When Jon Watts got a call from his agent telling him that Marvel wanted to sit down for a meeting, he assumed it was nothing more than a formality. Someone at the studio had seen his shoestring thriller Cop Car, liked it, and wanted to chat. Good. Great.
But when a Marvel executive let slip that the studio struck a deal with Sony to bring its marquee superhero, Spider-Man, back into the MCU fold with a new standalone movie, Watts saw an opening.
Tobey Maguire was 27 when the first Spider-Man movie opened in 2002, three years younger than Andrew Garfield was when he last played Spidey in 2014. But comic book Peter Parker is very much a teenager, and Marvel wanted to embrace that both in the film’s casting and its tone.
It just so happened that Watts was working on his own high school movie at the time, and had been gorging on coming of age films, particularly those of eighties auteur John Hughes, whose best work nailed both the angst and excitement of adolescence.
So Watts began rattling off the references that were fresh in his mind, and got called back for more meetings, with more executives. Before he knew it, the man who began his career directing episodes of the Onion News Network found himself on the set of Spider-Man: Homecoming—of one of the year’s biggest (and best)movies—alongside Robert Downey Jr., Michael Keaton, and a plucky British youth named Tom Holland (but you can call him Spider-Man.)
I went to school with a lot of amateur filmmakers and I’d always ask them “If marvel gave you $200 million to make a Spider-Man movie, would you be able to do it?“ That’s kind of what happened to you, isn’t it?
It’s funny you say that. They were filming the very first Spider-Man movie when I was in school.
Did you ever imagine yourself in this position back then?
I guess you always hope that someday you’ll be able to make a massive movie if that’s what you want, but I was more one foot in front of the other.
How do you start an undertaking with so many moving parts? What was the first step?
I just started reading the comics. I knew that if I’m going to do this I have to become as much of a Spider-Man expert as I could so I just got all the volumes and just started reading, and that was really fun. It was great to just immerse myself in it before watching the movies or any of that. I just wanted to build the roots and get excited about Spider-Man the way people were when he was first introduced.
Would you call yourself a connoisseur now?
I know a lot now that’s for sure. I still can’t hold a candle to the actual pros.
You’ve made one little seen feature film prior to this. Why do you think Marvel has been looking at indie directors to helm their major tentpoles?
I don’t know. I guess it’s really more of a question for them. I know it’s cheap, that’s for sure. It’s been working out well for them and I’m certainly happy that they’re willing to take those chances on less tested directors.
How did the first meetings with Marvel come about?
It was just a general meeting at first. My agent asked if I wanted to meet with Marvel and I said sure. I assumed it was just going to be one of those generic meet and greets that don’t really go anywhere. I had other things that I was working on but I just decided to go to Marvel, kind of like in The Simpsons when Bart goes to an interview at the Mad magazine headquarters. I had the same sort of feeling. But in the middle of the meeting they started talking about how they’re going to make a deal with Sony to have Spider-Man so that after Civil War they could make a Spider-Man movie that’s set in the Marvel Universe. The only real idea they had was that they were going to make him be a young kid. I had been wanting to make my own coming of age movie and had been writing that and immersing myself in that genre. So when they started talking about a 15-year-old Spider-man I just started talking about coming of age movies and applying everything I had been working on.
Did you notice the mood in the room change when that happened?
Yeah, it was a really fortunate coincidence that I had started to dig deep into coming of age movies, so I just had all the references and all the ideas. I got to take all the things I was planning for the other movie and just started pitching it to them. And then I just started getting invited back to more and more meetings with more and more people in the room. I never thought I was going to get it.
At what point did you realize that it was something that might actually happen?
It was very late in the process when I started to think that I might actually have a shot. I tried to not think about it that way. I just thought that if I could barrage them with enthusiasm, it would be the best way to go about it. I made something for them every couple of days.
What did you make for them?
The first thing I made was a reel of trailer clips. I just took themes from other coming of age movies that I liked and TV shows that I liked and built a three act structured trailer incorporating elements of Spider-Man and other Marvel movies to capture the tone. You can talk as much as you want about tone but it’s really something that you feel. I think that got everyone excited about the feeling that I was trying to capture. And then I started doing my own storyboards. There was no script or anything but I just came up with a couple of ideas for potential sequences and just started storyboarding them and narrating them myself, so everyone would get a video every couple of days of me bothering them with some new idea. I thought that even though I would never get it, I could use this as a good opportunity to learn how to pitch. It was only at the very end of the process that I started thinking that I might have a chance.
How did you find out that you got the job?
My very last meeting was Sony and I had to fly to New York because they were showing Cop Car at BAM in Brooklyn. I was in a cab on my way to the airport and I got a call from Marvel. They were like “Where are you? “ “In a cab.” “Okay don’t say anything because the news isn’t out yet and if it leaks you won’t get the job.” And there was just this silence on the other side of the phone call and they were like “We want you to make Spider-Man. We’re going to connect you to Sony, you’re going to talk to Amy Pascal. Congratulations and don’t tell anyone until it’s officially announced.”
So who did you tell?
I was silent. I was in the car by myself and I was suddenly worried that the cab driver was going to figure out what I was talking about, and he’ll start posting things on Reddit, so I was just silent as more and more people are calling me and congratulating me. The weirdest thing was that the car felt like it was going faster and faster and swerving through traffic and I just thought “Oh I’m going to die in a car accident. I’m going to get this amazing news and then die in a car accident.” Or maybe I did die.
Were you bummed that you didn’t have a say in who would play Spider-Man?
It happened pretty much at the same time. They cast him and hired me within a day of each other.
Did you start doing some digging to familiarize yourself with your new Peter Parker? I knew who he was because of The Impossible. But they showed me his screen test with Downey before it was official and it was amazing. It was the exact level of optimism and excitement that I had hoped that I could bring to the character, and he was already doing it.
I heard Downey was the one who said “This is the dude.”
What was really exciting about watching the screen test is, a lot of the things that Tom was doing in the moment were improvised. He was really present and really able to hold his own against Downey. I can’t imagine what a nerve-wracking experience that must’ve been for him. There’s one improv that they did that was so funny I used it in the movie. To see someone thrown into that situation and not be the least bit intimidated and be able to keep up was just really impressive.
Speaking of being intimidated, what was it like working with RDJ? This is like his 10th marvel movie and you’re new. Did you ever like deferring to him and how receptive was he to your ideas despite your rookie status?
He’s a very communicative guy so after he had read the script we got on the phone and chatted about it for a while. I always want to talk to the actors as much as possible to get their insight into the character because no one thinks about it as much as they so. Having been Tony Stark and having been there for the inception of this whole world, it was just great to talk to him and bounce around ideas and get on the same page creatively so that when you’re on set you can be free to have fun. It helps that he’s just a great guy who’s bringing so much, as a director you’re jus thankful.
This is such a diverse cast with actors like Zendaya, Donald Glover etc. Was that something you specifically set out to do?
Definitely. I lived in New York for a very long time and Peter Parker is from Queens, which is one of the most diverse places in the world. It only made sense to me that the school in the film would reflect that and that the world would reflect that. Even though the MCU is a slight deviation from the real world, I wanted it to feel authentic to Queens. That really opened up the door to all the possibilities with casting. I wanted to actually cast it with an open mind. I had everyone I could get audition not even for specific roles. I just wanted to see kids on tape and see who’s exciting to watch.
So did you have a role for Donald Glover or did you just want to see Donald Glover
I’ve known Donald for a long time because my wife is his manager. She produces Atlanta. So I remember when the whole “Donald Glover should be Spider-Man” events happened on the internet. So when this opportunity came around I didn’t even know who he should be, I just knew that Donald Glover had to be in this movie.
I’ve always wondered if his casting was a nod to that whole movement, so thank you for confirming my suspicions.
I was right there when all of that was happening so I just thought it would be so satisfying to have him be in the world. It’s so cool.
What is it about Marvel and that whole machine that makes them so good at what they do?
I’ve never worked with any other studio so I don’t have anything to compare it to. It seems like it’s the same attitude that they have at Pixar or at Disney. It’s this idea where the best idea wins. You don’t feel like there’s any sort of politics or any sort of agenda other than just trying to make this as good as possible. That’s how this entire process has been from the very beginning. It’s just a bunch of people getting in a room and pitching ideas and no idea is a bad idea. It just becomes a safe creative place.
It’s a tribute to you that they hired you, the guy with the best idea.
I’ve always been really collaborative. I’ve always worked together with all of my friends on movies and I would never turn away a bad idea. It’s a just a positive environment where you’re not afraid to pitch creative stuff. That’s how the process started and that’s how it’s been all the way to the very end.
What do you say to the skeptics who might have Spider-Man franchise fatigue?
I would just hope that they judge the movie on its own. If they think that they’re going to see a Spider-Man movie that they’ve already seen before, they won’t. Every moment, the biggest challenge was how do you make this new? I go to the movies to see things I’ve never seen before and I tried to keep that in mind for every single moment of this process.