Tom Beasley chats to two of the directors of everyone’s new favourite superhero movie – last year’s Oscar-winning animation Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse…
Nobody was expecting Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse to be their favourite superhero movie of 2018. In a year that gave the world everything from Avengers: Infinity War and Black Panther through to the weirdness of Aquaman and even Venom, this multi-verse based animation seemed to be the oddball outsider. However, it went on to become the most critically acclaimed of all of those movies and won the Oscar for Best Animated Feature ahead of the latest offerings from both Disney and Pixar.
With a new main character in Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), it’s a story that opens up the wide back catalogue of Marvel’s weirder Spider-Man stories in order to introduce a whole selection of different Spider-people. It’s a mind-bending journey that feels completely different to everything the superhero genre has produced in recent years.
The film is about to arrive on home entertainment in the UK, so directors Peter Ramsey and Rodney Rothman got on the phone with Flickering Myth for a chat about everything Spidey…
Congratulations on the film! I’m sure you’ve had so many people tell you that over the last few months…
RR: It never gets old, though.
I’m sure! The first thing I want to ask about is the Oscar win. Did any of you see that coming when you first started?
PR: No, nobody saw it coming.
RR: It was never discussed in any way and I don’t really remember even thinking about it but, if I was forced to think about it a year ago, I’d have said “maybe if we do a good job, we’ll be in that conversation”. But I don’t think anybody really ever saw us winning.
PR: I was always like “it’s a Spider-Man movie, so no way”. It never really entered my calculus at all.
What was it like to be part of the whole awards season thing? When you speak to anyone that has been part of that circus, they always talk about how strange it is.
PR: I have been saying this for the past three months, but it’s really surreal. And for us, in particular, because we were a little late handing the film over. We opened late in the year anyway, but we were so late handing the film over that the responses started coming at us immediately. Literally immediately after we handed over the finished film, journalists who had seen earlier versions of it were hitting their deadlines to put their reviews out. The response started coming back, the critical response started coming back and then we found ourselves in the awards conversation. It was off to the races without any kind of break.
RR: It was a matter of two or three weeks between when we finished the movie and when the world started to react to it. And there was an interim period, as Peter was saying, where people were reacting to nearly complete versions of the film. We were told we had won the New York Film Critics award before we had officially locked our movie. That was really shocking and also, obviously, really exciting. We didn’t see it coming. But then, yeah, you have to spend months in a version of running for political office. I don’t know if you’d agree with this, Peter, but it really felt like the movie was leading the way for us…
RR: It really seemed to be the movie and the personal, intimate reactions that people had to it that was driving what happened afterwards. As much as we tried to message things, I think the movie was its own message.
Do you think it was in any way helpful to be so close to the wire? As soon as you put it out there, people were reacting and so you didn’t have those months of worrying how it would be received.
PR: Maybe! I think Rodney kind of hit on it right there. The proof was kind of in the pudding as far as the audience was concerned. They felt that the movie was something fresh and new and I think that gave us an incredible amount of goodwill in the critical community and the animation community. It just sort of snowballed from there. Once general audiences started seeing the film, there was this thing of “it’s new, it’s different, it feels fresh” but there was still a relatable emotional story in there. If you can do both of those things, you’re in a pretty good place.
Last year was such a massive year for superheroes but, in many ways, the one people were talking about was Into the Spider-Verse. What was that like for you to be at the forefront of that conversation, ahead of films with much deeper pockets?
RR: No one counted on that, it was really cool! What else is there to say? A lot of us had spent a long time working on the movie and we spent a long time before that working on our craft and developing ambitions to work on something that makes an impact or offers something new to make up for all of the things we take from our predecessors. We were all waiting for an opportunity like this, so it was really cool and gratifying and unexpected to suddenly be part of a project that people seemed to think was offering something new in a genre that is quite prevalent and has already produced a lot of really good movies. It’s banal to say it, but it was really cool and it encourages us to keep pushing ourselves in the future.
PR: I think the other thing that all of us would probably agree with is that I don’t think too many of us thought of it as a superhero movie from day to day.
RR: That’s true.
PR: We were so concerned with getting the character right that I think we all thought of it more as a Miles Morales movie than a superhero movie, in the bigger sense. All of that other stuff was in there and we knew it had to deliver, but we really were thinking so much more about the character’s story and the style of it. I think the other part of it just came along for the ride.
With that in mind, was there any concern about Spider-Man fatigue? Miles is the fourth different big screen Spider-Man in over a decade, so was there concern that audiences might not want to see him again?
RR: Certainly that worry was there, but I think it very quickly became our job to try to make a movie that made that concern irrelevant or minimised it. All it did was give us more freedom to make something that was distinctive and, as Peter was saying, it gave us a reason to focus even more on Miles and his family, the world around him and all of the things about our movie that none of those other movies had.
One of the things that I think marks your movie out as different is the very unconventional animated style. Could you talk a little about that and how different it was to other films you’ve worked on?
PR: We knew we had to differentiate it from other Spider-Man movies, which partially came just by virtue of this being animated, but we also wanted to differentiate it from other animated movies. All of us, with the exception of Rodney, had been working in the medium for a few films and we were all aware that these things had hit a point where a lot of them are looking and feeling the same once you hit this level of budget and size.
It all went back to selling people on Miles, getting people to embrace Miles and how we could wake people up with a new experience. The animation style leans into comic books and is bringing back hand-drawn, 2D elements in a way we haven’t seen in big-budget films. All of these things were attempts to give the audience a totally new experience centered around what we felt about the story of Miles Morales.
You’ve got a truly incredible cast of actors. Did you have them together for any of the recordings, or were they all done separately? I’m intrigued to learn what the dynamic was there?
RR: We mostly recorded separately, but we did record them together a fair amount also, which isn’t typical. Especially in scenes that were built around subtle interactions between characters, we recorded together. The first scene we did that with was where Miles and his father drive to school. We got Brian Tyree Henry and Shameik Moore together for the same recording and we literally put them in chairs like a car, with microphones set up, and we ran the scene a lot. That became the basis for that scene because it was important for us to have a naturalistic feel and a lot of subtext beneath the surface. We wanted the actors to be able to play off each other.
We did that a lot with Jake Johnson and Shameik also. I think we probably wish we had done it more, but it’s not always logistically possible and it makes the editor’s job a lot harder. There are a lot of very sound technical reasons why movies don’t record actors in the same room, but it is a tool that we will continue to use.
With that in mind, how much room was there for improvisation and ad-libbing?
PR: Part of the process in any animated film I have been involved with is letting the actors have as much room as possible to inject themselves into the process and make the characters their own. That can go from interpreting a line, as long as it’s still within the intention of a scene, to just riffing.
When you have someone like John Mulaney, you just have to give him the basic scenario and tell him to go. He’s such a talented writer in his own right. The same with Jake Johnson, you can just wind him up and let him go. I could say the same thing about Bryan Tyree Henry or Mahershala Ali. These guys are so good and they know the character so well that they can spin off into their own thing. They’re mindful about what the scene is supposed to be accomplishing and so they always give you something that’s near the target.
From a script perspective, there’s so much going on in this movie with the concept of the multi-verse and the different Spider-people. But, at its heart, you know a lot of the people going to see this will be for kids. One of the beauties of the movie for me is that it still works for kids, despite its complexity. How did you make sure that balance would be kept?
RR: The truth is that for a story that’s as complicated as this one is, it’s a pain-staking process. In our case, it took years. The heart of the process is just trying to make a movie where you can feel that the audience is emotionally engaged the entire time. Any time you lay on too much exposition or too much explanation, you can feel the audience moving away from you. So it’s a pain-staking process of trying to express these concepts and ideas in a way that keeps the audience leaning forward.
It’s a gradual process of learning what you don’t have to say. In the end, the movie didn’t say a lot of things that we thought we had to say because we found the audience understood enough to be emotionally engaged. That was where we cut it off.
PR: The other thing we found out pretty early was that young kids were the ones who had the least amount of trouble with the idea of the multi-verse. It was the old folks who weren’t quite catching on to that one.
RR: I have a four-year-old who just freely now asks me about multiple dimensions. It’s just something that he understands now.
PR: That could be pretty good for a parent. “Dad, I thought we were going to the movies?” “No, that was in one of the other dimensions.”
RR: Yeah, the other you always has a much better life unfortunately.
The audience thing you hinted at is quite interesting. Adults who watch superhero movies like to dissect where they all fit together and discuss what everything means , but is there something to be said for a child audience that just takes it in their stride and says “oh yeah, of course there’s a talking pig”, taking it as it is?
RR: Sometimes, the more you try to actually explain things, the more off-putting it can be for an audience. Ultimately, we found a way to justify everything. The nice thing about animated movies is that, because you work on them for so long, you have time to figure things out and put in little setups or details that explain things.
One of the things I really appreciated in this film was the dedication to Stan Lee or Steve Ditko. I guess the Stan Lee stuff, particularly, must have come quite late in the day for you. How did that all come together and how did you work out the best way to honour Stan and Steve?
PR: It did come pretty late. We were all hoping that he would be around long enough to see the finished product and get a sense of the response to it. But we knew he was in ill health. We weren’t stockpiling ‘in memoriam’ ideas in advance, but I think we thought the tribute we had in the cameo felt complete enough that we weren’t thinking about anything else. But he passed pretty late in the game in terms of our production and we just thought we should give a final nod both to him and to Ditko. We knew we were going to do something and that, plus his cameo, we figured was going to round it out in a satisfying way.
RR: They were already so much a part of the movie anyway, as far as the themes and the visual motifs of the movie. I remember the deciding vote for what we would put in the credits came from Avi Arad – one of our producers and one of the creators of the project. He was also the person we were working with who personally knew Stan the best. I remember we were trying to decide between a few different quotes to end the movie and when Avi came down to one particular quote, it meant a lot to us because he personally knew Stan.
It’s certainly a lovely tribute! I wanted to ask about sequels to this movie. There are lots of bits and pieces that have been announced, or hinted at, or rumoured. Would you be keen to get back on board for any of it?
PR: I don’t know much about them either, to be perfectly honest with you. You do get really attached to these characters after living with them and sweating over them for three years. It’s almost like I’m looking at an actual person growing up because I’m just curious to see what will happen to Miles next and where he will go, rather than me actually working on it or what bad guy he’s going to fight. I’m really curious about where that character is gonna go and how that will affect the way the story is told.
RR: I think that kinda covers it for me too. Miles is like a living, breathing person for us and it’s interesting to imagine the kind of challenges and changes he might go through and imagine how that might be dramatised. It was a lot of fun to be part of something that was striving to break new ground and do things a bit differently, so I think in that sense, it’ll be interested to look at what else they can do. How can the spirit behind what we did this time push to a new place that expresses where Miles, as a character, has gone?
PR: Whoever is doing the next one, ha ha and good luck.
Just as a final point before I let you go, as I was watching the film with all of the different Spider-people, I was very much primed for Tom Holland to make an appearance. Was there ever a discussion about bringing the MCU’s Spider-Man into this?
RR: There were all discussions – all of the discussions you could possibly have. When you make a multi-verse movie, you have to discuss the multi-verse of options. We certainly discussed it but, in the end, we really wanted to focus on Miles and giving him his own plot and not tying it to anything else.
Maybe that’s one for the alternate universe version of this film!
PR: There you go!
RR: Oh man! They’d need some serious dough to get Tom Holland.
Thank you, Peter and Rodney!
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is available on DVD, Blu-ray and 4K in the UK from April 22.
Tom Beasley is a freelance film journalist and wrestling fan. Follow him on Twitter via @TomJBeasley for movie opinions, wrestling stuff and puns.