‘Spirit’ moves Frank Miller

Graphic novelist preps first solo directing outing

Frank Miller had long since sworn off Hollywood when Robert Rodriguez finagled him into co-directing “Sin City,” an adaptation of the film noir-inspired storyteller’s own graphic novel series.

Miller had been burned before. In the late ’80s, fans of his visionary work on the “Daredevil” and “Batman” comics invited him to pen a “RoboCop” sequel. “What I learned there is that your screenplay is a fire hydrant with an awful lot of dogs lined up behind it,” he told Esquire earlier this year. Disgusted with what became of his work on the second and third “RoboCop” movies, Miller retreated back to graphic novels, telling stories in which he could maintain creative control.

But “Sin City” rekindled his interest in filmmaking and appealed to Miller’s visually expressive style. He even granted Zack Snyder permission to adapt his Spartan battle epic “300,” the runaway success of which sent Miller’s stock skyrocketing with studios. “It took a lot for me to be convinced that (“300″) wouldn’t have a happy ending slapped on it,” Miller tells Variety.

After his experience with Rodriguez, Miller figured he might give filmmaking another try.

“The fear is fading,” he says, remembering his co-director’s advice on “Sin City.” “Rodriguez said: ‘Don’t be nervous. All the stuff you’ve done throughout your career has been the same thing you’re doing now — you’re just using different tools.'”

But rather than translate another of his own projects, Miller latched on to the idea of adapting a friend’s comicbook hero instead. He chose Will Eisner’s “The Spirit,” assured that he intimately understood the direction of the late author’s creative compass (Eisner died in 2005).

“I want to do him proud,” Miller says. “It’s true to the Will Eisner that I know, and I’ve been telling everybody working on this movie that the final film should feel like it was fun to draw.”

When tasked with selecting the right hook from 12 years of “The Spirit” comics, Miller embraced an old favorite. “It’s the story of Sand Saref,” he says, referring to a plot that first ran in newspapers on Jan. 8, 1950, full of danger-laced romance, espionage and early germ-warfare elements. “It’s about the first love of Spirit’s life, who has turned to a life of crime, and he has to bring her to justice.”

The choice holds special significance for Miller, who has cited Saref as an inspiration for the popular Elektra character he created for the “Daredevil” comic.

But movies have also distanced Miller from his graphic-novel roots. While his film career blossoms, a number of comicbook projects have slipped through the cracks, namely “Holy Terror, Batman” which pits the Caped Crusader against Al Qaeda.

“This movie career just sort of plopped into the middle of it,” he says. “One hundred twenty pages are inked, and after ‘The Spirit,’ I’m going to come in and finish it before any more directing.”

But that hasn’t stopped rumors of other Miller film projects from catching fire.

Variety reported Miller’s involvement with the Raymond Chandler adaptation “Trouble Is My Business,” and Warner is prepping Miller’s “Ronin” for “Stomp the Yard’s” Sylvain White to direct. As for a possible “Sin City” sequel, Miller says he and Rodriguez are merely waiting for the right time.

“We have a script and an ideal cast in mind,” Miller says. “It’s based on the graphic novel ‘A Dame to Kill For.’ ”

For the moment, Miller remains focused on “The Spirit.” “I’ve been writing every word of it myself and storyboarding every frame,” he says. “This is a real work of love, and it’s become my life completely.”