Director's Chair: Jon Watts — <I>Spider-Man: Homecoming</I>
Issue: July 1, 2017

Director's Chair: Jon Watts — Spider-Man: Homecoming

Spider-Man’s back, and a young Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Tom Holland), who made his debut in Captain America: Civil War, now enters the Marvel Cinematic Universe in earnest in Sony’s Spider-Man: Homecoming.

Thrilled by his experience with the Avengers, Parker returns home, where he lives with his Aunt May (Marisa Tomei), under the watchful eye of his new mentor Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.). Parker tries to fall back into his normal daily routine, but when the Vulture (Michael Keaton) emerges as a new villain, everything that Parker holds most important will be threatened. The moment has come for him to rise and become the hero he is meant to be.  

Helming this eagerly-awaited franchise reboot is director and co-writer Jon Watts, the indie director who only had two low-budget film credits to his name (including the acclaimed thriller Cop Car) when he was chosen by Sony and Marvel to revitalize the superhero franchise. The production also features a stellar crew including DP Salvatore Totino, production designer Oliver Scholl, editors Dan Lebental and Debbie Berman and visual effects supervisor Janek Sirrs.  

Here, in an exclusive interview withPost, Watts, who was still deep in post at press time, talks about making the movie, his love of post and how a relative unknown scored the plum assignment.

How did you land this job and were you shocked to get it?

“I was very shocked. I don’t really know how I got it, though I worked very hard to try and get it. Initially I went in to meet Marvel for just a general conversation, as it wasn’t public knowledge that they were planning to do the film, and they pitched me on the idea of Peter being in high school, a sort of coming-of-age story, and it just so happened that I’d been working on my own coming-of-age story, so I was very steeped in the genre after watching all these coming-of-age movies. I think because of that, I got more meetings. And I made a mood reel, using clips from other films to show the tone I wanted, and I storyboarded a bunch of sequences, and had more and more meetings and eventually got the job.”

Were you already a big Spider-Man fan? Was that the appeal of doing it?

“I didn’t go in because I was this big fan. I just thought it’d be great fun to work with Marvel, as if I were going to make one of these big films, they’d be the people I’d want to do it with. I loved Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man films, which came out when I was at film school — and every film that comes out when you’re at film school takes on this heightened level compared to before and after, because you’re so focused on every aspect of it.”

What sort of film did you set out to make and did Marvel set any limitations on what you could do?

“No limitations, and I wanted most of all to make it very grounded and have fun with it. I think it also helped that I really connected with Peter Parker in a very personal way, because I was also a science nerd in high school, into chemistry and physics and stuff like that. I still remember what it was like to be in high school, when you’re not thinking like an adult yet, and I wanted to keep that way of thinking and speaking in the story and film.” 

You come from an indie background, and suddenly you’re at the helm of this enormous production. What were the main technical challenges in pulling it all together?

“It really helped that I’d done a lot of commercials and worked with VFX and previs and so on. But the biggest adjustment was dealing with the physical pace. I’ve never worked on just one thing for so long, and you need to stay focused all the time without getting burned out. That was hard.”

Did you do a lot of previs?

“A lot! Like VFX and the rest, it’s stuff I was dying to do, but just never had enough money for. I’ve actually always previs’ed my movies myself, because I just can’t draw well enough to do my own storyboards. So I’ve always used off-the-shelf programs to do my previs. And now having this whole team of people to do it was just so much fun. I loved it. And I began the previs before we even had a script, just exploring ideas and concepts, and trying out different things, which was a great way to begin the whole process.” 

Post is no longer something at the end of the shoot. How early on did you start integrating post and all the VFX?

“Right away, because you’re exactly right — there’s no real start or stop to post anymore. The whole process is now more like doing an animated film, with a live-action component. So I wanted to previs as much as possible of the whole film, and if things changed, then I’d shift stuff around. That’s how I’ve always done things. So in that sense, this wasn’t that big a conceptual jump for me. It’s just on a whole other scale, but then you have a lot more people working with you.”

How tough was the shoot?

“It was long, intense and exhausting, though I love shooting. Every day was a ‘pinch-yourself’ moment, whether it was movie stars on-set, or celebrities, or the huge scale of the sets and all the practical effects. We shot interiors in New York, and did a lot of locations and stuff like the Vulture’s lair in Atlanta, where we also shot at Pinewood, and a bit in Berlin.”

Where did you post?

“We’ve done everything — editing, sound, mixing, the DI — on the Sony lot, except for recording the music, which we did at Fox.”
Do you like post?

“I absolutely love it. I always shoot with an edit in mind, so for me it’s less about that whole ‘finding the movie in post’ thing, as I hope I know what the movie is before we start the main post. And I like to edit as I shoot, and cut my dailies into a rough version of the scene, so I know where I am and everyone can see what I’m thinking. This was special for me, as I’ve never had an amazing VFX supervisor like Janek Sirrs before, and then being able to get really deep into sound design and color and so on — and having the tools and time to do it. There’s never enough time, but I had a lot more than ever before, to get really precise and detailed in post.”

Talk about editing with editors Dan Lebental and Debbie Berman. 

“They were in Atlanta the whole time, reviewing and working on the dailies, and occasionally flagging stuff — ‘Maybe we need a close-up here,’ ‘This shot’s out of focus.’ I’d never worked with either of them before, but once we really started cutting in post, we developed a very close relationship. Initially they’d split up scenes, but it becomes very holistic. Debbie came on mainly as an action editor, to cut all the big set pieces, but things spill over and everyone contributes to it all in some way, and they had this really good dynamic together.”

All the VFX obviously play a very big role. What was your approach?

“It’s tricky as nothing Spider-Man does can really be created practically, and wire work and special effects will never be as spectacular as it needs to be. Gravity’s always in the way. But for me, I wanted to get as much done practically as possible, even if it was all going to be replaced in post with VFX, just so you’re working from a real-world element. So we’d have a practical version of a stuntman doing a shot that we could always reference, to make sure it’s lit right and moves correctly. And all that helped with my director’s cut, so we weren’t just looking at a totally CG-rendered character all the time.”

How many VFX shots are there and talk about working on them with VFX supervisor Janek Sirrs.

“We have about 1,500 shots total, and we still have 400 of them to finish. A ton of vendors worked on them, including Luma, Trickster, Digital Domain, Method, ILM, Iloura, Sony Imageworks. I’d never worked with Janek before, but we hit it off immediately, and we worked at the same pace, and he was the first person we hired. We had the same core approach on how to tackle all the visuals, which was to make it all as grounded as possible — no impossible camera moves, no impossible physics. So when we broke down sequences, even if they were all going to be CG, we’d discuss how we’d shoot it, what camera rig we would use, and so on. We tried to shoot it all like we had an actual Spider-Man.”

What was the hardest VFX sequence to do and why?

“They’re all hard, but the big spectacular scenes always get a lot of attention and aren’t actually as difficult as the smaller, more nuanced performance stuff driven by motion-capture, like the eye animation for Spider-Man’s iris. That was so important to the character and was unexpectedly challenging to get right.”

Talk about the importance of sound and music to you.

“My philosophy is always, ‘Make the movie work without all the great sound and music,’ so that when you do add all that, it really elevates the film. We set up sound design early on in the edit, so we had a very high level of sound design much earlier in post than normal, which really elevated the edit. And then composer Michael Giacchino came in with an amazing score and we then began fine-tuning it all. It was pretty seamless. You just have to make sure the tone is consistent.” 

How far along is the DI, and how important is it to you?

“We’re in the middle of it, and I love that part of post, too. I’m very familiar with it and it’s not that different from past DIs I’ve done — just a longer timeline. The most exciting thing for me has been the 3D conversion we’ve done in post. I’ve never done that before and it’s been very cool.”

Did the film turn out the way you hoped?

“It’s very close to how I pictured it, no big dramatic restructuring from my director’s cut. We did a few pick-ups in post, that’s it.”

Are you up for doing more?

“Absolutely. I had a lot of fun. I just need a very long nap now.”