Spirit, The: Interview With Frank Miller

Frank Miller, the visionary creator of SIN CITY and 300, takes the comic book movie to dazzling newheights with his solo directorial debut THE SPIRIT.  Adapted from the seminal series by the great Will Eisner, THE SPIRIT fuses masterful storytelling with brilliant CGI graphics to sweep us into a stylized world of adventure, danger and romance.  Miller set out with a baseline goal of creating a PG-13 film of Eisner’s masterpiece, enabling himself to explore new ways of spinning a tale.  In so doing, he reveals another side of Frank Miller, the filmmaker. 

It’s a moonlit night in Central City, and a call comes in to the Spirit (Gabriel Macht).  Some sort of shady deal is about to go down at the mudflats near the waterfront, involving an old, sunken cargo ship and the city’s most terrifying criminal, the Octopus (Samuel L. Jackson).  The Spirit leaps into action, but the Octopus is only too happy to battle him until both men are several steps beyond punch-drunk.  Meanwhile, the Octopus’ ice-cold accomplice, Silken Floss (Scarlett Johansson), is headed back to their underground headquarters with one of two mysterious treasures looted from the bottom of the sea. 

As the smoke clears, one cop is dead and another is barely clinging to life.  The Spirit should be dead too: he’s been shot, knifed and kicked to kingdom come several times over.  And while his steady sweetheart, top surgeon Ellen Dolan (Sarah Paulson) is there to stitch him back together, the Spirit knows he’ll heal up just fine, and fast.  What he doesn’t know is why.

However, there’s no time to ponder that riddle.  As long as the Octopus is still at large, no one in Central City is safe.  What’s more, the Octopus wasn’t the only person at the mudflats.  There was a woman there, too, and all signs point to the same unlikely candidate: the alluring international jewel thief Sand Saref (Eva Mendes).

Sand Saref.  The name alone can make the Spirit’s heart skip a beat: a man’s first love will do that to him.  But that was long ago, back when Sand Saref and Denny Colt were just neighborhood kids.  Before a tragedy came between them, and sent them on radically different paths in their lives.  Sand had vowed never to return to Central City.  Could the woman at the mudflats really have been her  And could the ‘girl next door’ that Denny knew really have become a woman capable of murder

As another dead body turns up, the Spirit intensifies his search for his lost love.    Meanwhile, the Octopus, Silken and their infinitesimal band of merry, identical henchmen (Louis Lombardi) are also on the hunt for the jewel thief, seeking an exchange of the treasures that brought them to the mudflats in the first place. 

Once that exchange happens, the Octopus will be able to realize his master plan to control all of Central City.  Only one man, the Spirit, can possibly stop him.  But the Octopus knows more about our hero than he knows himself — including not only the cause of his seeming immortality, but the cure for it.

 THE SPIRIT brings together two visionaries in the art of graphic storytelling: Frank Miller, the creator of such edgy contemporary classics as “Sin City,” “300,” and “The Dark Knight Returns”; and Will Eisner, a pioneer of the modern American comic book.  Eisner broke the comic book mold when he introduced “The Spirit” in 1940; now Miller achieves a similar feat with THE SPIRIT, a comic book movie that looks like no other before it.   

Miller cites Eisner as one of his greatest and earliest inspirations. “I first encountered Will Eisner’s comics when I was 13 years old, and I thought he was the hot new guy,” Miller reports.  “The work was about 40 years old but it looked fresher and newer than anything I’d seen before.”

Eisner was barely into his 20s and already at the forefront of the new comic book movement when he created “The Spirit” as a weekly, stand-alone newspaper insert.  The series not only accelerated the comic’s artistic evolution from the three and four-panel strips of the “funny pages,” it became the incubator for a host of formal and narrative innovations.  While invincible costumed crusaders like Batman and Superman were making waves, Eisner created a masked hero in a suit, tie, gloves and fedora, with no superhuman powers to his credit.  He was neither millionaire nor alien, just a onetime cop named Denny Colt widely believed to be dead.  The Spirit was very much an adult character, with a wry sense of humor, an eye for the ladies, and an unswerving devotion to Central City, the gritty urban melting pot he called home.  And Eisner chronicled his adventures with a cinematic sense of style, in illustrations that evoked the stark compositions and unusual spatial perspectives of works like CITIZEN KANE. 

Miller had begun working in comic books when he met Eisner for the first time, at a party in New York City.  “I was writing and drawing one of my first issues of ‘Daredevil’ for Marvel Comics,” he recalls.  “Eisner took a look at the opening page and immediately told me what was wrong with it.  We started arguing about the use of the caption on it, and that began a debate that ran for 25 years about how to make comics and how they work.  We had a very fiery, healthy relationship and a very dear friendship.  I learned a lot from him.” 

Producers Deborah Del Prete and Michael E. Uslan are both lifelong comics enthusiasts.  In 1992, Uslan, who helped usher in the modern era of adult-themed comic movies when he produced Tim Burton’s BATMAN (1989), acquired the rights to THE SPIRIT from Eisner.  In making the deal with Eisner, Uslan recalls that he made a simple, sincere promise:  “I swore to Will that nobody would touch THE SPIRIT — not a company, not a person — unless they were willing to respect the property and do it the right way.” 

            Almost a decade later, actor Dan Lauria introduced Uslan to Del Prete and her producing partner Gigi Pritzker. Del Prete was intrigued when she learned of Uslan’s background in comic book properties. “I said to Michael, ‘Look, I’ve always wanted to make a comic book movie,’” Del Prete recalled. “‘We’re independent filmmakers. We can develop things on our own.  I’ve been looking for that kind of movie.’”

Uslan did not see the Odd Lot folks for a long time after.  When he was still frustrated in his “Spirit” quest, he went to meet with Del Prete in 2004, determined to make his “Spirit” pitch.  “We had a lovely conversation and then she said, ‘You finally brought me something! What did you bring me’,” he remembers.  “I said, ‘Deb, I’m bringing you the greatest creative work to ever come out of the comic book industry in the last 70 years.’ She looked at me and said, ‘Don’t tell me you have the rights to ‘The Spirit’ And I looked up into the sky and I said, ‘Mama, I’m home!’ She was the first person who knew about ‘The Spirit!’  It was a magic moment.”

Comments Del Prete, “Comic books are how I learned to tell a story in pictures.  I’ve always wanted to make a comic book movie, but not just any one.  I’ve always thought ‘The Spirit’ was a brilliant creation, and so I was very excited to produce this movie.”

Frank Miller was on Odd Lot’s A-list as a potential writer for a ‘Spirit’ movie.  In many ways, Miller was an inheritor of Eisner’s mantle and Del Prete and Pritzker were determined to seek him out.  When Eisner died in January 2005 at the age of 87, they asked Uslan, who would be attending the memorial in New York City along with Miller, to approach him about writing and directing THE SPIRIT.  At first, Miller demurred – how could he touch the work of the master, his friend and mentor  Miller walked away, but he soon called back with the words THE SPIRIT production wanted to hear: “I can’t let anyone else touch it.”          

Miller’s commitment added an even greater sense of occasion to THE SPIRIT.  As Del Prete explains it, “You have Will Eisner, literally one of the creators of comics.  Then you have the man who is the absolute leading icon of comics today, Frank Miller – who was Will’s protégé, peer, friend and battle-partner.  That’s a coup.”