While visiting the set of Spider-Man: Homecoming in August 2016, producer Eric Carroll walked us through the film’s basic premise and its beautiful conceptual art. This is how the day typically begins on a Marvel Studios set before we get a chance to observe filming and if available, check out props, sets, costumes, etc. while interviewing select cast and crew.
Also helping kick off our day on the first ever production partnership between Disney, Sony Pictures, and Marvel Studios was Production Designer Oliver Scholl. The German-born artist and designer has worked in the art departments of all sorts of genre projects from Stargate and Batman Forever to Titan A.E. and Battleship. More recently, as Scholl’s moved into production design, he’s worked on Jumper, Edge of Tomorrow, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and Suicide Squad before coming in for Spider-Man’s reboot. His current project is Sony’s other upcoming franchise starter, The Dark Tower.
Scholl spoke to us about fitting Spider-Man’s world into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, making young Peter Parker and Queens, NY feel real and modern, and working in Stark and alien tech, and building sets for the villains.
Describe your experience working on the new Spider-Man and in the MCU.
Oliver Scholl: And very excited yes. Very cool. A little movie. And we have I guess a lot of the elements of like a bringing Spidey into the, back into his home world into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. And continuing on his introduction in the Civil War. Building on that whole successful appearance. So it’s really exciting for me. Design wise, it’s very grounded. Because we know the Stark and Avengers and like the glam superhero world. And what we’re seeing now is the world of a teenager who discovered he has these powers who got pulled out of his normal world to experience this adventure in Germany. And now he’s like thrown back into his home town, Queens, New York. And it’s whoa, whoa, what now? So I think it’s a really fun. Really fun. We and so he kind of like needs to, he needs to find what he’s doing with himself, how he’s gonna cope with these two worlds of knowing what he knows now and having this idol, Tony Stark, providing him with help and fathering him, which is like a fun piece by itself. If you think of Tony’s character, how good a father would he be? A father figure. Could be a bit funny. So it’s exciting that we kind of like had, we had the superhero world in Civil War. And we have the glam world of Stark Technology and all these things. And now we have this kid who’s experiencing that. Who has experienced that experience through his eyes with him. And he takes us on this journey of like okay, how do you deal with saving some people at night in the streets of Queens and then getting your homework done in time? Or how do you deal with not being able to go to a party and be with friends and having to lie to them and say well, I have to say to them I have to work while you actually you wanna, you have this urge of going out and getting this excitement of like fighting crime in the neighborhood. And then of course the fun thing for design on the design world is that this is like home feeling gets like opened up, cranked up with the iron. And as like these influences of these weapons and things that were like dropped by the big guys or by the powers that they were fighting, they dropped all these things on Earth that are not that healthy to have around. And Stark and the big guys and the government officials kind of team up to stack it away. Which trips our hero up, our bad guy up. But that’s kind of like when these things start showing up on the street, it’s too small for Tony and the big guys to react to that because it’s off his radar, it’s under his radar. But for Peter, it’s the right scale. But of course it might escalate. If you tell a kid not to play with fire… He might, you know. It’s really exciting. There’s lot of layers in there in the whole story for as a designer that get me excited. It’s we used a tech kind of stuff that’s this how do you stack away this technology? Where does it come from? Where does it go to? Who other people and the characters involved? What would some operation like that look like? So…
When designing something or adding something to a universe that already exists, but also playing with a character as well known as Spider-Man, what’s the most challenging thing for you to design to get right?
Oliver Scholl: Everything. I think it’s in the overall picture. I think the trick is yes, you wanna, I think there’s so much that especially the fans know about these characters that you can get lost in the detail. While I think what’s really important for my job is to get the overall feel right. And then you drill down in the areas where people really see detail and where it’s really important for the story. Where it’s in front of the camera. If you don’t do it that way, if you like get too lost in detail, then you can’t create this big, visual arc of the story. And not get the world across.
We want to show the contrast between his world and the glam, I’m simplifying, the glam world of Avengers and Captain America and everything like that. So it’s a process. I mean, you read the script. You have a lot of discussions. As this is a collaboration between Sony and Marvel and Marvel are obviously the creators of the original characters and it’s like they have the creative reins as far as I can tell. And it’s a collaboration. But in the end, it’s really great because Kevin has this vision and Amy and like you try to get their ideas because Kevin knows the material. So you have a lot of it’s a interesting process getting like ideas out from him. I’m coming from I would describe myself as neutral. I mean, I grew up with a lot, some may say way too much science fiction stories. Not necessarily just comics. But obviously Kevin Feige as for example at Marvel knows his material and is really keen on getting the tone right so it fits in the overall Marvel Universe. Yeah, that’s part of the challenges.
What kind of posters and books and things are we gonna find in Peter’s bedroom? And what does that sort of illuminate about his character?
Oliver Scholl: Well that’s funny. Were you over there?
No. I saw an Amy Poehler book in one of these things in the living room.
Oliver Scholl: Well he’s living in the now. So he’s like has the contemporary trends of what kids have in their rooms. Plus like a layer of geekiness. Very smart kid that gets into details. And until they get boring. And then it goes to the side and then another pile comes. And he focuses on something else. So it’s, I mean, I have a son who’s like who’s 19 and so I’m kind of, you can kind of see what’s happening. There’s a reality to it.
Speaking of details in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, there are fans looking for the deep dive stuff like the Department of Damage Control where maybe there’s a lot of little references that we can find?
Oliver Scholl: Definitely. I mean, what the funniest is like okay, what kind of stuff would you find? And how would you use it? I’ll leave it at that. You’ll see. It’s again it’s for, it makes for a lot of crazy convos and design sessions trying to come up with these things. It’s very… And it’s really fun to see it built.
As you’re someone who is less familiar with the comics since you didn’t read them growing up, when those conversations are being had, do people come to you with like a wish list of like here are things that if they can fit in we’d like to see as Easter eggs or…?
Oliver Scholl: Well I did grow up with Spider-Man. I come from Germany, but it does get published there too. I actually liked him and I saw him, I saw the comics. Yes, there were visualists. The good thing is Marvel has a very nicely organized library archive. So it’s basically you go through the chronology. And Eric [Carroll] whom you met is like in charge is our creative consultant on the Marvel side here. Who like shepherds us through that maze of character and history that is there that has accumulated. We get photo references, Eric has a huge archive of physical props and things that were in movies. There are two layers also. There’s the comic world and the comic background, what was established there on the publishing side. And then there’s the stuff that has been established in the movies. And that navigation is really Kevin’s big goal, big task. So yes, wish lists come luckily together with actual samples and images. And then we can take it from there and like build on it, make it crazier or tone it down a bit depending on what we do for our storyline.
How does design change if at all coming into a franchise that’s already had two previous modern iterations?
Oliver Scholl: Well… I would see it as not as a change. It’s really like you just wanna find what helps the continuation of the Civil War story arc that has been started. So there are elements there. His behavior, his appearance and the how he shows up in the apartment and these kind of things. And how Tony [Stark] interacts with him. That is really the stepping stone. That is the anchor point for us. Everything else is yes, it’s parallel, there’s parallel universes in these storylines that have been played before. Have been explored before. That will probably be further explored at some point. So there’s a lot of places where you can go with Spidey.
Since it has to fit into that Marvel Cinematic Universe, are there design rules – You can do this or you should do this? You should not do this?
Oliver Scholl: It would be really great if there were design rules. It would make things very much easier. No, it’s… well, there’s the level of being true to the characters. Which is it’s a very ambiguous thing to say. It’s very open to interpretation and I think the ultimate design rule is Kevin’s opinion on stuff. And actually the creative team’s opinion. It’s like I look at the other movies that came out from Marvel and you see there’s a formal language there of the Avengers kind of the metal, the wood, the shapes. The level of technology. So you kind of acknowledge that. But beyond that, it’s really you explore it. And it’s we do a lot of you see a fraction of it here on the wall. We do a lot of images, a lot of key frames in order to explore that question. What is the design? What is it supposed to look like? And that goes into just altering things that exist on location. Or completely reinventing something and building something from scratch.
So either of these things are… It’s not a design rule. I mean, the only design rule that I would say or the target we have that I like to have on things that I work so far and that also I think was a really great combo maybe why I am doing this or why I’ve been asked to do this movie is that they wanna have this movie very grounded. It needs to feel real. It’s not some fairy tale out there. It needs to live and breathe with this contrast of a kid in today’s world that has this ambiguity of well he’s actually had a hidden personality or a hidden talent that he has to decide am I gonna come out and show these talents and be ousted from society as a superhero, but lose all my friends or it’s gonna be a change everything? Or do I wanna live this secret life and keep my friends? And can I, is it impossible to do that? And yeah.
What’s the largest thing that you built, was it the life-size ferry?
Oliver Scholl: Yeah. I would say that’s the biggest physical thing we built.
Do they still have the ferries that you drive cars on?
Oliver Scholl: They do. They have the ferries. But at the moment they’re not taking cars on publicly. There’s service vehicles for the city that are being let on the ferries, but not people’s. So public can’t come. But it used to be the case, but has been stopped.
So the movie’s gonna have a bunch of Centauri stuff in it. Do you go back to the Avengers and like pull assets and designs from that? Or you’re like we need this kind of thing for this movie. We’re gonna just build it to look like that aesthetic. Do you know what I mean?
Oliver Scholl: You go back. You go back and look. Whether it’s Stark Technology or Chitauri or Ultron stuff. You look back at the movies and pull out assets that we have. Whether that’s digital assets or physical assets. And build upon them or redesign something specific, something new that follows the design of the [universe] before on these things.
Similarly when so many big action movies are set in New York, what are the challenges of production designing and putting together Spider-Man’s New York?
Oliver Scholl: Well New York is usually New York and Queens. So that’s our big distinction. If you think of New York, you usually think of Manhattan. So it’s a very conscious choice to say he is not in Manhattan. Manhattan stands for the big guys. It’s always across the river. That’s what he aspires to. That’s where the Avengers Tower is across the river. Looming in the sunset. But he’s not there. Yet.
When you approach designing something like the Vulture’s warehouse, how do you make sure you’re not just building the exact same bad guy hideout from every other superhero movie?
Oliver Scholl: Well that will be up to you when you see the movie. If we did or if we didn’t. There’s a layer of looking for a very interesting location that offers hopefully a starting point that’s already unique because it’s based in reality. Then there are specifics given from the action that’s required in those scenes that you design for and that, I am… I think design whether it’s for an adventure, whether it’s for love story, whether it’s for a sci-fi or comic movie, whatever – what makes good film design or what makes design in general work on what I’m trying to do usually in the beginning is to, in the beginning, sky’s the limit. That’s the worst scenario. You try to if nobody gives you the parameters and that’s time and money, that’s like one parameter, but you try to build up a framework for yourself. The rules of your world.
World building is very fancy work. But in the end you do that. You build, it’s not production design is not about building sets, it’s about building environments. It’s about settings, providing the setting scenes where the action takes place and the set is just a specific part of some part of the setting. And you achieve the setting and the environment by using sets and visual effects and whatever is necessary.
What’s your collaboration been like with Jon [Watts]?
Oliver Scholl: Oh he’s great. He’s really great. I mean, obviously he hasn’t done a big one like this before. But he is very hungry. He’s very fascinated by the whole process. And he’s got great ideas. He has great taste. And it’s very collaborative, which is all I can dream of as a designer on a project like this. I wanna have discussions. But he has also got a lot of energy. Keeps things moving forward. And he is very much using to a much bigger extent than a lot of directors I know. Actually using modern tools to bring us stuff himself. To do storyboards in the computer. And it’s like it’s really quick. You can really communicate with him very well so that’s good and fascinating.
Thank you very much.
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.