In August 2016 we had the opportunity to visit the Atlanta set of Spider-Man: Homecoming and after chatting with the cast and crew, observing some filming, and browsing some sets and concept art, we finished the day by interviewing director Jon Watts.
Prior to landing the coveted director’s chair of the first ever Marvel-Sony-Disney co-production, Watts earned the gig with his work on the micro-budget feature film Cop Car. In our conversation with the humble but witty and passionate filmmaker, we talk about the quick skyrocketing from an indie flick to a blockbuster tentpole and how it all happened.
Our group interview also touches on what Jon Watts learned from Captain America: Civil War and The Amazing Spider-Man director Marc Webb; how he pitched Spider-Man: Homecoming; casting the film with diversity in mind and choosing villains; and delving into a grounded, real-world look of Peter Parker’s home in Queens, NY.
When this movie was announced there were a lot of people online who were thinking ‘The THIRD version of Spider-Man so soon?’ Give us the pitch why this one is different and why people should see it and why it deserves to exist?
Jon Watts: Well, I can talk about why I was excited about it. First of all, it being in the Marvel [Cinematic] Universe just immediately opened up the doors to so many possibilities – Spider-Man interacting with the other people in that universe and also just to be able to explore a different side of the Marvel Universe. I was really excited about that, because the other movies have shown what I described as the Penthouse level of the Marvel world, what it’s like to be Thor, Iron Man, you know, a billionaire playboy and all of that stuff. But what’s great about Spider-Man is that he’s a regular kid and so by showing his story you also get to show what the ground level is like in a world where The Avengers exist which is already I think a great premise for a movie. So that was very exciting, but also just Tom. By having Peter Parker be a kid that also opens up, I think, a lot of possibilities that are only really explored at the beginning of the other two versions of the films. In the Raimi one he’s only in high school for like ten minutes, but I wanted to make a high school movie already so the opportunity to do it with Spider-Man was pretty exciting.
Jon, who did you seek out advice from? It’s only been 17 months since Sundance.
Jon Watts: I’m trying to remember… I don’t know…I know Marc Webb like from music video days and he gave me the best advice he was like ‘Just make sure to get lunch with Stan Lee. Definitely enjoy yourself.’ I don’t know, it’s a pretty impressive collaboration between Marvel and Sony, so there wasn’t a single person to seek out to get advice and it felt like it was going to be a very different experience. The Russos were really cool, they sort of coached me through it.
Could you have ever imagined being in this chair when Cop Car premiered a year and a half ago?
Jon Watts: Not at all, I wish it was some sort of brilliant stepping stone plan to direct Spider-Man. I didn’t even think anyone would want to make Cop Car and then I didn’t think anyone would want to distribute Cop Car, and then I didn’t think anyone would want to see Cop Car. That movie is based on a recurring dream I had as a kid and we shot it in my hometown and my sister was the location scout and my other sister was the medic and my mom would cook us food. That movie I never thought would lead to anything. This is insane.
Can you talk about being on the set of Civil War and what you took form that experience and brought to this film?
Jon Watts: It felt like there was going to be a camera crew that jumped out and were filming me and was like ‘Just kidding.’ I was still sort of shell shocked. It was such secrecy and it was a long, long process to get to this final position, and they said ‘Okay, you got the job. Okay, you’re flying down to watch them shoot the scene. Do you have any notes for what their apartment should look like?” And I was like “What?” So you’re quickly just scrambling to wrap your head around what’s actually happening and before you know it you’re on set watching Tom and Robert do a scene and it’s just unbelievable, because that’s the first time that I’m really, other than screen tests, seeing Peter Parker. I guess what I took from it was ‘Wow, he’s really good, he’s going to be a great Peter Parker. Don’t screw it up,’ and then ‘Where are the cameras?”
When you were watching that scene being filmed, was Downey already a part of the script or were you like ‘Oh no, we need to have him appear in our story.”
Jon Watts: No, the story was being developed as that was happening, but their relationship was so great in Civil War you kind of feel like you have to keep exploring.
Can you talk about the scene we were just witnessing, we saw Spidey in his old school PJ costume, interacting with Toomes for the very first time and dodging stuff, we don’t really know what’s happening.
Jon Watts: I can’t really…but it is really cool seeing the old school suit.
This is the first Spider-Man movie I feel like actually looks like America – this is very diverse, and it looks like America, and this is a new take on Spider-man because he’s younger and the high school scene looks amazing as well. How early in the process was that a conscious decision or did it just fall an end up like that?
Jon Watts: That was a big part of my pitch. The very first thing I made was a look book of what I wanted the world to look like and what the kids should look like and the high school should look like. I lived in New York for thirteen years and it should look like a school in New York, it shouldn’t look like a school in the Midwest in the 50s. So I pulled a bunch of pictures of kids and documentary photos of kids in schools, and that was part of my pitch and everyone was really into that and followed through with the casting, which is so, so cool, I love the kids.
Building on that, how did casting go? Was it colorblind casting or did you say ‘We know we want this kind of person for this?’
Jon Watts: It was colorblind initially because it was everyone, like any kid ever. We just put them on tape and sometimes it was, there were some situations were a kid was just great and there wasn’t a specific role for them but because it’s a high school we can have so many kids, and it was an opportunity to be like ‘Well this kid is great, we don’t have a specific role for them but maybe we should create a small role for them or think of a way to incorporate them in some other capacity.’
When you’re developing the story and the script while you’re casting, you can keep an open mind to look for the best kids. That’s what they did, I think I remember reading that’s how Judd Apatow did Freaks and Geeks, where they just sort of looked for kids that were interesting and then shaped the roles around them. A great thing about kids is they’re just themselves and can’t help it a lot of the times. So to be able to craft roles around these kids is better than trying to force someone into a preconceived role.
Does that include Peter? Did you meet with non-white actors for Peter?
Peter was already cast before I was on board.
This morning we were over at Pinewood and in the war room and got a walk through some of the story, and one of the things I was really struck by in a world where superhero movies where the stakes tend to be really enormous, the stakes here are much smaller and some of the action scenes are comparatively smaller than they’ve been. How important was it for you to find that balance was it to find the big ferry scene and the small stuff and also how hard is it to make sure you’re getting the spectacle they can put in trailers?
Jon Watts: Another big part of my initial pitch was when you’re in high school everything seems like the most important thing and everything bad seems like the end of the world. So if you have a zit or a girl doesn’t like you or you have to fight a super villain, those things when you’re fifteen are all at 11. So with that in mind it was easy to find that grounded story that could lead you through it, and also come up with spectacle that makes for a good trailer and is compelling. It’s always starting with character, we didn’t want to have it be any empty spectacle so it was finding moments that you would care about and feel invested in Peter and Peter’s journey and not having it just be an action sequence for action sequence’s sake.
The dichotomy is always Peter will escaped something horrible that’s happening to him and then when the suit is too much for him he just wants to pack it away, which one do you think is closer in your movie?
Jon Watts: He’s right at the beginning where it’s still pretty new and he’s trying to figure out ‘Which part of me is Peter and which part of me is Spider-Man and which part of me is both.’ It’s a coming of age story so it’s just trying to figure out who you are.
When we were talking to Tom earlier he mentioned some of the films that you recommend they watch to prepare…
Jon Watts: I made him kind of have a coming-of-age film festival.
Right, he listed a lot of John Hughes movies that we’ve kind of heard beforehand that had influenced this. Were there any sort of left-field films that don’t fit that mold that you said ‘try watching this one?’ Because when we talked to the Russos on Civil War they mentioned ‘Se7en’ as an influence and at the time we were like what does this mean, and then when you see the movie you’re like ‘Oh that makes sense.’
Jon Watts: Right, because a big twist happens at the end that changes everything….Not really. I just wanted them to get the spirit of those movies and know it was okay to be goofy and be a teen. The John Hughes movies, I love Say Anything, I made them watch that, but just being okay to be kind of a weirdo or to be sillier I think. I wanted them to be comfortable to do that and to be awkward. I made them watch Freaks and Geeks too.
Michael Keaton said you took a riskier approached with his character, I noticed he has kid’s drawings on his refrigerator and I feel like he’s the first Marvel villain that has kids and is a father, I’m curious to know where he was going with that risk and why is this character riskier?
Jon Watts: I don’t know exactly what he’s referring to.
He said you would know… Something about him being a parent, something around that.
Jon Watts: Well it’s not that so much as that I like the idea you could have someone who becomes a villain and they’re also a regular person, or starting as a regular person. It’s just a grounded take on where someone like that could come from and where the other people that are a part of it come from, and just trying to root it in something that is believable so it’s not just this arch-villain plot that comes out of nowhere. I think what he’s referring to are the things that lead him to come to the movie, which yeah, no one wakes up thinking they’re going to be a villain, so I like to take that approach with his character which is ‘Why is he really doing it? What motivates him?’ and to really just understand it. You don’t have to agree with it but you can understand what’s driving him.
This morning we were told that Logan Marshall Green is playing a member of the Vulture’s crew, can you say who he’s playing?
Jon Watts: No, I don’t want to, cause there’s a lot of surprises and I don’t want to spoil them.
Given that there have been five previous films and you’re working in an established universe what was your visual approach to making this distinct not only to the MCU but to a general audience that have seen five Spider-Man movies.
Jon Watts: I have my director-y things that I was trying to do but that’s boring. I don’t know (Laughs). There’s an aesthetic that we’re trying to bring to it and trying to keep it feeling grounded where we’re not just having epic camera moves swooping over everyone. This is the camera coming down to the ground level and staying there for a while with Peter.
How do you direct Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man? Can you give him notes?
Jon Watts: I haven’t done it yet, but I’ll let you know. We’ve talked on the phone already, and just he knows the character so well it’s just great for someone like that to come in and bring everything that they’ve put into this character and all the thought that has gone into creating it into thee situations. It’s great because no one has thought about Tony Stark more than Robert Downey Jr. so being able to have his perspective on the story and how he would interact with Peter and what might be interesting is just great. It makes for such a great collaboration.
Do you have the flexibility, if he wants to not drastically change something but play it a different way?
Jon Watts: Yeah, with everyone though, every character. That’s what’s great about working with such skilled actors is they are able to bring so much to every moment and that’s their job is to think about these characters more than anyone else, and when you do that it’s just ‘Best idea wins,’ that’s been the philosophy on the movie, and it doesn’t matter whose idea it is, it’s always worth trying. Whatever is great, you kind of know it. Being free to explore that and finding stuff has been really fun and it’s been really collaborative on every level.
Being the first director to have an impact on this Disney-Marvel-Sony thing, have you felt any creative pressures from either side or is it smooth sailing?
Jon Watts: Yeah, actually, what I was saying is from the get go it’s been a very collaborative experience, and I think as soon as everyone was aware of that and came into it with those expectations, which is how I came into it, you don’t come in thinking ‘This has got to be ONE way,’ it really lends itself to just being open to ideas and trying stuff out and following things down a path that may not pan out. Then you just start over and it’s fun, it’s what being creative is about.
Tom [Holland] talked about going undercover in the Bronx.
Jon Watts: Oh yeah, I made him go to school, because he’d never been to a normal school not even in England. So I sent him to a math and science high school because that’s the kind of school that Peter Parker would go to like a public, magnet school you have to test into. So I made him go and he was so blown away by how hard the kids worked and how smart everyone was. The thing he remarked on which I thought was such a great takeaway was that everyone was exhausted and that’s what I remember from high school. I remember being so tired. You’re waking up so early and working so hard and then doing so much homework and any extracurricular activities and you’re just exhausted all the time. SO we made sure to keep some of that spirit alive just writing about being so tired. Like you’ve just woken up…
In this movie you bring in Liz Allen, who we’ve never seen in five previous Spider-Man films, I understand that Ned began life as Ned Leeds and maybe has changed or not, we were told this morning. But Michelle seems to be a new character, you cast Zendaya in that role, she’s a tremendous star. Can you talk about that character?
Jon Watts: There’s a couple Michelles in the comics…
This is probably not the twenty something roommate he had though, right?
Jon Watts: I don’t want to say anything about any of that stuff because it’s all these weird rumors flying around right now and I’d rather just not say anything until people see the movie.
Can you talk about her relationship with Peter in the movie and casting Zendaya in the role? Amy and Kevin Feige said they’d never heard of her before.
Jon Watts: Yeah, it was really funny. I knew of her but I knew that was on K.C. Undercover. It was funny because then you Google her and you see she’s a cover girl and is so glamorous. She just came in and read on tape for just whoever because we were doing open readings, and she was so different than what I think anyone expected and was just really down to Earth and really relatable. It was the open minded thing I was talking about earlier, it was like ‘She’s gotta be in the movie in some capacity.’
When there’s a rumor like that or a story that gets out how do you handle it and how do you feel?
Jon Watts: I mean, they’re usually wrong so it’s really fun to watch people respond to all these incorrect rumors and reveal a lot of other things that they think might be going on. It’s just fun. It’s like being a magician because you’re like ‘Nah, nah, nope. Oh? Close! Nope, wrong again.’ Then every once in a while someone will have a crazy theory, because I read everything on Twitter, and someone will have a crazy theory or a weird idea and then you’re like ‘Oh, that’s pretty cool. Can we do that? Is it too late? Can we figure out a way to write that in?’ I love it, aside from the people that are being terrible it’s just excitement and it’s just people who are freaking out like ‘Oh my god what does this mean? Does that mean this?’ Because there’s such a long history in the comics it could mean any rumor could mean a million things because so many different things have happened in the comics.
At the beginning of the day, going through the art and learning the story one of the big messages that was being hammered to us was this is different than the previous five movies, avoiding things like rehashing Uncle Ben’s story and focusing on high school and even choosing different villains. Are there major supporting characters or villains that you think in the future need to be in sequels or the MCU?
Jon Watts: Yeah, we have some ideas of who could fit in in an interesting way, but we’re just trying to build Spider-Man’s side of the world in a rich way that could organically lead to some of that great rogue’s gallery. Not Jackson Wheel, you guys know Jackson Wheel? He’s like one of the silliest of all villains. His name is Jackson Wheel and he becomes Big Wheel and he rides around in a giant wheel. There’s another guy named Gideon Mace. It’s hard to get, except for digital copies, some years, there’s some real, real classic villains. Will-O’-The-Wisp. Gideon Mace, he has an arm that’s a mace that also shoots mace. You just imagine the writers just cracking up. ‘We’re late for our deadline, uhhh…Gideon Mace.’ It’s so fun.
Can we have a quick follow-up on Zendaya’s look in the film because we saw the comic-con footage. You said she’s very glamorous but in this she has an underdone look and looks like a girl we don’t often get to see in high school movies or superhero movies, can you talk a little about that design?
Jon Watts: I always thought of her as being a version of Ally Sheedy in The Breakfast Club, what Linda Cardellini is lie in Freaks and Geeks, it’s just a cool character and it’s cool for her to be that character I thought. She has a really cool wardrobe, really funny, lots of literary nods. I like the idea that she’s a real reader and bookish. She always has a big pile of books she’s carrying around, which I picked and obsessed over.
A young Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Tom Holland), who made his sensational debut in Captain America: Civil War, begins to navigate his newfound identity as the web-slinging super hero in Spider-Man: Homecoming. Thrilled by his experience with the Avengers, Peter returns home, where he lives with his Aunt May (Marisa Tomei), under the watchful eye of his new mentor Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.). Peter tries to fall back into his normal daily routine – distracted by thoughts of proving himself to be more than just your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man – but when the Vulture (Michael Keaton) emerges as a new villain, everything that Peter holds most important will be threatened. Directed by Jon Watts. Produced by Kevin Feige and Amy Pascal. Screenplay by Jonathan Goldstein & John Francis Daley and Jon Watts & Christopher Ford and Chris McKenna & Erik Sommers, Based on the Marvel Comic Book by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko.