‘The Spirit’ movie that could have been
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For every movie that makes it to the screen, there are a thousand projects that fall to the wayside. Later this month, ‘The Spirit,’ finally, hits theaters after plenty of failed attempts. Steven Paul Leiva was a key figure in one of those failed attempts and in this guest essay for Hero Complex he talks about the film that could have been. This photo below shows Leiva, Brad Bird and the late Will Eisner at the comics icon’s White Plains, N.Y., home in 1981.
Frank Miller’s film version of Will Eisner’s innovative 1940s comic book, “The Spirit” opens on Christmas Day. It will be stylistic and hyper-visual, a hoped-for perfect melding of film and “sequential art,” a term coined by Eisner. What it will not be, however, is revolutionary. Comic book movies are now the meat and potatoes -- not to mention several side vegetables -- of Hollywood. And even its green screen, scene-simulation style is just part of a Miller continuum that started with “Sin City.”
But if the world had turned a little differently, if fate had been a little kinder, a “Spirit” feature film would have debuted in the 1980s that would not only have been revolutionary but -- those of us involved in it were convinced -- a huge hit, possibly the first $100 million-grossing animated feature. And the futures of such filmmakers as Brad Bird, Gary Kurtz, John Musker and John Lasseter might have taken alternative paths.
In 1980, I was a freelance publicist specializing in animators I admired. My clients included Chuck Jones, Bill Melendez and Richard Williams. However, I was not particularly happy with the state of animation itself. Previously I had been executive secretary of the animation society ASIFA-Hollywood and an animation programmer for the Los Angeles International Film Exposition (FILMEX), and so had been exposed to a lot of great, classic American animation and exciting foreign animation. I had become frustrated that animation in Hollywood had fallen into the doldrums of sub-standard Disney, awful Saturday morning TV cartoons, and too-cute-to-stomach exploitations of brightly colored bears and other sugarcoated creatures. And I had become tired of anthropomorphic animals as the dominant fauna of American animation. Not that there was anything intrinsically wrong with them, it’s just that I was a Homo sapiens chauvinist and felt that American animation as an art form would never mature (as Japanese and European animation had) until it learned to tell human stories directly, and not through the filter of talking animals.
Given all this, I knew I had to move from publicity to producing, with an eye out for projects that could alleviate my frustration.
It didn’t take long for one to fall into my lap.
I was at a FILMEX screening at the Cinerama Dome when a fellow Filmexican, as we were called, David Konigsburg, who owned an animation camera service, told me that I just had to see an animation pencil test he had shot for two friends of his, ex-students from the animation program at Cal Arts. He said it was brilliant, but I was skeptical. Ever since I had let it be known that I was looking for projects, I had been shown a lot of proposals, all of them just variations on the same old, same old. But as David’s camera service was just a few blocks from the Dome, it was easy to go over there after the screening and take a look.
What David showed me was a black and white pencil test in the form of a movie trailer for an animated feature based on Will Eisner’s superhero noir character, “The Spirit.” At the time, “The Spirit” was as obscure as any item of pop culture could get. But I recognized it as I had read Jules Feiffer’s “The Great Comic Book Heroes,” in which he had devoted a chapter to Eisner’s creation, reprinting one of the original stories from the ‘40s. Even with having seen only this one story, it was obvious to me that Eisner was an incredible artist and draftsman, far superior to most comic book illustrators of the time. His humans were not awkward and stiff, but were fine and fluid renderings of form and personality. If any comic book humans begged to be animated, these were they. His layout of panels, his use of cinematic techniques, only added to the case that “The Spirit” was perfect for the screen.
But how had these young animators done in bringing Eisner’s characters to life? David had not misled me. The pencil test mock trailer was brilliant. Not only in its form and execution -- it quickly told the origin of The Spirit and displayed clearly the tone of the proposed film -- but it was the finest human character animation I had ever seen. Like Eisner, it was fluid and full of personality, each bit of movement communicating exactly what needed to be said about the characters and the situations they were in. It was not stiff and unreal like Saturday morning limited human character animation, nor weirdly “real” like rotoscoped human animation. It was exaggerated, pushed, caricatured movement that seemed perfectly real, or, better said, perfectly true. It was the best example I could imagine of a point I had been making to anyone who would listen, that good character animation was not a graphic art, but a performance art. It was great acting expressing a range of emotions.
“Who are these guys?” I asked David with dropped jaw. “I’ve got to meet them as soon as possible.”
The test was conceived and directed by a guy named Brad Bird, he told me, and animated by him and other ex-Cal Arts students, some of whom were now working at Disney.
David managed to set up a meeting with Brad for the next day. Brad came with Jerry Rees, who had been integral to the making of the trailer.
We talked. It was obvious we shared a philosophy about the direction we thought animation should go. I told Brad and Jerry what I thought of the trailer, that “The Spirit” was exactly the kind of project I wanted to be involved in, and asked what I could do to make it a reality.
Brad (who would later draw this ‘Spirit’-inspired cartoon on the left) was very direct and clear in what he wanted. He was only interested in pitching the project to four people: George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Francis Coppola or Gary Kurtz, who had produced “American Graffiti” and the first two “Star Wars.”
Because of my work with Chuck Jones and FILMEX I had met Gary Kurtz, and, more importantly, I had dealt with his assistant, Bunny Alsop. I told Brad and Jerry that I could try to get them to Kurtz. Great, they said.
I called Bunny up at Gary Kurtz’s production company, Kinetographics, in Marin County. It was the kind of call she was use to getting and usually ignoring. But I said some magic words -- Eisner and “The Spirit.” Gary Kurtz, it turned out, was a huge fan.
A meeting was set up during Gary’s next trip to Los Angeles. Brad, Jerry, and I met with him at The Egg Company, George Lucas’s camouflaged L.A. headquarters across from Universal Studios. We showed him the trailer. He was impressed, but barely showed it, which was not unusual for Gary. He said he would think about it and get back to us. I don’t remember exactly how long it took, but not too soon after I got a call from Bunny saying that Gary had decided to option the film rights to “The Spirit.”
An exciting time began for us. Gary asked me to work with his lawyers in negotiating the option deal with Will Eisner, while Brad and Jerry began crafting the story that would eventually become the basis for Brad’s screenplay. We also had to give considerable thought to how we were going to produce the film. At that time Disney had the only viable feature animation studio in town, and Disney was not an option for many reasons, not the least being their own internal problems.
Disney was not in the best shape. The era of the famous Nine Old Men was passing and a new generation needed to take over. The problem was, which new generation? There were two, divided into camps, fighting for the privilege. One, headed by Don Bluth, was the generation that sat right behind the Nine Old Men. The other was the “Young Pups,” mainly Cal Arts graduates, who were nipping at Bluth’s heels. The Bluthies felt it was their time to take over the reins and continue the fine tradition of Disney Animation. The Young Pups wanted not only to continue the Disney tradition, but expand it creatively as well, and thought that the Bluthies did not have the talent to pull it off. The Young Pups were a bit arrogant in this thought, but not without the talent to justify it. Both camps were frustrated: the Bluthies because the Young Pups showed them little deference, and the Young Pups because they saw the Bluthies as standing in their way.
In the meantime, nothing really good was being produced at Disney, and, indeed, people in Hollywood swore they could hear the death knell.
Brad and Jerry felt that this gave them the opportunity, once we secured the financing for “The Spirit”, to raid Disney of many of the Young Pups, most of whom had been classmates of theirs at Cal Arts, some of whom had animated, on their own time, scenes for the mock trailer. They would form the core animation staff for a new studio to be called Visions Animation + FilmWorks. Brad, in fact, had worked out a dream scenario wherein, once we could offer secure jobs, he would walk onto the Disney lot with a bunch of newly printed Visions Animation + FilmWorks T-shirts, and walk off with as many of the Young Pups as he could, all wearing the shirts, the Visions slogan printed boldly on their backs: ANIMATION’S BACK. As melodramatic and naive as that was -- we all looked forward to it.
To get there, Brad called a secret meeting of a select group of the Young Pups. As I was still doing publicity for Chuck Jones and maintained an office at his small studio on Sunset Boulevard where there was a screening room, we held the meeting there one evening. We screened the mock “Spirit” trailer, and explained our deal with Gary Kurtz and our plans for Visions. All were impressed with the trailer. Some were excited about our plans. Some weren’t. Those who weren’t, despite the diminished creativity at Disney, were determined to stick with the studio and work to turn it around. The clearest voice for this point of view was John Musker, who, indeed, later was a key player in the resurrection of Disney animation when he co-directed “The Little Mermaid.”
Nonetheless, Brad felt that he had got enough positive response to feel confident that we could staff an animation studio when we were ready. Until then, we committed to keep the interested Disney animators updated as to our progress. Jerry was our key voice there, as he was still working at Disney, although not in feature animation. He was working each day in a trailer on the lot breaking ground being one of the first computer animators on a major Hollywood feature film named “Tron.” It was an exciting project that had caught the attention of many in the animation department, especially a young animator working on “Mickey’s Christmas Carol” who would drop by the trailer whenever he could to look over Jerry’s shoulders and ask intelligent questions. His name was John Lasseter.
All our preparations for the future, though, would be for naught if we didn’t secure the film rights option from Will Eisner. He was intrigued, but very protective of his creation. He had no particular objections to a film version of “The Spirit,” he had just always assumed it would be a live-action film, with, he had hoped, James Garner starring as The Spirit. He needed some convincing. So Brad and I flew to New York, where Eisner lived, and had two meetings with him. One was a creative meeting at his home in White Plains where we showed him the mock trailer. He was impressed. The other, a few days later, was a business meeting at the Princeton Club in Manhattan, where Gary Kurtz would join us.
While Brad and I stood on the sidewalk in front of the club waiting for Eisner and Gary to arrive, a good omen suddenly pulled up that convinced us -- in our youthful enthusiasm -- that not only would we seal the deal with Eisner, but that we would go on to make a great film. It was a produce delivery truck for a company called -- so the sign on the side of the truck proudly declared -- B. EISNER. Brad even snapped my picture in front of it ...
Our “Spirit” was in development for a number of years. During that time, Brad moved up to Marin County to work on the screenplay out of Gary’s offices at Kinetographics. After Jerry finished his work on “Tron” he left Disney and moved up as well to work on storyboards with Brad. I joined Kinetographics as director of Animation Development and as associate producer on another animated film Gary had gotten involved in, “Nemo,” an adaptation of Winsor McKay’s “Little Nemo in Slumberland” he was producing in Japan with Tokyo Movie Shinsha. And Brad, Jerry, Gary and I formed Visions Animation + FilmWorks, and started to build a slate of both animated and live-action films to develop.
Unfortunately, what we failed to do was secure financing for “The Spirit.” Why? Although it has been close to 30 years and I don’t remember the details, I do know that Brad’s script was wonderful. It had all the action, humor, and revelations of character that he later put into “The Iron Giant,” “The Incredibles”, and “Ratatouille.” Brad and Jerry’s storyboards were exciting and thrilling. They had personally illustrated several stunning pieces of conceptual art. How could this film not get financed?
Well, it was the early ‘80s. The death of Disney animation was being predicted daily. Most non-Disney animated features in production tended to be pastel kiddie toy movies like “The Care Bears Movie.” And we had a sexy superhero noir film of action and adventure, thrills and humor, featuring beautifully illustrated humans and not one talking animal.
Gary shopped the project to all of the Hollywood majors. The screenplay was praised, but they couldn’t understand why we wanted to make it an animated film. There was no magic, no young and yearning fairy tale royals, no funny animals.
Hollywood was filled with the sound of executives scratching their heads. At least one offered to make it as a live-action film -- an option Brad would not consider and the rest of us would not support. The whole idea was to make an animated film so different, so revolutionary, it would alter forever the art form.
Stupid us, thinking Hollywood would ever back an artistic revolution.
Eventually we lost the option to the film rights. “The Spirit” -- at least our “Spirit” -- was dead.
But if our “Spirit” had lived and had been as successful -- both creatively and commercially -- as I remain convinced it would have been, just think how things might have been different.
Hollywood would have discovered the genius of Brad Bird 20 years before John Lasseter and Pixar finally thrust it into Hollywood’s face with “The Incredibles.”
Visions Animation and FilmWorks might have become the Pixar of its day, but with a broader mandate to do not only innovative animated films, but fantastic live-action films as well. Instead of spending most of his time as a creative consultant on “The Simpsons,” what wonderful animation and live-action features might Brad have given us?
Jerry Rees certainly would have written and directed some of the Visions films, possibly becoming a talent to reckon with, instead of a talent Hollywood has only flirted with.
Gary Kurtz (photographed above with Eisner and myself back in 1981, with Brad again snapping the picture), after the disappointing box-office returns of “The Dark Crystal” and “Return to Oz” -- the last major films he produced -- might have found renewed energy shepherding and supporting the influx of talent Brad and Jerry wanted to bring into Visions.
If Visions had been successful in raiding Disney of a good portion of the best and brightest of the Young Pups, how might that have altered its future and films? Would that have relieved the pressure on Don Bluth, causing him and his Bluthies not to bolt from Disney, which they later did, and putting him into Walt’s shoes, where he really wanted to be? Or, if John Musker had stayed at Disney, as I believe he would have, would he have become the driving force at the studio? But instead of revitalizing Disney with “The Little Mermaid” would he -- Hollywood being Hollywood where imitation is the sincerest form of competition -- have been tasked to animate “The Green Hornet?”
Would Disney animation have even survived? When Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg took over it was reported that they wanted to dump the animation department, but Roy E. Disney wouldn’t allow it. But what if the department had been gutted of talent? Would Roy Disney have carried the day? Would Disney Studios even exist today, much less be the media giant it now is?
And what about John Lasseter? We all know he started to experiment with computer animation at Disney, but was fired over some corporate political problem, then wound up doing rather well with Pixar. And now -- decades later -- he is the chief creative officer of Disney Animation. If Disney had been gutted of talent, would he have been one of them to leave before he had been able to start his computer animation experiments? Or would he have stayed and used the shock of the Disney defections to really push computer animation, taking Disney in a different direction, and eventually ending up as the chief creative officer of Disney Animation?
All of the above are alternative realities, none of them necessarily any finer or better than the reality we are stuck with. Although, selfishly, I would have preferred at least a few of them, for who wouldn’t want to have been part of an artistic revolution?
But such is life. “The Spirit” was willing -- but Hollywood wasn’t.
Leiva, a novelist and screenwriter, is currently writing, producing and appearing in “The Old Curmudgeon’s Book of Questions,” a series of Internet VidBits that will premiere on STRIKE.TV early next year. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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