For movie producer Michael Uslan, it has been a decade long journey to get Will Eisner’s classic two-fisted, crime-fighting comics character, The Spirit, onto the big screen, but the long wait has been of his own devising.
“I promised and swore to Will Eisner that nobody was going to touch this project if they didn’t get it, if we couldn’t do it the right way,” stated Uslan. “And I’ve held to that promise.”
Uslan is speaking to a packed room at the 2nd Annual New York Comic Con. It’s late February and not much has been heard about the film since it was announced last June that comic book writer and artist turned film director Frank Miller was announced as the film’s director. Joining Uslan was his producing partner F. J. DeSanto to fill comic fans in on the latest news on the production.
The panel opened with DeSanto reading an email message from Miller, who could not attend due to an injury he suffered while slipping on ice a few weeks earlier. Miller briefly lamented the accident, if only because it has forced him to miss out “on all these chances to tell everybody how much fun I get to have writing Will Eisner’s The Spirit.”
Miller also cautioned attendees on what tone he planned on setting for the film. “And don’t go expecting a nostalgic, tongue-in-cheek romp here. Remember, remember how scary Eisner got whenever he chose to. And remember how he broke your heart with the story of Sand Saref. So expect some hairpin turns, some dead-end, back alley madness of the wet kind. Get set, we’re on our way to some dark places.”
Uslan admits to being protective of the project to the point where he has turned down more than one offer from a studio not for financial reasons but due to what is commonly and euphemistically referred to as “creative differences.”
“We have had many lucrative deals put in front of us that we’ve turned down over the years,” he explained. “We have dealt with people in Hollywood who have said ‘Great, you want to do a Spirit movie? That’s something we’d be interested in financing and distributing. But let’s get him out of this tie and jacket stuff [and into some] spandex and a cape. We’ll work on some designs. And of course we really need super powers so he’ll really die and come back as a ghost. It’ll be supernatural.’ I said ‘That’s a great idea and we can call it The Specter or Deadman.’”
Uslan finally found a collaborator who “got it” in Miller, when the two were having a conversation after Eisner’s memorial service in New York City.
“Sin City had come out a week or two before that and I said, ‘You know Frank, the difference between you and me, I’m trying to make comic books into movies and what you’ve done is you’ve made a movie into a comic book. For the first time I can really, really see The Spirit being done, using this Sin City technology,’” related Uslan. “Immediately, Frank had all kinds of ideas so I said ‘You know, you’ve got to write and direct this.’”
Uslan reported that Miller expressed some doubts about taking on the project. “Frank’s reaction was immediately, ‘I couldn’t do that. You expect me to do something worth of Will Eisner? I couldn’t possibly do that. Who am I?’ But after thinking about this for some time he came back and said ‘I can’t let anyone else do it. I’ve got to do it.’”
Miller dove right into the story development process in a rather interesting way according to DeSanto.
“When we first started talking about the movie and ideas started to pour out of Frank’s head, he would Xerox Will’s graphic novels and start cutting and pasting them into some sort of order,” DeSanto stated. “That’s how he mapped out the initial film. I was having lunch with him about six months ago and all of a sudden he had a pile of papers on his lap and he said ‘Ok., here’s the movie.’”
“It’s not an origin story,” DeSanto continued. “When you meet the Spirit, he is the Spirit. The Eisner elements are in there. We’ll be incorporating the logo into the background. Central City is its own world. With the technology they made Sin City and 300 with, we’re at a really neat point in filmmaking where we can make that world as Eisner-esque as possible. As [Frank] sorted of hinted, we’re going to see some of the femme fatales that Will was so great at creating and we’re going to see the Spirit get into a lot of trouble.”
Although Eisner told a variety of styles of stories with the Spirit comics, Uslan is quick to let fans know, perhaps a little too quick, that these other tales have not been forgotten.
“When we talk about a darker, edgier Spirit, we’re not going to do the whimsical Spirit stories. We’re not going to do Rat-Tat The Machine Gun or Gerhard Shtoball. However, that doesn’t mean that when we move to some animation projects that we won’t necessarily cover that then. But that’s a story I’m not allowed to talk about now.”
Uslan stated that many of the familiar Spirit supporting cast are slated to appear in the film.
“We’ve got Commissioner Dolan and believe me you’ll understand why he is so different from [Batman’s] Commissioner Gordon,” he promised. “Ellen Dolan will be there. Sand Saref and that magnificent romantic triangle will be there. There are villains and femme fatales sprinkled throughout that will delight you and surprise you with the way that Frank deals with them.”
One character who will not be appearing in the film is the Spirit’s sometime sidekick Ebony White, an African-American boy who, despite being one of the few such recurring characters in comics at that time, was often portrayed as a broad stereotype for Stepin Fetchit-type humor.
“It was Frank’s choice,” DeSanto elaborated on the exclusion of the character from the film. “I think that Frank has said that creatively everybody can have a bad day and that that was the bad day for Will.”
“I think what it was for Frank was less about the controversial nature of the character than it was the story doesn’t lend itself to a little kid being involved in the action,” added Uslan. “There’s a world that he created for this movie where endangering a child like that did not make sense.”
Although The Spirit’s popularity was at its height over half a century ago, Uslan has no intentions of making the film a period piece.
“There was something important in our discussions with Will Eisner that he said to us. The question that I posed to Will was this- ‘Should this be set in the 1940s? Should this bet set in the 1950s? Should this be set today?’ He was kind of shocked at my question and said, ‘I never wrote The Spirit in a nostalgic sense. Whenever I wrote it and drew it, I was always doing something that was relevant at that time. He was in the 40s in the 40s. When I was doing it in the 50s it was the 50s.There’s no reason that this shouldn’t be contemporary or at least timeless’,”
“That’s what Frank is going to go for here. There’s going to be a timeless feel to this. The only thing I can throw back to you is what Time Burton did in our first Batman picture where a lot of people, if you asked them, weren’t absolutely sure if that movie took place in the past, present or future or some kind of mix thereof.”
With Miller hard at work on what is hoped to be the final draft of the film, Uslan is anxious to get the production rolling. However, with Miller also involved with the Sin City sequel, he cannot guarantee when cameras will start rolling.
“We are really all kind-of waiting to see how all the pieces are going to fit together, but right now if I had to guess I would say we are going first [before Sin City 2]. Anything could change at any time. Frank’s got to get up and around, feeling 100 percent. Just as a function of business, if we have so-and-so as a star and he’s available on such-and-such a date than we go. If he’s available three months later, we wait. So, these are all factors that have to be figured out.”