Big Friday at San Diego Comic-Con ‘08 continued with the panel for “The Spirit.” Comic book giant Frank Miller makes his solo directing debut adapting his mentor Will Eisner’s most famous character. There was a massive backlog of fans trying to get inside Hall H for a glimpse at footage of the film.
The panel began with Miller and producer Deborah Del Pret coming onstage. Miller was asked by the moderator to talk about his relationship with Eisner. Miller talked fondly about Eisner (who died in 2005) and told the crowd how the two used to always debate the nature of comics.
“It was a 25 year argument [that never ended]. He was my mentor,” Miller said.
He also repeated the story he’s told often, how he initially turned down the chance to direct “The Spirit” only to change his mind three seconds later.
“It’s really cool to be doing this,” Miller said.
Del Pret called this a dream project, explaining that she’s a lifelong comic book fan who’s been coming to San Diego for years. She talked about how she met with Eisner during what turned out to be his final appearance at Comic-Con. She said she was able to talk with Eisner about the kind of Spirit film he wanted to see.
Del Pret said Eisner was a topic of discussion between her and Miller every day on the set, and what he would think of the changes Miller was making.
Miller was asked to introduce a trailer for the movie and acted perplexed. He pointed out (correctly) that the whole point of a trailer is to serve as an intro.
Anyway, the trailer was shown and it was a steamy film noir focusing on the women in Denny Colt’s life. And what women! Eva Mendes as Sand Saref, Scarlett Johansson as Silken Floss, Sarah Paulson as Ellen Doran, and Jaime King as Lorelei...like most of Miller’s female characters in the comics, they were dripping sex appeal and danger. Mendes and King in particular stood out to this reporter.
Miller said he needed an actor of a certain stature to play the dominant villain, The Octopus, especially considering he was never seen in Eisner’s comics.
That was Samuel L. Jackson’s cue to walk onstage.
"It's a real honor to put flesh, blood and bones to the Octopus. Frank was kind enough to let me explore [the character] and flesh it out,” Jackson said. “Hopefully you'll enjoy it."
Jackson joked how he and Miller kept wanting bigger guns for The Octopus. They got to the point where they had the props guys turning two guns into one giant weapon, some of the craziest guns you’ve ever seen.
Del Pret then pointed out drawback to the big guns - they were so heavy Jackson couldn’t lift them up for very long!
Jackson also praised his rookie director for being open to suggestion and checking his ego at the door - which Sam said is VERY unusual for Hollywood directors (he would know considering all the movies he’s worked on).
Sam referenced his own vast resume when he said it was nice that Miller asked for and listened to advice from people like him, who have spent more film sets than he has.
Jackson also pointed out that being a longtime comics fan, he was familiar with The Spirit comics, but now he’s an expert because Frank gave him all of the Spirit trade paperbacks for research.
When asked to pick his favorite among all the action figures he’s had made in his likeness, Jackson picked Mace Windu. He also shared how annoyed he was when, while filming “Jurassic Park,” he found out he and Wayne Knight were the only cast members without action figures.
When a fan asked about a Nick Fury action figure (a reference to his after-the-credits cameo in “Iron Man”, Jackson joked, "when I was growing up, Nick Fury was a white man.” then he cracked up the crowd by saying his Fury is proof “that you two can grow up to be a black man.”
Jackson then talked about how Miller really gave him a wide berth for portraying the Octopus. In his eyes, he saw the character as a heartless crime kingpin who has his hands in everything and is obsessed with eliminating The Spirit.
Del Pret then moved on to discuss the female cast members, and told a disappointed crowd that Eva Mendes wasn’t able to make it to San Diego as scheduled because she wasn’t able to be freed from filming the “Bad Lieutenant” remake.
They spoke briefly about Johansson’s role as Octopus’ henchwoman. Johansson was also unable to attend the panel.
After calling her' The spirit of the Spirit', Del Pret introduces the one female in the film that did make it to Fanboy Central, Jamie King.
"Frank described her [to me] as the Angel of Death. She’s this mystery character...She’s not a very happy person," King said.
The 29-year-old talked about the green-screen work in the film (something she’s used to from “Sin City”) and said it forces actors to think like a kid and use their imagination.
Miller then introduces a scene in which Mendes swims underwater in an impossibly tight wet suit. It was pointed out that new advances in effects work allowed them to due an underwater screen without using any water.
The scene involved lots of slow-motion, a generous amount of bullets being fired, and practically no dialogue, until Mendes says at the end, “Shut up and bleed.”
Miller then resumed the discussion, this time talking about how he wanted to follow Richard Donner's lead and cast an unknown to play his title player. Miller said he wanted audiences to know him first as Denny Colt/The Spirit, saying someone like Tom Cruise would be a distraction.
He also joked that it's hard to find real men in Hollywood, which is why they keep recycling older action heroes like Bruce Willis and Harrison Ford. He said his Denny Colt had to be heroic.
And with that, he introduced his star player, Gabriel Macht.
"The Spirit can be tough. He loves women, he falls in love with every woman he meets' Macht said, and then thanked Miller for giving him an opportunity young actors can only dream of.
Macht, who’s married to actress Jacinda Barrett, was very diplomatic when asked about his obscenely attractive cast mates.
"I love my wife very much, but working with these women was unbelievable,” Macht said.
Then they showed a clip with the Spirit and Ellen, who Miller calls the true love of Denny's life.
The sequence gets off to a sexy, steamy start. “Keep the mask on,” Ellen says. “Something tells me it might be better that way.”
But then it turns almost slapstick once their office tryst is interrupted.
Almost as if she could tell the abrupt change in tone caught the audience off-guard, Del Pret made a point of saying the film is not campy, that the humor is organic and not forced. A bit of a strange moment.
She also addressed the period where the film takes place. It’s not the 1940s, it's more of a patchwork era, with characteristics from the 40s and 50s, but one that includes cell phones and other modern touches.
Miller also remarked that there are more Jewish characters in the film than in a year of Spirit comics.
The final clip they showed was the climactic fight between the Octopus and the Spirit in a pool of mud. The action here was cartoonish and full of slapstick, ‘Looney Toons’ style violence (each character was hit over the head with a massive object at least twice). It ends with the Octopus dropping a toilet on the Spirit, and saying, “Come on. Toilets are always funny!"
With that, the panel came to an end. The crowd gave a loud cheer as everyone filed out, but one had the impression that the uneven nature of the clips shown had the audience wondering exactly what kind of movie “The Spirit” is. I guess we’ll find out for sure at Christmas.