Director SJ Clarkson has made quite a name for herself with her work on television, both in the UK and in Hollywood, with a long string of episodes directed, most notably for Marvel‘s Netflix shows, Jessica Jones and The Defenders. After that, Clarkson went on to direct all six episodes of Netflix’s Anatomy of a Scandal, starring Sienna Miller, Rupert Friend, and Michelle Dockery, which must have seemed like a good jumping-off point to venture into feature films.
With Madame Web, Ms. Clarkson makes that jump into features with a very different spin-off from Sony‘s Spider-verse – in fact, the movie only tangentially has a connection to that long-running Marvel franchise. Dakota Johnson plays Cassie Web, a paramedic who unknowingly receives precognitive powers after her pregnant mother was bitten by a rare spider while exploring in Peru in 1973. Thirty years later, the evil Ezekiel (Tahar Rahim) returns to cause trouble for Cassie, and she ends up having to protect three young women, played by Sydney Sweeney, Isabela Merced, and Celeste O’Connor, who Ezekiel thinks will one day kill him.
Above the Line spoke with Ms. Clarkson over Zoom this past weekend to learn more about her decision to jump into directing movies with Madame Web.
Above the Line: You have a really impressive background doing television, so what was the criteria for when you decided to tackle a feature and move to the film side of things?
SJ Clarkson: I think I’ve been flirting with it for some time, to be honest with you. I’d read some scripts, I’d even been attached to some for a while. It’s always about finding the right fit, the right timing, and I think when Madame Web came along, I found myself really engaged by her and these new powers and the potential to make something of a psychological thriller in the Marvel Universe.
ATL: Where was the script at when you came on board? I imagine they had some draft of a script, was Dakota already attached when you came on board?
Clarkson: No, not at that point. When I first came on board, it was a script. I got it I think just before the pandemic. I was in L.A. on another show, Made for Love, and I had just wrapped that, and I was about to turn back to London, and I had a meeting at Sony, and then, I think they sent me the script over just about the start of the pandemic or mid-pandemic.
ATL: I’ve known producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura for some time, mainly from the Transformers and G.I. Joe movies. I think this is his first foray into that Spider-related universe of movies, so that’s a factor we haven’t really seen.
Clarkson: I’d actually met Lorenzo on a bunch of occasions, and he was one of the first producers I sat down with when I came out to Hollywood. He was so lovely, so kind, and had so many wonderful anecdotes, and we’ve met a bunch of times over the years, and he’d sent me a few scripts, which I’d never properly engaged with. When I got this one, and I knew I needed a producer, it seemed to make sense to have him, because he’d always had such an interest in me as a director. I wanted to make sure it’s someone by my side who’d done these big juggernaut movies. They’re huge, and there’s no one else really other than Lorenzo. He’s been around these big sort of franchises. He’s managed Transformers and The Meg, and also, he was at Warner Brothers when they commissioned The Matrix, which is such an iconic movie. Without him, would that film have come into the play? I don’t know, but it’s just amazing that he was such a big part of that.
ATL: Were you at all familiar with the comics? You obviously had directed some Marvel shows before, but as far as Madame Web, were you familiar at all with her involvement in Marvel’s Spiderverse or did you just go by what you read in the script?
Clarkson: I had heard of her, and actually, I’d read a script a while back, which she was in, as a different kind of character. There are lots of scripts floating around in this world. I knew a little bit about her, but I didn’t know that much at all. In fact, my first sort of inception into comics was Jessica Jones, when I sat down with Alias, but I’m very much a big researcher, and once I got it, I dove in.
ATL: Which comics did you read first? Because obviously, as a character she goes back quite a ways, but has had a few different iterations.
Clarkson: I started at the beginning, the November 1980 edition, so yeah, I went way back to the beginning and started there and watched how she changed over the years. She became sassy, and different interpretations of them, different artists, but I definitely went back to [Denny] O’Neill and [John] Romita [Jr.], because that’s where it all began.
ATL: How did you arrive on Dakota to play her? She’s obviously a fantastic actor, who had done quite a few big movies by this point.
Clarkson: As I mentioned earlier, I really liked the idea and the potential of this as a psychological thriller, and that it would feel more grounded, perhaps less fantastical, in a way. It would have fantastical moments, but that it was going to be more grounded. Looking for an actor that could give you the breadth and depth that this character needed, but also was grounded, that had a good sense of humor, and she just fit the bill. We met, and she’d never contemplated being a superhero before, and I said to her, “No, it’s not in the way you think it’s gonna be. More in her mind, and it’s going to be more grounded and more of a psychological thriller.” And she got really excited by that.
ATL: Tahar Rahim is an interesting choice to play Ezekiel, since we haven’t really seen him play an outright villain before, so who first thought of him to play Ezekiel?
Clarkson: He was one of those actors that I’ve admired since A Prophet. I thought it was such an incredible movie, and I thought what he did with The Mauritanian, some of those torture scenes, were just incredible, and he’s such a committed actor., I sent the script to him, we met, and we talked about it and I was immediately impressed by his interrogation of the character. It was like, “What is it? What makes this villain tick and why?” It was really great to wrestle Ezekiel out with him, to give Ezekiel more of a through-line. Tahar just had that commitment; he’s not afraid to go to the dark side, and it’s because he’s such an amazing human being that I think he can do that.
ATL: One thing I really liked about the movie is that, even though I’m really familiar with the comics and the characters, you just took bits and pieces of them and generally diverged away from them, like having Julia, who is much younger in the movie. Many may have already seen Sydney in Anyone But You, and she seems just so much younger in Madame Web, so did you shoot this movie before she went on to do that one?
Clarkson: I know. That’s so funny you say that, because these movies take so long to make. I think I cast them all like two years ago, and we were making it just nearly two years ago, so yeah, they’ve each probably done one or two movies subsequently to that. I think they’ve all done one movie subsequently to Madame Web, so we’re catching up with them. It’s a movie about clairvoyance, but we’ve actually gone back in time.
ATL: Can you talk about casting the three younger women to Dakota’s Cassie?
Clarkson: We had a casting process. Sydney came in, and we auditioned. I’d actually worked with Sydney before. We both did our first episode of American television together on Heroes many, many, many years ago now. We had a little bit of a connection on that, which was quite fun, and then once I’d seen her… I love the idea of her for Julia, because at the time, she had just I think Season One of Euphoria. It was quite early on, and White Lotus had just come out, so it was very different from what we were seeing her do on the screen, which I thought was really interesting. It was just at that magical moment where she was still able to play a teenager. I think now they couldn’t be teens, but two years ago, I got lucky, because they were just all at that time where you can just get away with it. And then I remember Celeste, they sent in a self-tape, and they were in this sort of mustard top and looked like they just got out of bed and just punched through. The spirit of Mattie came through, and Isabela, when we met on Zoom, there was just a quietness, a stillness to her, and something running underneath, which just felt very Anya. I was able to get them all in the room to do chemistry reads, which was really invaluable, because it’s an opportunity for them to work together, to discover the characters individually and as a group.
ATL: Do you have any idea why the movie was set in 2003? Were you told why it was set 20 years ago?
Clarkson: The script, that came with 2003 in there, and I love the idea of that, and I love the idea of going back to the ’70s. I was quite excited about the fact that we got to go back to the 1970s, and see what it was like for a woman being out there and empowered in 1973, trying to find this spider and understanding that connection to our story as it went on.
ATL: I’m kind of a bit of a production design groupie, and I especially love Ethan Tobman, who I’ve interviewed a few times before. Whenever I watch a movie set in New York, I always look to see if I can find clues that they weren’t actually shot in New York, but you both did pretty good with this one.
Clarkson: Thank you. We worked really hard on it. He’s fantastic.
ATL: How was it setting a movie in New York but 20 years in the past? I’ve lived here for more than 35 years myself, and I haven’t seen that many changes, but clearly, it does.
Clarkson: No, but it really does; it has changed. I’ve lived in New York on and off for some time and know it well. I’m often doing shows out here, and I love New York. I was so thrilled that the film was set in New York. The thing about it is [that it’s] a big VFX movie, but what’s so hard is a lot of your VFX money goes on painting things out that aren’t 2023, like iPhone adverts everywhere. You can’t have those, and LED screens that constantly flash and change. They weren’t like that. There were some LEDs, but not in the same way they are now. There was a lot of work to refrain from that and go back to some of those old posters. We actually went back to some billboards; we stuck up old school billboards. The Beyoncé poster is real — we shoved that up, which was fantastic, but it’s difficult. Even though it was 2003, I wanted to try and make it a timeless feel, that it is timeless, and it’s not just sort of 2003. There is a timeless feel, like her jacket, for example, is based on one that’s vintage from the ’70s.
ATL: Also, the VFX are important for showing Cassie’s powers, so did it take a long time to develop and figure out how those powers would manifest and be shown on screen?
Clarkson: Actually, most of the clairvoyance is in-camera. It’s all done in-camera using a diopter, which is a doctor that’s been swiped in front of the frame, which I did. I wanted to sort of do it by hand and made sure that it felt sort of… I hate using the word “organic,” but that it felt more grounded and real, I suppose. Obviously, when she sees stuff later on in the third act, when the inception of her powers happens, that’s definitely sort of CG, but her actual clairvoyance is all in-camera.
ATL: Did you bring anything from your time working on The Defenders and Jessica Jones into doing this movie?
Clarkson: Without a doubt, working in the Marvel universe before was really invaluable and gave me a platform with which to leap. I’d been in that world, I understood it, and I’d really come to respect and admire the kind of incredible storytelling that is in the comics, especially when I got given Alias, I remember reading that. I still have my copy of alias. I absolutely loved it, read it from cover to cover twice, I think, so definitely, I think I even looked back at Alias when I was making this.
ATL: Was there any pressure to include more of the Spider-Man universe, since there are connections to them with some of the visuals, including Ezekiel’s look. Obviously, some of the other movies have included little Easter eggs, though I didn’t notice any here.
Clarkson: No, the wonderful thing about Madame Web is she’s a standalone; she’s in her own world. I think for me, there are no Madame Web comics…. yet. I hope there will be, but there aren’t, and she helms from the Amazing Spider-Man, so I think there were little nods to that world and reverence and an homage to them.
ATL: Whose idea was to throw the logging truck into the movie? I’m not sure if that’s an actual spoiler, but it certainly seems to be an homage to another thriller in a similar vein.
Clarkson: It’s so funny, because it wasn’t originally a logging truck. It was some other truck, and I think we lost that truck, and it ended up becoming a logging truck. It wasn’t intentional. I know everybody keeps thinking it’s a direct reference to a certain second movie, but it really wasn’t at all.
ATL: I actually laughed when I saw it, since I thought you were making a sly homage to that movie.
Clarkson: Oh, that’s hilarious. Well, we’ll take it. I’ll take that, there you go. That’ll become the new thing.
ATL: So what happens now? Do you go back to directing television regularly, or are you still looking at other film scripts to stay in that world?
Clarkson: I literally delivered this movie on Friday just gone, and then I’ve had a week of press, and the movie opens next week, which I’m really excited about. And then I’m going to take a nice vacation.
Madame Web opens nationwide on Feb. 14. Look for our review soon.