Frank Miller, the visionary creator of SIN CITY and 300, takes the comic book movie to dazzling new heights 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.
THE SPIRIT is the story of Denny Colt, a murdered cop who is mysteriously reborn as the masked crime fighter called the Spirit. Determined to keep his beloved Central City safe, the Spirit pursues Central City’s villains from the shadows and seeks to remove to the worst of them all: the psychotic megalomaniac known as the Octopus. Yet as busy as his ongoing mission keeps him, the dashing crusader always manages to make time for beautiful women, though he never quite knows if they want to seduce, love or kill him. But there is one lady who will never betray him, and to whom he will always be true: Central City, the proud old metropolis where he was born – twice.
In bringing this comic book classic to the screen, Miller has recruited a dynamic cast of major stars and up-and-comers. As the titular hero, Gabriel Macht turns in a star-making performance that harkens back to the golden era of Hollywood leading men. He is joined by Samuel L. Jackson as the fiendish Octopus; Scarlett Johansson as the Octopus’ sidekick, the brilliant, frosty Silken Floss; Eva Mendes as seductive jewel thief Sand Saref; Sarah Paulson as the Spirit’s stalwart sweetheart, Dr. Ellen Dolan; Jaime King as Lorelei, a bewitching underwater phantom; Paz Vega as the mad, knife-wielding dancer Plaster of Paris; Dan Lauria as the hard-boiled Commissioner Dolan; Stana Katic as Morgenstern, an enthusiastic young cop; and Louis Lombardi in multiple roles as the Octopus’ cloned brotherhood of henchmen. The film’s behind-the-scenes artisans include acclaimed director of photography Bill Pope, ASC (SPIDERMAN 2 and 3, the MATRIX trilogy, BOUND) and senior visual effects supervisor Stu Maschwitz (FANTASTIC FOUR: RISE OF THE SILVER SURFER, SIN CITY).
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.
Lionsgate and Odd Lot Entertainment present an Old Lot Entertainment/Lionsgate production of THE SPIRIT. Written for the screen and directed by Frank Miller. Based on the comic book series “The Spirit” created by Will Eisner. Produced by Deborah Del Prete, Gigi Pritzker and Michael E. Uslan. Director of Photography Bill Pope, ASC. Art Director Rosario Provenza. Editor Gregory Nussbaum. Costume designer Michael Dennison. Senior Visual Effects Supervisor Stu Maschwitz. Original music by David Newman. Executive produced by Benjamin Melniker, Steven Maier, William Lischak, Michael Paseornek and Michael Burns. Co-Producers Linda McDonough and F.J. DeSanto. Co-Executive Producer Jeff Andrick. Line Producer Alton Walpole. Casting by Tricia Wood, C.S.A., Jennifer Smith, C.S.A., and Deborah Aquila, C.S.A. Starring Gabriel Macht, Eva Mendes, Sarah Paulson, Dan Lauria, Paz Vega, Jaime King, with Scarlett Johansson and Samuel L. Jackson as "The Octopus."
ABOUT THE PRODUCTION
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.”
KEEPING TRUE TO “THE SPIRIT”
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.”
ABOUT THE SCREENPLAY
Miller surrounded himself with panels of Eisner’s artwork as he set to work on the script. “I originally thought in terms of a novelist, a Raymond Chandler, and I was going to do that kind of narrative,” says the writer/director. “But I discovered that Chandler was the completely wrong reference, that Eisner was much more of an O. Henry. He told a series of little short stories, many of which were quite beautiful. I decided to pick my favorite, a two-parter about Sand Saref, and expand from that.”
Sexy international jewel thief Sand Saref is one of the many lovely ladies Eisner created in “The Spirit.” Among the other seductresses and sweethearts who found their way into Miller’s narrative are Ellen Dolan, daughter of Central City’s police commissioner, the exotic chanteuse Plaster of Paris, the icy genius Silken Floss and the underwater angel of death Lorelei. “What I wanted to capture in THE SPIRIT was implicit in Eisner’s work,” explains Miller. “The Spirit himself was a bit of a cad. While he had Ellen Dolan as his sweetheart, he had such an eye for the ladies. But the true love of his life is Central City, and she’s always there to be his real soul-mate.”
The Spirit puts himself on the line for his city, and Eisner often subjected his hero to all manner of physical injuries at the hands of his foes. The Spirit’s ability to take a punch – and then some – became a central theme of Miller’s plot. “The Spirit knows that he is a cop who was shot dead and mysteriously came back to life and he has no idea how,” Miller states. “He’s not a superhero. He can’t fly, he can’t throw cars around. But he has this one extraordinary quality: he can take ridiculous amounts of punishment, and heal faster than anybody. So in the midst of this romantic adventure, he’s on an existential journey to find out what he really is.”
The answer to that question, Miller decided, lay with the Octopus, one of Eisner’s iconic villains. In the original series, the Octopus was represented solely by a pair of white gloves. Miller decided to show the character in his entirety, reinventing him as a resentful Central City coroner who finances his twisted genetic experiments through a lucrative drug trade. In grand comic book style, the Octopus is the Spirit’s polar opposite. “As the Spirit brings order to the world, the Octopus brings chaos. As the Spirit seeks to help people, the Octopus seeks to enslave them,” Miller affirms, adding, “He’s also categorically nuts.”
Eisner always wrote his hero to be contemporary, and Miller followed that example in writing THE SPIRIT. However, Miller added his own twist to the notion of “contemporary,” fashioning a story that mixes design elements from several different eras. Thus, THE SPIRIT unfolds against a landscape where women are dressed to the nines, men wear suits and hats, and taxicabs are elegant sedans from the 50s. It’s also a world of cell phones, flak jackets and cloning. The film’s adventures have a level of grittiness and violence that says 21st Century, rather than 1940s. Meanwhile, the irreverent humor that was an intrinsic part of Eisner’s universe is fully accounted for, and seasoned with Miller’s characteristic mordancy.
Producer Del Prete was a key collaborator during the months Miller spent shaping and refining the screenplay. “The tone of the script is what I think the tone of the comics was. It’s an adventure, it’s a romance, but there’s a lot of humor in it as well,” she says. “We were always very careful to respect the elements of ‘The Spirit’ that are Eisner traditions. That said, he is Frank Miller and he brings his own specific point of view.”
Pritzker, a newcomer to the world of comic books, served as a proxy for the general moviegoer with no prior knowledge of “The Spirit,” Will Eisner or Frank Miller. “It was important that THE SPIRIT be accessible to people who weren’t necessarily insiders to the comic book world,” Pritzker states. “And I think it is. It’s got great inside jokes for those who are really familiar -- but for those of us who aren’t, it’s a fantastic story, and very funny.”
CAST AND CHARACTERS
While many comic book movies feature a major star in the hero’s role, the makers of THE SPIRIT felt a different approach was warranted and sought a lesser-known actor. As Del Prete puts it, “We wanted the Spirit to be simply the Spirit to the public.”
Gabriel Macht’s deep, rumbling voice and wry, understated delivery immediately caught the filmmakers’ attention when he came in to read. “Hollywood has tons of brilliant male actors, but Gabriel brought forth a Chandler-esque humor and a physical presence, a manliness, that’s largely absent on screen today,” comments Miller. “He makes a great Spirit in the film noir tradition.”
As he took on the challenge of the Spirit, Macht immersed himself in Eisner’s drawings. Explains the actor, “By studying Eisner’s comics I was able to absorb his physicality, the way he moves his head, the way he looks at someone, the way he wears his hat or moves his shoulders – some of the things that really defined the Spirit to me.” He appreciated the Spirit’s human imperfections. “The Spirit can do things that other cops can’t do and his physical strength is quite amazing. On the flip side, he’s a clumsy guy and the way that Eisner drew him, he’s tripping over stuff all the time. That’s part of what makes him charming.”
The prospect of working with Miller attracted an impressive roster of actors, including Samuel L. Jackson, who portrays the Spirit’s arch-enemy the Octopus. As soon as Miller decided to change the Octopus from a pair of gloves to a flesh-and-blood antagonist, his thoughts turned to the celebrated star. “I had to look for the best conceivable villain around, and there was Sam. He was my first and only choice for the part.”
Jackson, an ardent comic book fan, needed no convincing. “I’ve been a Frank Miller geek for a very long time, from ‘The Dark Knight’ and the ‘Sin City’ series through ‘300,’ and everything else,” Jackson declares. “The fact that Frank wanted me to be the Octopus is a source of pride for me.”
With Jackson on board, the Octopus took on nearly operatic dimensions as a villain who revels in his role and enthusiastically dresses the part. He’s a character who inspires laughs as well as chills, making him a perfect fit for THE SPIRIT universe. As Jackson notes, “Will Eisner had a great sense of humor, and this film had to maintain that element of comedy. So, the Octopus is a bit theatrical; he puts on costumes and changes guises according to his whim. He is a very smart individual -- or, as he refers to himself, a criminal mastermind.”
Changing costumes in tandem with the Octopus is his cold-hearted aide-de-camp and protégée Silken Floss, portrayed by Scarlett Johansson. Miller re-wrote the character as a younger version of Eisner’s original, after meeting with Johansson to discuss an entirely different role. “I walked away thinking, ‘She’s wrong for that part, she’s too young. But I’ve got to write something for her.’ I was so impressed by the woman and how smart she was, how funny and acerbic,” he says. “Eisner’s character was a sexually repressed astrophysicist who was very proper and very much in love with the Spirit. I decided to do a counterpoint and give Silken a misspent youth.”
Johansson was delighted by her unflappable character, who she describes as “very, very smart and easily bored. Silken’s there for the ride, helping this crazy guy with his drug trade and wearing cool clothes. None of it is real for her. Part of that is probably because she’s dipping into her drug supply all the time. It’s a strange phase in her life and who knows what will happen next?”
Eva Mendes was cast as the pivotal character of Sand Saref, the only woman capable of breaking the Spirit’s heart. Miller found in Mendes an actress “as haunting and as gorgeous as the original brush illustrations.”
Sand has married well and often; she is breathtakingly sexy and seemingly cold as ice. But beneath the tough demeanor is a wounded soul haunted by losing her father at an early age. “Sand Saref is really just a broken little girl,” comments Mendes. “She’s decided the only things she can count on are really expensive jewels. She loves shiny things, as she calls them.”
The Spirit also has a complex relationship with Ellen Dolan, the daughter of Central City’s police commissioner and the onetime fiancée of Denny Colt. “Ellen’s very sharp,” says Miller. “In a bit of a digression from the comic, I made her a surgeon – the woman who literally puts Spirit back together physically.”
Ellen is portrayed by Sarah Paulson, the gifted actress who won acclaim for her role in Aaron Sorkin’s “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.” The actress found a vein of melancholy in her driven, self-possessed character. “I think Ellen tries to distract herself from the sadness she has over losing the fiancé she loved so much,” she comments. “Like her father, she buries herself in her work. And she becomes obsessed with tending to and taking care of the Spirit, making sure that he is well and healed.”
Miller tailored the role of Lorelei for Jaime King, who portrayed Goldie in SIN CITY. The actress was thrilled to be reunited with the writer/director, who has become a close friend. “Frank is so highly creative, and this script was unlike anything I've ever read before,” comments King. “It was a sexy film noir, but also all these other things – romantic, sinister, fun and edgy. And I was very excited to play this mystery woman, who is really an angel of death beckoning to the Spirit throughout the entire film.”
The role of Plaster of Paris went to award-winning Spanish actress Paz Vega, who made her American debut in SPANGLISH and is known for her sensual turns in films such as SEX AND LUCIA. “Plaster of Paris is one of Eisner's strangest creations,” Miller allows. “As played by Paz Vega, she is a very sexy fever dream of a woman. But definitely a very dangerous one.”
Vega was more than happy to cross the Atlantic to perform her relatively brief role. “I love comics, and to work with Frank Miller was a dream come true,” she enthuses. Vega acknowledges that the Spirit has plenty to fear from Paris, particularly in light of their prior history. “I think they had a very torrid relationship and that she’s still in love with him. Paris is a very strange woman, and you never know what to expect from her.”
Miller invented the character of Morgenstern, the rookie cop who is dazzled by the Spirit but also eager to prove herself. Stana Katic, a rising star who is featured in QUANTUM OF SOLACE, was cast as the young police officer, whose coltish earnestness stands in contrast to the film’s more overtly seductive females. “She’s the only women in the piece who is not really aware of herself as a woman,” Katic comments. “As a law enforcement person, Morgenstern admires the Spirit. Once she meets him -- well, he’s just the cat’s meow and she develops this fantastic crush.”
Adding a bracing dose of noir-esque gruffness is Dan Lauria as Commissioner Dolan, an old-fashioned cop who is the only person who knows that the Spirit is Denny Colt. Lauria’s first reading was all it took to convince Miller he was right for the role. “Dolan is the father that Denny Colt never had, and he has an ongoing, contentious relationship with the Spirit. As Dolan, Dan exudes authority, weariness and concern. In some ways, he’s my favorite character because he’s my encapsulation of Will Eisner himself in a bad mood.”
A film buff with a home library of some 4,000 titles, Lauria relished the chance to emulate the staccato delivery of the 40s movies he loves. “The actors in those films, particularly in film noir, speak at a very rapid pace. Frank’s dialogue really lends itself to that. So I would just fly through my dialogue, which gave it an edge that I love.”
Finally, there is the cloned brotherhood of cheerful henchmen created by the Octopus, who freely dispatches them whenever they fail to meet his expectations – which, given their lack of intelligence, is often. Miller initially imagined the thugs as identical siblings named Logos, Pathos, and Ethos. “The idea started growing on me,” remembers the writer/director. “I thought, ‘Why stop at triplets when you’ve got this guy who’s a genetic master? Why don’t you just have him make a lot of them?’”
To play the multiple maniacs – collective known as Phobos -- Miller and Del Prete sought out Louis Lombardi, best known as the cranky Edgar on “24.” As the actor recalls, “Frank and Deborah told me they had a great role for me: ‘It’s a guy who gets killed 50 times.’ I was, like, ‘Really?’ Frank told me all the ways I was going to be killed and I thought, ‘Wow. This is gonna be exciting!’ And when Frank explained to me how he was going to shoot the movie, I couldn’t wait to get to the set and start working.”
STAGES AND SCREENS
The filmmakers’ plan for THE SPIRIT was indeed ambitious: it called for shooting the entire production using green screen technology and state-of-the art CGI programs to create a hybrid of motion picture and comic book. Miller had first been exposed to advanced digital filming techniques when he co-directed SIN CITY with Robert Rodriguez. “What’s happened with computer technology and with CGI is timed perfectly for someone with my set of skills,” he acknowledges. “I tell stories with pictures. What I love about CGI in film is if I can think it, it can be there. And as much this technology speaks to the future, it also can bring back some values of the past. Not just the comic book values of the strange-looking city and the loud lighting, but also the values of classic noir. I wanted THE SPIRIT to have the starker, scarier look of those old movies.”
Del Prete carefully selected the top-flight crew that would help Miller realize his vision for THE SPIRIT. Says the producer, “We set out to find people who were very much simpatico with the concepts of the comics Frank had written. We wanted people who knew of Eisner and ‘The Spirit.’ So Frank was surrounded by talented people who really were excited about working with him on this film. Every single team member was somebody who was very special.”
That certainly describes Miller’s key technical collaborators: the renowned director of photography Bill Pope, whose credits include SPIDERMAN 2 and 3, THE MATRIX trilogy and BOUND; and senior visual effects supervisor Stu Maschwitz, the founder of the innovative visual effects house the Orphanage, whose stunning work includes IRON MAN, NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM, SUPERMAN RETURNS and HARRY POTTER AND THE GOBLET OF FIRE.
Pope jumped at the chance to join Miller for his first solo directorial outing. As he explains, “Frank Miller calls you up and says, ‘You want to do a movie?’ Here’s a man who’s a master in another visual medium. You want to see what he does. What do you do if Julian Schnabel calls you up? You say yes.”
Maschwitz also served as the film’s second unit director, and began advising Miller on the film’s visual effects in pre-production. “Frank is abuzz with the energy that you feel in his artwork,” he states. “He’s got a profound vision and it’s amazing to see him work to bring these characters to life that he defines on the page with just a simple pose or gesture.”
THE SPIRIT began production in Albuquerque, New Mexico on October 8, 2007 and was the first feature film to be shot at the newly constructed Albuquerque Studios. Stages 7 and 8 were transformed into a huge green screen stage, a black screen stage and a stunt stage that could change from green to black. The ambitious 48-day schedule involved over a hundred actors and stunt players.
For the actors and key technical departments, Miller created notebooks of the original Eisner stories that THE SPIRIT would draw upon. And the writer/director began each day by drawing storyboards that enabled actors and crew members alike to visualize the scenes they would be shooting. Comments Del Prete, “Frank made sure that all the people on this film really understood the original art, as well as his style of art. And he did create a hybrid of the two. There wasn’t a day that went by that we didn’t talk about Will.”
Together, Miller, Pope and Maschwitz mapped out an adventurous visual strategy. “We decided to make THE SPIRIT even more stylized, more in line with Frank’s drawings than even Rodriguez did,” Pope explains. “Stu and I were acolytes, in the sense that we understood Frank Miller and his sensibility. Our job was to translate what was in his brain, what was in his drawings, into a technical world. Frank’s not a technician. What he is fantastic with, is finding that moment, that emotional beat at the core of every scene.”
A spirit of creativity and playfulness pervaded the set, on both sides of the camera. For Miller, that attitude was essential for a proper adaptation of Eisner’s work. “Will was always an adventurer in his work,” he explains. “What I wanted to do in this movie was get back in touch with that sense of experimentation that he brought to ‘The Spirit,’ that defined ‘The Spirit.’ The entire cast and crew – we were all willing to try things.”
Sam Jackson agrees, noting that Miller was receptive to the actors’ ideas about everything from line readings to facial hair. Once Jackson saw the completed costumes and the minimal or nonexistent sets, he realized he could go even farther with the larger-than-life character he was creating. “We realized we could kick the Octopus into another space with wigs and eye makeup and all kinds of elaborate things on my face. We had a great time thinking about the character, and I think that helped us create a really fun, memorable villain.”
Miller was thrilled with his cast. “I’ve got a history of sitting at a drawing board, coming up with stories and pictures and making up my own actors. So probably the biggest surprise is that I love actors, and love working with them. Everyone in the cast was superb. Really, I think the actor creates the character. The director just helps them along.”
THE SPIRIT called for vibrant and smartly delineated wardrobe design for all the characters. It was a challenge that costume designer Michael Dennison embraced as he devised stylized garments that would reflect personality, history and changes in mood. For Jackson’s Octopus, he created a series of outfits to complement the fiend’s adoration of iconic evil, from the archetypal Western bad guy to a murderous samurai and even a Nazi. And there were gorgeous and varied garments for the film’s splendid women: gowns, suits, dresses and more that nodded to the feminine silhouettes of the mid-20th Century while maintaining a modern feel.
In contrast, the Spirit’s wardrobe called for simple, statement-making pieces. Dennison made a few subtle alterations to the Spirit’s attire to bring the character into the present day. “The original Spirit wore a suit,” Dennison notes. “We pared his costume down to just a shirt, tie, trousers, belt, sneakers, plus an incredible trench coat and a fedora. The trench coat was lovingly referred to as the cape, because it floated, it flew, it concealed, it wrapped. The scarlet tie was part of Frank’s vision. It’s a graphic image that becomes the character’s signature.”
Some of the boldest innovations in THE SPIRIT involved the film’s extended underwater sequences, including scenes of Mendes’ and Jackson’s characters pursuing their loot beneath the mudflats of Central City. The filmmakers wanted to achieve an effect possible only in comics, with Mendes’ Sand Saref looking as breathtaking underwater as she does on land. To achieve this, Pope filmed the scenes using specially designed lighting and a Phantom camera, a high-speed digital model generally reserved for scientific applications. Mendes was suspended in a harness, and not a drop of water was required. Says Del Prete, “We got what we asked for: totally believably underwater. And Eva looks like a goddess -- her makeup and hair absolutely perfect -- because she’s not actually underwater. Just like in the comics!”
THE SPIRIT was conceived as a contemporary noir, with color playing a highly targeted, powerful role. The color palette was established in production, via lighting, costume design, art direction and other cues, and carried through in post-production. “We never felt that the film should be pure black and white; we wanted to see skin tone and flesh,” says Pope. “So we worked our way to just an understanding of what the thematic colors were. For example, when Frank wrote the scene of Young Spirit and Young Sand on the porch, I knew that they were opening a locket. The locket could be gold, the memory could be a golden memory. And Sand is materialistic. So gold became her color.”
Once production wrapped, the center of activity moved to the Orphanage’s Northern California headquarters, where Maschwitz supervised a visual effects team of some 200 people at 10 facilities around the world, including Australia, Los Angeles and Canada. For Maschwitz and his colleagues, the task at hand was nearly the reverse of standard visual effects work. “Most often, our job is to take a shot that is complete except for one small element, and insert that element into the shot,” Maschwitz explains. “With THE SPIRIT, we have one small very important element, which is the performance, and we’re filling in the entire background.”
Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, editor Greg Nussbaum joined the post production team. Nussbaum came to the film after being recommended by Stu Maschwitz, with whom he’d worked on commercials and music videos. “The difficulty with this type of film is that your editor only has actors on green screen to cut. They really have to have a lot of imagination to understand what they are doing. Deborah wanted someone who would really understand Frank’s style like the rest of the team. Greg had been an editor for the pre-viz period of THE SPIRIT and I knew he was very talented and would be a good match,” recalls Stu Maschwitz. Del Prete gave the first few weeks’ footage to Nussbaum as a test to see what he would make of it. She and Miller loved the results and brought him aboard.
Post is one of the most important parts of the process – especially in a film like THE SPIRIT and while they had Maschwitz and The Orphanage making sure every visual was perfect, Miller and Del Prete also had to make sure the sound and music was up to the standards of the picture. They spent a lot of time listening to scores and meeting with composers. Producer Del Prete recalls, “We were very fortunate to have a wealth of choices. After seeing samples of the footage literally everyone we wanted to meet with was very excited about taking on the film. The hardest part was having to say no to so many really great music makers. After consideration, the highly accomplished multiple Academy Award nominee David Newman (ANASTASIA, ICE AGE, THE PHANTOM) joined the team. Frank wanted elements of the ‘40s jazz sound married with iconic heroic music and even a touch of the spaghetti western. David was able to bring it all home for us.”
It was in post-production that Maschwitz worked with Miller to bring to life a critical character in THE SPIRIT: Central City, the Spirit’s greatest love. Eisner based the city on his native Manhattan, which is also Miller’s longtime home. Says Miller, “Stu and his company created the Central City of my dreams, which is Manhattan from around Jane Street up to Houston. That’s because the Spirit is more a neighborhood character than a protector of an entire city. Stu and his team created an evocation of different eras of New York. It is kind like Pompeii on top of Pompeii, on top of Pompeii. It goes as modern as you want and as far back as you want.”
Adds Maschwitz, “Central City is the New York that Frank sees when he walks around Manhattan. You pick and choose bits and pieces of a real city so that it has that kind of tangible reality and messiness that a real urban environment does, but then you selectively dis-include the parts of it that don’t fit in with Frank’s and Eisner’s world. What you wind up with is Central City. And the movie really is a love letter to this environment.”
It’s also a fond, respectful tip of the hat to Will Eisner, the man who helped create the comics. “I threw myself into this,” says Miller about the huge undertaking to bring THE SPIRIT to the screen. “If it was going to be THE SPIRIT it was going to be as good as I could possibly make it. I hope Will doesn’t rise from the grave and strangle me when he sees it.”
Actress Jaime King feels Miller has little cause for worry. “What Will Eisner did with ‘The Spirit’ was very revolutionary; there was really nothing like it at the time. That’s how I feel about what Frank has done with this film.”
: In Theaters December 25, 2008
: 108 minutes