A large portion of The Amazing Spider-Man does not come off as a typical summer movie. Battling that lab coat-wearing Lizard aside, the heroics of Peter Parker’s life often take a backseat to his identity crisis. Director Marc Webb, as he told us, did not want to retell the origin of Spider-Man, as we already got that film ten years ago. No matter how much we all like to chuckle at the “untold story” tagline, Webb gives us good reason to reconsider why this is a new origin story: this is Peter Parker’s origin, not Spider-Man’s.
The first hour of The Amazing Spider-Man takes its time to set up this new Peter Parker and the grounded world Webb aimed to capture. Tonally everything, including the giant green lizard who talks, Webb takes as seriously as he can. The Amazing Spider-Man isn’t realistic and gritty in the Nolan sense, but bares a key similarity in its dramatic grounding.
Here’s what director Marc Webb had to say about the emotional chip Peter Parker carries on his shoulder, the wise-cracking teenage hero he saw while reading the comics, and why we’ve seen so much footage from his major tentpole release:
Since Avi Arad makes this joke often, I have to ask, how often does he call you the “chick flick guy”?
[Laughs] Avi always has something to say to me, because he likes to talk. You know, I think what he’s referring to is…I don’t know if you’re familiar with the comics, but there’s always sort of an innocent quality to them, a sweetness to Peter Parker that I think is important to maintain and protect. I think that was something very appealing, to me. Avi is a softy just like me, you know?
[Laughs] You do have a little brooding and darkness in the film as well.
I don’t know. People say that, but, to me, it’s about treating it in a little more of a realistic way, whether emotionally or in terms of the action. It was certainly the intention, for me. I feel there’s certain scenes in the movie I’m really proud of – like when Peter comes home to Aunt May, he’s got bruises on his face, she’s concerned for him, and he tries to protect his identity– where there’s great conflict. I felt if it wasn’t in a Spider-Man movie, it could be in any other independent drama that I liked. I felt the nature of the performance in that scene illustrates my favorite parts about the movie, and I think the scenes between Gwen and Peter also contain that naturalism. For the first half of the movie you’re really with the characters, where you feel there’s more emotional stakes.
The origin of Spider-Man is told for the first hour or so of the movie. Why did you see that as important versus just beginning the film with Peter already as Spider-Man?
It’s an important question to talk about, because I think people are rightfully curious about that. The Peter Parker I imagined and cared about growing up is different from the version we’ve seen before. To start off in the middle of things would have been a disservice, and I didn’t know how to do that. We had seen the origin of Spider-Man, but we hadn’t seen the origin of Peter Parker. I kept going back to this moment making this movie, and it’s the moment of Peter Parker being left behind by his parents, and, in my opinion, that’s a more significant event in his life than the spider bite. Everything in the movie emerges from that moment, in terms of the narrative. Anyone who’s experienced that type of abandonment is going to have a chip on their shoulder and distrust authority.
I wanted to find the origin and genesis of the wise-cracking Peter Parker I know. Anyone who knows comedians knows it’s a defense mechanism and a method to be accepted in the group, and I thought that was something Peter would develop over his life. Ultimately, he’s an outsider by choice, because he distrusts authority figures and has a rebel quality, which I felt was interesting to explore.
You also let him have some teen awkwardness. [Laughs] I love the creepiness of him taking photos of Gwen from a distance.
[Laughs] Yeah, exactly. He’s an observer, and the camera is another symbol of that. It’s a way to put up another barrier between him and the world around him, because he’s been hurt. It’s a part of the film’s subtext, and whether people will recognize that is not so important, but people feel that in his performance. I think that was a really important part for Andrew and I when we were trying to conjure the nuances of Peter Parker. Like, at the dinner table with Captain Stacy, you see the idea of an alpha-authority figure really bugging him, because that’s betrayed him before.
(500) Days of Summer deconstructed love films and, here, you have references, like Rear Window. Was that a film or were there any others you looked at as templates?
Well, I looked at Rebel Without a Cause, and I showed it to Andrew pretty early on. I think the way James Dean moves in that movie is really interesting. James Dean was a part of an acting movement with Marlon Brando, that very nuanced and naturalistic style of acting. In terms of contextualizing the film, I wanted it to be contemporary and for there to be references in the world around them that weren’t necessarily timeless. I think what Sam [Raimi] had done so effectively was render a more nostalgic view of the Stan Lee and Steve Ditko comics. I wanted the, “What if Peter Parker got bit by the spider today?” When you walkout of the theater, I want the world to feel like how you saw it in the movie.
You also used musical references during the filming. Rhys Ifans mentioned you played Velvet Underground on set, to get him in the mood for a scene. What other music did you use?
During the bridge scene I played a Tim Buckley cover: This Mortal Coil playing “Son of the Siren.” I would play soundtracks for Andrew when he was walking down the hallway. It’s just a way to get them in the mood. They stop thinking about the action and it becomes behavior.
Do you recall what soundtracks you used?
He made a request: when he walks into the spider room, he wanted “Pure Imagination” from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I played “Suo Gan” from Empire of the Sun, some Little Children soundtrack for Rhys, and a lot of different things.
Cameron Crowe does that as well.
Cameron Crowe’s learned a lot from me. He often refers a lot to my work. He rips me off all the time! Come on.
[Laughs] There is actually that Crowe brand of sweetness in the movie.
What I love most about Cameron Crowe is he’s an optimist. I think there’s a line in Jerry Maguire, like, “Optimism is a revolutionary act.” It’s very easy when you’re making movies and live in Los Angeles or New York to become cynical, ironic, and protect yourself with irony. There’s a limit to what that can do, and it’s more of an intellectual exercise, not an emotional one. When I see movies, I want to get insights into the world, but I also want to feel a connection, get a little wisdom, and learn. That requires a lack of cynicism, and that’s what I admire Crowe.
There’s definitely a lack of irony in the film, especially when it comes to making the Lizard as realistic as possible. Was the intent behind that to maintain a sense of grounding?
Yeah, it was tough and probably the hardest thing. You have a giant lizard running around the street, but you want the emotion and for it to be grounded. I didn’t want to stylize it. Irony can sometimes put the audience at ease and sometimes it can become “nudge, nudge, wink, wink!” The power of it can be taken away.
Before I wrap up, I have to ask, have you seen the edited together footage of the film’s marketing materials?
I have not seen it, but, listen, I think most movies reveal as much stuff. That’s a marketing department thing, so I wasn’t necessarily involved in that. If you don’t want to watch it, don’t watch it. Is it really that hard? I think what happens is all these outlets and internet sites want exclusive content, and so you have to service those things and keep everyone involved, and, you know, then someone accumulates them. If you don’t want to spoil the movie, don’t watch it.
Well, a part of that problem now is a lot of people like to be spoiled before a movie comes out.
It’s a different time than when I grew up. I’m not judging it, it’s just different. Listen, there’s an enthusiasm and a curiosity, and that’s cool and I appreciate it. I would probably be doing the same thing, if I weren’t making the movies, you know?
The Amazing Spider-Man opens in theaters on July 3rd.