Exclusive: Frank Miller Gets Into The Spirit

When you talk about the comic book characters who have been around the longest, the first ones that will come to mind are Superman, who first appeared in 1938, and Batman a year later. In both cases, you can probably list and discuss their movie and television incarnations, as well as the cartoons and comic books in which the two have appeared. Then there’s the case of Will Eisner’s The Spirit, a pulpy comic character created by legendary cartoonist Will Eisner for a Sunday comics insert in 1940 that’s only ventured off the comic pages once, in 1987, for a television movie.

The Spirit is the reincarnated alter ego of police officer Denny Colt, who was shot and killed on duty but then returned later as the indestructible crime fighter who works with Commissioner Dolan to take down Central City’s tougher criminal element. Eisner’s work was influenced by the early days of film noir, but it was also filled with humor and pathos and a never-ending supply of beautiful femme fatales to tempt and tease The Spirit. The character continued to appear in strips and comic books throughout the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s, and then was reprinted extensively after that, most recently in a series of hardbound archives from DC Comics, who also resuscitated the character with new stories by top comic book talent.

When it came time to give The Spirit his first big screen feature film, there really was only one man to call for the job, and that was Will Eisner’s close friend and frequent sparring partner Frank Miller, whose work during the ’80s and ’90s was as much influenced by Eisner as it was an antithesis to the virtues of The Spirit.

The resulting movie The Spirit is very much what you might expect, taking Eisner’s characters and storytelling tone and combining them with the stylish visuals Miller has become famous for after bringing his crime noir series Sin City to the big screen along with Robert Rodriguez. It stars Gabriel Macht as the title character, Samuel L. Jackson as his arch-enemy The Octopus, Scarlett Johansson as the Octopus’ sultry sidekick Silken Floss, and Eva Mendes wearing next to nothing at times as Denny Colt’s childhood sweetheart turned bad, the jewel thief Sand Serif. Not everyone will love or even like the movie–like the Wachowski’s Speed Racer, it’s a movie that’s going to be an acquired taste–but for the fans of Eisner’s most famous creation or those interested in getting a primer to the character, done in a lovingly reverential way, then Miller’s efforts will not be lost on you.

Superhero Hype! has wanted to sit down with Frank Miller for some time to talk about making a movie based on his friend’s characters, and after a few false starts–like a 90 second interview at this year’s Comic-Con, basically one question we’ve incorporated below–we finally had our chance to do the following interview, which took place at the movie’s New York junket last weekend:

Superhero Hype!: How surreal is it doing a movie re-envisioning the work of Will Eisner, a friend and a person you discussed art with over the years? Does it feel strange to be taking his character and doing your own imprint?

Frank Miller: Sure, it’s like any creative process. It has its moments where you have to put your feet on the ground and say, “Is this really what I’m doing?” but what you have to do is break it down and take it very, very seriously and then your guts start telling you what it needs to translate. You have to develop a very calm sure voice insider yourself that you got the instincts to do it.

SHH!: Obviously, The Spirit has been around for over sixty years, so Will must have been very protective of it because through all these waves of comic book movies, he only did one TV movie with the character. Do you know why he was so protective and why he didn’t want The Spirit to be on the screen as other pulp characters?

Miller: Well, when you own something, it’s like a baby to you. It was like I was about “Sin City,” that’s why I prevented it from going on the screen for so long, and I think Will simply wanted to make sure it was done right.

SHH!: Did he ever have any aspirations to direct a movie himself?

Miller: I don’t think so. Will seemed pretty dedicated to comics as a form of literature, and I was always interested when it’s being related more to cinema. He and I argued about it constantly.

SHH!: Yeah, I’ve read the published discussions between the two of you. So did he ever talk to you about, “If this were to become a movie, this would be what I wanted?”

Miller: Yes, he said that he didn’t want The Spirit to ever hold a gun. That was his bottom line, and I knew from knowing him and knowing his work that the women better be beautiful, and that the hero should be righteous and follow a 1940’s code of morality, gentlemanly conduct. There was one point in the shoot where Eva as Sand Serif walks out of the bathroom with steam behind her, and Gabriel/The Spirit suggested that perhaps it would be simpler if he walked in, and I told him, “No, because no gentleman would ever walk into a woman’s bathroom without an invitation.”

SHH!: You did a good job with the women, too, and got some of the best looking women out there. It must have been fun to audition them.

Miller: Yeah! It was not painful.

SHH!: I’m sure you’ve been asked this before, but some people see your work and how it started the “grim and gritty” era of comics, which seems almost a response to Eisner’s work as it took away from the innocence and those qualities, so was that a hard thing to balance in your head?

Miller: No, it wasn’t, because Will would have risen from the grave if I’d been slavish. He would have wanted me to do my version. I believe that, and how could I do anything but my version? I’m me.

SHH!: Do you ever find yourself asking yourself, “What would Will do?” and put aside what you might normally do?

Miller: Every damn day.

SHH!: You must have known the characters so well, but The Spirit has changed so much from the ’40s, being comical at times but dark at others. Did you have any specific era you liked that you knew you would grab from the most?

Miller: I started the entire movie based on the two-part Sand Serif story and expanded outwards from there. I knew the Octopus had to be in there and he had to be something more than a pair of gloves, because that wouldn’t really be sustained over an hour, and Silken Floss kind of presented herself when I met with Scarlett Johannson, who was originally up for the Ellen Dolan role. I realized immediately she was far too young, but then I got talking with her for three hours, and I realized she was one of the funniest people I’ve ever met. I rewrote the entire Silken Floss character for her.

SHH!: As far as embellishing the original story, you mentioned building the Octopus out from the gloves, but you also had him get more involved with the Spirit’s origin and little things like that. Were these things you felt needed to be done in the comic to embellish the story or just things that you think were necessary for the movie to work?

Miller: It was all for the movie. I never commented on Eisner’s Spirit except to imitate it… constantly (chuckles) in my own career. When I was working on the movie, I realized that the connection between the Octopus and the Spirit was inevitable.

SHH!: What about the relationship between Denny and Sand? You have the flashback to their teen years which I never remembered Eisner doing.

Miller: Oh, yes. It’s right out of the comic. It’s just expanded upon, rather than a little note that says “Sand Serif,” it’s a locket that holds the two pictures, which I thought would be better in a film.

SHH!: There’s a noticeable wave these days to do more realistic comic book movies with “Iron Man” and “Dark Knight.” This movie goes back to the more stylish look that’s taken directly from the comics and that world, and even from Tex Avery’s animation in some ways.

Miller: Yeah, it’s Tex Avery when it comes to the Octopus fighting The Spirit, which always was. I mean, their fights were preposterous. They took more punishment than any human could possibly take. The rest of the movie is a romance, and I mean a romance in the old terms, which is when adventure and romance were one thing, like in “Robin Hood” or “Zorro.” I felt that Eisner’s work was specifically designed for adults, not for children, and wanted to bring the real life adult motive of the Sand Serif story, which is that it’s his long-lost love whose gone bad, and as an adult and a cop, he’s gotta bring her in. Their kiss at the end is the perfect culmination of that.

SHH!: That part is based in reality but as far as the look of the movie, using green screen and making everything stylish. You were never tempted to set this more in the real world like other comic movies have been doing.

Miller: There’s nothing realistic about my work. I’ve never been accused of realism. The kiss scene with Sand Serif and The Spirit was done on a circular track for the camera and a tilt-a-whirl for the actors, so that Stu Maschwitz (FX supervisor from The Orphanage) could create an entire city behind them, so that I guess was out to outdo the Europeans for the spinning camera around a kiss.

SHH!: You mentioned wanting to do a Spirit movie for adults, and I think a lot of people will be surprised that the movie is PG-13, even after seeing the movie. Was that something you were always shooting for?

Miller: No, we shot the movie without even thinking about ratings, and then when we sat down with the finished product, we realized that it was not really an R-rated thing. See, I hate ratings systems, I hate censorship, I hate all of that, but you have to make your choices in film. We made some small adjustments in order to get the PG-13, but the Director’s Cut will correct all that.

SHH!: So we can look forward to a version with more of what we expect form you?

Miller: Yeah.

SHH!: Now as far as doing the green screen, I know you worked with Robert on “Sin City” like that, but did you feel that was the only way to do it? Was it easier and more cost-effective than building sets?

Miller: Well, it helped with the speed. We shot the movie in two and a half months. I’m happy to say that we finished it two weeks early, but what it does for me as a cartoonist and as a lover of Eisner’s work was to allow the backgrounds and the settings to become as stylized, as what was in both our minds. Both “Sin City” and “Spirit” are very much cartoonists’ movies.

SHH!: A lot of directors I speak to who do live action movies get very frustrated when it comes time to deal with the animators and FX guys, but having your art background, was it easier dealing with that stuff?

Miller: I storyboarded the entire movie and I worked very closely with Bill Pope in the cinematography and Stu Maschwitz in the animation to do something that was from the imagination, so that it wouldn’t feel at all like an analog movie.

SHH!: When you’re doing the storyboards, do you think about whether the computer animators can recreate in 3D what you drew on the page?

Miller: No, my storyboards are my own. They’re in pencil and inked and the computer people base what they’re doing on what I did and fill in with what they need and create animatics so that it’s like an animated film.

SHH!: I know that your cinematographer Bill Pope was a fan of your comics work, so did he go out of his way to try to create imagery like he’s seen you do in the comics?

Miller: Oh, did he ever. I could never have lit a movie like he did. He blew my mind consistently, because Bill Pope is one of the most courageous cinematographers out there. He almost never double lights anything. He single lights it so it goes right into the black, against the black, and it’s up to the audience to see the image.

SHH!: He’s also done a lot of green screen and FX between “The Matrix” and “Spider-Man” so it must have been good to have him along for this ride.

Miller: He knew exactly what he was doing. I was in the hands of two masters with Stu and Bill. It was a triad, we were like the Axis of Evil.

SHH!: Was Bill Pope just as involved in working with Stu when it came to finishing things up in the computer?

Miller: We all were, we were all over each other.

SHH!: It’s been a while since we’ve seen you draw the interior art in a comic book.

Miller: It’s been a while since I published any. There’s “Holy Terror, Batman,” which is about 40 pages from completion now and there’s “The Spirit Storyboards” which will be coming out. There’s hundreds of them and it’s going to be a big fat book when it comes out. But right now, I’m in love with directing, so it’s slowing down my comic book work.

SHH!: Would you want to draw something to give reference for future “Sin City” or “300” movies, like a full finished comic published before they do a movie?

Miller: I’ll publish something.

SHH!: I want to ask about your impression on comic book movies since you’re one of the few comic book creators who’s also been successful at directing movies, having done two now. What do you feel makes a good comic book movie? Does it have to be reverential to the original material or create something new?

Miller: I think the closer it gets to the source the better, but at the same time, it has to be done with some wit and verve. I don’t think we need ponderous, pompous superhero movies. I think that Marvel Entertainment has done an amazing job with “Iron Man” and “The Incredible Hulk” in showing how much fun this stuff can actually be, while it can still be amazing. I think that these aren’t Gods. We should enjoy them as folk heroes.

And now, we’re going to step into the way-back machine and throw in some more stuff from an interview done with Frank Miller while he was on set shooting the movie a year ago:

SHH!: How does it feel being the sole director of this movie after co-directing “Sin City”?

Miller: It’s a real privilege. I’m in love with the material and doing my best to be fair to it.

SHH!: What are some of the challenges you’ve been having with the technology?

Miller: This isn’t the time really where I think it’s appropriate to refer to “challenges” of technology, so much as “opportunities.” Right now, it’s almost frightening what is possible. One of the challenges for a director that uses this much digital technology is what not to do. Tell yourself, “I could do this but should I?”

SHH!: Give us an example of something where you said “I’ll never be able to do that” and then how you were able to figure out how to do it.

Miller: Well, I knew from working with Robert Rodriguez that virtually anything was possible, and certainly, through Stu Manschwitz, I’ve learned some brand new things.

SHH!: Can you talk about when you first discovered The Spirit and Eisner’s work and the effect it had on you?

Miller: I was just probably about 13 years old, and came across “Will Eisner’s The Spirit” as published by Jim Warren, and was blown away. I thought it was somebody new to comics because it was so far ahead of anything else 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, I had to stop by a lamppost in Vermont, where I lived, and read it on the spot. It was the Sand Serif story, which was the basis of this movie.

SHH!: Can you talk about the casting of this and why Eva in that role?

Miller: I know you wear glasses, but you’ve got eyes. (laughter) Eva has a wonderful and exquisite anger to her. Her talent aside, her beauty aside, she has an edge that the character really needs.

SHH!: And the rest of the casting? I understand Sam was the only person you wanted for the Octopus?

Miller: Yeah, from the start I wanted Sam Jackson to play the Octopus, because I always wanted to work with Sam Jackson. The Octopus was always a cipher in the old comics, and I knew we couldn’t get away with two hours of a guy whose face you never see. So I thought, “Who would be the perfect nemesis for the Spirit?” and Sam Jackson came to mind. It seems to he he’s always had a part like this just waiting to get out.

The Spirit opens everywhere on Thursday, December 25. You can also read what Miller said about Sin City 2 and the 300 spin-off here.

Source: Edward Douglas