<I>Madame Web</I> director SJ Clarkson
Issue: March/April 2024

Madame Web director SJ Clarkson

Over the past decade,. director S.J. Clarkson has quietly established herself as one of the top women directors in film and television, with an impressive list of credits including Succession, Orange is the New Black, Vinyl, Collateral, Smash, Banshee, House and Dexter. And with her gift for combining strong female characters, emotion and gritty realism with the fantastical, she’s also become a go-to talent for Marvel, who made her the lead director and executive producer on the studio’s Netflix hit series Jessica Jones and The Defenders. She also directed and executive produced Netflix’s courtroom thriller Anatomy of a Scandal.

Her latest project is Madame Web, the fourth film in Sony's Spider-Man Universe, which tells the standalone origin story of one of Marvel Publishing's most enigmatic heroines. The thriller stars Dakota Johnson as Cassandra Webb, a paramedic in Manhattan who develops the power to see the future and realizes she can use that insight to change it. To make the ambitious film, S.J. Clarkson, who also co-wrote the screenplay, teamed up with creative that included director of photography Mauro Fiore, ASC, editor Leigh Folsom Boyd, ACE, and VFX Supervisor Michael Brazelton.

Here, in an exclusive interview for Post, I spoke with Clarkson about the challenges of making the film, working on the VFX, and her love of post, editing and the DI.

Cassandra Webb is not your usual superhero. Was that part of the appeal of this for you?

“Definitely, as we’re seeing so many of these superhero films, and what really excited me was that I’d never seen such mind-control and use of these clairvoyant psychic powers, and I thought it was a really interesting thing to look at cinematically. It was also terrifying. I’m not going to lie. I thought, ‘What the fuck am I going to do with all the clairvoyant stuff?’ as it’s so unique. That was both the biggest turn-off and turn-on, in equal measure. And I’m always interested in characters who’re on the periphery, and I felt it’d be great to explore that.”

What sort of film did you set out to make?

“Obviously you want to tick all the boxes to do with action and thrills, but because of the cerebral nature of it, I definitely found myself gravitating towards making a psychological thriller.”

What were the main challenges of pulling all this together, as I assume you started integrating post and all the VFX on day one?

“We began even before day one, when my EP Claire Parker and I were working with the original writers and we took over some of the writing. We were trying to uncover the clairvoyance stuff and figure out how to keep it interesting. What you don’t want is, ‘I see the future and I’ll fix it.’ That gets old very quickly, and [there are] no surprises for the audience. So it was, ‘How can we make it different, and how can we set up the rules and then break our own rules?’ That was the big challenge, and we had to be very rigorous about it all, as there are so many technical details you have to get right on a huge production like this, especially with all the VFX. And there’s a real misconception that when you get a big movie like this, you also get all the time and money in the world. But you don’t, and the schedule and dealing with the budget was another big challenge. In the end, I decided to do as much as possible in-camera, which freed us up to focus on most of the post and VFX for the third act.”

Did you do a lot of the usual previs for all the huge action sequences?

“We did quite a bit with a few companies — The Third Floor, Day for Nite, Digital Domain — as well as a lot of postvis, especially for the big rooftop sequence at the end. And anytime she was in the web, we postvis’d all that, as there’s such a mix of live actors and action and blue screen, and it all had to be very planned out. I hadn’t done a lot of pre- and postvis before this, and it was a steep learning curve in the sense that I hadn’t pushed it to this level of perfection before — and by that I don’t mean it has to be perfect, but you do get it to where it’s pretty close to what the final shot will actually look like. And I find it very useful, as it’s really the only way for you to budget it all and tell the story efficiently, and I really enjoyed the whole process.”
Your DP Mauro Fiore won the Oscar for Avatar and has shot huge movies for Michael Bay and Steven Spielberg. That experience must have been invaluable on this, right?

“For sure, and I think it frees you up to take more risks. I really wanted to do something different with the color, and make it feel grounded, but with an edge to it. So we talked a lot about that and how to get that Kodachrome look without it looking too imposed. You can’t go too far into that indie film look on a big movie like this, but we wanted to play a bit more with the color and the LUT for the whole film.”

How did you approach creating all the clairvoyance scenes?

“Basically, Mauro and I used a split diopter lens, which shifts and distorts the focal plane, and I’d wave that in front of a portrait lens, which then gave us that weird, distorted image, and then we did the rest of it in post. I’d played around with the diopter before in shows like Jennifer Jones, but I didn’t want to repeat that look. I wanted something with a bit more of a snap to it, and I’d do the diopter on Dakota first, then on the reverse shot, and then play with it in the edit. Most diopter shots were just five frames, and we’d end up cutting out two of those, so it was a lot of work. And we used different diopters for each scene. So to give you some context, we ended up with 2,389 edits, and some of those were ‘frame-fucking,’ where you’re cutting just one or two frames.”

Where was post?

“All in New York, at Harbor, and we had a great post supervisor, Leslie Converse. She knows New York so well and did a great job. We shot in Boston, which doubled for New York, and my editor, Leigh Boyd, was there for the shoot, but not always on-set. She was on-set for the big finale.”

Talk about editing with Leigh, whose credits include Spider-Man, Black Widow, and Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales. What were the main editing challenges?

“Definitely all the clairvoyance scenes and finding the grammar, and then dealing with four main characters and a villain, and making sure the dynamic between them all is just right. You’re dealing with performance and pacing, and stuff gets cut and moved around, so all that was pretty challenging. We didn’t have too many structural changes, but we definitely went on a journey in post where we moved things around quite dramatically, and because of the strike, we had a lot more time to explore stuff and try different things.”

What was the most difficult scene to edit and why?

There were many, but I’d say the hardest was the train sequence, where all four heroines meet up for the first time and Cassie saves them from being murdered. It was one of my favorite scenes, but also one of the trickiest to get just right. Do we get the clairvoyance by now? And if so, how do we make it as dynamic as possible? So we kept tweaking that right up to the end of post, and then the big third-act finale was also very challenging, as it inevitably came in way over budget because of the magnitude of all the VFX, so you’re constantly trying to scale it down yet keep it big. So there’s a real push and pull in terms of keeping the VFX to not just a manageable budget but a manageable schedule.”

There’s obviously a huge number of visual effects shots in the film. What was your approach to dealing with them?

“We had over 1,100 VFX shots in the end, which is a lot, and I worked very closely with VFX supervisor Michael Brazelton, who’s done stuff like Deadpool 2 and Godzilla. We talked a lot during prep, and we were joined by VFX producer Whitney Richman, who was absolutely brilliant. So the core team was Mike, Whitney, Leslie and me, and Mike and I had initial meetings with the creatives to work out exactly how we’d move forward and deal with all the vendors, which included Digital Domain, ILM, Outpost, One of Us, Instinctual, Territory and BeloFX. 

“Some of the sequences, like the underwater scenes and anything surrounding the web, were so complicated that I’d also deal with the vendors myself to help translate and interpret ideas which are so abstract. There’s no normal reference point for a scene like, ‘This woman’s in the middle of a web in a dark void.’ And Whitney helped manage all this, as there’s a continual battle between the creative and financial demands. And having Mike there from the start was great, as he understood the diopter and benefits of using it, and helped create some of those shots in post if we needed them. And all the plates and driving shots sound like simple things, but they can make a film look like it’s all VFX. And Mike’s experience was invaluable. He’d say, ‘I think we should push the plane of focus out more here, get more depth of field,’ and all those tricks he had were so useful.”

What about the sound? How involved are you?

“I love sound and I’m very involved in all the sound and music, and we had a great team — Kevin O'Connell and Chris Diebold, who did all the mixing and sound design at Harbor. The sound of the clairvoyance scenes was something we wrestled with throughout the whole post process, trying this and that, and we didn’t get right till the very last minute. And I’d worked with composer Johan Söderqvist before on shows like Anatomy of a Scandal, and he creates these beautiful soundscapes that really tell a story and also pack a punch.”

Tell us about the DI. Where did you do it?

“At Company 3 with the great Jill Bogdanowicz, and people call her ‘great’ for a reason. She’s a true artist and filmmaker in her own right, and when you have over 1,100 VFX shots, they’re not all going to be perfect, so the DI can absolutely save you. You can sculpt and paint on top of the VFX, and that was such an exciting process. I learned so much working with her.”