Frank Miller & Cast Get into Spirit of 'The Spirit'

The NYC-inspired "Central City" is character in of-itself in comic book legend Will Eisner's seminal work The Spirit. So perhaps it was appropriate that when it was time for cast and crew to gather for a press event promoting Frank Miller's solo-directorial debut big screen adaptation of the comic book, they descended on New York City, rather than the more suburban metropolis that is Hollywood.

Present at the weekend press conference was Miller, along with star Gabriel Macht [The Spirit], Eva Mendes [Sand Saref], Scarlett Johansson [Silken Floss], Samuel L. Jackson [The Octopus], Dan Lauria, [Commissioner Dolan], and Sarah Paulson [Ellen Dolan]. The stars took their seats, and the questions began.

Question: Gabriel, this seems to be your big breakthrough, can you talk about your experience playing The Spirit? And Scarlett, how did you come into this role?

Gabriel Macht: My name is Gabriel Macht, I play El Spirito [laughs]. In many ways, any part you get as an actor has the potential for breaking through, and I feel like I’ve done a bunch of those in my career, but honestly this one happens to have the biggest potential because I’m involved with Frank’s vision of the film. There’s no greater opportunity for a younger actor than to play The Spirit, and I had the best time working on the film, so hopefully people come and see it and we can make a couple more!

Scarlett Johansson: I’m Scarlett Johansson, and I play Silken Floss…

Frank Miller: [interrupts] Doesn’t she make that sound great? [laughter from the audience]

Johansson: I’m not really a comic book fan, that world always seemed kind of exclusive to me. What brought me to this project was Frank. I loved Sin City and I loved 300, and I thought he must be a pretty interesting fellow. So I’d gotten the script and there really wasn’t any part for me. The Silken Floss character was really kind of underwritten but I still wanted to meet Frank, so we met and had a really wonderful three hour lunch meeting. We talked about New York and laughed and had a great time, and at the end of it I was saying, “Well, I’m sad! There’s nothing for me to do in this.” And he said “I’ll think of something.”

So he decided to expand this character and I got super, super lucky. That was it for me, going into it, I thought that being part of his vision would just be fun; it would be a fun world to play around in.

Miller: And I also realized that I could be working with one of the great comedic talents of our time. It was like working with a young Lucille Ball the whole time. It was wonderful.

Johansson: [turns to Frank] Thanks!

Q: Some of you have been in comic book movies before, but The Spirit has a very unique tone. Was it difficult getting into that style?

Eva Mendes: Oh, I thought I was pretty subtle. [laughter all around]. I’m Eva Mendes, I play Sand Saref. What I loved about this is I have this character that was created in the 1940s, so I have this real Dame, Broad kind of appeal to the character. She was just so over-the-top and fantastical, and had some of the best lines in the movie. “Shut up and bleed” being one of my favorites. It was just so collaborative and amazing, it was easy.

Macht: I actually did another graphic novel adaptation a year prior to making this called Whiteout, that’s coming out next year. I think tone is really important in this film, and this film is a great blend of what Eisner and Frank are able to create. There is a bit of the Raymond Chandler gumshoe detective in there. If you’re not honest to the material it could get slapsticky or shticky and we didn’t go there. But there is a certain charm to what goes up on the screen that we were able to get. It is a little more extreme in the sense that it’s a “comic book movie,” and less like [The Dark Knight] this year that was really more truthful. So it’s a bit more extreme, but very playful.

Q: Frank, can you tell us a little bit about your relationship with Will Eisner, and the transition from comic books to movies?

Miller: Do you have a month? [laughs] My relationship with Will Eisner was a long and abiding one where we argued incessantly. The very first time he saw one of my pages he told me what was wrong with it, and we just kept arguing ever since. It was the classic Irish Catholic meets the Bronx Jew. We just went at it tooth and nail, but loved each other dearly. As far as what translates from comics to film, I find that the truer they are to the source material, the better. I’d cite Marvel Entertainment’s recent Iron Man and Incredible Hulk as wonderful, witty jobs of adapting them. I think if they get too presumptuous, comic book movies tend to fall apart.

Q: Frank, you put in the film a whole lot of insider elements that were great to catch, can you talk about what you chose to add and what you didn’t get to add? And for anyone, the film had a whole lot of film noir reference, can you talk about a favorite film noir or actor from the style?

Miller: I’m pretty much an encyclopedia of film noir, so I really don’t know where to start, except to say I’m really thrilled with the voices in this movie. Gabriel’s voice is straight up Raymond Chandler, and Eva’s voice is, well, Eva’s, and Scarlett’s voice is a dream come true, and I guess we put up with Sam.

Sarah Paulson: Um, I love those movies, but I was so kind of stunned that I was even on the set with any of these people that I was sort of like “Uh, where do I stand, and what do I say?”

Samuel L. Jackson: [to Sarah] Say what we rehearsed.

Paulson: [leans in] I have nothing to say. [laughter]

Miller: I think Sarah’s the one actress that Alfred Hitchcock didn’t get.

Jackson: I was just so glad to be on that set and wearing those costumes, and just hanging out with Frank and Scarlett and Gabriel…

Miller: Oh, thanks a lot! [laughs]

Jackson: You were always on the second unit all the time!

Mendes: No, no, no! We had a huge scene together where I kicked your ass! As you can tell, I really love him.

Miller: Excuse me, we’re trying to discuss film noir [laughs]

Johansson: Well, I do love so many film noir movies, like The Third Man, and The Maltese Falcon, and White Heat and so many wonderful movies, and I could be a big film nerd and name them all. But I feel like the noir qualities of this film are really [personal] style choices that are an ode to the style.

As far as Sam and I, our relationship was more towards the Lucille Ball comedy [that Frank mentioned], but Sam was kind of the Lucy and I was the Ricky. I feel like the production designer would be able to list all the movies, and Frank would be able to list all those movies…

Miller: So would Dan, but he doesn’t talk!

Dan Lauria: I’m Dan Lauria, I played Commissioner Dolan, and I love film noir. Frank and I would be talking about it all the time. I’m a thief! I loved to rob from an old actor that nobody remembers. I told Frank the last play I was doing Richard Conte and nobody knew who he was, so he said “who’re you doing in this movie?” I said, “You wouldn’t know who he was,” and he said, “No, try me out!” So I said Bart MacClane, and he listed every Bart MacClane movie. I couldn’t do one bit without him telling me what movie I stole it from. But, I tell the young people I meet, if we didn’t touch on it, it wasn’t there. The more Frank’s descriptions came, the more I felt like I was in a 40s movie. I loved the costume, something right outta Bart’s closet.

Q: Frank and Sam, how do you describe your character? Did you have input, Sam, on how the character would be portrayed?

Miller: Well, my character actually gets his head torn off by Samuel L. Jackson. The Spirit in general, I was out to portray on screen the two things that Will and I loved deeply: The City, and beautiful women! The Spirit is a haunted man, and doesn’t know why he’s alive.

Jackson: I’m Samuel Jackson, I play The Octopus. You know, it’s quite an honor to be able to walk into a situation and put flesh and blood into a character that’s only been a pair of gloves forever [in the comics]. I thank Frank for that opportunity. He gave me license to be as demented and as genius and as funny as I wanted to be. So I took that as my license to do all the things I’d ever wanted to do in a film and chew as much scenery as I felt like chewin' and not be criticized for it.

Miller: Well, not to your face! [laughs]

Q: I’m Sam, how familiar were you with the comic book?

Jackson: I was familiar with The Spirit. I read comic books since I was a very small child. I read the funny books, and other kinds of comics, also. So I was familiar with the Spirit. My favorite characters though were the ones with superpowers. Everyone wanted to be fast like the Flash or strong like Superman, me I wanted to be Aquaman because I swam a lot. So, I was familiar with it, and I was reintroduced when I found out Frank was doing the project, and he was kind enough to send me every copy of The Spirit ever made.

So, I started looking at it and figuring out the Octopus’s voice. Frank and I would sit and have lunch and be very distracted by the girls at the pool, but we’d talk about the Octopus, and if he had his own reality, and we decided to put him out there every day in a different costume. When he woke up everyday he’d live in whatever fantasy he wanted to live in, and that’s how he dressed in that particular day, and he’d send a similar costume to Silken’s room, and that’s how they’d hang out all day long. As we got to that place, we realized the genius and dementia [come together]. One great thing about the film is that as crazy as we get, there’s not really a mean-spirited moment in the film…

Miller: Well, there is the cat…

Jackson: That’s why we where Nazi uniforms when we do it! But other than that, there’s not really a mean-spirited moment in the film. But, having fun and creating a spirit of adventure in the middle of what we finally discovered was a romantic comedy was kinda great.

Q: The movie obviously has big action sequences, but there’s also a focus on interpersonal moments, especially between Gabriel and Dan. How long did it take to develop that give-and-take on the set?

Lauria: Are you gonna tell ‘em how long I’ve known you?

Macht: Well, yeah, Dan’s known me since I was I think 5 or 6…

Lauria: I actually babysat him.

Miller: That was two years ago! [laughs)]

Macht: It was pretty immediate. He and my father have been friends for a long time, and I actually grew up watching Dan on television, so…

EM: Was he a good babysitter?

Macht: Yes.

Lauria: I gave him a couple cigars…

Macht: So, it was pretty immediate. It was a great give-and-take right away. We also both come from the Theater so it was a playful way to work.

Miller: It was astonishing to watch. When those two appeared on the screen together, it was electric. Nobody could take their eyes off it.

Lauria: And Frank let us have fun, which is really the key, you know. A great actor once told me, he was later in his years, and he said, “After it’s all said and done, I realize the only thing an actor really needs is a little giggle in his heart.” Jimmy Stewart told me that. So I really had that feeling the whole time I was on the set, especially with Gabe, I had a great time with Gabe. I felt like we could push each other and it was great, acting wise.

Q: Dan, I understand that early on you introduced two of the producers, and Frank, we hear bits of this anecdote about your first meeting with Eisner, can you tell us more about it?

Miller: Well, Jim Shooter, my E-i-C was showing me off as the new kid on the block at a party hosted by Neal Adams. He kept shoving my book in front of Eisner’s face, and after Eisner finally got past his usual syrupy sweetness, he finally read the page, glared at me, and said “He’s lying in the back of a garbage truck, and his caption is saying ‘I’m lying in the back of a garbage truck!’ That’s redundant!” and I said, “Well he’s blind, he had to put it together,” and he wouldn’t accept that explanation so he and I just got at it.

Lauria: There was a famous old agent named Hal G. who always had actors stay at his house, and one of the people who stayed at his house was Michael Uslan (one of the producers of the film). I had a reading program where every Monday we’d read another play to help writers get agents, and that program was co-sponsored by Deborah Del Prete and Gigi Pritzker (the other producers), and I knew Michael was a comic book fan but I had no idea Deborah was. Michael would come to readings and they were always connected, they got along and were talking, so when the project came up, Frank asked how they met, and my name came up, so I got a chance to read.

Miller: So he read the part, and I spent that whole night re-writing the part. Originally he was going to have a much nicer side to him, but I thought that one look at Dan’s face and you’re going to love him anyway, so I just wrote him as rough as I could.

Q: The costumes are pretty much a costar in the film, and I wondered if Frank intended that, and what the actresses and Sam thought about the looks they sported?

Miller: I suggested there be different costumes for Sam, and that all the women really look great, and I worked hard on Gabe’s costume, cause at first it looked really foolish, until we spruced it up with the black outfit. But for what Michael Dennison [Costume Designer] did, I take no credit.

Jackson: Well I had a great time [leans in] Samuel L Jackson, The Octopus [laughter], but I had a great time…

Miller: Well, it was my idea to make him a Nazi though.

Jackson: The Nazi outfit actually goes back to the Third Reich thing that was in the comic books. It works very well. The Germans loved it [laughter]. Yeah, Scarlett’s their poster girl for this year. [Scarlett shakes her head and hides her face]. But, really the big discovery for me was, Scarlett and I shared a makeup trailer. So I’d go in there in the mornings and man, she’d have this beautiful eye shadow on, and I’d go, “Wow, I should try some of that.”

So I got my makeup artist to start experimenting with eye shadow, and I’d put it on and I’d run in there and go “Frank!” and he’d just say, “I love it!” So then I’d be back in the trailer and think, “Well, if I’m wearing a Nazi outfit, I should have lightning bolt eyebrows,” so I’d put those on and go “Frank!” and he’d go, “I love it!” So from that point on it was just me running and doing as much as I could to myself, even down to the eyebrows.

Mendes: Yeah, you know, it was a dream for me to get so wrapped up in this character. You know, how many times will I get to play a woman who has been married 14 times and killed almost all of her husbands, and is a jewel thief. The fun part for me was definitely putting on the glamour and wearing the clothes, but especially since it was rooted in pain. You can look at it superficially and say “oh she’s into diamonds,” but when I realized that symbolized her past and not having anything stable in her life, and the diamond actually symbolizes that stability.

Once I found that as the foundation, then it made me realize where she was coming from, so I could go big and be as ridiculous as I wanted to be, whether in hairstyle, or action, or in wardrobe, as long as I was rooted in this major need to fill that void. So I had a fantastic time, and again it’s styled from one of my favorite periods, when women were Dames or Broads, they weren’t afraid to speak their minds and throw out a curse word now and then, so it was fun for me to say the least.

Q: Can we hear that from the other two ladies?

Paulson: My character didn’t really have the over-the-top look with the costumes and everything, which I kind of liked, and was also absurdly jealous of when I’d see these pictures of Eva and Scarlett. The thing I liked about the part, is there’s not a single woman in the movie is a damsel in distress, there’s not a single woman in this movie who isn’t a strong woman. Frank changed my character a bit and made her a surgeon so I had a reason to be around the Spirit all the time, fixing him and healing him and things.

Johansson: My character, these are her humble beginnings, in a way. She has this medical, scientific mind and I think that she’s using this as a great opportunity to extend her schooling in a way. She’s working for someone that has this plethora of wealth and equipment. So for her to be able to carry out this man’s crazy ideas is just a way for her to experiment. She’s moving on up!

As far as my costumes, they all directly correlated with Sam’s costumes. They’d go “Sam looks like this” and I’d ask what mind would look like and it was always like a quarter of the size of Sam’s costume [laughs]. I love as Eva said, that golden age of Hollywood style, and beautiful costumes. I loved my Geisha costume, just cause, it’s a Geisha costume! Oh my God!

Miller: And also, she showed up that day with a parasol, and it’s one of the things that made that scene work, and she just showed up with it.

Q: Gabe, did you like that your character wasn’t an all-powerful hero, and how did you handle his identity crisis?

Macht: Well, he’s a young cop who’s killed in the line of duty and brought back to life, and wanders the streets doing what some other cops can’t do. He doesn’t know why he’s like that and he’s asking those questions along the way, but he knows who he is at heart, he’s a young cop and he’s someone who likes to fight crime. The essence is he’s a man with an innate goodness and he wants to return that to the City. So when he “hears the city scream” he wants to squash the evil and bring humanity back. So deep down he knows who he is, but he’s haunted by who he may be… [laughs]

Jackson: When you see the 'making ofs', you’ll see them interview Gabriel in his trailer, and his walls were just papered with The Spirit. Not just photos of himself, but the comic and Frank’s drawings, drawings he made of himself. His trailer was covered in Spirit-phenalia, so he was dealing with his identity crisis all the time.

Miller: And he slept with the mask on.

Lionsgate's The Spirit opens December 25, 2008

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