This article contains spoilers for, er, Pete’s Dragon.
Did hell freeze over? It certainly seemed to, seeing Sony Pictures and Marvel Studios partnering on a Spider-Man movie. Yet that’s just what’s happened, with Spider-Man: Homecoming edging closer to release.
Ahead of its release, Kevin Feige – the head of Marvel Studios – and Amy Pascal – co-producer of the film, and former head of Sony Pictures – spared some time for a chat. Quite a chat, as it turned out…
I want to start with some quality clickbait if I can. Amy, back in 1990, Premiere magazine ran an article saying you were one of the ten executives to watch. I’ve got a copy here…
(Here’s the link to my article on said feature…)
Kevin: [zeroes straight in on the picture of Amy in the feature] Amy, you look insane!
Amy: I do look insane, don’t I?! What year is that?
1990. May 1990.
Kevin: I was the class of 1991. In high school. [laughs a lot]
[They spend 30 seconds of my interview time then looking through the magazine. We all admire the socks of the man at the start of the article]
There’s a quote, ironically, from Disney in the article too, where one of their executives is profiled. “Disney refused to cooperate on this story” it grimly reports.
Kevin (to Amy): I can’t believe you posed for a picture like that! [they both laugh. A lot]
Amy (to Kevin): Do I look the same now?
Kevin (to Amy): You look the same.
Amy (to Kevin): My lipstick was crazy though.
I’ll be honest, this isn’t where I thought this interview was going. But the article was at a point where longform writing about film was a regular thing. Now, it’s driven by clickbait.
Kevin: Clickbait is the worst. That’s my big moral highground, when I don’t click on clickbait.
I searched your name on the way into this room to work out what not to ask you. [I show him a screen of clickbait stories that come up].
Kevin: [winces a bit] Oh no….
[Amy is still reading the article, but then suddenly looks up. I feel it best to transcribe this interview as accurately as it happened]
Amy: Revenge Of The Nerds! I did Revenge Of The Nerds.
On a point of order, I think it was Revenge Of The Nerds II.
Kevin (to Amy): You worked on Revenge Of The Nerds II?
Amy (proudly): I did! That was Joe Roth [directing]. Back then, I didn’t know it wasn’t okay to talk to the editor!
[Kevin Feige chuckles]
Amy, there’s a quote in the article where, at the age of 32, you told Premiere that “eventually, I’m going to make movies. I’m going to make movies no matter which way I go”. That you were adamant about it.
Kevin (to Amy): Where did you work then?
Amy: Columbia Pictures. Dude, I’ve worked at Columbia since 1988!
My question to you, then, is about that thirsting to make films at 32, when you could have just lived a life as a studio executive. What was it? How have the types of movies you wanted to make changed in the intervening years?
Amy: Well I got to make this movie with Kevin! It seemed like the perfect time to make movies, when I got to make Spider-Man.
Kevin: Good answer, good answer…
Amy: I always wanted to make movies no matter what. It’s true. No matter how I was getting to do it, that’s what I wanted to do.
What was the spark then as kids that turned you to films? Was there a teacher or parent who helped sparked that?
Kevin: It was the television that turned me to film. My parents did take me to Pete’s Dragon. Disney did a remake of that recently, that was very good. I showed my daughter.
It was terrifying.
Kevin: Both were terrifying! The funny thing is I showed my daughter E.T. recently, and she was like, it’s Pete’s Dragon. It’s a boy, who makes friend with a creature, and has to say goodbye at the end. I’d never made that connection!
Amy: I like that.
Kevin: She’s totally right.
There’s more death in the new Pete’s Dragon, though.
Kevin: Yeah, yeah. And in the original, there’s more singing! [Laughs] But for me, it’s very clear, right? I talked recently about Superman: The Movie, because I attended an event with its director, Richard Donner. Who, rightly so, was being honoured by the Academy.
And he goes at the end of the night, he had a speech that he’d prepared, and in typical Dick Donner style, didn’t really read. And he goes “and I’d never thought I’d get to say this, but I want to thank the Academy”. [laughs]
He made The Omen! He made Superman: The Movie! He made Lethal Weapon!
He made Maverick!
Amy: Yes! He made great movies. Seminal movies. The Academy, though, and we have to be careful here, should recognise popular films. Popular films are what make it all work. There was a time when popular movies were commercial movies, and they were good movies, and they had to be good movies. There was no segregation between good independent films and popular movies.
It’s interesting. No matter how good Spider-Man: Homecoming turns out to be or otherwise, you know before a frame of footage has been shot that you’ve got no chance whatsoever of getting a Best Picture Oscar for it.
Amy: No, no!
I’m not saying that’s your motivation for making the film…
Amy: [nods] But it’s nice!
One of the things I find interesting with the film is you’ve plucked a director – Jon Watts – into one of the most hostile and aggressive ecosystems I can ever remember for making big movies. In recent years, I can think of two or three directors who have been bearing the brunt of aggressive fan hate for their films, because of either the films in question, or how they’ve changed material.
How, then, do you protect the human being at the heart of that, especially one coming from a much smaller production to one of the biggest films of the year?
Amy: I will tell you: it’s a lot to do with the Marvel ecosystem. It’s different from the traditional studio system. Because it is, for how absurdly, incredibly successful they are, it is a family. It is a loving family. It is a group of people who only care about making things good. They don’t choose directors who don’t want to work with them in the way that they work. And the directors that they choose are better for having done it. Every director who comes out of that system are one kind when they come in, another when they come out. And they usually come back for more. They usually make more than one.
I don’t think that people think of them in the same way that people think of Pixar. Because Pixar is story-orientated, and they think of these guys as epic movie orientated. But they’re story-orientated. That’s the secret.
It used to be animated movies, now it’s comic book movies. People call them a genre, which seems absurd to me. But also, as a consequence, it changes the way films are assessed. That comic book movies tend to be compared to comic book movies.
Amy: We don’t think that’s right. We’ve been talking about that. Comic book characters are characters who wear costumes. They’re not necessarily different than other characters. The trend I think that you’re seeing are comic book movies, at least the ones that Marvel makes, don’t have comic book stories. They have dramatic human stories.
As do comics.
Kevin: Yeah, as comics have. People who know and read comics know that there’s a huge diversity amongst the types of stories. Nobody ever goes ‘how many more of these movies based on novels are there going to be?!’. People laugh at that question and they go novels, there are all different types of novels. But there are all different types of comic books, they just happen to have drawings on the cover!
I went to see Fast & Furious 8, for example. It was called a different name in the US, wasn’t it?
Kevin: [grins] The Fate Of The Furious!
I went to watch it because of Statham, obviously
[Kevin laughs. A lot].
Amy: That man can’t do anything wrong.
Correct. We’ve long championed The Statham on our site, and then he become famous!
Amy: When I saw him in The Transporter, he was wearing the coolest watch! A Panerai watch, it was the first time I ever saw one. And I thought he was the coolest thing ever.
Kevin: We talked with him about doing a role in one of our movies. We’re fans too. It didn’t end up working out, his schedule didn’t work out. But I was in another meeting a few days later, and my cellphone rang. I didn’t recognise the number, but I answered it. And it was Jason Statham
[it is my duty to report that Kevin Feige had an enormous grin on his face at this point].
[Amy laughs. A lot].
Kevin: And he was saying ‘sorry it didn’t work out, maybe next time’. He couldn’t have been nicer! [Looks at Amy] You get calls from movie stars all the time on your cellphone. I don’t! This was so exciting.
I’m guessing you don’t want to name the film you almost cast him in?
Kevin: No. [grins. It was worth a try, right?]
Going back to Fast & Furious 8, then.
When I was watching it, it felt odd watching a Fast & Furious 8 two years after Mad Max: Fury Road came out, and wondering how it hadn’t really moved on? That the Mad Max film obliterated the goalposts, and what you could do. I believe that once you’re making films of that size and that stature, I think it’s fair to compare Mad Max to Fast & Furious 8, rather than just contrasting Fast & Furious 8 with Fast & Furious 7.
Marvel has always been aggressive with evolving its films, and Amy, your slate at Sony pushed at the boundaries too. How conscious are you then, as producers, of what other films are doing with similar canvases, be they comic book movies or not, and how does that influence your own work?
Kevin: I think you could ask that question of any films, though.
The difference is that yours are so successful.
Kevin: I can’t think of an example of where we watched another movie and specifically said that ‘oh, the goalposts have changed, we need to alter course’. But I also think that we are lucky enough to be making a lot of films now, so we’re constantly looking to evolve and change and grow from the films that we’ve done in the past.
It’s one of the reasons why Spider-Man: Homecoming is so exciting. Because it’s a new genre for us, a new character, the first time that Spider-Man is in our cinematic universe and you can see what he was meant to be in the comics. He’s such a young teenager in comparison to these other heroes. But I think, because we’re film fans who go and see everything, it’s much more natural that you’re inspired by other work. And then of course that influences your work, and the way you make films.
There’s nothing more disheartening than seeing a movie and going oh, that doesn’t work, or it didn’t inspire us. Versus seeing a movie that is ‘this is so awesome!’. Oftentimes, a really good movie just inspired you to go and make movies!
Going back to discovering Jon Watts. There was a really small film – in terms of budget rather than ambition – that came out over here called The Levelling. An 80 minute drama that felt really tense to me…
Amy: Oh, I want to see it.
How would, say, Hope Dickson Leach – the director of that film – come to your attention? And I don’t know Hope Dickson Leach, nor do I have any idea if she wants to make blockbuster movies. I’m just curious as to how someone like her would make it to your radar when choosing a director to work with?
Amy: Kevin and I have very smart people who work for us, who make sure that we see everything. And that we actually see everything. They see everything, tell us about it, we see it. You have to have people who work with you, who say ‘you have to look at this film’. And then you look at it. You really have to look at it. You have to look at movies all the time.
We both watched Cop Car [Jon Watts’ previous film, widely credited with helping him land the Spider-Man: Homecoming director’s job]. And we loved it, and we thought there was something really rare and different about him.
Marvel has this tradition, and I think that Sony has this tradition too, of hiring directors for Spider-Man who are dramatic directors. That are directors who are interested in human beings, in characters, in drama, and who are really good with actors. That kind of feels like a Spider-Man director to me. And because Spider-Man is always as big as the films that are being made at Marvel, it always is character and story. You can never take that out. It can never get too big for its britches, and when it does, it doesn’t work.
Was it a big thing for you that a lot of the lifting in Cop Car wasn’t done through dialogue? That really struck me about that film.
Amy: That’s the thing that struck us too. He actually knew how to make action tell the story.
Kevin: The performances he got out of those kids.
Amy: It’s astonishing how many people who direct action don’t know how to tell a story.
Spider-Man: Homecoming specific, then. I’ve only seen footage so far, not the finished film…
Amy: Did you like what you saw?
Well, yes and no. I hate watching footage. I want the finished film. Talking to you too has basically ruined the film for me!
Amy: I know [rolls eyes]! We want you to see the movie!
I will, I will! But from a pure storytelling point of view, this is the first lead character in this particular universe who has seen it grow through our eyes. That Peter Parker has watched these heroes appear and grow from the sidelines too.
Kevin: Exactly! You know we have to spend 20 minutes talking to journalists to make them understand that usually! [laughs]
Amy: We get around to explaining the world of the MCU, and that it’s in Peter Parker’s history books!
Ah, so I passed the test then…!
Kevin: And this is something we were talking about earlier. That one fact alone about Peter Parker is an interesting thing.
Well, that’s your core story isn’t it?
Amy: Yes, yes!
Kevin: Put Spider-Man on top of it, and it becomes even more interesting. We for a long time had wanted to do a movie from the street level. What would it be like to grow up in this world, with these events, if these movies were not movies, and were events in your real world? What would that be like from kid’s point of view, who’s grown up in that reality? And what would it be like for an older guy who’s trying to raise a family and do the best for them, and suddenly finds themselves in a completely different world, where he believes that if he doesn’t take extreme measures, he’s going to be left by the wayside?
What struck me is that the core of the story, as I understand it, could work whether there were Marvel heroes outside of Spider-Man in the movie or not.
Kevin: Exactly. And that’s what we do a lot. We go here’s the story we’re developing. Okay, let’s take the superhero out. Is it still interesting?
Everyone’s asked you the middle and the after of the following question, so I’m going to go for the before. The given perception is that Sony and Marvel coming together on Spider-Man would once upon a time involve a trip to Mordor and throwing a ring into Mount Doom.
Amy: Yes, it would!
You’ve both talked extensively about how the two of you came to collaborate on this film, and how things have gone since. But what was the two to three years before like? Before this deal happened?
Amy: It was a friendship between the two of us. It was a collaboration between the two of us. We’ve known each other from the very first Spider-Man movie…
If I’ve got this right, the first movie that you both worked on was You’ve Got Mail?
Amy: Yes! I was the studio executive at Turner, who put it into development with Nora [Ephron], and Lauren [Shuler-Donner] was the producer, and Kevin worked for her. How funny was that?
It’s not the story people want to hear, is it? That the ideal clickbait story is that you’d have both spent years hating each other or something?
Amy: Is that the story?!
No! But I sense that’s the story that some would like it to be.
Amy: [Laughs] But it’s just not true! We’re gigantic fans of each other’s. It’s ridiculous. I think that Kevin is the smartest person, the best film executive, producer going.
Kevin: Amy is the one who made this happen. I think people are interested in this story because they assume corporate behemoths, two different studios, egos, Hollywood. And I think they think that because it’s probably true in a lot of cases. But in her case it wasn’t. It was a love of Spider-Man.
Amy: And wanting Spider-Man to be the right Spider-Man. And needing another story to tell, other than the story we’d been telling. Because we were telling the story of him alone.
Kevin: And by the way, your question – and it’s one we don’t get asked – what were the two, three, four years before that like? Really, I was making Marvel Studios movies, Amy was running Sony. Occasionally, she would share drafts with certain people at the studio and I would read them, and see cuts of the movies. But what I’ve learned with is that I’m no help whatsoever giving passive comments on other people’s projects.
Amy: He said, I can’t help you unless I’m actually involved!
Two very quick things before I’m chucked out.
Amy, someone who’s rarely talked about now is the late, groundbreaking Dawn Steel, who headed up Columbia Pictures between 1987-1990, and was one of the first women to run a major Hollywood film studio. I’ve read her memoir, and the recent book on former Paramount boss Sherry Lansing, and the name of Dawn Steel shines through. Do you have a memory of working for Dawn Steel, though?
Amy: She was magnificent.
She was the person who told me I could never wear shoes like this! [Amy shows me her shoes. I am conscious I am wearing a £12.99 pair I bought off Amazon – other retailers are available – and I’m at the limits of my expertise]. She and Nora Ephron told me ‘you can’t wear those crappy shoes, nobody would ever take you seriously’. I’ve been wearing them ever since then!
I wanted to go and work for Dawn, so I called her when she became head of Columbia, and I was an executive at Fox. And after a fight, wanted to go and work for her. So she said come over. And I knocked on her door, and she had this great big hair, these little 501 jeans, a white T-shirt, pearls, and she was bare foot. And she’d just been fired by Paramount for having a baby at the wrong time. She had this baby, she was taking over Columbia, and she had these slate floors.
I just looked at her and said I just want to be her! [Laughs]
One last thing. A big thing for our website is we run a series of articles looking at mental health matters, and the challenges that people face. Your words will have far more impact than mine here, so I wonder: what would you say to someone reading this who’s perhaps lost their self belief, or feels a little lost? A storyteller who hasn’t had someone discover them?
Kevin: The only thing I’ll say, and I’m sure everyone says this, is stick with it. I’m not shy about telling people about the fact that my dream was to go to USC film school when I was growing up in New Jersey. I got rejected five times. You just keep going, keep going, keep going.
Amy: I would say too, do what you know. Don’t try to be someone else.
Amy Pascal and Kevin Feige, thank you very much!