The Spirit: press conference

Frank Miller, Scarlett Johansson, Samuel L. Jackson and Eva Mendes talk about January's new superhero adaptation...

I walk up the steps out of the Knightsbridge tube station. It is a chilly Thursday afternoon. I quickly glance at my notebook, to check the name of the hotel I’m looking for; there’s no need, however, as the Mandarin Oriental Hotel stares at me from across the road. I’m here in order to cover a press conference in aid of The Spirit, a film adaptation of the Golden Age Will Eisner comic strip, helmed by Frank Miller, creator of Sin City and 300.

As I dodge black cabs and tinted-window limousines, I cross the road, only to be faced by the director himself. For those who read his comics, or see his films, Frank Miller may be an underwhelming sight in real life. Far from the exaggerated forms of his bruisers and broads, he is a thin, weaselly man. In a leather jacket and fedora, he looks more like a stooge than a heavy. He is also an unassuming figure, as he blows smoke into the air and chats politely with PR reps.

I take note that no one is hounding him for his autograph, as would be the case if Samuel L Jackson was in the same position in a London street. Although, I soon realise that this is the film world, to which Miller is relatively new (The Spirit is his first solo directorial vehicle), and I may be alone in recognising him. The realisation also comes that I have nothing to say to him, even given such an opportunity for a face-to-face encounter, so I stride up to the relatively imposing doormen, looming in their red overcoats and top hats, and enter the hotel.

As was expected, they keep us waiting. Patiently sitting in my chosen spot, I self-consciously read through the latest issue of Batman, purchased that morning. Eventually, a PR rep tells the assembled hacks to ready their recorders, moisten their pen nibs, and prepare themselves for the conference. At that point, all and sundry stand up and place their individual dictaphones, tape recorders, mobile phones and ipods on the panel table. I place my Argos Value digital recorder right next to the place card saying ‘Samuel L Jackson’, and slightly wonder if there is such a thing as ‘dictaphone envy’, where journalists impose their personalities and egos on others with their more expensive, blinged-out recording hardware.

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The doors open, and the Spirit procession enters. Stars Samuel L Jackson, Eva Mendes, Scarlett Johansson and director Frank Miller are accompanied by producer Deborah Del Prete. They take their places, and dive right into it, starting with how they all became part of the project. Del Prete, a pleasant, enthusiastic woman, states and restates her comic geek credentials: she is a “lifelong comic book fan” and she always went to Comic-Con when she was younger. She bought the rights to The Spirit after talking to producer and fellow comic lover, Michael Uslan (who produces the Batman movies), and decided to ask Frank Miller to direct. Miller takes over, and recounts how he was asked by Deborah, and he decided he was the best suited to create an adaptation that was “new and exciting”, and not a “rusty old monument” to Will Eisner’s original. From the pre-release and preview material, this shows: Miller has approached the Spirit movie like his work on Daredevil or Batman, offering an auteuristic re-imagining of the original source material, for better or worse. It is revealed that a lot of the design work, from costumes to storyboards, were taken from Miller’s own drawings. This would account for the look of the picture, which recalls Sin City almost to a fault. Even a casual glance at the film’s logo immediately evokes 300. The Miller-Eisner relationship has been described as a “25 year argument” and it seems that here Miller has won.

There is a real ‘Team Spirit’ vibe amongst the panel; as Johansson, Jackson and Mendes describe how they were asked to be in the film, or wanted to be in the film ‘just …to meet Frank’; it is obvious they enjoyed themselves. At times, it slips into circle-jerking (“Frank is such a visionary”) and inside-jokery, but it nevertheless reveals that the production was a loose, fun experience. Jackson and Johansson shared a make-up trailer, and were given the freedom by Miller to experiment, improvise and generally overact in their roles. Miller also reveals that he completely re-wrote Silken Floss specifically for Johansson, in order to reflect her “comic timing”. He says he was taken off guard by how much he fell in love with directing actors, giving them inspiration for their roles by recommending them films, or drawing them sketches, or collecting a bunch of Spirit strips for the cast to read. Jackson, laid back and cool, makes the comment, “There’s only one other person who’s actually said to me ‘go have fun’, and that was George Lucas… It’s not often you’re allowed to just take licence and be as crazy as you want.”

At this point, an immaculate journo raises her hand and asks: “The film feels very much like you’re reading a comic book and it’s full of beautiful women in various states of undress. Is the film just for teenage boys?” It’s an inevitable, if droll question, as Miller’s work is almost always heavily masculine, and sometimes even pseudo-misogynistic, but the panel handles it well. Miller: “I think the film is for teenage boys, and teenage girls, and older men and older women…”; Del Prete cuts in, dropping board room-friendly descriptions such as, “There’s a lot of adventure in this movie,”; “There’s a very sophisticated romance, and a lot of drama,” and “It has a lot of levels.” Eva Mendes distinguishes The Spirit from other comic book movies as the female characters are not “damsels in distress”, instead they are strong “backbones of the story”. She has a point, as Jackson says they “manipulate the guys… they are in control”. Although, it must be said that in the film’s opening scene, The Spirit stops in his rooftop journey to save… a damsel in distress. Miller takes another angle, courting a little controversy:

“I would hope that the dregs of the 60s are going down the drain, and that we could… move to a post-feminist era and we can realise that a part of a woman’s power is her beauty, and enjoy it for what it is…”

A later question covers similar ground, asking about the film’s PG-13 rating, and whether Miller felt he had to compromise his vision, or the source material, in order to open the film up to a wider, younger audience. Once again, Miller takes the opportunity to lay out his initial plans for the film: “We set out to make a movie… It was based on The Spirit, [but] not a translation or a replication… It was to be set in the boundaries of our times, and it couldn’t be too mild, but it couldn’t be too extreme.” Del Prete goes further, saying that the topic of the film’s rating did not cross their minds during shooting. “We shot the movie… When we were done, and we did the first cut, I said to him ‘PG-13’… We hadn’t done anything during the making of it to make it a certain rating… It just came out as it was.”

Our time is up, the final question addresses the as-yet ignored elephant in the room. What would Will Eisner, who died in 2005, think of the finished film? This is a hot topic, as many purists and comic book fans have spoken out against Miller’s changes to the source material. Del Prete avoids a direct answer, and instead tugs at the heartstrings, with the story of an attendee at a preview screening saying to her, “I just want you to know, I’ve been a Will Eisner fan all my life and I think you did Will proud.” Miller, however, relishes the chance to have the final word. He says, “Here’s how I think Will would see it,” and clears his throat. He eschews his native nasal voice for something hoarser, more breathy:

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“‘Well… he never picked up a gun, that’s good… the CHICKS look GREAT… and I’m gonna sell a TON o’ BOOKS!'”

This outburst is greeted with laughter and applause as the panel leaves, less than 30 minutes after their arrival. This last comment repeats in my mind as I pick up my digital recorder, and make my exit. I find it curious that Eisner, who is held up as an innovative, powerful figure in the development of his chosen medium, would be so placid.

Frank Miller’s adaptation of Will Eisner’s The Spirit will be released in the UK on January 1st.

Review – 30 minutes of Frank Miller’s The Spirit


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19 December 2008