By Beth Accomando

Will Eisner’s The Spirit debuted in 1940 as a comic book insert in Sunday papers. The Spirit served up a costumed crime fighter that wore a mask but no tights, and Eisner provided a gritty, detailed view of his urban setting. Now Eisner’s friend and fellow comic book artist Frank Miller is bringing The Spirit to the big screen. The result is a Spirit that is artistically as much Miller’s as it is Eisner’s

“Well I kept looking over my shoulder and seeing him there, challenging me,” says Miller, “I tried to do him justice but at the same time I had to do my own work.”


For the film, Miller leaves behind the primary colors of the old strip for a mostly black and white palette that gives the story a more film noir feel. But if you think that’s opting for a clichéd style, think again.


“There is no cliché in it,” Miller says, “There is only cliché when people try to imitate [noir.] But when people embrace what film noir really is they find an inner truth that’s wonderful. The darkness that is the noir of film noir is internal darkness, it’s not external. The Batman people always get it wrong because they keep trying to make things look really dark and scary when in fact film noir is about inner darkness, and the frightening scent of our souls.”

But while there’s a darkness at the heart of the film — after all the lead character is someone who’s died and been reborn as a savoir for his city — there’s a lot of humor as well. Miller, who serves as writer and director, mixes it up both in terms of tone and time periods. So while the film looks like it’s set in the forties, people use technology from the new millennium.


“You have to have cell phones to make the forties stuff work,” Miller insists, “Because otherwise it’s just a piece of nostalgia. And I wanted it to feel as modern as our world but at the same time I wanted to evoke the best of the forties.”


Miller also mixes live action with animation, romance with Tex Avery style cartoon violence.


“I’m a cartoonist. What do you expect?” Miller says in his defense.


Essentially that means he knows no boundaries. So The Spirit boasts a bold visual style where splashes of color are used to reflect the emotions of the characters, and the city becomes a personality as strong as any of the people. Miller is able to get his unique vision on the screen because he’s able to draw elaborate storyboards to lay out the action for his cast and crew.

“We’d shoot twelve hours and then I’d go back to the condo where I was staying and I would draw pictures. Then I’d come back and paste them on a board and people would understand what I wanted. If they didn’t understand, I’d draw another picture. It’s really wonderful as a director to be able to draw. Because as soon as you draw a picture, people understand what you want.”


But Miller almost wrote off movies. He suffered a horrible experience trying to work with Hollywood on Robocop and a Batman movie and had essentially turned his back on the industry. Then an upstart from Austin named Robert Rodriguez showed him how movies could be made with an adaptation of Miller’s Sin City. So now Miller works in movies not in Hollywood. Miller says he learned to love movies on Rodriguez’ set.


“I learned what it takes to really project your imagination to people and I saw Robert with his camera, with his editing, with everything, and I saw a complete filmmaker. I saw him and thought this looked kind of fun. He turned me into a filmmaker.”


The Spirit opens throughout San Diego on December 25.