Jonathan Crocker

Editorial Director | Journalist

The Spirit: The Man In The Hat Is Back

Posted by Jonathan On July - 1 - 2008

spirit1Frank Miller brings one of history’s oldest superheroes back from the dead to give the comic-book movie a brand new life…

It’s 1938: Will Schuster creates an incredible new superhero who wears red stockings and a big flowing cape. It’s 1939: Bob Kane creates a fearsome new superhero who dresses like a giant bat. It’s 1940: a brilliant young comic-strip writer named Will Eisner creates a dynamic new superhero who… looks like he works in a bank. Eisner’s newspaper editor is baffled. Questions… Where’s his costume? “Well, he’s got a hat, he’s got a coat, he’s got a tie,’ replied Eisner. Where’s his mask? Eisner sighs, takes out his brush and puts a mask on him. Who exactly is this guy?

Zip forward to 2008 and the answer can be found emblazoned on the wall, as Total Film sits down with graphic novelist Frank Miller in the editing suite of his post-production offices. It’s a huge quote from Raymond Chandler: ‘He is the hero, he is everything.’ Oh, but scratch that: director Frank Miller. The man who penned blood-soaked style-orgies Sin City and 300 is making his debut behind the camera. And The Spirit, he says, will take comic-book movies to the next level. He’s just shot 48 days on green screen. Now he’s deep in a year of post-production magic. “From Sin City to 300, we’ve learnt each time. My experience with Robert Rodriguez trained me for this. Now we’re going to show you some things you’ve never seen before.” He signals to the editing technician sat behind us. “Let me show you,” he smiles, adjusting his trademark wide-brimmed black hat. “This is kinda good…”

As the lights go down, we watch a figure in ’40s dark suit and hat crouching on a roof top. Only The Spirit’s red tie breaks the jagged black and white noir-palette. He gathers a fistful of snow and hurls it into the face of a bald-headed goon wielding a machine gun. The goon topples backwards onto a stretch telephone cables, frazzling himself in a burst of crackling convulsions . Silhouetted against a brick wall, The Spirits pounds another goon with his fists. A cat watches quizzically from the top of trashcan as the sound of knuckles on jawbone plays a brutal loop. A third thug spots The Spirit and lets rip with a hail of bullets. Grabbing a manhole cover as a shield, The Spirit then hurls it like a frisbee, catching his foe the gut and sending him crashing into a brick wall. The lights come up…

Noir style… shot on green screen… comic-book violence… silhouette visuals spiked with colour flashes… It is kinda good. It’s also kinda, well, familiar. Don’t tell that to Frank Miller. “It’s NOT Sin City,” says Miller, seriously. “For a start, this is a full-colour movie. I learned from Sin City that pulling colour away can be as dramatic as using it. And in The Spirit, I’m using colour to express emotion and tone more than reality. I’m sick of movies where I see a spumoni of colours flying at me all the time. And I would rather see a colour used as what colour is. Which is a weapon.”

Which is ironic, because The Spirit is one superhero who doesn’t have any weapons. He can’t fly. Or shooting laser-beams from his eyes. Or morph into Rebecca Romijn-Stamos. A murdered cop who mysterious comes back from the dead, he’s become a crimefighter caught in a limbo between life and death. Searching for his own identify, he ghosts through streets of Central City listening for a cry for help – and a clue to who he is. “We wanted to make The Spirit an urban Zorro. He’s a good guy. And above all, he’s a gentleman,” says Miller. Sensing Total Film’s faint disappointment at gentlemen superheroes who can’t fly, he raises a finger. “He does however have an extraordinary libido! He falls in love with every woman he meets. You come back to life, what do you wanna do?!”

SPIRIT LEVEL

“Yeah… I’ve heard that,” says Gabriel Macht, the 35-year-old unrecognisable handpicked by Miller to step into The Spirit’s suit and hat. “I’ve also heard Frank say he’s a bit of a slut. Well, Will Eisner and Frank both share a real love for women and a real love for beauty.” No kidding. If you vaguely remember Macht from bit parts in Gram Theft Parsons and The Good Shepherd, there’s no missing the rest of Miller’s cast. Auditions can’t have been too painful for Uncle Frank – and how about those names? Scarlett Johansson is ‘Silken Floss’. Eva Mendes is ‘Sand Serif’. Paz Vega is ‘Plaster Of Paris’. And Jaime King plays Death herself… “But the women in this film aren’t as fetishised as the women in Sin City,” explains Macht. “Because in Sin City, um, they were all prostitutes! In The Spirit, you have a doctor, a police officer, a jewel thief…” He thinks for a second. “Well, Frank did throw in three prostitutes. And Paz has got a nice get-up! I would say ‘skimpily dressed’…”

Ask Miller to elaborate and he cracks into a sheepish grins. “Okay, I’m going to embarrass myself right now,” he says, shifting in his seat. “The first time Paz Vega showed up on set, I was so transfixed by her I called, ‘Cut’ instead of ‘Action.’ My producer nearly fell off her chair laughing.”

The taste of sin, sex and violence has always lingered tantalising around Miller’s world. But The Spirit, he says, is different. “It’s much more abstract,” explains Miller. “I believe a great deal in hinting at things and throwing shadows across walls. And I’m not really a spurt of blood kind of guy. Believe it or not! Trust me, there is a lot of kick-ass.” Kick-ass, but not guns. The Spirit hates guns. “He was a young detective and he got shot in the back and killed execution style, so he really doesn’t like guns,” says Macht. Understandable, that. Which means, as well as using the city itself a weapon, this superhero fights crime on a good old-fashioned diet of knuckle-sandwiches. Combined with the fact The Spirit’s living-dead status allows him to absorb shocking amounts of punishment, this results in some barnstorming fist fights. “There’s a big fight in the mud, where there’s two of us basically kicking the shit out of each other,” says Macht, who studied mixed martial arts for the role. “When someone just pounds you for hours and you’re still able to drunkenly get up, I would suggest that you’re sort of super.”

ENTER THE PHANTOM

There’s something else that’s sort of super about The Spirit. It’s called The Phantom. No, it’s not The Spirit’s arch-rival. “It’s a digital camera that can shoot up to 1,000 frames per second,” explains digital-effects whiz Stu Maschwitz. “Which means that when we shoot for a tenth of a second, it turns into a minute of footage. It’s an astonishing effect – not like anything you’ve ever seen.” And Maschwitz would know. He’s the man behind pretty much everything that’s wowed you at the cinema in the last 10 years. Iron Man’s supersuit? Bruce-versus-a-fighter-jet in Die Hard 4? Davey Jones’ tentacle-face in Pirates Of The Caribbean? The flaming aeroplane crashing towards a baseball pitch in Superman Returns? All Maschwitz. And it was Maschwitz who helped Robert Rodriguez’s rip Miller’s Sin City clean off the page and splash it on to the screen. Now tooled up with The Phantom, he helping Miller take comic-book adaptations to a whole new level. “Think of it like this,” explains Maschwitz. “Whereas Sin City is a comic book brought to life and, in a way, 300 is an oil painting brought to life, The Spirit is a movie. When Frank talks about throwing shadows, he’s not just talking figuratively.”

The Phantom allowed Miller and Maschwitz to shoot a revolutionary new kind of stylised action – particular a series of extraordinary underwater sequences, all flowing hair and motion that would be impossible in a water tank and a spluttering actor. Miller is thrilled by it. “As I got into having this new toy, I said, ‘Get a close-up shot of Gabe’s eye,” recalls the director. “And he just blinked naturally… And in the middle of it, we found this beautiful piece of film. When you look at it, you don’t know if it’s a fish or a vagina or what. But it’s his eye. It’s The Spirit coming back to life. And it’s maybe my favourite shot in the movie.”

If all the talk of technology and supertoys makes you wonder if Frank Miller is really Michael Bay in a hat, he’s adamant you can rest easy. “We wanted to make it an urban story and not a special-effects dream,” assures Miller. “There’s a shot where The Spirit is sliding up a water tower and he stumbles, just slightly, then slides back down. My heart sang when I saw him stumble. Now that was done by as stuntman. If it had been done digital, he would have been perfect. He would have been Spider-Man.  And it would have been boring. The Spirit is brilliant, but he’s also a bit of a stumble-bum. Along the way, he might just trip and break his nose.”

Sticking out a leg to help bring The Spirit crunching back down to earth is The Octopus. No, it’s not another digital camera. It’s The Spirit’s arch-rival. It’s Samuel L Jackson. “Think of the best Sam Jackson,” grins Macht. “Turn him up another notch. And put him on crack. And that’s what he’s like in this film as The Octopus.” A criminal mastermind and master of disguise who never shows his real face, The Octopus is embodied only as pair of gloves in Eisner’s comic-books. Happily, Miller decided to give Jackson a longer leash that that. Or should that be a longer fuse? “All I said to him was, ‘Sam, you’re a nuclear bomb, I know that,” recalls Miller of their first meeting. “‘I only want you to go off twice.’ And he said, ‘Where?’ And I said, ‘Here. And here.’ And he went, ‘Okay.’ What he does is beyond charismatic. It’s a spectacular performance.”

ARMED AND DANGEROUS

“Two scenes, huh?” ponders Jackson, when Total Film catches up with him a week later. “Hmm. He cut a lotta shit out of that movie! I guess he’s talking about my speeches. They’re kinda like the Ezekiel speech – there are a couple of really, really cool speeches.” A comic-book fanboy, Jackson has been on Miller’s trail for years. “I always wanted to buy one of the Sin City stories from him, then all of a sudden the movie’s out and I wasn’t in it. I was like, ‘Damn…'” Boasting a near-invulnerability like The Spirit and an unlimited army of henchmen grown in his lab, Jackson’s Octopus must destroy the city’s reanimated crimefighter in order to clear the path for world domination. “It’s not cos he’s got eight arms!” laughs Jackson. “He’s called The Octopus because he’s got his hands in everything, he’s the kingpin. It’s funny, I was watching the trailers for The Dark Knight and watching what Heath Ledger did, thinking, ‘Hmm, that’s very similar to the kinda stuff The Octopus does.’ He a homicidal streak, but he’s extremely funny. It comes off a little more twisted and clownish.”

Same goes for The Spirit’s action. Dogs eating people alive and a yellow bastard being manually castrated are just a couple of the things you won’t see in The Spirit. “The violence is more Wile E  Coyote or Bugs Bunny than Sin City,” reveals Jackson. “We’re hitting each other with bigger and bigger things – wrenches, cinder blocks, toilets, whatever’s to hand. You kinda shake your head and keep fighting because The Octopus and The Spirit are nearly indestructible. There’s no blood squirting everywhere, brains flying all over the place. Kids can see it. It’s like a cartoon.”

Believe it or not, Miller’s directorial debut is 2008’s big Christmas movie. So what do we have here? Sin City, y’know, for kids? Hell no, says Miller. What we have is a Frank Miller movie. Thing is, he doesn’t want to reveal too much. Particularly about the “soon-to-be-infamous Nazi scene”. “But there’s also face-off between The Spirit and The Octopus towards the end that I don’t think you’ll forget,” says the director, as we stroll out of his offices into the San Francisco sun. “The Octopus just keeps producing larger and larger guns – and we produced what some pretty awesome guns. Including four-barrel shotgun-pistols. And then, when the helicopters come in after The Octopus, Sam said to me, ‘Where are my next guns?’ Well, we didn’t have any more. And I knew he was right. So I said to the props team, ‘Get me all your guns.’ I was looking at these guns like the ape with the bone from 2001. Finally, I just started stacking them on top of each other. I said, ‘Wire this up.’ They wired up five guns into one and added shotgun shells up the side. And they can do that. Because like I said…” We hear you, Frank. “This is not Sin City. This is Will Eisner’s comic. And my movie…”

Publication: Total Film.

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Jonathan is a London-based journalist, critic and editor. He currently works for data visualisation agency Beyond Words.

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