Avi Arad & Matt Tolmach on producing Amazing Spider-Man 2

The producers of next year’s The Amazing Spider-Man 2 talk about the challenges of shooting in New York, villains, and much more...

It’s common to hear Hollywood movie producers talking about how their expensive sequel is bigger, louder and better than the movie that came before it, but it’s relatively rare to hear industry types talking relatively freely about how they can improve on specific areas of the film they’re following up.

Yet when we visited the set of The Amazing Spider-Man 2 in late May, producers Avi Arad were fairly candid about last year’s series reboot, how they’ve listened to audience feedback, and how they plan to continue Peter Parker’s story in the forthcoming sequel. During our roundtable interview, the producers talked about the hazards of shooting in New York, what the addition of writers Kurtzman and Orci have brought to the script, and what we can expect from its villains.

What’s the most surreal experience for you guys, shooting in New York?

Matt Tolmach: New York is beautiful. It’s the home of Spider-Man, so it’s great. There’s a lot of traffic, and a lot of angry people, which we have to navigate. There’s a lot of people. But it’s the home of Peter Parker.

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We’re from California, so it’s a long way to come, but on a day like today, we realise that it’s a gift to be able to be here, and give the movie that authenticity that comes right out of the comic book.

Avi Arad: New York is actually a character. If we have Peter Parker, New York is a character. The Daily Bugle. The Empire State Building. Everything about New York has been adopted for the character of our movie. That makes it all worth it, right?

Matt Tolmach: Almost. There were some long, cold nights where we had to remind each other that it was worth it. [Laughs] We’d sit there and huddle and say, “This is worth it!”

What’s the biggest challenge?

Honestly, the weather is the biggest challenge. Unlike California, there are actually seasons here. So we’ve had to be pretty nimble some days, when we’re shooting outside and it rains. So you roll it in and go for cover, but that’s about it.

Avi Arad: Sometimes, the crazy weather gives you this ambience, that if you were on stages [you wouldn’t get]. It’s natural ambience. And with the crew we have, and our brilliant director, we can take advantage of these hardships. When you see the results, you forget the pain. It’s almost like child birth! I’ve never understood why anybody had more than one…

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Matt Tolmach: We shot it in the snow one day, which we’ve never seen in a Spider-Man movie. We had all kinds of machines ready to create and blow in snow, and then there was a huge snowstorm. [Laughs] So we saved a lot of money on those machines.

[Someone says something about aeroplanes]

Matt Tolmach: The airplanes are a challenge, it’s true. There’s a lot of flight traffic so you’re always having to wait. But like Avi said, sometimes it’s hard, and sometimes it’s…

Avi Arad: Amazing.

Matt Tolmach: You get something out of it that you’d never planned for.

Where are we picking up in this film?

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Matt Tolmach: Very shortly after [the first film]. 

And what’s the kick-off? What’s the beginning of the story?

Matt Tolmach: Without giving away the story, it literally starts with an enormous… thing. And that’s one of the things we wanted to do with this movie, is just… bigger, brighter, more. We’re taking it to heights you’ve never seen before in a Spider-Man movie, and we do that right from the opening gun.

Avi Arad: This is a Q and A movie. So you saw the first one, and it worked really well establishing the characters. But the second movie allows us to hear your questions, and to take them into consideration as the script is being developed. I think the main thing in the original movie was that Peter Parker wasn’t given enough choices.

In this movie, we had the opportunity to challenge say, “Okay, you are who you are now. Can you handle it? Do you own it?” And because he does own it, it becomes not only an incredible adventure, and bigger as Michael was saying, but also [full of] humour. You’re going to be laughing. We have people like Paul Giamatti in the movie.

Matt Tolmach: Let me just pick up on something he just said, which is spot on. We felt a real obligation in the last movie to tell the origin story of this new Peter Parker. We’re sort of free of that, in some ways. This is a Spider-Man story.

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We left you, in the last movie, to answer your question: Peter had decided to be all things. He was going to be Spider-Man and he was going to have that girl [Gwen Stacy]. That’s the territory this movie delves into.

Avi Arad: No one can be all things, as we all know.

When you were interviewed for the first film, you said it was about “what is Peter’s problem?” Has that problem been solved, and do we ever want that to be solved?

Matt Tolmach: Every movie is about a main character and the complexities they face. But this is a Peter Parker story, and as we were just saying, when we left you in the last movie, Peter said, “You know what? I’m going to break the promise. I’m going to be Spider-Man, and I’m going to have the girl”. And I think, as we all know, and as Avi said, life doesn’t always work that way. You can’t always have all things.

So immediately, Peter’s going to be faced with some massive choices in this movie. So yeah, it’s another Peter Parker story, about what he faces when he tries to have everything.

Avi Arad: It’s also like real life. We all run into problems. Some of them get solved immediately, some don’t. Nothing is taken care of forever. You get hungry, you eat something. Four hours later, you’re hungry again. So for someone like Peter, he’s unique, but he shares with the world something we all go through, that’s what makes it such an incredible family, action, romantic… it’s about normal decisions. Decisions we all have to make at one time or another. And for a kid, these decisions are really tough. So there are no resolutions, but making inroads.

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Matt Tolmach: Time is a real theme in this movie. You have to make decisions in life sometimes. You don’t have forever to debate your issues. Peter’s under certain pressure to choose what sort of life he’s going to have. That’s a bit problem for him in this movie. 

How big is this film compared to the previous film?

Avi Arad: Three times the size. No, half the size. [Laughs] Here’s what the major difference is between the first film and this one: we have much more complex and interesting and funny action scenes. They’re huge. I think we discovered as we were working with the team and the director, we can push the envelope, and do action scenes that… every movie is trying to raise the ante. We have some stuff that is very unique, tense, and it’s all in the story.

So you don’t have two cars crashing because it’s fun, let’s blow up some stuff. It’s all about the story, and it’s big from the moment it opens, as we say.

Matt Tolmach: It’s also funny. We felt the need and the desire to really go to the tone of Spider-Man. It’s all things. It’s intense and funny. He’s always so funny and self-deprecating.

You mentioned earler that you were listening to what audiences were saying, and work that into the script. What were do you think they wanted more of?

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Avi Arad: I think the audience wanted to know more about many aspects of Peter’s life. The parents. There were scenes that were not resolved, which is a good way to do it. So first people are saying, “We didn’t get a final answer”. Well, there is no final answer. This is life. He’s young. So by listening to that, we know we pushed buttons, that give some continuity to the questions we walked away from in the last movie. You know that you wanted him to end up with the girl. But you’ll remember he also made this promise.

All these little things are like stepping-stones to the miserable life of Peter Parker. The difference is that Peter has such a sense of humour about it. Being self-deprecating. Even with the villains. It’s trying to do what Peter would have done when Stan Lee wrote him.

Matt Tolmach: Look at who we have in the movie. Andrew, Emma, Jamie Foxx, Paul Giamatti, this guy Dane DeHaan who, if you haven’t seen him, you’ll discover him in this movie. All these people are comedically brilliant. So we found this whole other layer in the movie. When we went to the screening for the last movie, people loved those moments, the car jacker moment – they wanted more of that.

We’ve listened to that. We’ve hired these incredible writers, Kurtzman and Orci, who come from that world: the balance between big, muscular action and comedy. So from the beginning, that was kind of the bar we set for ourselves.

Avi Arad: You asked what the difference is between the movies? This movie has a great script. It makes a world of difference when you start with an amazing script. A gutsy, funny, big script that you can go in and really implement these brilliant pages.

Last time, we had a good script. But this one’s special, and these guys are special.

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Matt Tolmach: We were finding our way on the last movie, in a way. It’s one of the oldest cliches in the film business, that if you have a truly great script, it doesn’t guarantee anything, but boy is it a great way to start. Because everyone’s holding hands on what the film’s about, and you can just build from there. 

Is this the first time producers and writers have listened closely to audiences? Is it a reflection of the times, that people can give a lot of input over the internet?

Avi Arad: I’ve been listening to audiences since Blade II. Because we started with a hardcore audience, who’ll kill you not because they don’t like it, but because they’re afraid of what may happen. Then we started social networking, and sometimes, they make a lot of sense. They can give you a very good direction to go in.

When you look at the Marvel stories very specifically,  because Marvel stories have everything: they [the fans] know what they love. You’d be insane not to take them seriously. We’ve been waking up in the morning and going on websites, because we’re living in it, day in, day out.

Marc [Webb] loves blogging. I don’t know how to blog. I thought a blog was a snail.

Matt Tolmach: He doesn’t blog. He tweets. [Laughs]

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Avi Arad: So that’s the connection. They come back and react to it. We used the internet to introduce Jamie [Foxx] and we find out that people are crazy about him.

Matt Tolmach: It’s good when people tell you you’ve done the right thing after you’ve already done it. Really good.

Avi Arad: Paul Giamatti is a jewel of an arthouse actor, and you make him this crazy villain. And again, the internet goes crazy. This gives us license to say to Paul, “Go crazy.”

Is he comedic crazy as well as villainous crazy?

Avi Arad: Oh, hilarious.

Matt Tolmach: Genuinely hilarious.

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Avi Arad: Hilarious.

Matt Tolmach: Which you’ve seen before, for sure. But he goes to a place in this movie that is just nuts. We’ve never seen it with anyone.

Avi Arad: And we shot it in the streets. A thousand people are standing around, and they’re cheering him.

Matt Tolmach: People on the strreet are going crazy, laughing.

Is he a comic book fan, Giamatti?

Avi Arad: He wanted to be Rhino.

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Matt Tolmach: He said it on Leno or Letterman – he was being interviewed. He was asked, “What’s the role you’d love to play?” And he literally said, “I want to play The Rhino.”

Avi Arad: So we said yes!

Matt Tolmach: We did everything in our power to make that dream come true. 

Can you tell us why you chose these two villains?

Avi Arad: Well, when you choose a villain, you need something visually exciting. And when you have someone like Jamie Foxx… you want to make sure the guy with the mask and the guy without the mask are delivering two different performances. So when you have a guy like that, who’s really unique and can play havoc with our lives, it’s this that gives us the idea for the things you see in our movie.

Matt Tolmach: We started talking about Electro before we made the first Spider-Man movie with Sam Raimi. Jim Cameron had written a treatment all the way back then, and he’d chosen Electro. Andwe flirted with it, with these guys, on Spider-Man One. He’s such a visual character, yet at the same time, as Avi said, you want to choose a character who is visually exciting, powerful and a foil for Spider-Man, and at the same time, has a real crisis of morality, that makes him a good character.

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Max Dillon is the flipside of that, andhe’s also a great character in his own right. It’s something we’ve been dreaming about for a long time.

Avi Arad: It was an opportunity to make Max Dillon the villain!

Matt Tolmach: I like that.

Avi Arad: It was an opportunity to make Max very different from how you’d expect to see Jamie. More vulnerable, almost pitiful.

Matt Tolmach: There’s real pathos in there.

Avi Arad: It’s the metaphor for being in charge. In charge of power. The electricity of the world. You pull the plug, and all the life support systems go out.

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So that’s one villain. The other villain is a big story point. You’ll find that one out…

Matt Tolmach: The real emphasis in this movie, and we began down this road in the first one, is the continuing love story  between Peter and Gwen. That is one enormous part – because this movie has many components to it – it’s one emotional through line for Peter. It’s his problem in the movie, figuring out that relationship, and taking it to a place that we’ve never gone before.

Can we expect a love triangle, with Mary Jane coming in?

Avi Arad: In all fairness, I think that if this movie became a love triangle, I wouldn’t like Peter. He’s not ready.

Matt Tolmach: He doesn’t do love triangles. [Laughs] It’s a love story with Gwen.

Avi Arad: He’s too shy. A menage a trois wouldn’t work. It really concentrates on the two of them, because it’s such a huge story. They’re both moving into the future in a pretty complicated emotional state. He has to love her. There’s two hours – he can’t meet someone else and fall in love with her.

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Matt Tolmach: That’s the thing. There’s only so much movie. And we have Electro and another villain in the movie, and this enormous love story. There’s so much going on for Peter, and you have to make choices. Gwen is the part. The love story is about the two of them.

Is there a chance that another Marvel superhero will make a cameo in this movie?

Avi Arad: Uh… I’d rather not answer that at this point. This is what the word ‘spoiler’ means. We want to always leave the audience with a couple of surprises. All of a sudden, you feel like, yeah, there’s a continuity. So if we say today how we go about it, we’d take away from the surprise of the movie.

Shooting in New York, how hard has it been to stop things getting out with the paparazzi and everything?

Matt Tolmach: You’ve seen everything that’s got out. They’re here again today.

Avi Arad: We’ve been fortunate. There’s a lot we’ve managed to protect – amazingly so.

Matt Tolmach: We shot a lot on sound stages, too. So there’s a lot that nobody knows. But it’s a part of shooting in New York, we’ve discovered that – you’re not going to avoid it.

The other day, people went crazy of the images of Paul Giamatti and the little boy in the street. It gives people a chance to take a look at the movie.

Avi Arad: everywhere you see Emma, you see cameras.

Matt Tolmach: We have plenty of surprises for you guys that nobody knows about. 

It must be difficult striking the balance between pleasing fans and the mass market as well.

Matt Tolmach: I’m not sure there’s a distinction. I don’t think the fanboys are asking you to make an art film. They’re asking you to make a fantastic version of Spider-Man. It’s not a conflict. They may know a lot more about the material and the origins, but in the end, everyone wants the best version of a Spider-Man movie. It’s not a schizophrenic thing.

Avi Arad: You have to look at it this way. After so many years, so many movies, the whole legacy that Sam brought to Spider-Man – the animation, the videogames, and so on – the awareness is gigantic. But I think, for us, Peter Parker had stayed as a normal kid, if you take the superhero out of it, you’d have a much cheaper movie, of course, but more importantly, we have the same story. It’s the same compelling story. So the added trump card is Spider-Man. So if you close your eyes and say, “He can’t fly, he can’t do this, but this is his aunt, this is his uncle, this is his school, this is his life” – it’s a great movie anyhow.

Matt Tolmach: Then you add on top of that everything else.

Avi Arad: The biggest property in the world. But you have to believe in the arthouse, if you will – the emotion, the conflict, the who am I, which will always be an unanswered question. If you do it right, you have a smaller drama, and a great movie.

In the first movie, Peter has to learn how to move as Spider-Man, how to dress as Spider-Man. So do we get to see something else in this movie? Does he do different moves? Is he now better at fighting?

Matt Tolmach: Yes to all of them. Listen, when you’re Spider-Man and you’re fighting villains, they find out what your weaknesses are and you have to adjust. Electro’s really a formidable foe. When you think about the implications of someone who can fire electrical bolts at you and what that would do to your system, you have to adapt. Fortunately, Peter’s also a brilliant scientist, so he can adapt. But that’s something that’s always changing – it’s part of the fun of the movie. He’s not saying, “Now I’m Spider-Man, I can defeat anybody”, he’s constantly meeting more and more complicated and formidable villains.

I’ve always been interested in how superheroes blend into the real world. Is that a theme you like to think about? Balancing fantasy with reality?

Avi Arad: That was the idea when the Marvel revolution started. The skeptics said you can’t put on a costume in the middle of New York – which isn’t true, because everyone’s in a costume here. So if you believe in the character, all of a sudden, you don’t see the red costume. You just see a person, because you see the vulnerabilities. You worry for him, you like him, sometimes you wish he was a little different. That was the journey of fantasy characters, that Spider-Man has a city, Batman has a city, X-Men have a city. They live among us, in costumes. Spider-Man is unique this way. The costume’s really irrelevant: it’s what they say, how they move.

Matt Tolmach: We also think superheroes are really real, so we’re not sure what you’re talking about.

Avi Arad and Matt Tolmach, thank you very much.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 will be out in 2014.

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