Back in 2015, I spoke to Jon Watts via an international phone line. I was at home, and he was deeply entrenched in Marvel Studios, beginning work on the film we later came to know as Spider-Man: Homecoming. The main topic of discussion back then was his Kevin Bacon-featuring micro budget thriller, Cop Car.
A year and bit later, on a blisteringly hot June day, Watts and I met for real in a swanky London hotel. He was just as lovely in real life as he was on the blower, enthusiastically chatting about Homecoming, the future of Spidey at the cinema, and a number of other projects. Here’s the transcript…
[NB: this interview took place before all the ‘Venom is in the MCU’/’no it isn’t’ hoohah.]
In the press notes, one thing jumped out at me: apparently you made stick-figure videos while Marvel were courting you for coming on board. Is that right?
Err, sort of. It says that? [Laughs]
We did everything. I’ve always pre-vized my movies, just on my own. Even when it was like zero budget things, I used this programme to do storyboards because I can’t draw that well.
Um, but, you know, at one point we were definitely using action figures… to sort of block out the basic movements. Things like that. From the highest level of technology to the lowest level of technology, we used a little bit of everything.
I should really read those press notes, see what else they’re saying.
[Laughs] Obviously that was right back at the start, and it’s so close now to coming out –
Yeah, yeah. I can’t wait.
Is the film locked, or are you still fiddling with it?
No, it’s done. It’s done. Like, I approved the very last VFX shots, and then got in a car and went to the airport and flew out for this press tour. Up to the very last second, yeah.
They’ve got you started on the press pretty early [this interview took place a month ago]
It seems like it, yeah. And you guys didn’t even get to see the whole movie, they just showed you the first few minutes or something?
Yeah, we saw a few scenes. The introduction of Michael Keaton…
And Peter’s behind the scenes footage? [Peter’s iPhone footage from the Captain America: Civil War airport battle, which has featured in some of the Homecoming trailers.]
Yeah, we saw that.
That’s another thing it says in the notes actually. I think it’s a Kevin Feige quote, saying “Jon Watts is of the generation that could make a film on a phone”. And I’m like, “It looks like he actually did make a film on a phone!”
Yeah! Exactly. [Laughs] And you can’t say ‘a film by Jon Watts’, but I was able to say ‘a film by Peter Parker’.
[Laughs] So, obviously Cop Car was kind of your calling card that got you on Marvel’s radar for this. But I’ve read that it was also your persistence that impressed them.
Yeah, I didn’t think I was gonna get the job, at all. Um, like, I had a really great meeting with them – an initial meeting after they had seen Cop Car – and I really didn’t ever think I was going to get it.
I had been wanting to make a coming of age movie, though, so when it was sort of floated that they were gonna make Spider-Man younger than we’ve ever really seen him before… that was really exciting. I had already been trying to make that sort of a movie, so I took all of those ideas I had been working on and kind of projected them onto this film.
Then I just, kind of, bothered them. And everyone at Sony. I made like a mood reel, just editing together a bunch of clips into almost like a fake trailer. To show people the tone I was imagining. And I storyboarded a bunch of sequences that I sent to them, and just… I thought it was going to be really good practise for pitching to big studios. I really didn’t think I was gonna get it, until the very very end.
And how close have you ended up to that tone you wanted?
I haven’t gone back and watched that thing that I made, but I think it’s pretty close. I was really clear upfront about how I saw the movie. And everyone was on board, so I feel like we captured that tone.
Nice. We actually spoke on the phone once –
Oh, we did?
Yeah, when they were doing the UK DVD of Cop Car.
Oh, no way! Really?
Yeah, it was towards the end of 2015 –
Was I there? I was at Marvel, probably.
I think you said you were in the trenches.
[Laughs] Yeah, oh that’s crazy. Now I remember. I was like, ‘I should probably be working on Spider-Man now, but…’ [laughs]
[Laughs] Yeah. One of the things we spoke about was the first lines of Cop Car being ‘wiener’ and ‘boobs’ –
Yes. That’s right.
And you described that as real freedom, of being able to put that in your film.
What was it like for you, going from such a small film when you’re in control of everything, into Marvel Studios where there are so many moving parts and other movies connecting to yours?
Well, you know, what’s actually exciting is we set the movie [Spider-Man: Homcoming] up to be this fifteen-year-old guy’s perspective on this bigger world. In a way, I didn’t have that same sort of responsibility to set up anything for later movies. I really got to tell a story about someone who wanted to be a part of this bigger world but wasn’t there yet. So, it’s him at the ground level of this universe, like, looking up at Avengers Tower, wanting to be a part of that. But not really knowing if he’s ready or not yet.
So, I don’t know. I always was waiting for a moment where someone was like ‘don’t do that’, or like ‘that’s too far’. Like, you assume you’ll have to fight for every little weird thing you wanna do, but I didn’t really ever run into that. I got to do kind of everything I wanted to.
Which is amazing, and surprising.
And how did you prepare for that huge leap in terms of the scale of the action, from Cop Car to this?
I mean, I watched a lot of action sequences, you know? What’s nice is that, on a big movie like this, you get… like I was saying before, I would always pre-viz everything in a movie, even just dialogue scenes, so that you are shooting it in a very specific way. And I had pre-vized the shootout in Cop Car, picked all my angles. But I had done it all myself.
Now, I had like a pre-viz team who could do that all for me. So, it was great to work with them. Starting really early, to try and figure out the visual language for the action sequences and just… you get to try stuff out before you’re actually on-set shooting it, so that was for me, to just practise. You get a couple of rough drafts first, before you actually have to shoot it.
Speaking of the visual language, there was some web-slinging in the footage we saw today. And – as I think you mentioned in another interview – I could really tell that you were trying not to do the swoopy camera that goes everywhere thing.
Yeah, I wanted it to always be shot as if it was real, you know? If you actually had a Spider-Man who could do all of this stuff, you know, you would shoot it with actual equipment.
So, it’s really cool to do that [the swoopy camera]. I always call it the Peter Jackson camera moves, where the camera is going like ten thousand miles. But I didn’t want to do that for this, because I wanted to keep it all as grounded as possible. So, whether it was shooting with a drone camera or a helicopter or a cable-cam, or even just handheld, up on a roof chasing after him, I wanted it to feel like we were there with him, and everything was something you could actually film.
And in terms of the script, I think there’s three different pairs of writers credited on it. What kind of changed when you and Christopher Ford did your draft?
The first draft was really fun and funny, and sort of established the broad strokes of the movie. And then, what’s nice as the director is you can write exactly what you wanna shoot. So Ford and I did like a pretty substantial structural pass, rearranging things and building it into the sort of story arc we wanted it to be.
And then the last two writers sort of came on as we went into production, to just handle things that would change during production. You know, it’s all a little bit flexible when you get to set. You try things out, and you just need someone to be writing while you’re shooting. And yeah, that was cool. Again, it was really nice having that kind of support, where I don’t have to go home after the shoot and type up a bunch of new pages for the next day. I could just go to sleep. [Laughs]
And what is yours and Ford’s relationship like as writers? This is your third feature together, so has the dynamic changed much since you were on Clown?
Nah, we’ve been friends since we were like 17, so it’s just like writing with your best friend. We do it the same way. There was a moment where we stopped and we were like, ‘wait… we’re writing Spider-Man right now… that’s pretty cool.’ And we let that sink in for a minute, and then we got back to work.
And just to touch upon the trailers briefly, I’m not sure backlash is the right word, but there’s been a lot of comment about them revealing a lot of stuff. Did you have much say about what went into those trailers? Would you have wanted to rein them in a bit more?
Well, if it was up to me, I wouldn’t have revealed anything. Ever. Like, I wish my movie could be just, only, a series of complete surprises. But I can say that there’s still a lot more to be revealed than what’s in the trailers. You know, we’ve made a pretty dense movie. A lot happens. So, yeah, there’s more to it than just what you see in the trailers, for sure.
That’s good to know! Back to the script, then, where did the idea come from to have Vulture working in the field that he does and coming to loggerheads with Tony Stark? It almost feels like Peter just gets caught up in their conflict.
Yeah, Peter’s looking for a way to prove himself to Tony, and the idea for the Vulture was: if we’re making Peter to be a ground level superhero – you know, this is what it looks like at the bottom of the Marvel universe – I wanted to do the same thing with the villain. Like, to show how a super villain could emerge from that base level of the universe. Like, showing a regular kid becoming a superhero and then showing a regular guy becoming a super villain.
And there was just this really cool opportunity where he’s the Vulture, right? So he’s scavenging things. And we thought he could be scavenging parts from all other crazy things that have happened in the Marvel universe. You know? You have these huge action sequences but then there’s got to be someone who cleans up afterwards and there’s got to be all kinds of exotic technology and valuable stuff down there.
We just thought, in that world of exploring the bottom level, you would think about all the stuff that trickles down. And, err, that made sense for him as the Vulture, being this sort of scavenger.
And how far into it, breaking the story, was it decided to put Tony into it? Because he’s like the embodiment of the penthouse level MCU, as you say.
Yeah, exactly. He was always a part of it. That was always a big part, the idea of him being this reluctant mentor – or the unintentional mentor – to Peter. Like, just sort of the grand ambition to be like that someday.
Because if you think about it, now that Spider-Man is in the Marvel universe, that means that Peter Parker was probably like eight years old when he saw Tony on TV telling the world he’s Iron Man. And when you start thinking about it as a whole world like that, it gets really fascinating. You know?
And now the most famous person in the world has picked Peter Parker and taken him on this crazy adventure, and now dropped him back off and gone to deal with his own thing. And here’s Peter, left in his bedroom, you know, having had the greatest experience of his life, and not being able to tell anyone about it. That would be crazy!
You’ve probably been asked about this already today, but Tom Holland has said that there are already plans or ideas for a trilogy of Spidey films.
[Laughs] No, not really. Not specifically. I mean, I like to just think about it one movie at a time. And I think it’s a little… I want to make this movie good, and work on its own. I would hate to spend the whole time in a movie setting up things that are gonna happen in the future. Like, I want this movie to be it’s own good movie. You know?
That’s a very refreshing thing to hear –
– in general, in this day and age, but also specifically for Spider-Man.
Yeah. Well you’d feel jibbed if a movie was only setting up things for the future. You want it to be a good movie, and a satisfying experience on its own.
I kind of feel that maybe Sony got burned a bit with that last time, with all the Sinister Six teasing.
Yeah, well, I mean it’s just important to make the movie work on its own, you know? And be its own self-contained thing. And if there are things that lead somewhere eventually, that’s cool, but, you know, it has to stand on its own legs.
When we spoke on the phone, you talked a bit about the comics that inspired you on Homecoming. We talked a bit about Ultimate Spider-Man, and I think you mentioned Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane.
Yeah, I read everything. It was really great, to go back and read the originals from the beginning, but then also reading all the variants and all the other places that Spider-Man has gone. All the different universes, and things like that. Because I had this luxury to be able to pick and choose what things I wanted to incorporate into the MCU version of Spider-Man.
And are there any comics that you’ve read along the way where you’ve gone ‘ooh, I like that, I might squirrel that away for a future one’?
Yeah. Like, yeah I definitely have a scratch pad of all the cool things I’ve come across in the comics, that I haven’t been able to incorporate into this, that would be fun to see later. You know, there’s so much, like since 1962! I know there’s so many stories in there to draw from.
To get into another thing that’s been spoken about a lot recently: Sony has got the wheels turning on things like Venom and Black Cat. Have you been in those talks when they’ve been happening?
No, not at all. It’s totally different. Like, that’s its own Sony project. That doesn’t, right now, overlap with the Marvel universe at all.
So… and feel free to not answer this… as it stands, that wouldn’t be a ‘Tom Holland versus Venom’ thing?
No. Currently, no. There hasn’t been any talks about that. I do know Ruben Fleischer, who’s doing Venom. Which is him and Tom Hardy – it’s gonna be crazy. I don’t know anything about it, so I’m just as curious as you are. [Laughs]
[Also laughs] My theory is that they’ll introduce these other characters that become heroes, in separate universes, then do like a Spider-Verse crossover with all of them.
Yeah. There’s also the animated film, right, that Lord and Miller are making?
Yeah, with Miles Morales as Spider-Man.
Yeah. I wonder… [Laughs]
Again, I’m not expecting you to tell me anything, but wouldn’t it be cool – eventually – if we could see all these Spider-Men together?
Yeah! I mean, the Spider-Verse plotlines are so cool, and you could do so much. I wonder. But yeah, my attitude is one movie at a time. I don’t want to get ahead of myself.
Before Homecoming came up, you had a couple of other films in development – Urban Explorers and Barn Man. Are they still happening?
Yeah, I hope so. I mean, this [Homecoming] has been absolutely my whole life since it started. Um, and I haven’t really thought about what I’m doing after this at all. But yeah, those are two projects that are near and dear to my heart, so I hope to get to make them some day. Soon.
That would be good! There’s kind of not that much detail about those two films out there. Could you give us like a sentence about each of them?
No, I want to keep them totally secret. I want to keep them totally secret so I don’t give anything away. Just in case it all totally changes. [Laughs]
And would you still, if there was a chance or if there was time, would you go back and do more Clown films? [The indie horror Clown was Watts’ directorial debut.]
Oh man, yeah, we always talked about the sequel to Clown being called Clowns, like an Alien/Aliens sorta thing, where you have multiple clowns. And just really make it, in the way that Aliens was an action movie, do the same thing. Action-horror. That would be great. That one’s all up to Bob Weinstein.
Oh, that would be so good.
[Laughs] Yeah, it would be fun, right?
Yeah. Just a bunch of marines shooting up some clowns.
Oh man, that would be great. It would be great to do. The vision for Clown was always, like, there would be seven of them. Following, sort of, the Leprechaun model. You get clowns in space. You get to just really go crazy with it. That would be my dream, yeah.
Just before I get ushered out: another thing I read is that you know [The Amazing Spider-Man and The Amazing Spider-Man 2 director] Marc Webb, from your music video days. Did he give you any advice going into Homecoming?
He emailed me, and he said ‘I’m not gonna tell you anything, I’m just gonna say: make sure you get to hang out with Stan Lee.’
And did you?
I did. I did, and it was great. It was great advice.
You got a Stan Lee cameo?
Yes. Oh man, it wouldn’t a Marvel movie without a Stan Lee cameo.
And is it one that you shot? Because I know that [Guardians Of The Galaxy director] James Gunn shot a bunch of them at once.
Oh yeah, I shot it, while James was shooting his. It was all, ‘Stan’s in town! Let’s shoot his cameo!’ you know?
That’s great, I look forward to seeing it.
Yeah, yeah, it’s fun. It’s amazing. The things he’s done, it’s amazing. It must be crazy for him, too… to see it all, finally coming together the way it was supposed to. Spider-Man’s always supposed to be part of this universe, and not just on his own, you know?
Totally. It’s just so great seeing him interact with other heroes.
Yeah, it’s so fun to watch, you know?
Jon Watts, thank you very much!