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Arts & Culture

The Spirit: Interview with Frank Miller

Will Eisner's The Spirit debuted in 1940 as a comic book insert in Sunday papers. The Spirit served up a costumed crime fighter that wore a mask but no tights, and Eisner provided a gritty, detailed view of his urban setting. The film version of The Spirit is artistically as much Miller's as it is Eisner's.

"Well I kept looking over my shoulder and seeing him there, challenging me," says Miller, "I tried to do him justice but at the same time I had to do my own work."

The comic served up a hard-boiled crime fighter who had been a cop named Denny Colt (Gabriel Macht) who had died and then returned from the dead to become the indestructible champion of Central City. The Spirit lived under his beloved city but watched over it, ready to intervene at any moment to fight crime.


For the film, Miller opts for a mostly black and white palette that's visually stunning and seductive. "Let me be honest with you," Miller tells me in his best curmudgenly manner, "I think Eisner's work was colored terribly. So when I did The Spirit, I colored wanting to color for emotion not for content. Frankly I thought his old Spirit should have stayed in black and white."

The color palette gives the film a more film noir quality. Miller says film noir is only a clich e if you think of it as moody lighting.

"There is no clich e in it," Miller states, "There is only clich e when people try to imitate [noir.] But when people embrace what film noir really is they find an inner truth that's wonderful. The darkness that is the noir of film noir is internal darkness, it's not external. The Batman people always get it wrong because they keep trying to make things look really dark and scary when in fact film noir is about inner darkness, and the frightening scent of our souls."

Embracing the moral ambiguity of film noir is the way to avoid clich e says Miller. But while there's a darkness at the heart of the film -- after all the lead character is someone who's died and been reborn as a savoir for his city -- there's a lot of humor as well. Miller, who serves as writer and director, mixes it up both in terms of tone and time periods. So while the film looks like it's set in the forties, people use technology from the new millennium.

"You have to have cell phones to make the 40s stuff work," he says, "Because otherwise it's just a piece of nostalgia. And I wanted it to feel as modern as our world but at the same time I wanted to evoke the best of the forties.


The Spirit (Lionsgate)

And the best of the forties includes the simmering sexual tensions and snappy, suggestive banter typical of film noir.

Ellen: What's on your agenda tonight? <br> The Spirit: I don't know. If things stay quiet, I'd be up for anything. <br> Ellen: Anything? <br> The Spirit: Or maybe if I break the rules... <br> Ellen: I feel like breaking all kinds of rules. Lower the blinds. <br> The Spirit: They're all the way down. <br> Ellen: Oh fast hands. <br> The Spirit: And quiet.

Miller also mixes live action with animation, romance with Tex Avery style cartoon violence. In The Spirit's fight with his arch nemesis The Octopus there are such unusual weapons as a giant eight foot wrench and a toilet.

"I'm a cartoonist. What do you expect?" Miller says in his defense. Essentially that means he knows no boundaries. So The Spirit boasts a bold visual style where splashes of color are used to reflect the emotions of the characters, and the city becomes a personality as strong as any of the people. Miller is able to get his unique vision on the screen because he's able to draw elaborate storyboards to lay out the action for his cast and crew.

"We'd shoot twelve hours and then I'd go back to the condo where I was staying and I would draw pictures. Then I'd come back and paste them on a board and people would understand what I wanted. If they didn't understand, I'd draw another picture. It's really wonderful as a director to be able to draw. Because as soon as you draw a picture, people understand what you want."

Samuel L. Jackson stars as The Spirit's arch nemesis The Octopus (Lionsgate)

But Miller almost wrote off movies. He suffered a horrible experience trying to work with Hollywood on Robocop and a Batman movie and had essentially turned his back on the industry. Then an upstart from Austin named Robert Rodriguez showed him how movies could be made with an adaptation of Miller's Sin City . So now Miller works in movies not in Hollywood. Miller says he learned to love movies on Rodriguez' set.

"I learned what it takes to really project your imagination to people and I saw Robert with his camera, with his editing, with everything, and I saw a complete filmmaker. I saw him and thought this looked kind of fun. He turned me into a filmmaker."

Nowadays, comic book movies are a mainstay in Hollywood. But the iconoclastic Miller refuses to work within Hollywood conventions that demand conformity in both storytelling and visual style. Miller's proud of his comic book roots and that's why fans like Treygan Loftus have faith that he can translate material from one medium to another: "If anyone is going to capture the comic book the way it should be as a comic book movie then a comic book writer is the perfect person to do that and someone like Frank Miller who writes very mature complex themes he's the kind of person who can capture that kind of comic book."

But The Spirit isn't just any comic book. It's a signature work by Miller's mentor. So the whole time he was shooting, Miller says he kept looking over his shoulder and seeing Will Eisner there. Miller says he tried to maintain a balance between doing his mentor justice and making the work his own. Frank Miller's version of Will Eisner's The Spirit opens on Christmas day. Miller says that it will still look like Eisner's original comic, and if it doesn't then his mentor will rise from the grave like the Spirit to strangle him.

The Spirit (rated PG-13 for intense sequences of stylized violence and action, some sexual content and brief nudity) is nostalgic without being stale. It has the feel of an old Saturday morning serial done in a state of the art visual style. But it runs the risk of pleasing neither Miller's nor Eisner's fans because it straddles the styles of the two artists without committing wholly to one or the other. But if you want something fun and visually bold -- with a hunky leading man and gorgeous dames -- than this is definitely it.

Companion viewing: Sin City, 300, Will Eisner: Portrait of a Sequential Artist