Phil Lord and Chris Miller: Dream Team Spider-Verse

December 3, 2018
Writer/Producer Phil Lord (left) and Producer Chris Miller bounce back with a vengeance after the SOLO disaster with one of the best films of 2018, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.

Growing up, did you think that you would ever see a Spider-Man like this?

Phil Lord: Growing up, we were just begging for somebody to make a movie out of the comic books that we loved. Every time it almost happened it would fall apart. The fact that it’s now a dominant genre in our business is a big surprise.

Because it is so dominant in the culture, is it nerve-wracking making a new one when are up against a lot of precedents?

Chris Miller: It’s nerve-wracking no matter what kind of movie you make. And if you’re not taking a huge risk, what are you doing?

Phil Lord: At this point, with there being such a saturation of superhero movies, to do something that isn’t fresh or new seems like folly. And every movie that we’re involved with, we approach it with ‘how do we do something that audiences have not seen before, something that feels ground-breaking, something that is worth the price of admission’. Those are the questions that we ask right at the beginning, as well as what do we want to say and what’s important to let audiences know. So, from the get-go whether it’s a superhero or not, that’s what we do.

Do you see the film as political in any way, with Miles being a minority going to an elite school and all that that entails?

Chris Miller: I don’t see it as political but just a reflection of the world that we live in now. In the same way that when Stan Lee made Spider-Man about this nerdy kid from Queens, he wasn’t a billionaire or an alien from the sun; he was a guy that didn’t have any advantages. So, I feel like this is today’s version of that, just reflecting the way the world is now, and doesn’t try to get on a soapbox. The diversity of the movie is built into the DNA.

Phil Lord: Anyone could be behind that mask. When we started asking: what’s so special about Spider-Man, why does this story resonate? It’s because the mask covers your whole face. The eyes are really big, so you somehow feel like there’s a sweetheart behind there. You’re thinking about the person back there and you’re imagining that it could be you, no matter who you are. It doesn’t matter who you are. That was the opportunity for us. You could be African-American, Puerto Rican, you could be Gwen Stacey, you could be a pig, a young Japanese American girl. We wanted to represent all over the movie that the assumptions that we make about how these stories are supposed to be, don’t have to be adhered to. We wanted to flip our assumption about Spider-Man.

Were you nervous that someone would say ‘this is not my Spider-Man?’

Phil Lord: Maybe we should have been, we certainly didn’t act like it. I think that we come from a place of wanting novelty and wanting to see something new. And in general, we find that audiences always with you when you do that.

Chris Miller: The idea was to take an amalgam of Spider-Men we all know, and the Spider-Man we grew up with and what if he aged along with us, and what would he be like now? And how could he be a counterpoint to Miles [Morales] who is going through the journey from the beginning. I think it’s really true to Peter Parker, it’s just at a time period that they don’t really show, because every time they reboot Spider-Man he gets a facelift and becomes a teenager again. What if we didn’t do that and stuck around and saw what happened.

Are superheroes reflections of society?

Chris Miller: I feel like each story is its own story, and what’s cool about this story is that it’s not taking something and changing the race or the gender of it, slapping it on a package and pandering to an audience. Miles was a character that was introduced in 2011 and became hugely popular in the comics and spoke to something new and was a new way to tell a Spider-Man story. And to do that through a new character that is bitten by the spider and there’s the character you all know and remember, Peter Parker, and he has to be a mentor to this guy, felt like it was taking something that you know and turning it on its ear.

Phil Lord: We do think about the message that you give folks. It’s more about empowerment and it’s not really about anything political. We just want people to think of themselves as heroes. We want people to think that the world has a lot of problems and we all have to draw upon what ever superpowers we have and take it upon ourselves to do what we can. We’re the guys that made The Lego Movie. That was the same thought. Everybody has ability, it’s not something that you leave to the elite. The Lego Movie was about creativity, and that it can’t be left just to Hollywood. Everybody has it, we all know how to do this, we’ve been doing it for millennia, let’s all be creative together. Same thing with this. You can’t leave the heroism to somebody else. And that’s what Miles wants to do, he’s begging ‘I don’t want to do this’. But the truth is we can’t leave this to somebody else. We’re not the only ones, thank goodness, and we can help each other. But we know that these movies speak directly to young people and we want them to know that we believe in them and we need them.

The film has a number of references that young people will appreciate. How much research did you have to do to connect with the audience?

Phil Lord: We were very careful to get Miles’s story right. We felt very responsible to stay as true as possible to what had been established in the comic books. That was just creative intuition. You had to treat his story like it had really happened.

Chris Miller: At the end of the day, we wanted this to be a movie that if you had never read a comic book in your life, you had never seen any Spider-Man entertainment before, you knew nothing about anything, you could still go to this movie and love it and follow it and enjoy it. At the end of the day it’s a kid and his family and finding a new group of friends and coming of age and wrestling with the kind of person he wants to become. Universal themes that kids and parents can relate to, and people that don’t have kids or anything to do with kids could relate to as just an interesting story.

Phil Lord: One of the questions we went into the picture asking is: why do these stories resonate so well with audiences? Why is this character so popular? We spent 3 years just thinking about that. Really, it’s a universal story of empowerment, and fear – Spider-Man is always fighting giant monsters that turn out to be his girlfriend’s dad or his professor; things you’re afraid of when you’re young. We wanted to make a movie about how that’s a universal feeling that people have. ‘I’m not qualified, I don’t know if I can pull this off, everyone is counting on me.’ How do we help a person become the thing that we need them to be? If we’re a family member or a friend, what do we need to do to help that person? If you feel like this person that has a big responsibility to fulfil, how can you pull together the other people around you to support you to get the thing that you need to get done?

Chris Miller: And know that you’re not alone…

Phil Lord: That was Stan Lee’s main contribution to this. ‘We are all in this together.’ He would write those letters to everybody. When we were kids reading the books. ‘Hey gang, how’s it going? Welcome to the party!’ We felt like he was speaking directly to us when we were 10. So, we wanted to make a movie that spoke directly to people in the same way. This is not a top down, autocratic, elite superhero. The world of Stan is about inclusion and how we all have something to contribute.

There’s been talk about expanding this universe. Do you think that is poetic that it is happening so soon after Stan Lee passed away?

Phil Lord: We obviously miss him already. We created that scene a year ago, and it carries a new significance now that Stan is gone. But it always played warm…

Did you talk to him much?

Chris Miller: Oh yeah. We met Stan many years ago, early in our career. He was a really positive and inspirational person to us, and was always encouraging, just like he is in the pages of his comic books. We knew that we wanted to include him in the movie in a way that was more significant than just a passing moment, but something that drives the plot forward and is an emotional crux of the movie.

Phil Lord: He’s the godparent of Spider-people.

Chris Miller: He started this character with Steve Ditko and all the many permutations that have evolved from there in the comics and now in this movie and in the world, can all be traced back to the same universal truth that he hit upon in the sixties. And now Miles and the others are just modern interpretations of that. Putting them all together and seeing the diversity of ways that you can hit this myth makes it more universal. Anybody can see – ‘that person is me if I was Spider-Man’. Whether you’re a little girl or a less in shape 40-year-old guy like myself, we have somebody in the movie to connect with and say ‘it’s me’.

How was having Stan Lee in the sound booth?

Chris Miller: He is just the warmest, sweetest guy that you could imagine. And he always had a positive attitude.

Phil Lord: And it wasn’t a sound booth. It was a microphone on his desk in his office with all of his memorabilia.

Chris Miller: We came to him.

Phil Lord: I think he’s earnt that.

Chris Miller: He was really open and game to try anything, and happy to be a part of it. He was such a positive spirit and boosted everyone’s morale when everyone was working really hard.

Why do you think that animation fits the story better than live action?

Chris Miller: That was part of what we were excited about when Amy [Pascal] and Avi [Arad] approached us saying ‘what about an animated Spider-Man?’ The first thing we thought of was ‘wow, this is an opportunity to tell the story that feels like you are walking into a three-dimensional version of a comic book. It’s just immersive in a way that you haven’t seen in an animation. And sequential art has the same roots and origins. So, to make a moving version of that seemed really exciting to us.

Phil Lord: And a way for the medium to be the message. You can have all these diverse people coming together, and we can treat each of them in their own house animation style; so that the picture is enhanced because it is animated. The themes and relationships are enhanced because you can see physically that they don’t belong together.

Chris Miller: And part of what was really cool about this was that we thought we could make an animated movie like you’ve never seen before. We knew it was going to be really hard to make something that breaks the mould of the pipeline of how most movies are made. So, the idea was that it will be originally based in CG, but it will also be hand drawn and painted, and all the textures and the lighting will be done in a more graphic style with half toned dots and hatchings and all this line work and painted smears. So, every frame of it, if you could freeze it, should look like a painting. The process ended up being way harder than we thought. We were like ‘why can’t we do this, why can’t it look just like the concept art?’ And everyone at Sony Imageworks and on our team were really excited to figure out to make it happen. It’s very complicated and about four times harder than a normal CG movie.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is in cinemas December 13, 2018

Read our review.

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