Comic-Con summons industry ‘Spirit’

'Twilight' and Frank Miller big lures at event

When the hordes descend on San Diego’s Comic-Con on the last weekend in July, two movies, “Twilight” and “The Spirit,” will be front and center. While neither involves a superhero, distribs Summit and Lionsgate are counting on Comic-Con fans to help turn their respective pics into household words by the time they hit theaters in December.

Sure to earn a warm Comic-Con welcome is comics superstar Frank Miller, the artist-auteur behind the print “The Dark Knight Returns,” “Sin City” and “300.” Miller will show footage from his first solo movie, a film-noirish homage to the late comic master Will Eisner’s vintage comic series “The Spirit.” Besides Miller, Lionsgate will bring to the Con the film’s stalwart hero, Gabriel Macht, villain Samuel L. Jackson and Jaime King, one of several femme fatales.

A Con virgin, Catherine Hardwicke (“Thirteen”) directed the $37 million film version of Stephenie Meyer’s runaway young adult bestseller, “Twilight,” which has sold more than 5.5 million copies in the U.S. alone. The clip from this romantic thriller shows high school senior Kristen Stewart (“Into the Wild”) going to meet a hunky vampire at an empty dance studio. She’s in serious danger — as she is throughout the movie.

Vampires have fed the cinema since its infancy, from Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” and “Nosferatu” to Anne Rice’s “Interview With the Vampire.” But “Twilight” has serious femme appeal. And it’s strictly PG-13.

Hardwicke’s task: adapt the bestseller without angering legions of passionate fans all over the world, from 12 to 70. The director first read a script that had been in development at MTV Films before Summit scooped it up in turnaround. She Googled the title and found a copy of rookie novelist Meyer’s 2005 book.

“It was so much better than the script,” Hardwicke says. “It was very personal and emotional. It made me feel again that giddy, dizzy feeling of a teenager falling in love, when you will do anything. I said, ‘Let’s make the movie more like the book.’ ”

Working with “Dexter” writer Melissa Rosenberg, Hardwicke tried to capture the obsessive intensity of teenager Bella’s feelings for the pale-skinned, charismatic Edward (Robert Pattinson).

“You can have braces and freckles, but because of your smell and who you are, this mysterious creature loves you,” says Hardwicke. “He protects you, he cares about you, he doesn’t care what anybody else thinks. That’s a pretty cool fantasy.”

Because Edward is a vampire who has renounced sucking human blood (he and his coven feed on animals), he struggles to keep himself under control. Bella risks her life to be near him. “He has to hold back,” says Hardwicke. “That’s the sexual tension, the thing that keeps people reading. Is he going to turn her into a vampire?” Time magazine’s profile on the 34-year-old Meyer calls it “the erotics of abstinence.”

Hardwicke insisted that her leads be the same age as the characters, 17. She picked her star-crossed couple by videotaping them on her Venice “magic bed,” the same place that she had auditioned her two leads for “Thirteen.” Hardwicke shot Stewart with three finalists to determine: “Do they play well together, do I feel any heat?” With Stewart and Pattinson (“Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire”) the answer was an emphatic ‘yes.’ All the young Brit needed was a dialogue coach and some muscle training.

Like many women these days, Hardwicke is pining for sex in cinema. “Where are the sexy movies?” she asks. “There are no romantic movies. Romantic comedies aren’t sexy. They’re going for the big laugh. And guys want sexy romance too.”

Guys also like action. Hardwicke hired Jackie Chan’s stunt master to mastermind swooping wirework for her leaping vampires. In one scene, Edward flings himself through the Oregon rain forest with Bella on his back. And the director stages a “Harry Potter”-style vampire league baseball game — in a crashing thunderstorm.

Meyer was hailed by Time as the “next queen of fantasy” with the headline: “The Next J.K. Rowling?” Her first adult novel, “The Host,” is topping the New York Times bestseller list. When Summit slapped a teaser trailer up on MySpace, it pulled 1 million views in 36 hours and since has passed 3.5 million. The current Entertainment Weekly features a cover story on the “Twilight” phenom, five months before the film’s release.

The news flash that may be revealed at the San Diego Twilight panel: the status of the two “Twilight” sequels.

“They are working out all the details and actors’ commitments,” says Hardwicke. “We have to see how the first one does.”

As Hollywood continues to turn comics into movies,Miller is turning movies into comics.

An eminence grise in the comic world — his first trip to Comic-Con was in the ’70s — and a once unhappy refugee from Hollywood movies, Miller scored a big win by writing and co-directing 2005’s stylized black-white-and-red adaptation of his comic “Sin City” with Robert Rodriguez. (The movie grossed $158 million worldwide.)

Miller also rode the crest of success of 2006 hybrid graphic movie “300,” but his adaptation of his graphic novel was directed by Zack Snyder. (Sequels to “Sin City” and “300” are both in the works.)

As he preps his Comic-Con presentation, Miller fondly recalls the days when artists sat around a basement next to boxes full of comics. “It’s now turned into Disneyland, a multimedia congress astonishing in its scale,” he says. ” ‘Sin City’ was part of this merging and cross-breeding.”

Producer Michael Uslan met Miller at Eisner’s funeral soon after “Sin City” opened and asked him to take on the movie. After all, Miller had debated comics and storytelling with mentor Eisner in the book “Eisner/Miller.”

Finally, Miller feels lucky that the first time he got to direct, it was someone else’s material. “I didn’t want anyone else to do it,” he says. “If you love somebody, a person or a cat or whatever, you’re going to fight harder for them than for yourself. Will Eisner was there in the room, and he had the added advantage of being dead, so I couldn’t talk him into anything.”

Miller concocted a narrative using several of Eisner’s short plots and characters, especially his favorite romantic Sand Saref stories, which he first read in Vermont when he was 14 years old. Miller went on to draw superhero comics, but never lost his taste for hardboiled crime stories.

“Eisner wrote in seven-page segments, usually with a witty or dramatic punchline,” says Miller. “He didn’t know from Batman or Superman. His idea of a hero has more to do with Zorro or the Shadow.”

After storyboarding the entire film, using some actual Eisner cut-outs, Miller continued making hundreds of drawings as he went. “We’d shoot 12-hour days and I’d go back to the hotel and keep drawing way into the night for the next day’s shoot.”

Miller credits Rodriguez with teaching him the digital live-action/anime moviemaking he used for the 45-day “Spirit” shoot on green-screen stages in Albuquerque N.M. This time, deploying Panavision’s Genesis camera, Miller continued to push forward the evolving filmmaking technique with a full-color palette that occasionally devolves into black-and-white.

As he learned from his 20-year partner Lynn Varley, who added dramatic color to his drawings, color is emotion. “It’s almost like I colored a movie,” says Miller. “In places I use real skin tone, like with Eva Mendes, who has beautiful skin. I’m also quite restrained. Often movies have too much color. I’d rather use it as a weapon, as part of the storytelling.”

“My city screams she is my mother, she is my lover,” said Eisner’s masked everyman hero in his newspaper strip. “And I am her Spirit.” “The Spirit” is a love letter to New York City without ever having filmed there.

The VFX wizards at the Orphanage filled in digital sets with realistic 3-D shots of Miller’s favorite city sites. (Yes, he used the Flatiron building.) While Eisner created “The Spirit” strips in the ’40s, the movie is timeless, Miller says. “Every decade has something to offer,” he says. “I could pick and choose what was most fun to draw: the cars are all vintage, the women are all beautiful. I didn’t want it to look digital.”

While Miller cast some names in his ensemble, including Jackson as mad scientist villain the Octopus and Scarlett Johansson as secretary fatale Silken Floss, he insisted on finding an unknown to play his everyman hero, who has died and come back to life.

“I didn’t want a vehicle for Tom Cruise,” Miller says. “I wanted to have a Christopher Reeve Superman. We went through dozens of auditions. Hollywood is great at producing male actors, but bad at producing men.” Finally, Macht fit the bill. “He was manly,” says Miller.

To set one Internet rumor to rest: while some scenes evoke the look of Eisner, Miller “didn’t want to stop the action to make a Will Eisner panel,” he says. “‘The Spirit’ logo doesn’t wrap around anything. I wanted everyone to know they were coming into something new.”

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