Much has been made of Marc Webb’s aptronym – just like the guy named “Otto Octavius” ended up with robot arms welded to his person, the guy named “Webb” was handed the directorial reins to the Spider-Man movie franchise.
By Jedd Jong
A music video director (working with the likes of Incubus, 3 Doors Down, Maroon 5, Green Day and My Chemical Romance) who made his feature film debut with the critically-acclaimed and much beloved romantic comedy-drama (500) Days of Summer, Webb didn’t seem like an obvious choice to helm a tent pole summer blockbuster. According to him though, there are more similarities than differences between making a small indie romance and a big comic book movie.
Speaking to us at the Fuse bar in the Marina Bay Sands hotel, Singapore, Webb touched on the dynamics between Peter Parker and his pal-turned-nemesis Harry Osborn, the big names making the music of The Amazing Spider-Man 2, the rationale behind the design of the Rhino and the chemistry between his two leads.
Do you feel that it’s difficult to balance the physical and emotional sides of a movie like The Amazing Spider-Man 2?
In terms of the action, my favourite kind of action sequences are the ones that have an emotional core, where you understand and feel what Spider-Man is fighting for. Unless it has that, the action doesn’t really mean anything. The action is fun because there’s spectacle and there’s some technique and there’s physical virtuosity, but you also need to have an emotional layer. So, I like to think of them as working together and I try not to separate them too much. Of course, there are the romantic elements too but sometimes the romance emerges into the action as well.
What was it like maintaining the dynamic between Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone, when it comes to their chemistry?
Andrew and Emma are so professional and so good at acting – a certain kind of acting which involves an awareness and spontaneity which I really value and I think when people are watching the movie, they can detect an authenticity there. That just comes from…we all pick up on each other’s cues, when you lean forwards or when you laugh, all of these little things so when someone is trying to read lines and is just thinking about lines and not connecting with you, seeing when you laugh and building on those things then it’s not real and people understand that, so Andrew and Emma are able to live in a very real way with each other on screen and that makes it come alive for people. People recognise it as being something familiar and they attach themselves to it so for the movie as a whole, you need to care about it deeply.
What is the most challenging aspect of making The Amazing Spider-Man 2, compared to the first go-round?
You want to keep the stakes up. I think the most challenging thing is in the midst of all the chaos, in the midst of the battles and the fights and the deep, high drama, keeping an emotional core, something that’s small and intimate a part of the spectacle. It is fun, there are times when the kid in me wakes up and it’s a blast but keeping in mind that people are here to have a social experience and to care about the character, to protect the emotional journey of that character is really the trickiest part, I think.
Is the movie more humanistic?
That depends on your definition of that but…of course it’s…”humanistic” can mean so many different things. Is it more emotional? Yes, it’s more emotional but I think we push the characters in really extreme directions. There’s great comedy and humour and a really vibrant, joyful quality at the beginning of the movie. But we also challenge the characters, we provoke them in a way that I think is intensely dramatic and Spider-Man after this movie will never ever, ever be the same. That’s something that’s entirely a human journey, it’s not completely spectacle.
How is the relationship between Peter and Harry in this film different than in the previous trilogy? Is there a concern that Harry is being introduced in this movie and then becomes a full-fledged villain in the same one?
I think there’s a long relationship that’s…to answer the first question first, Harry is smart. He is earning the empire of Oscorp and an incredibly shrewd guy. They’re more like brothers, more like equals, on an even footing. They are bound by two things: one is their understanding of science, their love of science, but also they’re left behind by their fathers. They were abandoned, and they feel a bond because of that, they know what it feels like to be left behind. And that relationship and how much he values Harry is really important in creating the drama in the second part of the movie and I’m not going to reveal what exactly that is, but the fact that he cares about this person is very important.
How do you keep the balance between the hero and the villains? In this movie, you have Spider-Man and you have all these new villains…
You have to think of it in terms of the protagonist at all times, at least I do. There is an operatic quality, meaning we do invest in a lot of different characters as we’re going, but I’m always trying to think of where Spider-Man is emotionally – what’s he feeling, how does this impact him, how does this challenge parts of his personality or parts of his physicality…because it’s a certain kind of movie that we’re making, which is Peter Parker as the emissary for the audience. He’s the vessel for the audience, that means you have to…he’s the everyman. He’s the Greek chorus all rolled into one. Ideally, you’re trying to track and feel everything that he feels and when there’s a villain that’s emerging, you want to understand that villain, understand that character so you feel when they start to compete, when they start to conflict you understand the nature of that conflict and feel the drama that Peter feels. It’s a little bit tricky because you don’t want to get too far ahead of them, but sometimes you have to do a little expository information just to get the depth of emotion, the depth of understanding an audience requires for that villain.
You’ve handled both (500) Days of Summer, a smaller comedy-drama, and The Amazing Spider-Man, a huge movie, very well. How is it different doing these two different genres?
I think what strikes me is that there are more similarities than there are differences. I’m attracted to cinematic romance, it’s just compelling to me. It’s confounding in real life I find it; you’re always looking for answers on the screen. But that is of course one of the reasons I think I got involved with Spider-Man, because it had that at its heart. But I also like action movies, I also like to fly through the air and have that sort of wish-fulfilment, that sort of drama and that sort of storytelling which is so great with Spider-Man. I think in terms of…the difference really is almost a superficial one in that it just takes longer. There’s way more layers, there’s way more scrutiny…this never happened with (500) Days of Summer, we were never in Singapore, people never heard of Tom Hansen from Margate, New Jersey, there were no associations with them. In Spider-Man, there is a public perception and a desire to protect the character, which is I think is at the heart of a lot of the scrutiny that you see and there’s a lot of responsibility, there’s lot of obligation in what you see, in protecting that and in keeping that symbol elevated. The public perception of it is actually the trickiest, newest part of it.
Did you feel the pressure of taking on the Spider-Man brand?
There’s definitely a little pressure, especially the first time around. This time, there’s not quite as much. It’s definitely more fun! Everybody was really on the same page, everybody puts pressure on themselves, but I think that we really believed in the script. We’ve got great writers, we’ve got great actors, great producers, and that team, we were all part of a tribe. We could go out to the world and feel a little bit braver than the first time around.
Speaking of the public perception, there have been some pretty extreme reactions to how Rhino looks in this movie. How did you arrive at that concept and design for the character?
Well, when there’s an illustrated…I want everything to feel real, you know? Or have a realistic foundation. You’re dealing in this kind of absurd, fantasy world of creatures that disappear into electricity, goblins and mechanized rhinoceroses so it’s a little bit crazy. But I needed all this to have a story and for Electro, a green and yellow suit; I just couldn’t understand where that came from whereas I could understand the story of the more Ultimate Electro, the black suit which is more of a thick rubber insulated suit which allows him to channel his energy in a little bit more specific a way. In terms of the Rhino, his suit in the comics it just looks buffoonish and that’s part of the fun of it but I needed him to be a threat. I needed it to be a little bit scarier, when you’re translating an illustrated character, illustrators don’t have the same obligations that I do as a live-action filmmaker. He has to function in space, he has to be able to move, he has to be intimidating. If you look at a lot of those early Rhino things, they’re funny but I don’t understand why he would do that, why that would happen and I needed to come up in my own head with an origin story that made it seem like the Rhino device…my production designers and I we talked about how this “thing” would happen, who would develop this technology. We thought about maybe it was used in mining, maybe it was a weaponised device, but that horn which is that iconic thing is something that we protected and I wanted it to work within our world, within our story and that’s why I changed that.
In terms of music, you’ve had experience directing music videos. Did you apply that skill to this movie?
Oh, absolutely. In (500) Days of Summer, we used a lot of what is called “needle drop”, which is pre-existing music like Regina Spektor and The Smiths and I would orchestrate the sequences in my head before we shot them with the music. For Spider-Man, I was like “I don’t want to do that” – we used James Horner for the score which was completely fantastic, completely brilliant composer, but on this movie, I wanted to mix them up. I wanted to create a pop music texture because Peter Parker is a kid who’s gotten out of high school, he’s going to be listening the radio all the time, he’s gonna be listening to internet music all the time and we wanted something that feels contemporary but I also needed that classic big, huge textural drive that a big score could provide. So Hans Zimmer, I talked to Hans and I was like “we need a collaborator, we need somebody else to come in that feels contemporary.” He knew Pharrell and we worked with Pharrell, so we came in and Pharrell and Hans started to work together and then Johnny Marr who’s the guitarist for The Smiths came in and we developed a score that would float up into contemporary pop music and then go back down into this deep, throbbing, villain cacophony. It was an extraordinary experience with many many layers. I could do a whole interview on just the music in Times Square which I think is really elaborate and Mike Einzinger from Incubus, he was just playing in this part of the world not too long ago, but Hans allowed us to take the music really to the next level.
In the trailer, we see the Vulture’s wings and Doc Ock’s robotic arms. What led to the decision that the Sinister Six seems to originate completely from OsCorp?
When I was thinking about the movie at the beginning of the situation before the first movie, I was fascinated by Oscorp. Oscorp to me was symbolic of such a much deeper…it’s sort of like a Tower of Babel, all crazy things flowed from this tower that is emerging over the horizon when we were shooting the skyline of New York City. It seemed to make sense that Norman Osborn, by virtue of his desperate need to stay alive and his inability to sacrifice himself that there was a rupture in the universe and there was a hubris that emerged from it. There was something mythological in this Oscorp thing and I wanted Oscorp to be central to this whole idea.
Before Spider-Man, we hadn’t really seen Andrew Garfield as a very physical actor, in these two movies has he ever surprised you?
Absolutely. I didn’t know this, but he used to be a gymnast and he is able to give life to the suit in a way that you can’t just sub in a stuntman. He’s so good and so specific with the way he dramatizes it that he’s able to…(Jamie Foxx drops by) ‘Sup Jamie? (Returning to the question) He always can make you laugh by the way he moves his body, he can make you feel things by the way he shrugs his shoulders, you can feel him under the suit, you can feel him under the mask even though you can’t see him. I’m always surprised by him. He’s surprised by himself too.
Will you be directing the third instalment?
I hope so!
The Amazing Spider-Man 2 opens on 1 May 2014.