Exclusive: Michael Uslan on The Spirit!

SHH! recently had an opportunity to interview producer Michael Uslan about a few of his upcoming projects, primarily his involvement with fan favorite The Spirit. For those who don’t know who the Spirit is, He was created in 1940 by Will Eisner as a street-wise masked man who managed to get the stuffing kicked out of him about as often as he got the girl.

On a personal note, my Pop loved Will Eisner’s The Spirit, and frankly I learned a lot about drawing, mood and storytelling from his work, so for me, I’m on a personal quest to see this one through…

Interview by Chris “Excelsior” Mason

SHH!: What drew you to The Spirit?

Michael Uslan: Having done “Batman,” it made little sense to me to produce a movie based upon any run-of-the-mill super-hero. I looked for very special, unique characters that stood out by the sheer quality of the material. “Constantine” clearly fit that bill. For TV, “Carmen Sandiego” fit the bill and gave me a great opportunity to bring education to children’s television in a very entertaining way (nabbing us an Emmy Award in the process). In the seventy year history of the comic book industry, The Spirit is, perhaps, the greatest creative work to emerge, with Will Eisner recognized as the dean of comic book artists and story-tellers. And what a tribute to Will to have the industry’s Academy Awards named after him!

SHH!: Have you talked with Will Eisner, and will he be involved with the film?

Uslan: The producing team includes Deborah Del Prete and Gigi Pritzker, Ben Melniker, Steve Maier, Linda McDonough and FJ DeSanto. We have talked with Will and have gotten his views on the character, tone, and stories. It’s our intention to consult with him on an on-going basis as the script is developed and key creative elements are attached. If anything, Will may accuse us of pestering him as the process gets under way. We want to do this “right” and want his guidance and input.

SHH!: What is it about The Spirit that sets him apart form the list of other heroes hitting the big-screen?

Uslan: The Spirit is unique insofar as he is a “real” guy in a “real” city who is patently aware of the absurdity of his own situation— trying to be a masked hero because he thinks this will make him more effective in his approach to fighting crime in his neighborhood and throughout the City. Instead, he finds being a masked hero gets him into predicaments with a rogues’ gallery of beautiful villa nesses, never knowing from encounter to encounter if he’s going to wind up dead or in bed, while in the process getting the crap beat out of him on a regular basis.

SHH!: The Spirit has been around for nearly 70 years, any fears he might be outdated for today’s audiences?

Uslan: I don’t believe great characters and great story telling become out-dated. Fedoras may come and go, but the spirit of The Spirit springs eternal.

SHH!: Will The Spirit be updated, brought up to present day?

Uslan: There have been tons of discussions on this issue and we began the process by asking Will his opinion. He explained to us that whenever he wrote and drew a Spirit tale, he was always crafting a contemporary work. If he did it in 1940, the characters and setting were rooted in 1940. In 1954, he was writing and drawing The Spirit in the world of 1954. The same holds true when Will did some new Spirit work in the mid-60’s for Harvey Comics and for “The Herald Tribune” newspaper in NY. Our answer is not to set this film specifically in the 1940’s nor the 2000’s, but to create a timeless quality to Central City much the way our two resident geniuses, Anton Furst and Tim Burton, did in “Batman” (and a key reason why you can still watch that film today without feeling you’re seeing a 1980’s movie). In fact, following the release of “Batman” in 1989, I lectured at many colleges and universities all over the country, In the Q&A, each time I asked the audience if they thought “Batman” was set in the past, present or future, their response was always roughly a third, a third, and a third… indicating to me just how successful Anton and Tim had been in their mission. If we can achieve that with The Spirit, we will have done well.

SHH!: Will Eisner’s Spirit lived a unique world of “film noir” will we see that translated to the big screen?

Uslan: This film, to be true to Eisner, must be a highly stylized and crafted movie. If Hitchcock were around today, I’d have my people call his people and we’d do lunch. Seriously, there are a number of wonderfully talented directors today who could do a superb job. The first time I saw “Blood Simple”, for example, I knew that the Coen Brothers could execute a great Spirit film. We will be talking to a number of great candidates.

SHH!: Films such as The Rocketeer, The Phantom & The Shadow were great films, perfect translations of the comic books, but they didn’t seem to find their audience, why is that?

Uslan: Subject, perhaps, to seeing what happens with “Sky Captain” (not a true comic book movie but the closest thing to it), the major studios’ position has been that movies based on comic book series or comic strips that are produced as period pieces have a history of failure at the box-office. They claim that comic book period pieces don’t appeal to the younger half of the audience these films need to reach. I loved “The Rocketeer”, and enjoyed “The Phantom” and “From Hell” (can’t quite say the same for “The Shadow” or “League of Extraordinary Gentlemen”), yet couldn’t at the time interest my young son or his friends in going to the theatre to see them. They had zero interest. So maybe there’s some truth to this. I’d love to see “Sky Captain” succeed and blow a huge hole in this theory.

SHH!: Any thoughts on who will write the screenplay for The Spirit or who you’d like to see direct?

Uslan: We’re talking to lots of writers and directors as well as to their agents. We’re reading dozens of script samples. We’re taking our time because we’re committed to assembling the best creative team dedicated to doing The Spirit right.

SHH!: It’s pretty early to speculate about casting, but who would be your perfect Spirit / Denny Colt?

Uslan: We have some cool ideas as to which actors could play the emerging Spirit, but we’re also asking Spirit fans for their input. We’d love to hear their thoughts on principal casting at this early stage. Fifty years ago, James Garner would have made a great Spirit. Who embodies those qualities and looks today? The search begins….

SHH!: Have you seen the 1990 Sam J. Jones TV Movie? (It had its moments)

Uslan: I did see the 1980’s Spirit TV MOW. While I have great respect for the people who worked on it, it is NOT the way we wish to execute our feature film. Due probably to cost restraints and a television shooting schedule, it looks very much like an episode of a 70’s or 80’s prime-time TV show.

SHH!: You have been associated with ALL the Batman films, what’s your current involvement with Batman Begins?

Uslan: I’m currently the very excited and very happy executive producer of “Batman Begins”.

SHH!: Anything about Batman Begins you can share?

Uslan: Let’s just say that Chris Nolan is my movie god…and that true Batman fans will now have something to rejoice about.

SHH!: Did you have a favorite Bat-Actor?

Uslan: I think Christian Bale is so intense and so right for this role that he’ll be hailed as one of our great actors today.

SHH!: Are you looking forward to Constantine opening? (The trailers look great)

Uslan: As the 7,000 people who saw the 17 minutes of the film at the comic book convention will attest, this movie is fantastic! I believe that the creative team has re-invented the quality horror-thriller genre (“The Omen”, “The Exorcist”, “Rosemary’s Baby”) for a whole new generation. It’s a character-driven, plot- intensive story brilliantly executed by director Francis Lawrence and features Keanu Reeves’ best performance ever. As Vertigo’s editor-in-chief, Karen Berger, has stated, it has captured the essence of the character of John Constantine and the feel of the comic book series

SHH!: Any other pet-projects you are working on that you can share with us?

Uslan: I’m thrilled with the progress we’re making with “Shazam” at New Line. And I anticipate making two important announcements regarding new feature film projects based on long-running, well-know comic book characters in November.

For more on The Spirit & Will Eisner click here!

Source: Chris Mason