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Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse Directors on Attempting to Make a Stand-Alone Animated Superhero Film

One of the biggest blockbusters of 2023, Sony Pictures Animation‘s Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse was one of the few superhero movies of last year that defied what soon devolved into what the industry has labelled a “superhero slump.”

One thing that made this “superhero sequel” different from others is that it was directed by three different directors than the trio of directors that helmed 2018’s Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, which would go onto win the Oscar for Animated Feature, the first win in that category for Sony. At a certain point, Sony announced that Across the Spider-Verse was going to be the first of a two-part story with the “threequel” Spider-Man: Beyond the Spider-Verse scheduled for March. That plan ended up being waylaid due to the writers and actors strikes.

Of the three directors for Across the Spider-Verse, Justin K. Thompson had the most experience in that world, having acted as production designer on its predecessor. Kemp Powers came onto the project after writing and co-directing Pixar’s Oscar-winning Soul, which had the misfortune of being released straight to Disney+ during the pandemic, despite also winning the Oscar, while Joaquim Dos Santos had mainly been working in the DC Universe on their animated projects.

A few months back, Above the Line had the chance to jump onto Zoom with the three filmmakers to talk about what was involved with taking over what they consider a “standalone” movie, despite Across the Spider-Verse literally ending on a cliffhanger. In fact, they were generally being a little dicey about how things were progressing on Beyond the Spider-Verse, which had announced a March release date to not have as long a gap between movies, but when we spoke to them back in November, they were apparently still “breaking the story.”

Even so, Across the Spider-Verse, like its predecessor, was nominated for an Animated Feature Oscar, and for all intents and purposes, it’s considered by many to be a potential frontrunner in that category. (Note that due some odd rule by the Academy limiting credits on animation, Dos Santos – who told us he was the first director hired for the movie – was not included in the list of credits for Spider-Verse‘s Oscar nomination, so we hope that people reading this know of the integral part he played in making this movie.)

(L-R) Kemp Powers, Justin K. Thompson, Joaquim Dos Santos (courtesy Sony Pictures Animation)

Above the Line: Justin, you’re the only one who worked on the previous movie, and you all come from different backgrounds, so I was curious how that works. Justin, you were the production designer on the first movie and on some of Chris Miller and Phil Lord’s other films, so I assume you were the first person brought onto this? What was the conversation that started with you to direct?

Justin K. Thompson:  Actually, I was not the first person to be brought on. The first person brought on was Joaquim, and I can let him tell you about his own experience, but I was finishing the first film, Joaquim came in maybe six months before we were even finished, and we started hanging out together then.

Joaquim Dos Santos: I was very aware of the film by that point, because the entire industry was on notice when the trailer dropped. I got a cold call from Kristine Belson — we had met before — and she said, “Hey, do you want to direct Spider Man 2,” and I was wrapping up my current gig over at DreamWorks, and I said, “Yes, I do. That would be fantastic.” So I came in, and like Justin said, they were still wrapping the first film – they were in final lighting and color. Justin was kind enough to get me in on that process, and we hung out while the first film was wrapping up, just developing up ideas for what the sequel could be. Even though the film obviously was was was released, and it was, well-received by the public and then it won the big one, and I got super, super nervous, and started thinking to myself, “What the hell did I just get myself into? This is insane. I was excited to work on a Spider-Man thing. I didn’t realize it was gonna be the follow-up to an Oscar winner.” Both Justin and Kemp were like, “Yo, dude, calm down. This is just gonna give us the freedom to try new things and to push even harder.” And that made me at ease.

ATL: Kemp, you previously won an Oscar for the animated movie, Soul, and you may have had the best 2020 of anyone in the industry, because we were all dealing with COVID and you had those two amazing movies, Soul and One Night in Miami.

Powers: I didn’t actually get an Oscar for Soul, because I was co-director, but thank you. The film did incredibly well, and that’s actually kind of what got me involved, because a lot of folks bring their films to Pixar before they come out. One of the films that was brought was Into the Spider-Verse, so I saw Into the Spider-Verse before it was released in theaters while we were deep in production on Soul. Like everyone else who eventually saw it, it blew my mind. Obviously, we had to finish Soul during COVID, and that’s the other element that’s so bizarre is that we were wrapping up our movie during COVID. I was already back home in LA working remotely, so I started having those conversations about, “Oh, what do you want to do next?” And that led to an introduction to Phil and Chris.

I had no idea that they were even planning to do a follow-up to the film, and they quickly told me they did. Pitched me the idea for the film and asked if I’d be interested in coming on board. Again, that’s one of those offers you can’t refuse kind of things. I was both excited by how amazing the first film was, and equally excited by how different the story they pitched me was. This didn’t feel like a traditional sequel. It felt like an entirely new tale using characters that I now felt like I knew and loved. It was an honor to be asked to help shepherd that alongside these two guys. It was so funny, because we were in production during COVID, so I didn’t actually meet everyone in person until months after daily meetings. That’s how it worked. Before Soul even came out, I was in production with these guys on this film. We were having daily meetings via Zoom for months before, finally, the studio reopened, and we got physical offices, and I finally got to go in and meet in person these people I’d been working for six months. It was very surreal.

ATL: Kemp, is it safe to assume that your background was as a writer first, and then you got into animation from working on Soul with Pete Docter?

Powers: I was a journalist before anything, and then I became a playwright and then a screenwriter. Screenwriting led to directing and producing. It was one of those things where working alongside Pete Docter was really my animation directing school. But I tell people I don’t think there’s any better situation to learn how to make an animated feature film than working on a Pixar film with the likes of Pete Docter and Andrew Stanton and Mike Jones and all the incredible collaborators that we had on Soul. That’s animation, right? It’s an amazing collaboration, and I think an animated film is only as good as the many, many artists who get together and pour their hearts and souls into it. These guys are just as talented as anyone I’ve ever worked with.

A scene from Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse (Sony)

ATL: You mentioned Phil and Chris had an idea for where this was going. Did any of you know it was meant as a two-parter or is that just something that grew as the story was being built, and you realized it would be too much to contain in one movie?

Thompson: No, we didn’t actually know at first. We realized that there was just so much story to tell that it was too big for one movie. Actually, there were too many good ideas that we didn’t want to abandon, and we didn’t just decide to split. We actually had to really decide could we make a standalone film that would hold up and be just a film, even if you hadn’t seen the first one? We never thought of it as a follow-up. We thought of it as its own film, a story about a kid who was 15 years old, trying to leave the nest. We all have kids ourselves, and as parents, we were dealing with the idea of our kids, teenagers, trying to establish their own sense of identity away from us and leaving the nest and what that’s like, It was so inspiring to us, this idea of how do we tell this amazing story about Miles and his relationship with his family and this incredible journey that he goes on? There was so much story there that I think we just decided that it was better to, rather than thinking of it as splitting, we just thought, “You know what? There’s actually two entire movies here.” We needed to make this movie stand on its own, and then, there was enough left over, and we’re still working out the details of the third one, but this movie was inspiring because of the story we wanted to tell here.

ATL: Was the script already in a place where you could throw in ideas of how you might want to expand it? Obviously, Gwen gets a lot more screen time here. Miguel O’Hara is introduced and plays a huge role, but were you each able to throw in ideas of what you might want to bring in from the comics?

Powers: Oh, absolutely. The script for a film like this is a fluid thing. You build an animated feature based on its component sequences, often out of order. As a matter of fact, I only think the script was assembled once or twice throughout the entire process. You’re rewriting on a daily basis. You’re rewriting the script, when you see sequences in the edit, and everyone breaks their laptops out, and we start throwing pages back and forth. You’re rewriting the script in the recording booth, when things that, on the page, seem to be working, then you get them with the actors. Sometimes, you’re trying to be very discreet about it, so there’ll be a text chain going, and the text is literally script pages, like “Okay, now try this line. Now try this out, try this one. Oh, how about this line?” The script of a film like this is a living document the entire time.

Thompson: I think also from the very beginning, there were things that all of us said, “You know what would be really cool to see? It would be really cool to see Spider-Punk, this love letter to 70s punk rock posters and artwork and ethos of that time period, and make a breakout character with that. We kind of knew from the beginning, before there was even an outline, actually, we wanted him in the movie. We knew we wanted Spider Man India — Pavitr Prabhakar — we knew we wanted him in the movie right away, before we even knew how to use those characters. As Kemp was saying, discovering how we were going to fit those characters into the movie was a big part of the journey of how it became a standalone film, in order to support this journey that Miles was going on. We realized that those characters that we were so attracted to early on. We also wanted The Spot to be the villain. Even though it was an unconventional choice, we knew from the beginning, that would be fun if we could make that work. That process of developing that into a movie, as Kemp was saying, organically became the script in a way.

Dos Santos: It’s funny, because we’ve seen the film–I don’t even know how many times at this point–but you watch the sequences, and you can sort of like feel the DNA of everybody’s ideas sort of coming together on screen. Even little things. I remember when we finally broke that The Vulture was going to be this DaVinci-esque alternate reality thing, and then all the ideas started springboarding about, “Okay, what kind of contraptions can the Vulture have?” Those things, again, as the script is a living document, so are those ideas. They change over time and sometimes right up to the last minute.

ATL: One thing I’m always curious about is that I know it’s common to have two directors on an animated movie, it’s very common to have a director and a co-director, because there are so many moving parts, there are so many people involved. Do each of you have strengths or things that you took the lead on in this case?

Dos Santos: I think we all have our respective backgrounds that we come from. I think the great thing about this process was the first year, year and a half, year and some change, we were all across every meeting together, and we were getting to know, not only about the film, but about each other’s tastes, and what we each leaned into. We were getting to know each other as friends and comrades. We had that time to really forge this bond between us, so Kemp got pulled into editorial and was doing script revisions or recording the actors, I was in the story department, worrying about camera stuff and staging stuff. And Justin was pulled into figuring out how the hell is this thing going to actually look on screen? And what are these crazy tools that we’re going to develop? We all had mind-melded at that point.

Powers: Yeah, I like to say that the three of us built this world together. We had to. We had to all collectively, every single character design, we poured over it, and gave revisions to those characters, the look of everything we built as a team. And it took a lot of damn meetings, but then there was executing this story that we built, and that’s when we had to often split up into our areas of specialty, to help execute the world that we built together. That’s probably the cleanest, simplest way that I can describe it, because it is unique. It’s very different than when one is making a live action film.

A scene from Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse (Sony)

ATL: I got to speak with Daniel Pemberton a few months back, and he’s had a relationship doing music for Chris and Phil for a while. I’m making an assumption, but Kemp, is it safe to assume that you’re the music guy and more knowledgeable about music from writing Soul?

Powers: No, no, I think everyone… I mean, Justin’s hardcore. I think we’re all into music; we’re all music guys. Here’s the thing. We’re all fans of music, we’re all fans of cinema, we’re all fans of animation. You’d be remiss if you assumed that any one of us has more of an interest in any of these things than the other. I will say, I can’t draw for shit, so yeah, I’m not going to get on the Wacom and literally do line work.

Thompson: And I’m not any kind of playwright, so…

Dos Santos: Same here.

Powers: But in terms of interests, I have very strong musical tastes and strong musical opinions, so you definitely see that in the film, but you also see these guys’ musical tastes and musical opinions in the film. Things like song choice, we all discuss these things. We all kind of went over it, and we all stack hands on a lot of that stuff, and we all have strong opinions, and we fought for the stuff that we really wanted not just to see the stuff, but that we wanted to hear.

Thompson: When we were working with Daniel early on, he is a very generous composer, and would say, “Tell me about who these characters are. Tell me who Miguel is, and what you think his internalization is, and who he is as a person.” We would talk about that, and we’d talk about the world he’s from, and he would start pitching stuff to us, and we would respond. He was very generous that way, and the three of us, we’d be in a room with him, and he would respond. A lot of it early on, was on Zoom, because that’s how it was, but he would have a strange keyboard with an analog filter on it, and he would be just playing sounds for us. That’s I think the first time we actually heard that [makes loud noise]…

Dos Santos: He said that thing as a cold pitch like, “This is what I hear when I see Miguel,” and that was it.

Powers: And you gotta give a lot of credit to a guy that you don’t hear mentioned a lot, that’s Kier Lehman, our music supervisor, because a lot of times, Kier is giving a lot of stuff to choose from. A great example would be at the end of the film, when Miles is tied to the bag, I won’t say what it was, but there was a needle drop song. I fought for the song, we stacked hands, everybody loved the song, and I was like, “I can’t wait for people to hear this song drop when Miles is tied to the bag.” And we couldn’t clear the the music rights, so Kier then went back and quickly started presenting all these other songs, and we had these great discussions about, “Okay, this particular hip-hop song, this is supposed to be New York,” and Kier was the one who dug up the Bobby Blue Bland song, which has been sampled excessively by a lot of folks in hip-hop. But Kier, who is a fan of all these genres of music, has just this depth of knowledge, so that he’s always throwing songs at us, and we have these great discussions about not just score, but needle drops. And then there’s the metro component. Musically, this was like a smorgasbord, because this film, musically…  and I say this coming off a Soul, which was also a smorgasbord. We had Trent and Atticus, we had Jon Batiste. I got to do some needle drops in that, too, but this is very similar in that it was just a wealth. Music drives so much of what I do anyway, so this film was la really incredible experience, sonically, because of these folks involved.

ATL: By the way, how are things going on Beyond the Spider-Verse? I know things had to stop due to the strikes, but have you been able to continue some elements of it like the animation, or did you have to wait until the writers and actors were back?

Thompson: It slows down maybe a tiny bit. All I can really tell you about it is we’re breaking story right now, and there’s a lot to figure out, and we’re working hard on it. Can’t tell you much about the next one right now, but it’s gonna be BEYOND your expectations. [all laugh]

Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse can be streamed via Netflix.

Edward Douglas
Edward Douglas
Edward Douglas has written about movies for print and the internet for over 20 years, specializing in box office analysis, reviews, and interviews. Currently, he writes features for Below the Line and Above the Line, acting as Associate Editor for the former and Interim Editor for the latter.
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