Having Faith: Michael Uslan talks "The Spirit" Film

Wed, November 3rd, 2004 at 12:00am PST

TV/Film
Dave Richards, Staff Writer

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In the 1940s Will Eisner introduced the world to his most famous creation, The Spirit. Just like a certain Caped Crusader, The Spirit wore a mask and valiantly protected his city from the criminal element. However, unlike Batman, The Spirit did not have a personal fortune to fund his crusade. The Spirit protected his city armed only his two fists and a desire to make his hometown a better place. Also unlike Batman, there has never been a "Spirit" feature film. Michael Uslan hopes to change that. CBR News recently spoke to Uslan, the man in charge of bringing The Spirit's adventures from the printed page to the silver screen.

The first "Spirit" story appeared on June 2, 1940. In this story readers meet Denny Colt, a detective, who appears to die before the story ends. Colt survives and realizes he is in a unique position to help his city. He allows the world to believe he is dead, and dons a blue suit, a blue fedora, and a blue mask. He assumes the identity of The Spirit and combats crime using nothing but his wits and fists. "The Spirit" was a way for Eisner to use his unique cinematic style to tell a variety of stories: crime, romance, humor, science fiction, and more. The last regular "Spirit" story by Eisner was published on October 5, 1952. Over the years there were a number of attempts to revive the character including a short lived series by Kitchen Sink Press which featured work by acclaimed creators like Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore.

In 1987 a "Spirit" TV movie was made starring Sam Jones (Flash Gordon) as The Spirit, but despite the character's sixty-four year history there has never been a "Spirit" feature film.

"The Spirit is and has been to me as a comic book fan and historian probably the greatest individual creative work ever to come out of the comic book industry in the last seventy years," Uslan told CBR News. "So, the thought of not only getting the rights to 'The Spirit' from Will and doing a movie, but protecting it and trying desperately not to let anyone get involved in it where they didn't fully understand and appreciate the genius of Will Eisner and what this comic strip is all about, that was a mission in life."

Uslan has held the rights to "The Spirit" for a number of years. A variety of people have been interested in developing "The Spirit," but Uslan held out because he felt these people didn't understand the character and wouldn't be able to present the character in the right way. When Uslan pitched "The Spirit" to Deborah Del Prete of Odd Lot Entertainment, he connected with her on their first meeting. "I went in to pitch to Deborah and I said, 'I have got today, what I consider to be the greatest creative property ever to come out of the comic book industry.' And she looks at me and says, 'Don't tell me. You have the rights to 'The Spirit'.' So I said, 'Oh my God, the first time I have ever found a kindred soul.'"

After that meeting Uslan's financing and team of producers came together. Uslan's team is Del Prete and her partner Gigi Pritzker, Ben Melniker, his partner from their company Batfilm, who was in charge of MGM for almost 30 years, and Steve Mayer who has worked on films like "Highlander" and "Zorro."

Ellen Dolan
Uslan believes that a successful "Spirit" movie must contain three things. "Number one, that sense of humor, that sense of absurdity of his situation that the Spirit has that makes him so unique. Number two, the heart and soul of The Spirit and his attachment to the city and the fact that his mission is to help and protect his neighbors and the city that he loves. Number Three, would be what I have to call The Will Eisner Cinematic style," Uslan said.

There is no official script yet for "The Spirit" film, but Uslan and his team have a shared vision for the film. "We will mix in the origin story absolutely so it's going to be more of an emerging Spirit." The Spirit was a book where anything could happen. Uslan and his staff had to decide what tone they wanted for their film. "We're really going for that noirish effect," said Usland, "but keep in mind one of the reasons I was so attracted to this material is the sense of humor it has and we want to preserve that."

Uslan did not that there will be one big difference between the currently planned "The Spirit" film and those golden age comics from the past. "It's not going to be a period piece set in the 40's What I've gotten from Will is, if he was still writing 'The Spirit,' if he never gave it up, the Spirit adventures would be taking place today. He never meant for it to be trapped in 1940 or 1950. He was writing contemporary work and is extremely comfortable and believes The Spirit could and should exist in a contemporary world."

Ebony
Uslan has given some though to which adversaries might make an appearance. "I think he's got the greatest rogues gallery of femme fatales that has ever existed. Maybe Milton Caniff's 'Terry and the Pirates' could give him a run for his money. We would like to and plan to make use of the femme fatale in the story. Now that doesn't mean within the origin the Octopus (The Spirit's arch enemy) will be eliminated, but what I'm trying to do with 'The Spirit' is make the kind of movie that does not call for two or three villains." The villain will be important to the movie, but Uslan stressed next to the Spirit the second most important character in the film is Central City. Uslan confirmed that Central City police chief Eustace Dolan and his daughter Ellen are both in the film, although the team has not decided if Ebony, the Spirit's occasional African-American sidekick will appear in the film. "Clearly the character can not presented the way he was in the 1940s. It is a different world in which we live in and the question is can the character be changed and adapted and be important and relevant to the story?"

The Spirit's costume should remain relatively unchanged for the film. " I'm a big believer in the mask and the suit. The fedora we will leave for another day to discuss how, if and when that fits in correctly." Without an official script or director in place yet for the film, Usland doesn't want to set too many things in stone without consulting the film director for input, but you can rest assured that the Spirit's creator Will Eisner will be involved throughout production. "We are all huge Will Eisner fans and the guy has been my hero since I was a kid. We're probably going to be annoying the hell out of him with the amount of calls he's going to get. We really would prefer not to make any real creative moves without his input. He is so open minded, progressive and helpful that I think its going to be a wonderful thing."

Uslan believes that articles like this one will be instrumental to finding the cast and crew for his film, "We wanted to announce to the Hollywood creative community that we have the financing and vision and are proceeding with a 'Spirit' movie. And it has done exactly what we hoped it would have done. We have been getting calls and e-mails from top screenwriters, directors and agents representing talent. It's flushed out the Will Eisner and Spirit fans out there."

While The Spirit may be one of the most respected comic creations of all time, he's still not very well known outside of the comics industry. Uslan doesn't think that matters. "I like to believe that when you have a great character and a great story you can appeal to anyone," said Uslan. "Thematically what 'The Spirit' has to say is extremely important. The fact that is he's the guy we've always called the first 'True Blue Lou middle class superhero.' He's a guy who cant afford to ride to work in a fancy 'Spirit Mobile' and who you'll find more often riding the subway than you will in some fancy, schmancy car. I think there are some really important things to say about a common man stepping up to the plate and I think its just a great story."

 
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