Photo: Lewis Jacobs
Frank Miller
“I made the mistake of trying to be a screenwriter, which is much like being a fire hydrant with a bunch of dogs lined up around it.”
Capturing The Spirit
Written by Denis Faye

For years, no love was lost between Frank Miller and the movie business.

Of course, it wasn’t always like that, especially when Hollywood approached the acclaimed comic book writer to pen the second and third installments of the Robocop franchise. Miller leapt at the chance. He had achieved huge success in the comic world redefining Batman and Daredevil, so this seemed like a logical transition.

Things didn’t go as planned.

“I made the mistake of trying to be a screenwriter,” explains Miller, “which is much like being a fire hydrant with a bunch of dogs lined up around it.”

So Miller returned to print, churned out classics like Sin City and 300 and blatantly refused to sell the film rights. Then Robert Rodriguez (El Mariachi, Spy Kids) came along and begged Miller to make a Sin City movie. Not only did he promise to remain faithful to Miller’s vision, he made him an offer he couldn’t refuse -- he’d share the director’s chair.

Romance bloomed anew. “Robert Rodriguez introduced me to directing,” Miller says, “and I fell in love with moviemaking.”

Now it’s Miller’s turn to pay celluloid tribute to a comic book legend with the Christmas release of The Spirit, based on Will Eisner’s long-running comic book series. The writer-director took a few minutes to talk with the Writers Guild of America West Web site about how he went about adapting such a classic character, as well as why actors rule and why the world needs Batman.

How does your creative process differ between comic book writing and screenwriting?

Robert Rodriguez taught me when we did Sin City that all the same principles apply. A good story is a good story. A good plot is a good plot. A good character is a good character. The difference I see is that movies take a lot more pictures than comic books do.

Photo: © 2008 Lionsgate/Odd Lot Entertainment
Gabriel Macht in The Spirit.
But the greatest difference is that in movies you get to work with these amazing creatures called actors who bring a moment to life in a way that I don’t know that any drawing ever could. I continually marvel at their tenacity, hard work, and intelligence.

So when you’re writing for an actor, as opposed to a panel of a book, do you write differently?

I like to write for the actor as much as possible. When I found out that Sam Jackson was willing to play The Octopus, I wrote the entire part for him. When I wrote Commissioner Dolan and I realized Dan Lauria was playing him, I took all his nice lines and left him really rough and tumble and mean because you can’t look at Dan Lauria’s face and not fall in love. When I first got Scarlett Johansson I wrote the entire part for her because I realized that she was an amazing comedian. It was very much like working with a young Lucille Ball.

So it’s really a collaboration with the actor.

I’m really an actor’s guy. I really love ‘em.

Do you find any restrictions writing for the screen that you didn’t have in comics?

Oh yes, there are restrictions. You have to always be aware, at least, that if you throw in the wrong word at the wrong moment, the rating board’s going to descend on you like a pack of vultures.

Considering the incredibly distinct voice you have, how did you negotiate that with the incredibly distinct voice Will Eisner had with The Spirit?

I used my own voice. I refracted his and respected his, but I don’t think he would have respected me if I had imitated him.

I know that your own relationship with Hollywood was rocky at first. With this in mind, was being the custodian of Will Eisner’s vision a source of stress for you?

If he had ever considered me a custodian, he would have taken my broom and hit me over the head with it a thousand times. I was taking his work and interpreting it.

You two were close before he passed away. Did you ever discuss the idea of making a movie based on The Spirit?

Only briefly and all he said was that he hoped The Spirit wouldn’t hold a gun.

That’s it?

That was it.

The Spirit’s dialogue and narration was a sort of hardboiled poetry, as opposed to being naturalistic. What that what you had in mind?

Yes. I believe The Spirit was done during Will Eisner’s romantic period. Since I’m a romantic, I naturally lent myself to that.

You never see the Octopus in the book, yet you see plenty of him in the movie. What was the creative process in converting the character like that?

Well, I immediately saw Sam Jackson as the Octopus and he saw himself as the Octopus too, so we got along right off the bat. The Spirit needed a Grand Guignol villain, a big villain to match his energy.

You have a vigilante, anti-authority theme that shows up in pretty much everything you’ve ever written. Is that something you seek to do, or does it just come out of you?

It’s who I am.

So you’re just drawn to those characters.

I don’t believe you can have good without evil, virtue without sin, so for there to be heroes, there has to be a world that needs them. Why would we have a Batman who throws people through windows if we didn’t have a pretty awful world to need him?