'Spider-Man' Director Mark Webb Reveals How to Stay Grounded 'When You Have a Nine-Foot Lizard Running Around New York'
The "(500) Days of Summer" director tells THR why he felt compelled to reimagine the franchise from the ground up: "Even if we've seen the origin of Spider-Man, we haven't seen the origin of Peter Parker."
The idea of hooking up director Marc Webb with Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone to chronicle a love affair seems like a no-brainer: After helming (500) Days of Summer, Webb has demonstrated a remarkable gift for shepherding young actors through romantic stories. But on The Amazing Spider-Man, Webb stepped out of his comfort zone, combining the familiar beats of a fledgling relationship with the epic sweep of a superhero origin story. Further complicating matters was the fact that he was stepping into the fourth installment in a well-known and incredibly successful series and trying to do something new with the characters and mythology.
Webb spoke to The Hollywood Reporter about precisely how he managed to pull off that considerable feat. In addition to discussing what his initial take on the material would be, he offered insights into his collaborations with Stone and Garfield and explained how he applied his existing skill set as an expert purveyor of boy-meets-girl boilerplate to the demands of a spectacular franchise reboot.
The Hollywood Reporter: When you embarked on reimagining the Spider-Man franchise, what story did you want to tell, what did you want to keep, and what did you know you could move past immediately?
Marc Webb: What always interested me was the orphan story -- this kid gets left behind by his parents when he’s 6 or 7 years old -- because that to me is a more definitive moment for the character than even the spider bite. I think his problems with authority and his surly attitude, which I loved in the comics, emerged from that moment he was left behind, because authority betrayed him. So he’s going to be inherently distrustful of it, and that is reflected in his relationship with Uncle Ben and Aunt May at times, and also with Captain Stacy. And also with the humor and the sarcastic wit, which is something that is totally indigenous to the Spider-Man comics that we haven’t seen or explored much cinematically before. So even the familiar elements of the story, I wanted to hang on a different throughline that had to do with his parents’ disappearance.
THR: Was there ever a discussion about starting the film after he’d already become Spider-Man?
Webb: No, I think you have to do groundwork. I think even if we've seen the origin of Spider-Man, we haven’t seen the origin of Peter Parker, and I wanted to establish a context for him. I needed to build a foundation for a universe that would last not just through this movie but subsequent films, so there was groundwork involved in that.
THR: Peter Parker has bad luck with mentors and father figures. How much did you write Dr. Connors and every other male role model to advance that theme?
Webb: That’s a motif in Spider-Man, and not only in Spider-Man and not just superhero movies, but that’s a big mythological theme: the search for the father and the father disappointing the son in a variety of ways. It’s a story about a kid who goes looking for his father and ends up finding himself; he becomes the father that he never had. And that’s what his realization is. I think the other theme, with Curt Connors, I don’t know if I wrote to it, but it was naturally something I was aware of and one of the big reasons I chose that villain. But again it’s about this kid whose parents are missing -- he has a missing piece -- and Curt Connors also has a missing piece, a literal missing piece; he’s a literal embodiment of the theme. And how we choose to fill that void is how we define ourselves. And that is something that resonated with me and something that I hoped to inject into the subtext of the film.
THR: Some of the footage you screened at Comic-Con last year did not make it into the final film. How tough was it to script this material into its final form and communicate the content and tone you were aiming for?
Webb: You’ve just got to feel it. And it’s about pace; it’s about tone and playing it a few times in front of an audience and refining those points. I was pretty cautious of trying to keep the pace as quick as possible, and I wanted to do something more grounded emotionally; I wanted the actors to behave in a way that was more natural and that felt realistic and not stylized. And it’s tricky to use the word “grounded” when you have a nine-foot lizard running around the streets of New York, but we had a real person there interacting with Andrew to create some gravity and reality. So there was a philosophy that went beyond just the acting and the emotions, and that was keeping a level of physical reality and emotional reality.
THR: What ended up being the biggest challenge for you in terms of combining the skills you used on (500) Days of Summer with something we haven’t seen you execute on the big screen?
Webb: There’s a learning curve with the action, I guess, but I tried to think of action as a sequence of scenes where the character was a little bit different at the beginning of the scene than at the end of the scene, and it’s a way to create some emotional epiphanies. Like, for example, the bridge scene is really a moment when Peter’s motivation changes. At the beginning of the scene, he is motivated by vengeance and he’s trying to satisfy some darker part of his soul; he’s trying to find the killer of his uncle. And at the end of the scene, he realizes that he’s got bigger shoes to fill, and he’s got a more profound destiny. And again, before that, his crime-fighting was just incidental -- he was just hunting for the killer -- but after that, he becomes responsible for the city, and he realizes that he’s got powers that can be used to better effect. Those, I think, are the best kind of action scenes.
THR: How carefully did you have to shape Andrew and Emma’s performances to make sure that she played a character equal to his?
Webb: I wanted to honor the emotions of the scene and not just the dialogue. I love Judd Apatow movies, where you feel these people are so real, and I wanted to capture that tone. But the chemistry is interesting because Andrew comes from a more intense, theatrically trained background; he’s done some trickster roles like in The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, but he’s got this great emotional dimension and muscle. And Emma comes from improvisational comedy and lightness and has such great humor. But both have an ability to remain spontaneous and open and aware -- and those different paths sort of converge in a really beautiful, magical way. And when we did the screen test, you knew it was going to work; it was really that simple.
THR: How much material didn’t make the final cut that you would like to see released, be it for the DVD or just for the purposes of supplementing the story told in the theatrical cut?
Webb: I’m putting out the movie that I wanted to put out. I’m not going to do a director’s cut. But there are scenes that I miss. There’s a scene that’s a more explicit statement of the themes between Connors and Peter that I liked; there’s a few lines, like one Alvin Sargent wrote that isn’t in the movie that’s one of my favorite lines I’ve ever read in my life that I wish I could have put in the movie. It was Connors talking to Peter, and he said: “Be creative. We have to be greater than what we suffer.” It was so beautiful, and it kills me that I couldn’t put it in the movie, but it was at the end of a long scene where we needed to keep the pace up. But it’s things like that and a few other scenes here and there that will be on the DVD, but you’ve got to think of the thing holistically -- and that stuff happens all of the time. That’s just the nature of creating a big movie, I suppose.
THR: Was there a moment on set or at some point in the production where you just kind of kicked yourself and said, “Wow, I’m making a Spider-Man movie?”
Webb: We built these huge rigs, these traveling rigs underneath Riverside highway in Harlem up by Columbia University, and we slung a human being on these wires and he traversed through the traffic. It was something that hadn’t been done before; not only did he swing, he changed webs midswing in a single take, and he changed direction. And that was something that was an incredible feat of engineering, and Andy Armstrong, our stunt coordinator, spent a lot of time conjuring. It was a blast to do, and it was like I just didn’t want to yell “cut” -- it was so amazing to watch. But also, we got to see the body language of what it would be like for a human to swing through the streets and how his body would move, and it helped us to define the animation and the CG enhancements later in the film. But that was a moment where I sort of pinched myself. It was unbelievable.
THR: How indicative are the two films you’ve made of the career path that you want to continue on?
Webb: I don’t know. I love doing big movies; it’s really fun. But I loved doing my small movie, so it doesn’t really matter to me. It’s about the story and about the characters, and whatever inspires me in the moment is what I’ll do, I imagine. I love making movies – I’m addicted to it; that’s probably the better term. But we’ll see what happens. It’s hard to say.
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