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SATURDAY, NOVEMBER 17, 2007


The Spirit director Frank Miller and director of photography Bill Pope

THE SPIRIT SET VISIT: DEBORAH DEL PRETE

Continuing a series of reports from The Continuum's visit to the set of The Spirit

ALBUQUERQUE, New Mexico -- A big, old-fashioned truck was wheeled onto the set of The Spirit movie one afternoon earlier this week. The lettering on the side of the gray vehicle was hard to miss -- DITKO SPEEDY DELIVERY.

She wasn't the subject of a delivery, but seconds later producer Deborah Del Prete arrived on the set for an interview with a group of genre journalists visiting for the day.

As the reporters found proper footing and an area to converge around Del Prete, The Continuum asked her aside if the Ditko on the truck had anything to do with comics artist Steve Ditko.

"Maybe," she said, breaking into a sly grin, an acknowledgement from one comics reader to another.

Yes, Del Prete is a big-time comics geek, and while her Odd Lot Entertainment has produced several movies, The Spirit -- based on Will Eisner's creation -- figures to be special in her career.

Teaming with producer Michael Uslan, who brings vast experience in the comics-to-film world, and with what would appear to be the perfect source material and technological timing for writer/director Frank Miller, Del Prete is overseeing one of comic's classic characters interpreted in a very modern, state-of-the-art manner.

During the interview with the group, she talked about her surprise at getting involved with the property, working with Miller and how the casting choices for The Spirit came about.

Below is an edited transcription of the interview.

Question: What are you shooting today?

Del Prete: We're shooting part of what we call The Projects today, which is part of finale of the movie, the big last set piece in the film. We shoot two units simultaneously. Frank (Miller, writer/director) and I actually have stations wherever we are, where we're seeing everything on both units.

So that, if there's a shot on the second unit, what we call the splinter unit, going on, which is basically these stunts, we can go, "Oh, that isn't exactly right!" and go over and deal with it.

Question: Is there a difference between the black screens and the greens?

Del Prete: Yes, we're a new generation of the new digital effects era. What we're trying to do here is take it one more step. We've gone beyond Sin City and beyond 300. And we're taking the techniques from that and going a step further. Our visual effects guru, Stu Maschwitz, is calling for green, which is good for certain backgrounds, while black is better for others. In some things, you don't want the reflections from green if you're going to be compositing and things. Sometimes we shoot on black and sometimes we shoot on green.

Question: There's no quintessential Spirit story you're drawing from? Where are you basing the story from?

Del Prete: A number of them. But I would say that, without going into specific ones, I would say the Sand Sareff stories are a major component.

Question: Can you talk about the cast?

Del Prete: Let's start with Gabriel (Macht, who plays The Spirit). Frank and I made a decision a number of months ago that we weren't necessarily going to cast The Spirit as a major name actor, that we would spend a lot of time really searching, really auditioning and finding the person who really embodied the qualities we felt were the quintessential Spirit. To that end, we had a lot of auditioning and a lot of interviewing, and we found that Gabriel Macht. He had done a number of roles in movie and some great work, but was not a very large name -- at this moment. We felt he really captured what we wanted The Spirit to be.

Question: Which is what?

Del Prete: He's a hero, OK? The Spirit is a true American hero. He is a man who really is trying to do right and to right wrongs. We wanted somebody who had that in them. We also particularly wanted somebody who was relatable to the common man because The Spirit is a guy could be anybody. We wanted somebody who had a quality of the everyday, but we also wanted somebody who had the humor and the twinkle in his eye, and somebody who we could believe did great with women. The Spirit is also very much a lover, and we needed somebody who had all that: the sex appeal, heroic quality and the guy-next-door quality.

Question: Is this a period story?

Del Prete:No, there is no period. Central City is its own world. It's not New York, it's not L.A. It's a city that can be any place, some place in time. It's contemporary. There are cel phones, but the costumes are somewhat stylized, so it's a kind of everywhere/nowhere/any time.

Question:Eva Mendes describes her character as a femme fatale.

Del Prete: Oh, she is a femme fatale, very much so. First of all, we all think of all of The Spirit's women as femme fatales. They're all sort of women with power and they have some ability to have a dangerous edge to them. Even the nicest of them have strength. And they're all femme fatales, and they're all beautiful in all different ways.

But I guess Sand is the premiere femme fatale of Eisner's femme fatales. Sand Sareff is the great, original love of the The Spirit's life. And she is also the girl who goes bad. She becomes pretty much a criminal mastermind of her own. So, she essentially is the ultiamate. She's beautiful, she's sexy, she's smart, she's powerful, she's a little avaricious ... she wants beautiful things.

All of Spirit's world, if we compare it to Manhattan, it's the lower side of Manhattan. It's not the uptown, it's the downtown. They were not well-off kids. They were poor kids. She's the girl who tried to get away from that and made her life something different -- illegally.

Question: So why did you cast Eva?

Del Prete: Because she is breathtaking, she is powerful, she's exotic, and, at the same time, she could be your girl next door as well. She has amazing qualities that she gets across on camera. She's just ideal in the world. We all love her. She's just perfect.

Question: What about Scarlett Johansson and her character?

Del Prete: Well, Scarlett's character when Frank was first conceiving the movie was a very small role, and it wasn't specifically for Scarlett. Frank went and met with Scarlett, came back and said, "I know what I want to do with this role." At the point, just having a general meeting with Scarlett, he said he had idea for Silken Floss and want to take her and make her a bigger character and that he thought Scarlett Johansson is the person who could bring her to life.

So she was pretty much customed to her. But I also think that people are also going to find this is a different side of Scarlett Johansson. She's quite wonderful in it. She's actually finished shooting. She's very funny. She's very sexy. And she's very different than we've seen her in other movies.

Question: And Samuel L. Jackson?

Del Prete: Sam was the only choice ever for The Octopus. If you know the comic, we never see The Octopus in the comic. That's not necessarily how it will be in this movie. (laughs) But Sam is actor who has been waiting his life to play the super villain and this is the super villain of super villains. Our Octopus is quite a psychotic character. Insane is the best way I can describe him. But quite brilliant. Very, very smart. Evil smart.

And Sam is just amazing in it. Sam is larger than life and Octopus is a larger-than-life character.

Question: Would you call this movie an origin story?

Del Prete: I wouldn't call it an origin story. In fact, one of the things Frank said when we first talked over the project was that he wasn't interested in just telling an origin story. That's sort of not what he likes to do. I would say that people will find quite a bit of origin in it, but it's certainly like no origin story because that isn't the focus of the story. There will be origin revealed within it and I think in a unique and quite refreshing way.

Question: How do you think Frank's relationship with Will Eisner has effected his take on the material?

Del Prete: Tremendous. Frank and Will's friendship was very long. As everybody is aware, Frank considers Will a mentor. And I will tell you, I've been working with Frank a long time on the project and we've developed the script a long period, I would say pretty much not a day went by we didn't talk about Will and what Will's take was on it.

I was fortunate enough to meet Will also, spend time talking with him about the film before he became ill and passed away. So we've been very careful about protecting the things that we felt Will would have wanted protected. We laughed many days about how Will would have liked scenes coming to life and really loved it. Frank is always considering Will throughout.

But he's still Frank Miller. And it's the Frank Miller take on Will. One of the things Frank is always telling me is they became friends and had a life-long argument over what was the way to do this or that or the other. Many of have you read the Eisner/Miller book and can see that. And I think that continues on.

Question: Frank Miller's work tends to be R-rated. Will Eisner's The Spirit was very clean and you could give it to an 11-year-old. So is this going to be something in between?

Del Prete: I think that would be the right way to put it. I believe it is something in betwen. I feel the character has a lot of a James Bond quality to it. It's adventure, it's a mystery, it's romance. But yeah, I think it's somewhere in the middle. There's still some Frank Miller edge to it, there's no doubt, but there's an Eisner sensibility.

Question: Are you going for a rating?

Del Prete: We're not going for anything. We're going for the movie we make, honestly -- and whatever that movie turns out to be. We never once sit there and go, Oh, will this make it this or that? Never.

Question: Were the comic books on set?

Del Prete: Oh, yeah. First of all, Frank boarded everything. So Frank drew. We pre-vized from what Frank drew. But also what Frank did was he took some of what he felt to be the most important Spirit stories and he made a book for all the art departments, the actors. Each one had a book made by Frank, of the important Spirit stories. Then again, Frank drew stuff his way and gave them that as well.

Question: For people not familiar with The Spirit comics, how easy is it for that transition.

Del Prete: Extremely. Are there a couple of inside jokes? Yeah. But that doesn't matter. None of those inside jokes matter unless you know the inside joke. Everything else in store, we were very careful to go through a vetting process and let people who didn't know the comics look at the story. If they'd say, "Hmm, I don't understand this," and then we'd review that. So we've made it extremely accesible to someone who isn't a fan of The Spirit.

Question: How did you become involved?

Del Prete: I met a guy named Michael Uslan about seven years ago. My partner, Gigi Pritzker, and I have a company called Odd Lot Entertainment. She and I have business partners about 22 years, and beside our film company, we owned a theater in Los Angeles. One of the actors there introduced me to Michael Uslan because I am a comic-book fan and collect comics. He know I collected comics and am a big fan. I've always gone to Comic-Con.

And Michael is a guy who has worked in comics all his life in film. He actually is somebody who's gotten rights to all these various comics. He's executive producer for all the Batman movies because at a very young age he worked at DC and was able to get a lot of film rights.

So we became friendly because of the comic thing. And one day he came to me and said, "I have the rights to one of the greatest comic creations of all time." And he said a few things, and I said, "Don't tell me you have The Spirit." This is actually a true story, Michael tells it all the time. He said to me, "I knew I was in the right place."

He asked if we'd like to do it. At that point, he was afraid to give it directly to a studio, having had some mixed experiences with that in the past. And so I was completely into it and said yeah, we'd love to. My partner and my company not only produces movies, but finances movies. We develop things. We take it from the original material. I have a large staff that I work with.

So we took on the project. It was the right project. It was something I personally loved, and I could really feel comfortable working on.

Question: Why Lionsgate?

Del Prete:We decided and then we got Frank to come in. And we started developing it. And then we had to decide who we would make the movie with, what studio. We took the script that we developed thus far and literally sent it to everybody. "You have 24 hours to read this. Tell us if you're interested. And we won't be developing it with you. We will be doing the movie that we want to make. What do you want to do?"

And we got offers from people and we went and we vetted them. I had meetings and really sat there and listened to them and saw who was going to let us make the movie we wanted to make. And Lionsgate was the company we decided was going to be a great partner and really understand that we have a unique artist in Frank Miller. We want a Frank Miller movie. We don't want some committee. We want his voice, OK? Listen, we all know what happens in a lot of movies. You don't get that in a lot of places. And we really believed that Lionsgate was going to give us that. And they've been really fantastic and incredibly supportive. And my company, Odd Lot, are full partners with them in this film. It's not like us working for them. We're theirp artner. And they've acted that way and have really given us cooperation to make this movie. And, here we are on the set, and we've had no interference. You can ask Frank.

Question: Have you seen his progression as film director? He's still kind of new at that.

Del Prete: I know, but he's not a first-time director. He's an amazing talent. Frank is such an extraordinary talent in every way.

One of the interesting things is that when we first got involved, you're cautious when you're in my position and you go and talk to everybody. I spent a lot of time talking to Robert Rodriguez (Miller's co-director on Sin City) and some other people who had worked with Frank. And they all said, one of the things that's going to surprise -- because I think we all get his visual sensibilities, probably second to none -- is that he's great with actors. Which is a bit of a surprising piece of information.

Well, he's unbelievable with actors. He really understands actors and how to talk to them and what to give them, information. And the man is one of the most visionary people out there today. His sensibilities of what belongs on screen is pretty much way advanced for somebody you might consider an early director.

I also think Frank is one of those genius people who is a sponge. He learned quickly. He worked with Rodriguez and absorbed tremendous amounts. This is his film now, and he's really got it.

Question: Had you talked to him before the success of Sin City?

Del Prete: Oh, yeah. The first time I had met Frank Miller was at the premiere of Sin City, actually. And that was when I told him that we had the rights to The Spirit. It was well before 300, well before.

Question: With Sin City, Frank had Rodriguez for the camera work. Does Frank have other people to work with on this?

Del Prete: Absolutely. We spent a lot of time working on that, deciding who the other plays would be. We have an amazing DP, Bill Pope, who is an extraordinary talent. He and Frank shared a tremendous sensibility. Bill came in really knowing and loving Frank's work as an artist. We very fortunate to have the choice of a lot of tremendous talent, and Bill and Frank just clicked really well.

Question: How is this film going to be similar to Sin City and what's going to set it apart?

Del Prete: How it is going to be similar is that it's going to be based on material that is graphic in nature. The Spirit is comics and strips, and Sin City is a graphic novel. How's it going to be similar? Frank Miller is, in essence, author of the work, although it's formed by Eisner.

It's different in that it's a generation away from it, already. What they learned in Sin City, Frank's been able to take to another level... This is really Frank Miller start to finish. So that's the difference.

And anybody who knows Sin City and knows The Spirit, The Spirit is definitely a different tone that Sin City. Sin City is very, very dark. This is the darker version of Eisner, but there's Eisner in it. It's funny. This is a funny movie. There's a lot of comedy in the movie.



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