Robert Downey Jr. and Secret Screen-Tests: How the New 'Spider-Man' Team Was Chosen

Tom Holland Jon Watts Split - H 2015
<p>Tom Holland Jon Watts Split - H 2015</p>   |   AP Images
Tom Holland tested with 'Avengers' stars Downey and Chris Evans before landing the lead while Marvel's Kevin Feige pushed for untested director Jon Watts.

It’s customary in Hollywood for a director to be involved in the search for the star of his or her movie, but that was not the case with the quest for the new Spider-Man. That’s because the effort to find a director to relaunch the venerable multi-billion dollar superhero franchise was happening concurrently with the screen tests for an actor to play Spidey.

There was very little normal about this Spider-Man search process, beginning with the unique (and heavily negotiated) cross-studio collaboration of Disney-owned Marvel Studios and Sony Pictures. Also complicating matters was the fact that Tom Holland, the 19-year-old British actor who ultimately was chosen and announced Tuesday, will be introduced as Spider-Man first in a Marvel movie — Captain America: Civil War, which is already in production — before then headlining his own trilogy.

After seeing more than 1,500 actors, Marvel and Sony, using lead casting director Sarah Finn (who has worked on several Marvel movies) narrowed the list to six for a fateful screen test on May 30 in Atlanta, where Civil War is currently shooting. Those actors — Holland, Asa Butterfield, Judah Lewis, Matthew Lintz, Charlie Plummer and Charlie Rowe — are all between the ages of 14 and 19, in keeping with producers' goal of casting a Peter Parker who actually looks like he is in high school. (Previous Spider-Men Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield, were both in their mid-to-late 20s when they landed the role.) 

Robert Downey Jr., whose Iron Man character appears in Civil War and is said to share scenes with Peter Parker/Spider-Man, participated with the actors in the tests, which included former-Sony-chief-turned-producer Amy Pascal and Marvel Studios chief Kevin Feige. They were looking for chemistry between the boy and the elder Avenger.

After the initial round of tests, producers narrowed the contenders to just two, Holland and Rowe, though Holland was the frontrunner. Unable to decide between them, they asked for a second screen test that occurred the week of June 8. Sources say that Holland was the only actor who tested separately with Downey and Chris Evans, who portrays Captain America.

Some sources say Holland emerged as the clear choice during the second test and dealmaking with his WME agents began soon after (Holland will be signed for at least three movies plus the Civil War introduction). But other insiders say a decision was made only this week, and Holland was notified within the past 24 hours.

But still, there was the issue of the film not having a director.

Under consideration were Jonathan Levine (Warm Bodies, 50-50) the team of John Francis Daley and Jonathan M. Goldstein (Vacation) and Ted Melfi (St. Vincent). But the dark horse (or dark spider) was Jon Watts, who hails from the comedy world (The Onion News Network is on his resume) but whose most recent film was the Sundance thriller Cop Car, a story about two kids who steal a police car belonging to a corrupt sheriff. He also has done extensive commercial and music video work, helming videos for Fatboy Slim and Death Cab for Cutie. Marc Webb, who helmed the two recent Amazing Spider-Man movies with Garfield, also got his start in music videos before making a splash at Sundance with 500 Days of Summer and scoring the Spider-Man gig.)

The testing process wasn't easy for directors. Sources say Feige and Pascal were looking for someone with comedy experience but also with a perspective that would distinguish the new movies from the five already made in the past 13 years. Feige is said to have handpicked 33-year old Watts (he turns 34 Sunday), falling for the filmmaker’s take on the world of Peter Parker/Spider-Man. The decision came only over this past weekend, and some insiders say Watts and his CAA reps were then sworn to secrecy until an announcement could be readied for him and Holland.

Tom Rothman, chairman of Sony Motion Pictures Group — which will produce (with Marvel) and finance the new Spider-Man franchise — gave Feige his blessing for Watts, who will follow an indie-to-tentpole path paved by previous Marvel helmers like James Gunn, who went from low-budget horror to giant sci-fi franchise with Guardians of the Galaxy.

Still, that road is not without potential pitfalls, as evidenced by Josh Trank, who landed the Fantastic Four reboot on the strength of his breakout Chronicle and then was tapped for the second Star Wars spinoff only to part ways amid a cloud of mystery. The flip side, however, is relative newcomer Colin Trevorrow going from Safety Not Guaranteed, a small-budget indie that made only $4 million, to directing Jurassic World, the first film to gross $1 billion worldwide in just 13 days.

Watts will always be held to the standard set by Sam Raimi, who directed the successful Spider-Man trilogy that earned north of $2.5 billion worldwide and set the bar for comic book-based movies. The original was a film embraced by both audiences and critics.

Sony and Marvel are hoping to return the franchise to its glory days and are confident that Holland and Watts represent the best one-two punch.