The Spirit Panel at NY Comic Con ’07

At the 2nd Annual New York Comic Con, producers Michael E. Uslan and F.J. DeSanto were joined by Denis Kitchen, former publisher of Kitchen Sink Press, to talk about Frank Miller’s upcoming movie based on legendary artist Will Eisner’s The Spirit, a character created in 1940. Miller will write and direct the independently-financed feature being produced by Uslan, best known for his work on the Batman and Constantine films, along with Odd Lot Productions.

Frank Miller couldn’t attend for reasons that would be addressed in an E-mail read by DeSanto early in the panel:

“Sometimes life really sucks,” it began. “I slipped on a patch of black ice on a Manhattan sidewalk, smashed my left hip to bits and have spent the last bunch of weeks undergoing medical procedures and losing out on all these chances to tell everybody how much fun I’m having writing ‘Will Eisner’s The Spirit.’ Don’t go expecting a nostalgic tongue-in-cheek romp here. Remember, remember how scary Eisner got whenever he chose to. Remember how he broke your heart with the story of San Serif, so expect some hair-pin turns, some dead end back alley madness, the wet kind. Get set, we’re on our way to some dark places.”

After reading the letter, Michael Uslan showed the teaser poster for the film–the tagline read “Down these mean streets, a man must come, a hero born, murdered and born again”–and the trio talked a bit about what to expect from the upcoming movie, as well as what they’d gone through to get the film made, including dealing with studios who wanted to change all the aspects of the character that made him such a beloved comic book icon for over six decades.

Uslan told the audience how they ended up getting Frank Miller to helm this ambitious project after they reconnected at Will Eisner’s memorial service in New York mere weeks after Miller’s Sin City was released. Uslan told Miller how he’d been trying to make comic books into movies and how impressed he was by how Miller made a movie into a comic book and how he could see The Spirit being done using the same technology as Sin City. Being such a fan of Eisner and his character, Miller was initially taken aback by Uslan’s offer to have him write and direct the film, but after thinking about it for some time, he realized he couldn’t have anyone else do it. The interview book Eisner/Miller also convinced Uslan that The Spirit would be safe in Frank’s hands.

Uslan spent some time with the late Eisner before his death to try to understand what he had in mind for a film based on the character, but it’s really going to be Frank Miller’s job to realize that vision. “Thank God I had an opportunity over those years to spend a lot of time with Will to ask him questions, to get him involved, so that we know what he had in mind, we know what he was thinking about this, what his preference were or weren’t.”

As Eisner’s agent, close friend and publisher, Kitchen had also been deeply involved in keeping the movie in line with the decades of Spirit strips done by Eisner, many of which had been reprinted by Kitchen Sink. “The Spirit movie is something I don’t think Will ever expected to really happen,” Kitchen said, “because over the years, many people optioned it, and for many reasons, wasn’t an easy thing to translate. Many people had it and it just never got done right. Will also, unlike many other people in the world, did not want to direct and wasn’t particularly intrigued by the idea of comics becoming movies, because most of them he felt didn’t do justice to the original source. If you read Will’s serious works, you know he felt that comics should be an art in its own right and he didn’t like the implied superiority of film, because it was a more lucrative field to be in. Will would be very pleased to know that his friend and someone he respected is going to take this and mold it into another medium. The way Sin City was done really was a moving version of the graphic novel in a way that most haven’t seen before, and I knew Frank was thinking right when he told me he was clipping out panels of Will’s Spirit and taping them on his wall and [filling in the blanks]. We’re all pretty confident that if someone’s going to pull it off, it’ll be him.”

DeSanto talked about how Miller had been drawing a lot of the things that happen in between the panels of Eisner’s comics as storyboards for the film and that he had an entire stack of drawings laying the entire movie out. He also told the audience how once the project was announced, every agency started calling to try to put their actors and actresses into the movie, and that they have a strong list of people who want to do it, though Frank has a number of choices that will really cement it. (Of course, they didn’t reveal any of them. Bah.)

Uslan mentioned that Miller’s been busy writing the final draft of the movie and that he thought they might actually start shooting The Spirit before Miller got to Sin City 2, despite the recent news from Miller to the contrary. Uslan said that their production is ready to go as soon as they get the pieces in place, particularly the actors they have in mind. “We’re moving like lighting, we really are,” he said. “This next draft that Frank’s bringing in should really be it and we should be in a position to be moving pretty quickly.”

DeSanto said the movie will “hit the ground running” with The Spirit already being The Spirit and with all the Eisner elements in place including the incorporation of the logo into the cityscapes. Central City will essentially be its own world, a “true character” in the movie, using the technology from Sin City and the upcoming 300 to keep the world “as Eisneresque as possible and true to Will’s vision.”

They promised that we’d be seeing the femme fatales that are so beloved in Eisner’s series and that The Spirit would get into a lot of trouble with them, while the love triangle with Ellen Dolan and San Serif would be included as part of the plot. The movie will also make it clear why The Spirit’s Commissioner Dolan is so different from Batman’s Commissioner Gordon, though the controversial Ebony White character won’t be in the film. Uslan said, “There are villains and femme fatales sprinkled throughout that will delight you and will surprise you the way Frank is dealing with them.” They recommended The Best of the Spirit and some of The Spirit Archives (there’s 22 of them) published by DC Comics as a good place to start for anyone wanting to read up on the character before seeing the movie.

Uslan also mentioned that people should think in terms of the first Tim Burton Batman movie as far as the era in which the movie will take place. Eisner never meant the stories to be taking place in a particular era, but to be taking place at whatever time they were drawn or being read. So instead of being set in the ’40s or ’50s, the film will be more contemporary or hopefully, have a timeless feel to it, or at least that is what Miller is going for with the movie.

Uslan couldn’t talk too much about it, but he hinted that there may be animated projects based on The Spirit that would be a bit more light-hearted, allowing for some of The Spirit’s more whimsical stories and characters to appear.

As the panel wound down, Uslan also mentioned that there should be an announcement from New Line soon about the Captain Marvel/Shazam project he’s producing for them which he said had been making great progress. He’s also really excited about The Shadow movie he’s developing with Sam Raimi, a character that had an obvious influence on Raimi’s 1990 film Dark Man. Uslan added that they’re determined to do it right, now that they’ve cracked the tone of the story and that writer Siavash Farahani is doing a “bang-job” at getting the screenplay together.

Source: Edward Douglas