We take a trip to New Mexico for a first look at Frank Miller's latest directorial effort
I knew this was going to be a good trip. As soon as I got in the Prime Time Shuttle for a quick ride to LAX, I found a handful of cash wedged in the seatbelt hole. A surge of excitement ran through my veins. "How much?" Was all I could think as I pulled it out and counted it. Twenty bucks! Not a bad haul for doing nothing. I thought about turning it over to the driver, but realized a previous customer had probably left it there. They wouldn't come looking for it. The guy behind the wheel would just pocket the cash. And he didn't deserve a tip, let alone the thick stack of green that had just come into my possession. I quickly shoved it into my pocket with a dream of all the things I would buy for my journey. A book. Breath mints. Four DVDs from T. The possibilities were limitless.
I was headed to Albuquerque, New Mexico for another set visit. Two, actually. The first was "Will Eisner's The Spirit". A green screen extravaganza being directed by Frank Miller. It is based on an old comic book, and stars Gabriel Macht as The Spirit and Samuel L. Jackson as the Octopus. Also appearing in the film are Louis Lombardi and Eva Mendes. Not much is known about the exact plot, but when I interviewed Mendes a few months back for We Own the Night, she seemed extremely excited about the project. She is playing femme fatale Sand Saref in the film. The screenplay is derived mostly from her storyline in the comics. The second set visit was for the untitled Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor thriller formerly known as Game, which stars Gerard Butler. But more on that in the next column over.
The first stop we made upon arriving at Albuquerque Studios, home of Will Eisner's The Spirit, was the catering tent. I picked up my plastic plate and went down the line. Pork. Fried chicken. Shrimp tostada. Sam Jackson. The actor stood at the plastic salad trough. He picked through a bucket of sliced fruit, still in costume. He studied each piece of pineapple before carefully putting it on his plate. He then studied some cantaloupe. I'm not sure if he is a method actor. Maybe he was still in character. This was the first look I'd gotten of The Octopus; Master Villain. I won't be able to watch his performance now without thinking about his salad selections. The guy was spooky.
A circle of dots rested directly in the middle of his forehead. He was wearing white eye shadow, and his eyebrows were trimmed in the most unusual fashion. He wore a scarf, and a long sleeve red cotton shirt. Thick black glasses obscured his eyes. Best of all, he was wearing a pair of black patent leather boots and a pair of black patent leather genie pants. As The Octopus is not really seen in the comic books, except for his gloved hands, this was Frank Miller's interpretation of the character. And, standing there at the far end of the catering tent, Sam looked like M.C. Hammer in drag getting a pre-bingo snack at the senior center. I don't know any other way to describe him.
Don't hate me yet. This wasn't the full costume. When we finally made it into the studio (just after The Octopus finished his airy, health-conscious lunch) we got to see him in his entire screen-ready getup. As always, Jackson looked like a bad motherfucker. Off came the glasses, revealing the tribal war paint on his face. He silked into a heavy silver and black jacket with a stripped collar. And he had on these massive, metal-draped boots. We were herded behind a chalkboard tacked with storyboard panels. A moment of playback came on the monitor that had been set up for us there.
It was Jackson. In action. He flared up his nose, angry. His eyes popped. And I got a faint notion of where is name came from. We haven't ever really seen Sam like this. Venom dripped out of every pour on his face. He is a killer. He is a comic book super villain. He is ten truckloads of super radical. Gabriel Macht, as The Spirit, came into frame, letting a fist fly right into Jackson's gut. The Octopus soaked it in, reveling in the pain. He is one scary dude. The image paused, streaking the screen with static.
Not more than a second later, Sam was standing beside us in person. At the chalkboard. A couple of spare Octopus jackets had been hung on a rack right next to the monitor. Sam took one look at all of us and tore open a grin that was both meant to mock us and be self deprecating at the same time. He then offered up one of his unused jackets, right off the rack. He joked about his eye shadow, "I'm a slave to fashion!"
Caught in the moment, one of the journalists standing next to me went to lean against the wall, falling instead. The location manager ripped him with, "They call it green screen for a reason." Sam laughed. He then went into his salesman spiel, trying to sell us on his wardrobe, "You better buy this now, before it's on Ebay. I'll let you touch it. Feel it. Cash only. I don't take checks. It is made from old chinchilla. We let them die naturally before we put them on the coat." He laughed. He then walked around the chalkboard, stepping in front of the camera.
Sam and Gabriel were in the process of shooting the finale fight scene. And it looked to be a long process. The action was taking place on stage 8 inside this giant green aquarium. Everything, besides the actors, is going to be added into the film later. At this point, there was nothing but a sea of sandbags and lighting equipment. Even in the bleak, antiseptic landscape of the lime curtains, Jackson and Macht looked super cool. This was a true comic frame come to life. Light bounced off the silver, giving the scene a noir-heavy feel. The image on the monitor was very pulpy. It was as if we were watching a graphic novel come to life before our eyes. And it was all reliant on the characters. Even without the painted-in backdrop, the scene still looked enthralling. The Spirit himself was very simple. He wore all black, except for a red tie. A black mask rested on the midsection of his face, held there by spirit gum.
We watched them set up for a good twenty minutes. And nothing happened. Finally, a moment of rehearsal came. The Spirit was to pull a grenade out from behind his back. But it got stuck. Gabriel was having a hard time with it. He shrugged this off, and tried again. Then, he just stood there. For a very long time. We were soon ushered out of the room.
After waiting around for a couple more minutes behind the three story green curtain, a break was called. Gabriel Macht took this time to talk with us. It was intended as a quaint meet and greet. A quick, "Hi, how do you do?" But were allowed to also ask him a couple of pertinent questions. And that's when I learned how one set visit can directly affect another.
While on the set of Lions for Lambs last year I got a chance to talk with Meryl Streep. If you've seen the film, you know she does an hour-long interview with Tom Cruise's character without ever using a recording device. She writes in short hand. I asked her about the process, and she got me quite interested in it.
Well, that skill came in quite useful today, as there were no recording devices allowed on the set of Frank Miller's The Spirit. Our only choice was to work in short hand.
Gabriel Macht is The Spirit!
Can you describe the Spirit in your own words?
Gabriel Macht: Denny Colt is a former cop that dies in the line of duty. He comes back to the living in a mysterious way. He doesn't quite know how. He is trying to figure it out for himself. I don't think he quite knows what he is other than he fights crime. And he loves the ladies. This is a man that is trying to figure out himself. He believes in truth, justice, and the American way.
How has it been working with some of this new green screen technology?
Gabriel Macht: I have had a really great time making this film. Everyone that I am working with is at the top of their game. Everyone is just excited about making the best film possible. Everyone is so passionate. I've been having a wonderful time.
Have you read the comic book?
Gabriel Macht: Oh, yeah. I'm a fan now. And to have Frank Miller as a director has been an incredible experience.
What sort of training have you done?
Gabriel Macht: I am on one of those serious diets. I'm weight training, and getting into shape. I want to get a look that is a modern day Spirit. We had a week of stunt training out here before production. I learned how to work the cables.
What sort of stunt training are you doing out here?
Gabriel Macht: It is a combination of martial arts and regular street fighting.
How do you feel about having to wear the mask?
Gabriel Macht: I was really hesitant about having to wear the mask ever day. But I have really gotten into the process of it. It hasn't been a problem at all. I can't smile, or it will all fall off. I can snarl, though.
Have you gotten to see any of the backgrounds at all?
Gabriel Macht: I haven't. I've gotten to see some of the animatics, which Frank took to the animators. They are visual manipulated. There are a lot of things you can do in terms of this film.
Why do you think they chose you for this role?
Gabriel Macht: I have no idea. I think that there might be some element of absurdity that I came along, and that lends to the sense of humor of the film. I think it might fall into the same line as Frank's.
And with that, Macht was whisked into the next room for another short scene that would prove laborious in its execution.
After speaking with Gabriel, we headed into studio 7, where the film crew was setting up a shot on a fake fire escape. The wrought iron mock-up rested against a green wall. Gabriel climbed up the ladder with his loyal stuntman beside him. The contraption seemed pretty sturdy. Three other crewmembers remained on the fire escape as they began to rehearse for a short snippet of film. Everyone was waiting for Frank Miller to come in and approve the set-up.
While that was going on, an old grey newspaper truck marked Ditko's Speedy Delivery was pushed from one end of the studio barn to the other. In the background, two set technicians played with a trampoline. Mr. Miller came in and instantly began picking at some food on a foiled plate. Which made me laugh. Back at Comic Con earlier this year, I was allowed to ask Frank Miller one question as he made his way down the red carpet for the 300 DVD premier. My question was, "What do you like to snack on when you are drawing your picture books?" His response? "Whatever is lying around." I found it very funny at the time, and now I was getting to see the answer to my question in person. He was, in fact, nibbling on what ever was laying around.
Studio 7 was also decked out in giant lime green curtains. It was a buzzing neon landscape that made everything seem incredibly sterile. A few areas were marked off with a bit of practical stage dressing. In one far-reaching corner was the grassy knoll. This was a makeshift island of fake straw, littered with old license plates and pieces of machinery. A crumpled bike lay on its side. In the middle of this massive room was one piece of brick wall. It looked like it had been pulled directly out of a comic book. Around it were a pile of beat up garbage cans and faked out steam vents.
After finishing his snack, Miller hurried his skinny frame over to the fake fire escape. He was dressed like Crocodile Dundee, unshaven red hairs poking spryly out of his neck. He watched as Gabriel Macht jumped up to the metal walkways above the fire escape ladder. The actor starting doing push-ups while his stand-in/stunt double looked on. Someone on the ground yelled out, "Keep the area between the roof and the set clear."
Action was called, and Gabriel swung his legs up. Copious amounts of dust came flying off his shoes as he tried to do a back flip off the railing. It was a cheat, though, as he only performed half of this stunt on his own. The cinematographer called for a wider shot, and Macht went through the motion a couple of more times. Miller shouted, "Give it a little bit of a snarl, Gabe!" Macht misunderstood and did the sweeping leg kick with a wide, gregarious smile. "What kind of face is that you are making?"
"I thought you said smile."
"God damn it, you are all fired." It is a joke, of course. The scene is done two or three more times before Miller calls cut, "Perfect." The artistic icon then gets out of his director's chair and shuffles over to our small group. This is our conversation:
Interview: Frank Miller
This is your second time directing. How does it feel?
Frank Miller: It is a real privilege. I am in love with the material, and doing my best to be fair to it.
What are some of the challenges you are facing, especially with some of this new technology?
Frank Miller: This isn't the time, really, where I think it is appropriate to refer to challenges of technologies so much as opportunities. Right now, it is almost frightening what is possible. One of the challenges for a director of a movie that uses so much digital technology is what not to do. You have to ask yourself, "I can do this, but should I?"
Give us an example of something you never thought you could do, but then you figured out a way to do it.
Frank Miller: When I was working with Robert Rodriguez, virtually anything was possible. I have learned some brand new things on this film that I never dreamed of.
What were you guys just filming?
Frank Miller: We were filming a scene where the Spirit was hunting down the Octopus, and he was going through some of his snipers along the way.
He was apparently snarling and not smiling, is that correct?
Frank Miller: That is correct. He was snarling, not smiling.
Can you talk about when you first discovered The Spirit, and Will Eisner's work? And what kind of affect it had on you?
Frank Miller: I was probably about thirteen years old. I came across Will Eisner's The Spirit as published by Jim Warren. I was blown away. I thought it was someone new to comics, because it was so far ahead of anything else that was coming out. I followed it religiously. There was one night, when I picked up the latest issue. I was so excited, I had to stop by a lamppost in Vermont, where I lived, and read it on the spot. It was the Sand Saref story, which is the basis for this movie.
Can you talk about casting Eva Mendes in the role of Sand Saref?
Frank Miller: I know you wear glasses, but you've got eyes. Eva has a wonderful, exquisite anger to her. Her talent, alongside her beauty, brings an edge to the character that she really needs.
Can you talk about the rest of the casting? What about Sam Jackson?
Frank Miller: Even from the start, I wanted to have Sam Jackson play the Octopus. I have always wanted to work with Sam Jackson. The Octopus was always a cipher in the old comics. I knew you couldn't get away with two hours of a guy whose face you never saw. I thought Sam Jackson would be perfect for the Octopus. He came to mind. I've felt he has always had a part like this inside of him, waiting to get out.
He changes his look in every single movie. What is his look going to be like in this movie?
Frank Miller: He is the Octopus!
Do you play with the unseen nature of the Octopus, or do you just dive right into it being Sam?
Frank Miller: Oh, if I start telling you that, you would keep asking those sorts of questions.
Why have you decided to do a second green screen film?
Frank Miller: I don't know. I am a kid in a candy store. This is the only way I have been trained to direct. I love it, because it brings it closer to the art of the page.
Are you reveling in the technology? How has it changed since Sin City?
Frank Miller: It is exploding all around us. I see a grand and beautiful collision between film and anime, and comic books. I feel like I am witnessing all of these forces come together and borrow from each other. It is very exciting. I am having a good time with this fusion.
How is this movie going to look like Will Eisner?
Frank Miller: Well, Will Eisner was always a little shorter than I was and balding. It is going to be quite faithful to Will's vision as an artist. I have often laid out storyboards my way. And Eisner's way. And I have always gone with Eisner's way.
There is a lot of humor in this film, right?
Frank Miller: It wouldn't be Will Eisner's Spirit if there wasn't.
What aspect of Will's work did you want to get perfect in translating this project to the screen?
Frank Miller: The passion that Will and I always shared for New York City. You will see some very familiar touches that come from Will Eisner, and that come from the city that we both love.
And with that, the director was called back to the set. In the very near future, we will have more from the set and an in-depth interview about the project from Deborah Del Prete. Stay tuned. Will Eisner's The Spirit opens January 16th, 2009.