When Marc Webb was in Colorado Springs to receive an achievement award at his 15th reunion at Colorado College last October, he screened his student films, made in 1994 and 1996, and showed clips from his Golden Globe-nominated 2009 film (500) Days of Summer. He also shared the latest trailer for his upcoming flick, The Amazing Spider-Man, before hosting a Q&A as part of "Celebrating the Films of Marc Webb," a program that was open to the public.
At one point during the program, Webb, in response to a question about the use of 3D in The Amazing Spider-Man, discussed the "uncanny valley." It's a term in animation and robotics for something that looks "almost real, but not quite real, and it makes people very uncomfortable." Robert Zemeckis' poorly received Beowulf was mentioned as an example, but in defense of his own kind, and perhaps to assuage his own potential anxiety, Webb said, "there's not a director alive that hasn't had a flop."
With an estimated budget in the ballpark of $215 million for The Amazing Spider-Man — a franchise reboot that director David Fincher called "risky" in an MTV News interview back in 2010, shortly after taking himself out of the running for the director's seat — Webb could easily and understandably be sweating July's box office figures. But with eight months of post-production still ahead of him at that time, the 37-year-old appeared remarkably calm and comfortable, even offering an industry joke:
"There's two brain surgeons going into an operation, an old guy and a young guy. As they start to cut open the skull, the old guy notices that the young guy's noticeably nervous. So he turns to him and says, 'Come on, it's not like we're trying to make a movie.'"
On the bright side, Fincher, in that same MTV News interview, acknowledged that with Webb "they're rolling the dice, and I think that's always exciting."
Webb shared how he actually said "no" to the project "several times" as well when first approached with it: "I thought it was the most ridiculous idea. I said, 'Did you even see my last movie?'"
But after sitting with the offer for some time, he warmed to it. "The process of creating something from the ground up and reinventing something as culturally available as Spider-Man is a really fun challenge," he says. And, "at the end of the day, you're communicating an emotion. It doesn't matter if it's an $8 million movie [roughly (500) Days' budget] or a $200 million movie — you want the audience to connect and feel something."
Coming out of directing award-winning videos for the likes of My Chemical Romance, Green Day and Weezer prior to his feature film debut, Webb says he was plenty familiar with the language and mechanics of filmmaking. And he credits his time with Colorado College English faculty as key to informing his writing, analysis and critical communication skills.
"The form of what you're trying to create is very closely related to the content you're trying to deliver," he says. "... Being able to articulate solutions is a really weird skill, something I was able to examine when I didn't even know I was examining it."
Below, Webb very knowingly examines his path to The Amazing Spider-Man (set to release July 3) in an interview conducted by phone from Los Angeles the day prior to his Colorado College visit.
Indy: Did you read comics as a kid?
Marc Webb: Sure. I lived right down the street from Capital City Comics in Madison, Wisconsin. I used to collect Spider-Man, but it wasn't the only comic I read. I was more into Groo the Wanderer, and G.I. Joe. Spider-Man and all the big comics — X-Men, Superman — had gone so deep, that it was hard to get in at the ground level. Those other comics I read from the ground up.
Indy: Do you still read comics now?
MW: Not so much anymore. I spend so much time doing movie stuff and reading scripts that I have a hard time keeping up with the comic universe. It's also evolved so much. It's a bit of a different world.
Indy: Can you take us from Colorado College to (500) Days of Summer to Spider-Man? Did you have a sense when you were sitting in Tom Sanny's film class that you were aiming for Hollywood?
MW: I'd always been deeply attracted to movies, but I don't think I considered it a real possible career path. I did an internship my junior year, or maybe it was my sophomore year, for a block. I worked on an HBO movie. I was a [production assistant]. I was like, 'I bet I can do this.' That opened up the door.
And then I was an extra on The Cowboy Way. A whole bunch of us went down for a block break and volunteered. There was something about the set that I found really appealing. But the pathway was so obscure. When I went to NYU, first semester that was also eye-opening. Gradually it became more realistic, where if not directing, I could see participating professionally in the world of film.
For me, I remember sitting on my bed in L.A. I had been watching a lot of music videos and I made a very firm decision that I was going to spend the next five years trying to do music videos. And that ended up working out. I started making little things on my own, learned as much as I could, and I shopped myself around. I became obsessed with it. I find that to be a common characteristic of a lot of people that I know that I work with now. Whether it's cinematography or writing or acting. It's just what you do. You can't not do it. ...
There was no real break, I started off editing. Doug Pray, who also went to CC, taught me how to edit. I did some behind-the-scenes documentaries.
And one day, I was working at a record label, and this guy — I'd showed him some of my short films that I'd done at CC — he was like, 'Hey there's this Blues Traveler video that I need to shoot some second-unit, some concept stuff for.' He said we had $10,000 to do it. And at the time I thought I was gonna make, like, Titanic. Ten thousand is more than I'd been able to spend on anything. We got a 35mm camera and went and shot it. It was pretty hokey, not a very good video, but I made something. I kept on editing and then I started to do other little videos gradually and over the course of several years it became a career.
Indy: How does the music background transfer into what you're doing now?
MW: Well, in (500) Days of Summer, a lot of the sequences were orchestrated around pieces of music. I knew the music before I shot the scene, and I could communicate that to my actors and the cinematographer. It gave me a sort of spine on a scene-by-scene basis to build a scene around. The story is obviously the predominant motivation behind how you shoot something, but the music helps give it a tone and a spirit. That was a great learning experience.
Beyond that, music videos train you to think and tell stories visually, because you don't have dialogue to help tell the story. So you've gotta show people rather than explain. And that was a pretty great tool that allowed me to have a little bit more faith in the performance rather than just the words on the page.
Indy: Has Spider-Man been a whole different beast?
MW: It's the same thing. It's film language. It's on a different scale, certainly, but at the end of the day it's actors emoting and trying to get an audience to connect to that. So it's really not that different.
Indy: How did The Office episode that you directed come together? Did they call you?
MW: It was right after (500). I went to NYU for a semester with Ed Helms. And we kept in touch over the years. He had just gotten onto The Office. It's a very different thing because the characters are already established, so a language is already built in. It's really more about blocking and helping the guest star than anything else. But I thought it'd be fun to do a TV episode, and I wanted to learn about it because I wanted to do more pilots. That was a good education.
Indy: What happened with the Lone Star pilot you shot after that?
MW: Lone Star was picked up but cancelled after two episodes. It was one of the quickest-cancelled shows ever. I think it was really well received critically, but people just weren't interested. And that was tough.
I loved the writer, Kyle [Killen] — he has this new show called Awake, and he also wrote The Beaver. He's a young writer from Austin, Texas. He's a very creative, intelligent, fun guy and the collaboration was really rewarding, but unfortunately it didn't work out.
Indy: Back to Spider-Man, we're now in the era of the comic book reboot — Christopher Nolan taking Batman to great new heights as compared to the earlier films, for example. Post-(500) Days of Summer, this seems like a further defining career move for you. And there's the sequel slated for 2014. Where do you go from here?
MW: This was conceived with a bigger story in mind. But really we based a lot of our movie on the Ultimate series, the Ultimate Spider-Mans [published from 2000 to 2009] — some of the attitude and the tone. I think Sam's [Sam Raimi, director of 2002's Spider-Man and the 2004 and 2007 sequels] were more the Stan Lee [Spider-Man creator] and Steve Ditko [co-creator/artist] versions.
I've gotta finish this film before I think about anything else, but Spider-Man is a part of American mythology. It belongs on the big screen. I was hesitant at first because I didn't want to tread on Sam's stuff. But then when they had decided to let it go, I thought I could bring something to it. ...
We knew it was very different from the earlier movies, so it's not a sequel. It's a reboot. There's elements of a prequel, because we go back and tell a little bit more about the parents. I can't talk too much about it yet, but it's a very different tone. It's a different story. Gwen Stacy is different. The Gwen Stacy mythology in the comic is an epic, very iconic piece of Spider-Man, maybe some of the most famous stuff in the comics. And it wasn't really explored cinematically. ...
Obviously we had to conceive of it differently, but there's so much material in the comics. And the Gwen Stacy saga is a great example of that. And what happened to his parents and how the residue of that abandonment affects his emotional state.
Indy: You're going from an indie film to the use of CGI and 3D. Now you're working with Spider-Man swinging from buildings. How do you go into that mode of directing conceptually. Has it been overwhelming?
MW: I just took it one day at a time. It's a story about a kid who's growing up and he's looking for his father and he finds himself. And you've just gotta keep that aura in what you're trying to do, and the rest sort of takes care of itself.
Indy: Did you wear the helmet like James Cameron did for Avatar, to be seeing that 3D world while directing?
MW: No, his live-action stuff used slightly different camera systems. But he was actually a great ally. When he heard that we were doing Spider-Man in 3D, he called up and invited me over and walked me through a lot of the new and emerging film language and technology and was incredibly generous and totally cool. I was like, "Yeah, I'm going over and hanging out with James Cameron — how cool is that? What did I do right in a past life?"
Indy: Stan Lee is credited in the film as playing the school librarian. Is it a forced thing in Marvel movies, the cameo thing?
MW: Forced? Are you kidding me? It's Stan Lee! I wouldn't be here if it weren't for Stan Lee. Anything Stan Lee wants, Stan Lee gets ... I think it's fun because he is such a warm and generous guy and it's a way to pay homage to him. I think he really enjoys it too.