Unlike live-action films, animated movies can sometimes be the work of more than one director (that happens too in live-action — say hi to the Russo brothers — but it’s a lot more rare, especially if they’re not siblings). That’s just the nature of the beast: animation is an enormously complex process, just as complicated and intricate as making movies with real actors on the screen, and it can literally take years of person power to bring an animated film to life.
In the case of the fantastic new Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, three directors were at the helm of the ship: Bob Persichetti (previously head of story on films like The Little Prince and Puss in Boots), Peter Ramsey (director, Rise of the Guardians) and Rodney Rothman (writer on the live-action 22 Jump Street and others).
All three filmmakers have brought different skillsets to the task of bringing this version of Spider-Man, a.k.a. Miles Morales, to the screen, working closely with producers Chris Miller and Phil Lord (the latter of whom co-wrote the screenplay with Rothman).
The result is a fresh, unique, and superb take on the Spider-Man mythos, bringing in characters from across multiple universes (including a very different and older Peter Parker), putting new spins on iconic villains and fashioning an animated film that looks like a comic book that has come to life on the screen. We sat down recently with all three men to find out how this groundbreaking project came together, how they worked together and what the screen’s first Spider-Man of color means for the future.
Den of Geek: Phil Lord said this all started with the simple idea of making a movie about Miles Morales.
Bob Persichetti: Definitely it started with Miles. It was always when Phil and Chris were approached by Sony and asked if they wanted to be involved in the animated Spider-Man there was, “Yeah! Actually, if it’s Miles Morales, for sure!” Then somebody said, “Yes,” and they were like, “Oh! Okay, cool.”
Then, out of that, in trying to have a mentor as Peter Parker, what’s an amazing way to do that? It was just a different comic, and we have to pull it from these, and just the breadth of the comic canon. It was like, “Well, let’s pull from the Spider-Verses. We’ll pull a Peter Parker from here, and if we can pull in one, I think we can pull in others.” They were all really brought in specifically to help either be complimentary or foils to Miles becoming Spider-man.
Rodney Rothman: A lot of the basic ideas were there from the beginning, a lot of challenge of the years afterwards were figuring out ways to get all the ideas to work together, you know?
How did the visual style come together?
Rothman: The intention from the very beginning was if we’re going to make a new iteration of this story in animation, let’s use the medium to do what none of the other versions of the story can actually do, which is directly take on the look and feel of comics. That necessitated a huge change in the way that CG movie would be made, and Bob can speak to that.
Persichetti: It was very complicated. Everything we tried to do both stylistically, the choices we made in the animation to blending this idea of 2D hand-drawn with CG puppetry animation, and the idea that back before CG you only had 12 images in a second as opposed to a full 24. That became a big part of the style, the texture you feel in the film, mixed with our really flat, stylized, almost painterly or silkscreen type of background where light was a representation of a light as opposed to turning a light on in a CG environment.
Those things ended up fitting together in a way that was more complementary and elevated both those ideas in a way that we were shocked by. It was sort of this concept, then we started to get pieces of it together, and as we put it together, it was like, all these things feel like they are echoing each other. It was part of a wonderful path of discovery even once we were in production. We were still discovering a lot of things.
Rothman: Part of the goal, it wasn’t just to recreate a comic book. In a lot of ways, it was to recreate the feeling of reading a comic book which is a very intimate and personal experience for the reader. And that’s a pretty abstract idea, you know? And we’re trying to do that with cinema as if it’s something cinematic, you know? So that’s a lot of trial and error.
Comic books are also very artist-driven. They can be very experimental and bold in terms of their style. Each artist can choose to emphasize different abstract things however they want or whatever. There’s a lot of artistic difference when you have people doing three different things. We were also trying to be true to that spirit. You know, there’s a spirit of experimentation and risk-taking in comic books and how they’ve evolved over the last fifty years, and we’re trying to capture the spirit of that.
One way we did that is, in the story Miles is an artist, and he’s a creative person who’s looking for ways to express himself. In some ways we see the visual world of our movie as an extension of Miles, so it’s a mix of comic books and street art and things that are in his world. It’s all towards a goal of expressing Miles’ experience and his worldview and his emotions and all that kind of stuff.
I’ve never interviewed three co-directors before. How does that work on the film? Do you each have a specific area you focus on or is there a lot of cross-pollination going on all the time?
Ramsey: Kind of both. Each of us has a skill set that we’ve definitely brought, and we’re called on to use more or less during the process, but there’s also a lot of overlap. We’re all storytellers. We all have film knowledge. There’s all these kind of more general areas that we all kind of handle.
The thing was so massive and in animation you’ve got several phases of production happening simultaneously. One day Rodney might be in editorial working on a sequence. Bob might be in animation animating sequences with the animators. I might be with the layout team or with the story artists, getting on those sequence frames so that we can move on to the next phase. Or I might be recording an actor one day. Bob might be with the layout team. We bounce around like that. By and large, we kind of went where the fires were to be put out and depending on what it is we did, writing or animation with Bob, story with me, we kind of went where needed.
Rothman: It definitely requires a lot of team spirit. It was pretty clear early on that there was a potential in the project that we were all seeing. It kind of felt like our secret. But it was clear that there were a lot of things that needed to be figured out and there’s a lot of hard work to sort of tease out the potential. We had that kind of shared thing, you know, that shared excitement to energize not just us but hundreds of people who were working with us. It’s of course easier to collaborate when everyone sees what’s possible.
Let’s finish with the subject of representation. This year started with Black Panther and is ending with Into the Spider-Verse. Does that feel like progress and does getting Miles onto the screen in a big way like this feel like a step forward for representation in this genre?
Persichetti: It feels like progress. I think that the impetus for this film was to make a movie that looked and felt contemporary. You walk around any large city, small town, where there’s diversity, and the thing that Miles represented, at least in my opinion, was a representation of the diversity that you find in New York because New York was the place that everyone came to initially to move into this country. And it was also the birthplace of Spider-Man. It was also the birthplace of hip-hop, and graffiti, and all these elements that lives in Marvel comics.
Everything we poured into this film was born out of an epicenter of New York, and I think that if you look at our movie, it looks and feels like we’re in New York. And those are just the facts. I don’t think, personally for me, there was no agenda behind it, but it was, you know, “This needs to look and feel like I’m a kid in New York, and I look out my window or I listen to the sounds I hear on the street, and I feel like I’m home.” That’s my take.
Rothman: I mean, it’s baked into the whole idea of a multiverse and beyond that the idea that there’s infinite diversity but infinite connections because all these different versions of all these Spider-people have the same common threads, and as you see in the movie, they all end up working toward a common goal.
The line we keep going back to is “anyone can be behind the mask.” The essential nature of Spider-Man remains the same even when presented through the lens of this kid growing up in Brooklyn in a 180-degree difference from Peter Parker. The strength of the original Spider-Man idea is strong enough to hold them both, and it’s just a great way to talk about diversity. It’s a great way to say that every single person on earth, no matter who they are, where they’re from, or what they look like, is worth something and is capable of great things.
Persichetti: There are universal elements to the story that are just universal, period. It’s coming of age.
I heard there was a mission statement on the front of the script.
Rothman: From the very early versions of the script, Phil Lord put a kind of mission statement on top of this. Everyone doing the movie saw this, and the last sentence of the mission statement was saying, “We want people who see this movie to kind of get the sense that they are powerful, and we’re counting on them.”
That was kind of partially aimed at maybe younger people that are going to see that. It’s really aimed at everybody, and even if we’re not exclusively saying that, and we didn’t want to explicitly say that in the movie, that was there on the cover of our script and our treatment, and that’s a sentiment that I think we all understood. I think we all believed it, and that’s a sentiment that excludes nobody.
Persichetti: It’s a sentiment that simultaneously empowering but also challenging in a really good way, you know? Challenging you to be better, to be more.
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is out in theaters Friday (December 14).
Don Kaye is a Los Angeles-based entertainment journalist and associate editor of Den of Geek. Other current and past outlets include Syfy, United Stations Radio Networks, Fandango, MSN, RollingStone.com and many more. Read more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter @donkaye