Very few people can say they’re buddies with a legend, much less actually be one. Then there’s Frank Miller. Renowned in his own right for having created the comics 300 and Sin City and for having co-directed the film adaptation of the latter, Miller will release his first solo directing venture, The Spirit, in 2009. It’s a big-screen take on the seminal graphic work about a seemingly dead detective-turned-superhero, written by another giant in the comics universe, Miller’s late, great pal Will Eisner.
At last weekend’s New York Comic Con, EW.com checked in with the author/filmmaker and his Spirit producer Deborah Del Prete. They offered details about their noirish drama, which stars Gabriel Macht as the titular hero, Samuel Jackson as the villainous Octopus, and a parade of flirty femmes including Eva Mendes, Scarlett Johansson, Paz Vega, Sarah Paulson, and Jamie King.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: The Spirit‘s teaser trailer begs some obvious Sin City comparisons, but how will this be different from Sin City?
FRANK MILLER: It’s in color, for one thing. But also it’s a very different movie. Sin City was really a combination of me and [co-director] Robert Rodriguez working off my own drawings. And this was based on comics from the 1940s — Will Eisner’s — but through a much more modern lens. Besides, you’ll never see a tie this color [motions to his half-red, half-blue Spirit tie].
Who do you think you borrow from visually?
MILLER: Everybody. Comics are so full of amazing work. And I can’t look at a drawing of a woman without thinking of, for instance, Wallace Wood and his amazing way of capturing beauty. And if I go for suspense — Johnny Craig. The first time I drew Spider-Man, I didn’t even look at a Steve Ditko comic. It’s all in here already [motions to his head]. When I was on the movie set, the one artist I studied not at all was Will Eisner, because it’s all in here already [motions to his head again] because the guy trained me, the guy did work that inspired me.
DEBORAH DEL PRETE: But Frank made up books of Will’s work for everybody to use as references for all our departments.
MILLER: And, really, what was shocking was the cast. It was amazing to watch. Two I would name off the top would be Gabriel Macht, who plays the Spirit and had never played a part as heroic. I really felt like his partner, working through all the little moments. The other striking example was Eva Mendes [who plays Sand Saref]. She went from being such a contemporary screen presence to be willing to embrace almost a Bette Davis/Patricia Neal figure. I think she’s the one who hits the most decades. There’s this one scene where she walks in a white suit and an unforgettable hat — believe me, it’s an unforgettable hat — and I had it stuck to my office wall. Not just the hat, but her in it. There’s this one scene where she walks straight from the 1940s. She’s such a fantasy character from the end.
DEL PRETE: Eva came in scared.
MILLER: She had no idea what to expect. She thought I was going to be some kind of ogre.
DEL PRETE: But a day or two later, she was asking questions!
NEXT PAGE: Miller spills more Spirit secrets, and drops a few hints about Sin City 2
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: So, how have you modernized The Spirit?
FRANK MILLER: Imagine New York from Houston Street to Bank Street or Jane Street. That part of the city is Central City. [The Spirit] rarely leaves that neighborhood. In fact, he’s almost like one of those characters from Mean Streets — he would get lost above Houston. He’s such a neighborhood boy. I believe, as in Sin City, in taking the city I love and picking out whatever looked best from whatever decade I choose. So we’ll see ’53 Cadillacs, and we’ll see cell phones.
DEBORAH DEL PRETE: And the costumes are all kind of periods.
MILLER: There’s that uncanny hotel scene that looks like it’s from 1900.
DEL PRETE: It is sort of timeless. That’s what we were going for. This is sort of a neverworld and an everworld. It’s New York City, but not quite. It’s not quite contemporary but not quite the past.
MILLER: It’s mythic New York. And that’s what Will drew. He and I really did share two profound loves: One was for New York, and the other was for beautiful women.
And the Spirit certainly liked his ladies. Aside from the love triangle between Sand Saref and Ellen Dolan (Paulson) in the movie, can you tell us about how the other women fit into the film?
DEL PRETE: Oh yeah, everyone’s got their moment. You’re right — the main story’s the triangle — but every one of the girls gets to have their moment with the Spirit.
MILLER: [For example], Scarlett Johansson plays Silken Floss. I looked at Silken Floss and, now, here’s this beautiful, really uptight woman [who was a secretary in the comics]. And I was like, she had to have her bad old days. She had to have her crazy days where she got up at 6 at night every day and there was some kind of daddy taking care of her. And that’s the Silken Floss that’s in the movie.
World War II erupted while Eisner was writing his comic, and now we have this situation in Iraq. Will there be themes of war in this film?
MILLER: Well, there will be an undercurrent in the story about the city. Human beings are naturally and constantly at war, so the same subtext will be running through it, but it’s more felt than seen.
You’ve mentioned that you might borrow specific panels from Eisner’s work. Was there any specific source material you used?
MILLER: Sure. There’s a street grate you’ll never forget. There’s a lot of water tanks. There’s so much from his books. Mostly the mid-’40s period, which I thought was his peak period, before he started losing interest. The story of the movie is built outward from his original Sand Saref story. I wanted it to be a love story. And I knew it had to involve Octopus and other factors.
What is Octopus doing in this story?
DEL PRETE: [Long pause] Being pretty bad and doing bad things.
But what is he up to in this film?
DEL PRETE: I think the most important thing we could tell you is that he’s trying to kill the Spirit.
MILLER: Lemme just add: What does every bad guy want? He wants to live forever.
And the Spirit is, in a sense, immortal.
MILLER: If I say any more, you won’t want to see my movie.
Now that you’re well entrenched in directing, what is your future in comics?
MILLER: Well, I’ve got about 122 pages done of my next book. And [making movies and making comics] to me are really the two sides of the same craft. I can’t really tell you the title of the book. It’s my love letter to New York.
What’s going on with Sin City 2?
MILLER: I’ve written a sequel to Sin City. And ultimately the shape of the project would be to do a trilogy.
There have been rumors that Johnny Depp would appear in Sin City 2. True?
And what ever happened to the notion of having Angelina Jolie star in Sin City 2?
MILLER: That was back when it was going to happen a while ago. It’s like, everything seems to be in place and then everyone goes on with their lives. But I would love to work with Angelina Jolie.