On Saturday at New York Comic-Con 2008, writer/director Frank Miller, star Eva Mendes and producers Deborah Del Prete and Michael Uslan were on hand to talk about the upcoming big screen adaptation of Will Eisner’s “The Spirit,” and CBR News was there.
MTV’s Kurt Loder moderated the “Spirit” panel, and touted Will Eisner as one of the pioneers who invented modern comics as we know them. Frank Miller himself was influenced by Eisner.
Loder asked Miller how he was able to distill 12 years of “Spirit” stories into one movie. Miller said it wasn’t a matter of distillation but one of discovery. “I started out trying to apply a novelist’s rules to the project, but found it didn’t apply at all,” Miller said. Instead, Miller started by cherry picking the elements that he thought had to be in a “Spirit” movie. Miller said working with Prete on the script was an “amazing collaboration,” and that she was both a great storyteller and had a great deal of discipline. “She was there for every show, a bulwark against the forces of darkness.”
Mendes seconded Miller’s sentiment. “She is the badass of badass female producers,” Mendes said. “We couldn’t have done it without Deborah.”
Loder asked Miller how he arrived at the look for the film. “I threw out everything Eisner did,” Miller joked. In all seriousness, “I knew if I erected a rusty monument to ‘The Spirit,’ [Eisner] would rise from the dead and strangle me.” Miller was determined that the “Spirit” movie would be as bold as the source material was when it was first published in the ‘30s. The visual look of the “Spirit” film is the natural extension of the look pioneered in the “Sin City” film, which Miller thinks lends itself to Eisner’s story. “For purists, it may be a bit of shock,” Miller admitted.
Miller, who is still new to directing, said he never would’ve guessed that working with actors would be his favorite part of the process. “This cast blew my mind,” Miller said. “I’m certain to direct more films in the future.”
Uslan, whose personal comic book collection numbers more than 60,000, first started talking to Will Eisner about the “Spirit” movie 14 years ago. Uslan touted Eisner and Miller as “two geniuses of graphic arts,” and said that Miller was the perfect person to bring “The Spirit” to the big screen.
Mendes admitted to being trepidations about working with the burgeoning director. “Is he gonna be weird?” Mendes had mused. “He was very weird,” Mendes confirmed, “But we love that. He is such a visionary.”
Mendes loved the look of “Sin City,” and was thrilled that Miller would be bringing that sensibility to “The Spirit.” And after meeting Frank Miller, it didn’t take her long to realize that the writer/director was contributing as much substance as he was style. “He is an amazing actor’s director,” Medes said. “He was referencing movies I didn’t know.” To sum up the experience, Mendes said: “I mean, he’s Frank Miller, right?”
In her conversations with Eisner about the movie adaptation, Prete said what mattered most to the creator was that the Spirit never use a gun. “I knew Frank would do what Will would have wanted,” Prete said. She also attributed due credit to the film’s “world-class cinematographer” Bill Pope and “visual effects genius” Stu Maschwitz.
Loder asked Miller if he thought shooting on green screen, as he’s done for both “Sin City” and “The Spirit,” was the ideal method for translating graphic fiction from the page to the screen. “It’s no accident that Robert Rodriguez convinced me to take my baby ‘Sin City’ to film,” Miller said. “The technology and the talent at work has increased exponentially. I’m lucky to be working with Stu, because he understands what CGI is best at.
Miller cited one scene in which the Spirit moves across the top of a water tank, but stumbles just a bit in his attempt. “That’s for you, Will,” Miller said. “That’s the Spirit.”
Miller’s decision to cast a relative unknown in the titular role was a calculated one: he wanted audiences to know him as the Spirit first. Miller was tremendously impressed with star Gabriel Macht’s ability to carry a scene with Scarlett Jonhansson and Sauel L. Jackson. “Hollywood produces a great many terrific male actors, but Hollywood produces very few men,” Miller said. “Gabriel was able to fill the trenchcoat just fine.”
Loder said that the “Spirit” comics were populated with a plethora of hot babes, and asked Mendes if was the roll she played in the film. “Hell no,” the actress replied. “I play a jewel thief, a badass chick who’s been married 15 times and killed every one of her husbands. Does that sound like just a chick? I’ll kill you right now.”
Miller said that Will Eisner did two things which allowed them to make this movie. First off, “The Spirit” was not written for children. “The Spirit’s motives are the motives of a mature man,” Miller said. “Second, he miraculously insisted on owning it,” which Miller said allowed them to make a movie that was “not homogenized.”
When asked if the movie had all of the humor, action and romance of Eisner’s comics, Uslan confirmed, “All of those elements are there.” Uslan said the movie was a marriage of Eisner’s sensibilities and Miller’s distinctive dialogue. “We saw in ‘Sin City’ what this technology was capable of. Frank brought the work of the artist to the film.” And the veteran artist was constantly drawing on set.
Then Loder opened the panel up to questions. One fan asked if Mendes was a comics fan. “Uh, yeah,” the actress said, matter-of-factly.
When asked if the process of making films like “Sin City” or “The Spirit” was anything like drawing, Miller proceeded to recount the story of his first meeting with Robert Rodriguez. At a salon in Hell’s Kitchen. It was after seeing Rodriguez’s early samples for “Sin City” that Miller realized the disciplines of drawing and filmmaking were merging. The writer/director took what he learned from the “Sin City” experience and applied it to “The Spirit.”
Then Miller introduced the first ever teaser trailer of “The Spirit,” which depicted Will Eisner’s iconic hero leaping from rooftop in Central City, his red tie fluttering in the wind against the otherwise black and white landscape.
After a slew of lovestruck fans tried everything up to and including asking Mendes for her phone number, Mendes was asked how her experience on “The Spirit” differed from that of her first comic book movie, the much maligned big screen adaptation of Marvel’s “Ghost Rider.” “I love ‘Ghost Rider,’ I know you guys are going to give me hell about it,” Mendes began. “But ‘The Spirit’ was completely different.” Mendes then gestured to Miller and said, “I just trust this brilliant mind that it’s going to be fucking fabulous.”
One fan asked Miller about the future of the “Sin City” film franchise. “I’ve written part 2 of what I see as a trilogy,” Miller said. “That said, I’m allergic to discussing production plans. I don’t believe a movie is real until the censored version comes out on CBS.” But Miller confirmed that the script for the second installment of “Sin City” was completely finished, and that the story for the third was currently germinating in his head.
A fan asked Miller if he was a fan of any current comic book artists. Miller cited Jeff Smith, Jim Lee, David Mazzucchelli and James Kochalka. “Kochalka’s work makes me feel like I did when I was 6 years old,” Miller said. “He brings the joy back to comics.”
When asked if the “goddamned Frank Miller” �" a reference to the now classic quote from “All Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder �" was working on any new comic projects, Miller said he’s sitting on 122 pages of this next graphic novel, which he hopes to finish up over the coming months.
And would the “Daredevil” veteran ever consider revitalizing the man without fear’s film franchise? “They’ve got my phone number,” Miller said.
One fan asked Miller about the casting of Samuel L. Jackson as the Octopus. “Sam Jackson was my first and only choice for the Octopus,” Miller said. In Eisner’s “Spirit” comics, our glimpses at the Octopus were limited to shots of the character’s distinctive white gloves, but Miller thought that would be tedious in a movie, so Jackson fans can expect to see more than just the actor’s hands. “Working with him was like working with a nuclear weapon,” Miller said. “I told him to only go off twice in the movie.”
A fan asked Miller if he thought other comics creators would follow his example and take a larger hand in translating their work to the big screen. “Slowly, steadily, the inmates are taking over the asylum,” Miller said in response. Prete added the caveat that not all comics creators were likely to be as adept at directing films as Miller turned out to be.
Loder asked the filmmakers how much was left to do before the film was ready for release. Prete said that out of the film’s 1,784 special effects shot, only about 20 had been completed. On a film shot entirely on green screen, “the post process is big,” Prete said. “We have a long ways to go.” That said, “The Spirit” is current slated for release in January of 2009.