Join: August 4th 2004 8:00 pm
The latest version of Comic-Con Magazine
has a pic of The Octopus on its cover and an interview with Miller. The cover and the interview are below.
(hidden for length)
Just about any comic fan worth his or her salt knows who Frank Miller and Will Eisner are. Miller burst on the scene in the early 1980s with an incredible run on Daredevil, turning the book into a top seller. He went on to create Ronin, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, and Batman: Year One for DC Comics and Sin City, Give Me Liberty, Hard Boiled, 300, and other titles published by Dark Horse. He’s won numerous awards, including ones named after that Eisner guy, who created The Spirit and was one of comics’ most legendary creators and guiding forces (see page 14 for more on Will Eisner and his seminal comics hero).
In 2006, Comic-Con helped break the news that Frank Miller had signed on to write and direct the big-screen adaptation of Will Eisner’s The Spirit, at the first major panel heralding the start of production for the film. For comic fans everywhere, it was cause for rejoicing. Miller’s own adaptation of Sin City, directed by Robert Rodriguez and using Frank’s original comics as a storyboard, was a huge hit. And Miller’s 300, directed by Zack Snyder, became the sleeper hit of 2007, boasting a $70 million opening weekend. Miller was poised to take on a new job, that of movie director, and the perfect property for him to tackle turned out to be someone else’s comic book hero.
We talked with Frank Miller on a warm, summer-like day in late March in Culver City at the offices of Odd Lot Entertainment, the company producing the film, which will be released through Lionsgate. Producer Deborah Del Prete could not contain her enthusiasm for the film and for Miller, who, she says, is crafting The Spirit “using the Eisner works he loves.” Miller’s partners in crime, besides Del Prete, include cinematographer Bill Pope (director of photography for the Matrix films and Spider-Man 2 and 3) and visual effects supervisor and second unit director Stu Maschwitz, who both, according to the producer, “get” Miller and Eisner and were fans of their work before the film. The film uses the green screen technique that helped make Sin City and 300 such vivid worlds, but Del Prete revealed that the technology has developed quickly far beyond what those movies were capable of. Miller, for someone directing his first big film, was calm, cool, and collected.
CCM: Even though you did some screenwriting in the early 90s, Sin City and
your collaboration with Robert Rodriguez definitely put you solidly into filmmaking.
Was this always an ambition for you?
FM: No, not really. I had wanted since a kid to do comic books. It’s always been my first love, but when Hollywood came knocking with Robocop 2, I thought it would be a really interesting job. The way things worked out I really felt that screenwriting wasn’t for me. So I went back to comics, back where I had more control and where I could do more my kind of stuff which I thought was generally aimed at an audience I assumed that was smaller. It wasn’t until Robert Rodriguez courted me into doing Sin City with him that my stuff got tested as my stuff with my sensibility, with my point of view, and it turns out the audience is much larger than I expected. So since then, there’s been 300 and now I’ve got the solo gig on The Spirit.
CCM: What’s the difference for you between doing comics and doing films? When you boil it down to its essentials and you take away the crew and the lights and the actors, you’re basically telling a story with words and pictures in a rectangle.
FM: Yep. And the big difference is the number of players involved. Cartooning is a wonderful exercise in solitude. I mean solitude as opposed to loneliness. It’s a wonderful place to go, the cartoon, and you’re by yourself. You get to dig very deep. A movie set is more like the battered bridge of a warship where you have to make decisions very fast, where people are around constantly and where you’re depending entirely upon other people’s talents to follow your course, especially the cast. But everybody from grips to certainly the cinematographer is bringing so much talent to the table that it’s a matter of giving everybody interesting problems to solve and all pushing toward the same direction.
CCM: When and where did you first discover Will Eisner and The Spirit?
FM: Well, I first discovered Will Eisner’s Spirit through the Warren editions that were published in the early ’70s. I was a teenager in Vermont at the time. And when I came across them, I thought he was a brand-new cartoonist who hadn’t been seen before. His stuff was so far advanced from what was coming out at the time. I thought he must be the new kid in town. And then I started noticing originally it appeared in 1942 in the corner and realized that I was studying the work of an established master. I didn’t meet the man himself until I was working professionally. We were at a party at Neal Adams’ Continuity Studios and Jim Shooter introduced us. And I was like Shooter’s new pride and joy, as far as I had just taken over Daredevil and was just beginning to write and draw it. Jim opened an issue of Daredevil to the first page to show what a good storyteller he thought I was. Eisner immediately told me I had used the panel wrong and we started an argument that went on for 25 years.
CCM: You had a long friendship with Eisner and it pretty much culminated in the book Eisner/Miller, which contained a weekendlong dialogue between the two of you in which you categorized it as “the climax of your decades-long debate.” What are some of your personal memories of Will?
FM: I think what I’ve most been impressed about by Will was what would come up when he would, in private, tell stories of comics history that weren’t for public consumption.
He would describe something that by any standards was shocking, but he had that World War II sense of humor about it. He had impatience with anyone who ever felt sorry for himself. He never let himself feel sorry for himself. If you ever felt sorry for yourself around him, he’d ridicule you for it.
CCM: He was that rare breed that was both an artist and a businessman, which you usually don’t find in the comics world. He was able to maintain the ownership of The Spirit and brought it back 15 years after it ended, and it basically has been in continuous publication for almost the past 40 years.
FM: Yeah, he’s really an astonishing combination of the two. He did have one parent who was a businessman and one parent who was an artist and I forget which one’s which. And his instincts were as strong in either discipline.
CCM: Both you and Eisner have reputations for gritty, urban settings, and Eisner’s stories were definite products of their time. Your Sin City is set in more of a timeless era. Is The Spirit movie set in a specific time?
FM: It is not, and neither by the way is The Spirit comic. It looks like the 1940s because that’s what was around him, but Eisner never considered it to be a period piece. And one of the many connections between Eisner and me is our deep love of New York City, and New York City is impossible to trap in time. It’s so much of a Pompeii. It’s constantly rebuilding itself, but keeping its old personality at the same time. So as a cartoonist you want to write stories that are fun to draw. And as a director, you want to work on a story that’s got really good-looking stuff. Eisner clearly felt the same way. In writing and then shooting The Spirit, I filled it like I did Sin City with vintage cars and beautiful women. And the movie really is in many ways a love letter to New York City.
CCM: Is there a specific pallet to this film like there was for Sin City?
FM: There is. It is in full color, but it’s less a naturalistic use of color than a psychological one, a dramatic use of color. I think color is a very powerful dramatic weapon, but too often when I watch a movie, I feel like I’m seeing the entire spectrum in every frame and my eyes start bouncing off it. So you’ll see things getting red behind people when they get angry.
CCM: What’s it like bringing the work of another comic creator to life, and how does the process differ from bringing your own work to film?
FM: You know, in a way I think that it was providential that I would, for my first directing job, have someone else’s work. Someone who I love dearly and whose work I would defend to the death because I don’t know if I would have defended my own work as fiercely. I might have been more open to negotiation over the point of view. But this is, I believe, really true to the intent of Eisner’s Spirit. It’s not a slavish monument built to the comic strip. The old guy would come out of the grave and kill me like that. It’s what I believe that young Eisner might just have done with the brand new toys of today. Using the mythology that goes back to Zorro and The Shadow before to make an urban legend.
CCM: As a comic book writer and artist you get to cast all your own characters and decide what they look and sound like Has the acting process surprised you when
it comes to actors speaking your words differently than they might sound in your head?
FM: That’s a good question, because working with actors has been the most fascinating and difficult and rewarding part of the whole job. What my actors have created in the movies I’ve worked on has been their creation. I’m there to prod, to put them in context, to let them understand the situation they’re in, because we frequently shoot out of sequence. So I have to be the nag to remind them what they’re thinking about and what happened ten minutes ago when, in fact, it hasn’t happened and you know it won’t happen for three more weeks. But at the heart of it, it is the actor’s job to create the performance. The director can be a helpful agent toward keeping the whole works together and toward picking the take where the actor really nailed the moment that is best for the story, because the story is everything.
CCM: Let’s talk about the casting and what each actor brings to his or her role. Let’s start with the femme fatales that Eisner was famous for and that you’re bringing together for the film. Eva Mendes as Sand Saref.
FM: Eva Mendes was an absolute wonder to work with. She turned out to be a perfect choice because she was as unpredictable as Eisner’s creation and as beautiful. And one thing I learned from Eva is that much of what acting consists of is silence, and actors can be at their most powerful when they’re giving the very least. With Eva, sometimes it felt like I had to be a chemist dealing with a very volatile set of fluids in front of me that I wanted to avoid. But at the same time, it had to be the fire behind her eyes.
CCM: Paz Vega as Plaster of Paris.
FM: I had written her in the movie as a fever dream of a character and it’s almost a psychedelic sequence when she appears, and up shows this magnificent woman and plays the part; she played the part to perfection. She was a dream to work with. Her part of the movie is small, but it might just be a piece of cinematic perfection. I know you won’t be able to take your eyes off it.
CCM: Jaime King as Lorelei.
FM: Jaime King and I go back to Sin City and she’s a good friend and I was very, very glad that she took the part of Lorelei because I couldn’t imagine anyone better to play an angel of any kind, including the Angel of Death. And in one day of the shoot, we got a week’s worth of work out of her. She really is magnificent and captivating, and in playing she completely unearthed the character of Lorelei. Again you won’t be able to take your eyes off her.
CCM: Scarlett Johansson as Silken Floss.
FM: When I first met Scarlett Johansson, I sat down, we had three hours together for lunch and I thoroughly enjoyed the conversation with this fascinating, frighteningly intelligent woman with one of the most disturbing senses of humor I’d ever seen. And I kind of walked away from the table going, “Well, why haven’t people been writing that for her,” because she’s generally . . . I mean yes, she’s beautiful, she’s very beautiful, but there’s so much else there. So I went home and I rewrote the Silken Floss part with Scarlett in mind, not knowing whether she’d take it or not. But I thought that Eisner’s character could easily afford to have had a misspent youth and to meet her when she’s in her early twenties and she later becomes the icy astrophysicist of the comics. But this is her wild time. So we see a very young Silken Floss. Scarlett’s comic timing and execution is . . . I can compare it only to a young Lucille Ball’s. It’s absolutely wonderful. I think that we’ve just begun to see what kind of arsenal she’s bringing to the game.
CCM: The Spirit’s love interest is definitely not a femme fatale, but more a product of Eisner’s time. How does Ellen Dolan, played by Sarah Paulson, differ in the film?
FM: Well, Ellen Dolan was a real journey for me, because I’m known for writing very tough, dangerous women. And Eisner certainly was known for the same. And this story certainly needed Ellen in it because The Spirit kept quite a wandering eye and it’s got to be wandering from somewhere. There has to be a center, there has to be an anchor in his life. He is a bit of a rascal. The problem was that Eisner’s character (of Ellen) was unfortunate in just how much a part of its time it was, and here I got a bit—a lot—bolder because I felt that since she was his anchor, she should also have a professional role related to that. I made her a surgeon. So after The Spirit continuously gets shot and stabbed and beaten, there’s someone there who puts him back together. Originally, she turned into quite the femme fatale in my hands because I tend to go that way with women characters—you know, hurling scalpels across the rooms and so on. But between Deborah Del Prete, the producer, and Sarah Paulson, the actress, she started having a voice of her own. And one night when I wrote what was supposed to be an expository scene, she started talking to her father and speaking of her deep devotion to The Spirit and how it was a commitment that was unshakable and unquestionably feminine. And I realized that’s a character who actually really talked to me and that she didn’t need to run off and kill a lot of people to prove that she was powerful. Sarah proved that.
CCM: Mainly seen only with his signature gloves in the comics, The Octopus is The Spirit’s nemesis. Obviously with Samuel L. Jackson playing him, we’re going to be seeing a lot more of him in the film, right?
FM: Yeah. When I first met Sam Jackson, I told him that I was sitting across the table from an atom bomb and that I needed it to only go off twice in my movie and I needed for him to keep the radioactivity down until his eruptions. With The Octopus, I felt that, yeah, we had a pair of gloves in the sense of a nemesis that was kept deliberately out of sight and undefined by Eisner. The only way to take the work of a short story writer and to adapt it to the long-form of a screenplay was to flesh out his nemesis because, you know, at first I felt that Eisner was of the school of Raymond Chandler another favorite novelist of mine. I realized he really owed a lot more to O. Henry, and his short story sensibility needed some healthy expansion. So with Sam, I had the perfect nemesis for The Spirit. And what I hope to do is the kind of villain that I’ve always wished they’d do in the Batman movies. Sure he’s very strange and eccentric, but I think he’s going to scare the crap out of you.
CCM: Last but not least, Gabriel Macht as The Spirit. Any actor playing the role is going to have to have equal measures of danger, humor, and sex appeal to bring Denny Colt to life. What convinced you that he was the guy for the role?
FM: We auditioned a lot of people for The Spirit. One of my preconditions coming onto the project was that we find someone who was not well known to play the part. I didn’t want it to be a vehicle for someone who was familiar. My model, in a way, was Chris Reeve’s Superman, meaning some actor I’d never seen before who I got to meet as Superman. I want the audience to meet The Spirit as The Spirit. Gabriel stood out because, first and foremost, Hollywood produces a great many, very good male actors, but very, very few who are able to portray men as men. He’s a terrifically trained actor, and he and I sat down in his trailer the first day he was on the set and we made a pact, really, because I said that either we’re going to be partners or we’re in for three long months because Gabriel’s job was the most important job there. He was the captain of the cast, and in my office I had a quote from Raymond Chandler hanging over my desk, which said, “He is the hero. He is everything.” This sort of story is really a piece of architecture where everything’s built to portray the hero. And at the center of it has to be one hell of a performance, and I really think I got it out of Gabriel.
CCM: You shot The Spirit utilizing the same green-screen technology that was used in Sin City and 300. Are the backgrounds you’re laying in going to have the peculiar Eisner cityscape feel to them and also some of your Sin City?
FM: The backgrounds in The Spirit that Stu Maschwitz is working on are, I think, gloriously real. They’re emotionally true to the movie. Any Eisner fan will recognize certain references to his work that are planted in there. You know, as I told him from the start, we’ll do the most magnificent sewer grate anybody has ever seen. And we do offer water tanks galore. But it’s a mythic city, and it’s created for film so it is its own creation using the best talents available.
CCM: As we speak, you’re pretty deep into post production on the film. What’s been the biggest surprise for you up to this point?
FM: How hard editing is. It’s very hard. It’s part art, part science. The other thing is I didn’t realize the collaboration with the actors really never ends. I’m still working with Eva Mendes when I go through take after take looking for that one that I remembered of seeing the surprise of what it actually looks like on the screen right next to another shot that it wasn’t next to before.
CCM: Did the actors come in knowing what The Spirit was and where it came from?
FM: No, they didn’t all know who The Spirit was. A lot of them did. Gabe papered his entire trailer with pages from The Spirit. But we all got to know who The Spirit was in the course of this, because making something into a movie it becomes something else. I think that Will would be happy that we made some of the decisions we did and made The Spirit more a man of this time, a more haunted figure, surely, but still the working man’s hero. The guy who really has to work hard at his job.
CCM: Did you storyboard The Spirit and will that art be published in conjunction with the film?
FM: Yes, I’m planning on a book that should be called The Spirit Storyboards because I did hundreds and hundreds of drawings for virtually every scene. And for at least the first half of the shoot, I would shoot the full day and then work the night drawing. About halfway through, I was ahead of the game so I was able to start sleeping.
CCM: Finally, what has been the coolest thing about making The Spirit for you?
FM: That word got used a lot on the set. I think it might just be seeing The Spirit flip through the air like a little boy and slide up the roof of one side of a water tower, stumble and then slide down the other side like a kid playing in the snow. I think that’s a very Eisner-esque moment. The fact that we got a take with a stumble in it made it The Spirit.