ALBUQUERQUE, New Mexico — You have more objects in your living room than are present on the massive soundstage housing the production of "Will Eisner's 'The Spirit.' " The director is a Hollywood newcomer, on the verge of his 51st birthday. Samuel L. Jackson is wearing a black-and-white fur coat, with similarly colored eyebrows to match. Welcome to the set of Tinseltown's most unlikely potential blockbuster.
"This is the only way I have been trained to direct, and I love it because it brings [directing] closer to the art of the page," Frank Miller explained this week, moving from his "Sin City" co-directing apprenticeship to his very own Home-Depot-size warehouse drenched in green. "I am a kid in a candy store."
The candy store is called "Will Eisner's 'The Spirit,' " based on a 67-year-old character and the decades-long friendship Miller shared with its creator. Eisner may not have lived long enough to see actors like Jackson, Eva Mendes, Scarlett Johannson and Gabriel Macht bring his eccentric characters to the silver screen, but Miller still feels his presence every day.
"I was just 13 years old when I came across Will Eisner's 'The Spirit,' published by Jim Warren, and was blown away," the graphic novelist-turned-filmmaker remembered. "I thought it was somebody new to comics, because it was so far ahead of anything else coming out. I felt it, religiously. There was one night when I picked up the latest issue of 'The Spirit,' and I was so excited, I had to stop by a lamppost in Vermont where I lived and read it on the spot. That was the Sand Saref story, which is now the basis of this movie."
The plot revolves around one of comic-dom's oldest heroes, but there is no cape involved. The most expensive-looking prop to be seen is a patch of ground that the actors occasionally stand on, referred to as "the grassy knoll." Some might be inclined to wonder how all this is going to add up to make a decent movie, but be warned: The same questions were asked throughout the groundbreaking shoots of Miller's "Sin City" and "300."
"We are a new generation of the new digital-effects era," explained producer and self-proclaimed comic geek Deborah Del Prete. "What we are trying to do here is take it one more step. We have gone beyond 'Sin City' and beyond '300.' ... They are both wonderful films, but this is really Frank Miller from start to finish."
On this particular day, Macht ("Because I Said So") is clad in the all-black hat, trench coat, pants, shirt and Robin-esque mask of the crime-fighting Spirit, contrasted with a bright red necktie. Hanging beneath a basic, one-level fire escape surrounded by Kermit-green, he repeatedly pulls his legs up and pretends to toss an invisible would-be assassin to his death.
"That's the Spirit hunting down the Octopus," Miller explained. "And he's going through some of his snipers on the way."
"Denny Colt is a former cop who is killed in the line of duty," Macht explained of the character, who would later influence such creations as the Crow. "He comes back [to life] because of some mysterious way he doesn't know. ... I don't know if he knows exactly what he is, besides the fact that he fights crime, loves the ladies and fights for truth, justice and the American way."
And oh, what ladies he has to love. "People are going to find that this is a different side to Scarlett Johansson," Del Prete said of the A-lister, who inspired Miller to expand the originally minor role of a character named Silken Floss. "She is quite wonderful in it; she's actually finished shooting. She is very funny, she is very sexy, and she is very different than we have seen her in other movies."
Asked why he cast "Ghost Rider" star Mendes as femme fatale Sand Saref, Miller could only grin. "You've got eyes," he laughed, before adding: "Eva has a wonderful, exquisite anger to her. Her talent aside, her beauty aside, she has an edge that the character really needs."
"Edge" also seems to be the operative word for Jackson as the Octopus, a character best remembered for the "Inspector Gadget"-esque gimmick depicting the villain with mysterious shots of his gloved hands. "The Octopus was always a cipher in the old comics, but I knew that we couldn't get away with two hours of a guy whose face you never see," Miller explained. "So I thought, 'Who would be the perfect nemesis for the Spirit?' and Sam Jackson came to mind. It seemed to me that he had a part like this inside of him, waiting to get out."
One guilty pleasure in being a Jackson fan is observing his often-outlandish facial transformations from movie to movie (for further proof, take a look at the new "Jumper" trailer that has him sporting Johnny Quest hair). This time around, the star has a bald head, white stripes in his eyebrows, five red dots in the middle of his forehead and an outfit that tosses around more leather, buckles and fur than a car accident between Michael Jackson and Zsa Zsa Gabor.
"I'm a slave to fashion; what can I tell you?" the actor laughed between takes. "I want to see an action figure like this for Christmas."
A few weeks before the film hits theaters in January 2009, Jackson is likely to get his wish. Producers are promising a funnier, more colorful film than "Sin City," and something far more family-friendly than "300."
"Eisner's Spirit is a true American hero; he is a man who is really trying to do right and to right wrongs," Del Prete explained of the film, which is set in modern times. "There's a lot of comedy in this movie. It has film-noir sensibilities, no doubt, visually. But there is also a lot of humor."
What ultimately sets this project apart, however, is that there will also be a lot of Frank Miller. Asked why he has embraced the green-screen aesthetic, one of Hollywood's hottest first-time filmmakers shot back, "That's like asking a blacksmith why he uses a hammer."
"[Technology] is exploding all around us," he added, clearly invigorated by the unlikely new chapter in his life. "I see a beautiful, grand collision between anime and live-action comic books, and I feel like I'm witnessing all of these forces come together and borrow from each other. It is a very exciting time."
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