Injecting Noir Into A Comic-Book Classic Frank Miller, who became known for bringing new depth to Batman in the '80s and expanding the audience for graphic novels, has directed The Spirit, created by comic-book pioneer Will Eisner. Miller says the key to keeping the movie dark is its tone.
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Injecting Noir Into A Comic-Book Classic

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Injecting Noir Into A Comic-Book Classic

Injecting Noir Into A Comic-Book Classic

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

It's All Things Considered from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel. Two legendary comic-book artists have come together in movie theaters. Will Eisner was a pioneer in comic books in the 1930s, and he was a mentor to Frank Miller, who became known for bringing new depth to "Batman" in the '80s and expanding the audience for graphic novels. Well, now Frank Miller is directing a screen version of his mentor's seminal work, "The Spirit." Beth Accomando of member station KPBS reports.

BETH ACCOMANDO: In a way, Frank Miller was destined to work on movies. His cinematic sensibility made his graphic novels "Sin City" and "300" look like storyboards begging to be filmed. Miller says you simply can't ignore the impact of film on pop culture.

Mr. FRANK MILLER (Writer; Artist): There is always an overpowering and strong story form, and right now, it's cinema, and right now, we all work in that direction. So, my comics have always been aimed in that direction; I just didn't know it.

ACCOMANDO: Now Miller is embarking on a second career as a film director, but for his first solo project, he's not adapting one of his own comics. Instead he's tackling the Will Eisner classic "The Spirit." "The Spirit" debuted in 1940 as a comic-book insert in Sunday papers. The comic served up a hardboiled crime fighter who wore a mask, but no tights or cape. The Spirit was a cop that had died and then returned from the dead to become the indestructible champion of Central City.

(Soundbite of movie "The Spirit")

Mr. GABRIEL MACHT: (As the Spirit) All the enemy has is guns and knives. I have an entire city as my weapon.

ACCOMANDO: The Spirit lived under his beloved city, but watched over it, ready to intervene at any moment to fight crime.

(Soundbite of movie "The Spirit")

Mr. GABRIEL MACHT: (As the Spirit) My arsenal, iron-jawed fire escapes, manmade lightning, unforgiving pavement.

ACCOMANDO: For the film, Miller opts for a mostly black and white palette that gives the story a more film-noir feel, but Miller says film noir is not just about moody lighting.

Mr. MILLER: Film noir is about inner darkness and the frightening scent of our souls. The darkness that is the noir of film noir is internal darkness; it's not external.

ACCOMANDO: Embracing the moral ambiguity of film noir is the way to avoid cliche, says Miller. The other key is to not be tied down to a time period. So, Miller strives for timeless quality. That means tweaking audience expectations about what kind of guns, clothes and props turn up in this '40s setting.

Mr. MILLER: You have to have cell phones to make the '40s stuff work, 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 '40s.

(Soundbite of movie "The Spirit")

Ms. SARAH PAULSON: (As Ellen) What's on your agenda tonight?

Mr. MACHT: (As the Spirit) I don't know. If things stay quiet, I'd be up for anything.

Ms. PAULSON: (As Ellen) Anything?

Mr. MACHT: (As the Spirit) Or maybe if I break the rules...

Ms. PAULSON: (As Ellen) I feel like breaking all kinds of rules. Lower the blinds.

Mr. MACHT: (As the Spirit) They're all the way the down.

Ms. PAULSON: (As Ellen) Oh, fast hands.

Mr. MACHT: (As the Spirit) And quiet.

ACCOMANDO: Nowadays, comic-book movies are a mainstay in Hollywood, but the iconoclastic Miller refuses to work within Hollywood conventions that demand conformity in both storytelling and visual style. Miller's proud of his comic-book roots, and that's why fans like Treygan Loftus(ph) have faith that he can translate material from one medium to another.

Mr. TREYGAN LOFTUS: If anyone is going to capture the comic book the way it should be if it's a comic-book movie, a comic-book writer is the perfect person to do that, and someone like Frank Miller, who writes very mature, complex themes, he's the kind of person that can capture that kind of comic book.

ACCOMANDO: But "The Spirit" isn't just any comic book. It's a signature work by Miller's mentor. So, the whole time he was shooting, Miller says he kept looking over his shoulder and seeing Will Eisner there. Miller says he tried to maintain a balance between doing his mentor justice and making the work his own. Miller says that it will still look like Eisner's original comic, and if it doesn't, then his mentor will rise from the grave like the Spirit to strangle him. For NPR News, I'm Beth Accomando.

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