of “Will Eisner’s The Spirit” seems to be to make everyone a Will Eisner and Spirit fan, a mission that began even before Frank Miller became involved. Executive Producer Michael Uslan, best known for initiating the Batman series of films beginning with Tim Burton’s “Batman,” also came into possession of the film rights to Will Eisner’s Spirit and approached Deborah Del Prete with the project.

Explained the producer, “Uslan came to me three or four years ago and said, ‘I have the rights to one of the greatest comic book creations of all time,’ and a number of other things that led me to say, ‘Don’t tell me you have The Spirit?!’ And he said, ‘I knew I was in the right place.’ He asked if we wanted to do it because he was afraid to give the project to a studio, having had some mixed experiences with that in the past.”

It was at the “Sin City” premiere that Del Prete first discussed The Spirit film with Frank Miller, but not before doing a bit of detective work on the then-emergent filmmaker. “I spent a lot of time talking to [‘Sin City’ co-director] Robert Rodriguez and other people who had worked with Frank,” Del Prete explained, “and they all said, ‘One of the things that would surprise you — because I think we all get that his visual sensibilities are second to none — is that he’s great with actors.’ Which is a kind of surprising piece of information. Well, as it turns out, Frank is unbelievable with actors. He really understands them and how to talk to them and what to give them.

“And again, the man is probably one of the most visionary people out there today,” she continued. “His sensibility of what belongs on screen is very advanced for somebody you might consider an early director. Frank is one of those genius people who’s like a sponge. He learns very quickly. He worked with Rodriguez and absorbed a tremendous amount. This is his film now and he’s really got it. He’s amazing.”

Working with Miller on “Will Eisner’s The Spirit” are Director of Photography and longtime Frank Miller comics fan Bill Pope, best known for his work with the Wachowski Brothers on The Matrix series and numerous Sam Raimi pictures including “Spider-Man 2;” and Visual Effects Supervisor Stu Maschwitz, who, Del Prete says, has with Miller advanced the digital filmmaking techniques pioneered in the “Star Wars” prequels, “Sin City” and “300” an entire generation.

As such technology becomes increasingly ubiquitous, questions about its role in filmmaking have become concurrently irrelevant, as Miller indicated: “This is the only way I’ve been trained to direct. This is no longer the time, really, where I think it’s appropriate to refer to technology in terms of ‘challenges,’ but rather as ‘opportunities.’ Right now it’s almost frightening what is possible. One of the challenges of a director of a movie that uses this much technology is what not to do; to ask yourself, ‘Well, I could do this, but should I?”

“Will Eisner’s The Spirit” will open in January, 2009, but as to what MPAA rating will accompany it, Frank Miller or no Frank Miller, nobody really knows. “We’re not going for anything,” said Del Prete of the film’s possible parental guidance rating. “We’re going for the movie we make, honestly, and whatever that turns out to be. We never once sit there and go, ‘Oh, will this movie be this or that’ ever. We’re just making a Spirit movie.”

Now discuss this story in CBR’s TV/Film forum.

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